Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Selective Memories: Letting Go of the Pain

I was looking for something else in a garage cabinet when I spotted it: a small box of mementos from a long-ago workplace. For many years, I have remembered this eight-year work experience with a shudder and, more often than not, an avalanche of dark ruminations.

But what I found in the box told a different story.

These mementos painted a much brighter picture of my experiences at this graduate school of psychology. There was an award given by students to the faculty or staff member considered most helpful and inspirational, along with wonderful comments from the students who had nominated me in the first place. There were printed out emails from my boss, telling me how much he valued my efforts and enjoyed working with me, notes from faculty, colleagues and students thanking me for my help. There was enthusiastic feedback from students of the Publications Seminar that I team taught with my boss for several years. There were cards from students for my birthday, or bemoaning my leaving or just because. There were cards and notes from my co-workers given to me on my last day there, many telling me how much I meant to them and how working with me had positively impacted their lives.

How could I have forgotten?

How could I have forgotten that most of the people I knew there gave me nothing but respect and warm friendship? How could I have forgotten how many genuinely nice people there were, some still in touch, some still friends? How could I have let a few bad experiences crowd out the many good ones in my memories of this workplace?

It made me wonder how often many of us find our days darkened by dwelling on negative instead of the positive memories.

How often do we push aside the warm memories of a former love, a previously cherished friendship or a past work experiences in the wake of a painful breakup or one or two really awful conflicts or outcomes? So the pain stays with us and the whisps of memories -- an act of kindness, a sweet understanding, a moment of delicious authenticity -- drift away.

There are times, of course, when remembering bad old times in work, school or relationships can influence life in a positive way, if this leads to behavior or attitude changes, if it makes one pay attention, take less for granted or stop destructive behaviors.

When I remember difficult work situations or mistakes I have made in work and in relationships, I sometimes wince at the vivid memories and wish I had been wiser or more patient or kind. Viewed this way, the old pain can be a learning tool, a way of determining how these dark memories played out in real time at difficult life junctures, what role I played in exacerbating the situation and what such experiences have to teach me about discretion or consideration or just plain common sense.

But ruminating about painful memories, roads not taken and mistakes made in the past and allowing these to dominate your thoughts can overshadow positive experiences, perpetuating the pain and keeping you from resolving those troublesome issues of the past.

So as often as you might remember a certain workplace or love relationship or school experience as unrelentingly negative, take a deep breath, close your eyes and remember: what was good about it? What and who could make you smile? What have you learned or accomplished that might not have been possible had everything gone according to your plans and expectations?

When you stop and think, even the most unpromising workplace or tumultuous relationship may well have contributed greatly to the person you've grown to be.

My own personal ultimate workplace hell on earth was a psychiatric hospital where I toiled briefly in the early 1990's as a research co-ordinator after receiving my non-clinical Ph.D. There was a nasty social worker who made fun of my weight on a daily basis. There were so many pink slips in paychecks every week -- if the hospital's patient census had dropped -- that people were afraid to go pick up their checks. There was back-biting and snarling, little team spirit and a workplace culture so feral that it made our inpatients look like the saner ones among us.

And yet, when I look past all the fear and nastiness and pain, I see a truly pivotal time: a time when I realized that I had a knack for working with patients, when I decided to go back to school for a clinical degree so I could be a psychotherapist. And there were people there... besides the supervisor who fired me because I wouldn't agree to research and write a Master's thesis for her... there were clinicians who encouraged me to join their ranks, a boss who was wonderfully kind, patients who taught me more than they ever knew.

When we let ourselves remember those moments of growth and discovery, of decency and kindness, of roads taken and choices made that suddenly make sense, the laughter between moments of pain...what a difference it can make.


  1. Wow, powerful words!

  2. Dr. McCoy, when I was quite young I noticed an experience with more good than bad in it was remembered as a good experience. Somehow, when I got older and took the blows one takes in life, I lost sight of that early wisdom. You have just helped me to begin restoring it. Thank you for your cogent essay.

  3. Your words are well spoken. I have to say that I think I do pretty well in looking at things for what they are. I think of the last two years at work where the atmosphere was really terrible -- lots of change, layoffs, new people and working for a boss that I'm quite sure had serious mental health issues -- she could turn on a dime. And yet, the people were wonderful. I had terrific opportunities to travel and meet folks that PBS fans would drool over. It provided me with good benefits that I enjoy now as a retiree and a respectable income. Sure, there are always pills in the workplace and there are many moments when it is clearly time to move on. But if you always go to the dark side instead of the light, it seems to magnify the misery. I've found that true in relationships as well and feel pleased that long-ago loves are still wonderful friends. We don't always connect a lot, but when we do there is no unfinished business. Life is simply too short for too much negative energy. Letting go is like flying on a cloud.

  4. Memory is a funny thing. It is always interesting when my family gets together and starts down memory lane...we each have very distinct memories of the same experience and each story has little in common. We look at the past through our own window, and it seems we were always on opposite sides of the building and had a different view!

  5. Thank you for this insightful post, Kathy. I've been lucky in my working life and have few bad memories, but this will help me deal with the ones I have.

  6. Wonderful post, Kathy. There are always good memories --but sometimes, we just choose to dwell on the painful ones... I did not have a good experience in my last job --mainly due to one or two people.... BUT--when I stop and think about everything I did there and all of the people I knew, I DO have good memories from y 3 years there (just before retirement)....

    Thanks for making us 'think' about finding the good in things even in the midst of trials.


  7. So well said. Pain can consume us if we dwell on it, but it can change us too. You are a gifted writer.

  8. You speak so much truth here. I've had so many unpleasant work experiences throughout my life. In truth, none of them have been perfect. Yet, when I look back, each negative and seemingly unbearable work experience gave me an opportunity to go forward to seek to improve my own skills or gain more education so I could find a more suitable environment. I also remember fondly the good people and good times I had in some of the worst environments. Thanks for reminding me of this.

  9. Yes.....truthful and powerful words x