When I was 10 years old, I hurt a friend.
I did something that was against my school’s rules at that time. Fearing corporal punishment, I framed a friend who had nothing to do with my mischief. This friend had been nice to me all through our school years. She claimed her innocence, but the teacher believed me.
She was caned in front of the class (yes, this was 1980s India where corporal punishment was normal). Thanks to me, my friend was punished for something that she did not do.
When the initial rush was over, I felt guilty. But I was afraid to talk to my friend after that incident. I tactfully avoided her for the remaining two months of school. Then 5th grade was over, I moved to a different school and so did she. I never saw her after that.
That was more than three decades ago. I still remember that incident vividly. Thinking about my cowardice always made me wince, so I avoided thinking about it. But the memory still came up now and then, and when it did, it hurt. This was not my only negative memory.
There were others: some more recent, some more poignant. When these memories came calling, I felt like Jacob Marley, the dead business partner of Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
In the story, Marley is portrayed as a ghost, forever doomed to wander the earth, lugging chains that bind him to his past misdeeds of greed and selfishness. Like Marley, dragging negative memories inside me weighed me down. Whenever I struggled with my negative experiences, I felt inauthentic.
After all, I am a compassion teacher and coach. I teach self-compassion and forgiveness. Inauthenticity made me feel guilty, which derailed my self-compassion journey.
Check out: The Upside of Negative Emotions
It sticks like Velcro
The human brain has a bias for negativity. When good things happen, we feel good. When bad things happen we feel bad. But the bad feelings last much longer than the good feelings; we have Velcro brains. Negative experiences have the right type of hooks to stick to brain Velcro, and they don’t come off easily.
However, there is an evolutionary advantage to remembering negative experiences. The antelope in the savannah, who saw one of his group being killed, found it advantageous to remember the incident so it could survive the lion’s hunt. Most of the lions in our current life are long dead, but our brains do not know the difference between real and dead lions.
Negative memories create guilt, anger, fear. So they initiate the same survival response – inflammatory chemicals fill our bodies, we lose sleep, cell cycles go out of whack. There is disease, there is suffering.
I decided to face my negative memories face to face. I had been avoiding them, sweeping under the proverbial rug. But I knew, that to fully manifest as the change-maker that I am called to be, I had to first work with my own messiness.
So, I created my ‘Let Go’ box.
Reflect, then let go
The next time a negative memory came calling, I wrote it down. When I had a bit of time, I sat down to reflect on it. Instead of running away from the memory, I tried to relive it. I wrote down all that came up on paper. I was not writing for anyone but me, so it did not matter that my words were misspelt and the sentences were flawed.
The author’s ‘Let Go’ box. Perhaps you can consider creating your own.
As I relived my experiences, judgments showed up. But I reminded myself that these memories are from my past, and like a movie that has already been created, I can do nothing more than be an observer. The past is only a lens through which I see my present.
So I observed my failings, my fears, my missteps, and tried to keep my emotions out of the picture. After all, how many times can one cry over the climax of The Titanic?
I reminded myself that I was not perfect when I made those mistakes, that I will never be perfect, and that no one else who is human is perfect and immune to making mistakes. And I reminded myself that is okay. The world is still beautiful with its imperfections.
As I released myself from the expectation of perfection, I felt peace. I remembered that all of my experiences, good and bad, have influenced my journey in many unacknowledged ways.
When I felt I had given the incidents their due recognition, I ended by thanking the universe for the way this experience has changed and moulded me. I made a conscious decision to not be chained to my past actions. I assured myself that it was okay to let go. And I did.
It was not easy – some of the memories were very bitter. But facing them became a symbolic act of self-forgiveness. I felt the peace of knowing that I had given the memories their due reflection and honour. The scariest of monsters lose their scariness when you look into their eyes; so it is with negative experiences.
When we look at negative memories without fear or judgment, and honour their role in our lives, we essentially take away their emotional sway over us.
Every one of these ‘reflection sessions’ would end with me neatly folding up my reflection paper and putting it into my ‘Let Go’ box, and every time I accumulated seven of these papers, I put them together and burnt them up. As they turned to ashes, I felt a sense of closure. The ashes of these papers, I added to my garden soil as a symbol of new beginnings.
Not all negative memories have been addressed in my life. This is work in progress. I am work in progress. The beautiful thing is, my ‘Let Go’ box has freed up so much mental space and energy inside me.
We do not realise how much load we carry until we choose to set them down. As for those difficult memories, I still remember all events vividly. But I have no more emotional content for them. They happened. They have found closure. There are no wounds to heal. Nothing to sweep under the rug.
All that negative emotional content went up in flames and plants have grown where those ashes were buried. I have only the current reality to live and be. I am no longer Jacob Marley.
I am free.
Dr Immanual Joseph is the chief compassion officer at CompassionLeaders, a professional training and coaching company based in California. He is a passionate architect of human empowerment, and helps teams and organisations become successful through compassion and happiness training. To connect with him, email email@example.com.