11/02/2012 07:45 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Is Your Memory Your Enemy?

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

This well-worn expression seems, at first, to make sense. I mean how can you grow and develop as a person if you don't learn from your mistakes? (This begs the question, "How can you learn at all if you don't make mistakes?" -- but that is a topic for another time.)

What do you do when the problem is not that you don't know your past, but you know your past too well? How do you keep moving forward when you are haunted by painful memories of loss, rejection, or abuse? Can you become the hero of your own future when your enemies are your memories from the past?

As a clinical psychologist, I am constantly trying to help people learn from their pasts so they can be in the present and can live more fulfilling lives in the future. Many of the wonderful souls I have had the fortune to work with are not troubled because they don't remember, but instead, because they can't forget. For these people, and for you, if this strikes a chord in your heart, I say this:

You can never outrun your past, so stop running.

Instead, turn around and run toward your memories. Only then can you move on. Although this may seem crazy at first glance, allow me to explain, as you are already 233 words into the article.

This can only mean one of two things:

  1. You are haunted by your past, or
  2. You are really bored at work.

I'm going to assume that it is the former and try to help rather than simply entertain you.

The reason you can't outrun your past is simple -- what happens to you becomes you, or you become it. If you have suffered and survived, it means that you have adapted. Adaptation in the physical world often means accommodating to new circumstances. For example, if you broke your right leg, you would learn to favor your left until your right side was strong enough to support your weight.

The same holds true for your mind. When you suffer, your mind adapts -- changes, accommodates in some way to allow you to move on. For example, many people who experience pain in childhood take on the belief that they were somehow in control of what happened in order to get through it. Others try (unconsciously, of course) to redo the past in order to feel mastery over it. If either of these sounds like you, there is only one way out of your past, which is through it.

In order to have a second act, and not allow your past to become your future, consider the following acronym: ACT2.

A -- Acknowledge the events of the past. This can be done with a professional therapist, though it does not have to be. There are many ways to acknowledge painful memories from the past (e.g., using creative pursuits such as writing or drawing are also great).

C -- Consider other ways to interpret the event. Many people are trapped not by their history as much as they are locked in to their interpretation of it. For example, victims of abuse are often locked in a mindset that they somehow deserve what happened to them. This is self-protective talk that many have used to survive, but it is not true, not relevant, and not helpful. Consider this: If you had a hero inside of you (which, incidentally, you do, but that is also for another time) how would she, or he, interpret this event? Think about this for a while and then act on it. This leads us to...

T -- Try to behave in a new way. In all likelihood, this will not work at first, because your memory is powerful. However, it is not all-powerful. Your memory is a part of you, and being mentally healthy means knowing when you memory is serving you and when it is harming you. If you don't feel that you can let go of a painful memory, it is harming you. This leads to "2"

2 -- Try again and again to behave in a new way. Try to behave in a way that your inner hero would want you to behave if he or she was triumphing over the past. It takes practice to do this, but if you persist, you -- like all heroes -- will succeed. If you approach the enemy of your memory just so, it is only a matter of time until you will push past your past and into a new and exciting future.

For more by Ben Michaelis, Ph.D., click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.