Yes, I think too much

Why I’ll Always Be a Negative Nelly

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Recently, I started reading a book on Transactional Analysis. The beginning of the book cites an intriguing study in which people’s brains were stimulated using electrical probes to stimulate memory recall. Every time a memory was recalled, the feeling that accompanied it was also brought forth. If the same area was stimulated a second time, the same memory and feeling resulted. This research shows that we not only store memories of experiences which are significant enough to be placed into our long-term memories, but whatever feelings that came along with them.

The book labored to point out that we cannot erase either the memories or the feelings. They are like data burned to a non-rewritable DVD. Once the pairing of a feeling and a memory is laid down, it is there for good. No matter what you might prefer, you cannot unhook your feelings from your brain’s storage of an experience. This is why the probes elicit them together. There’s no cognitive process or interpretation involved in pulling forth the memories so there’s no bias in this conclusion.

My reading about this study was particularly timely because I had an unexpected experience related to this very issue recently while discussing a situation with my husband. We were talking about a friend of his who we have socialized with on a few occasions and I remarked to him that I felt this friend wasn’t particularly fond of me. I said this because we had a discussion in which she expressed a viewpoint and I expressed a countering viewpoint which ended with her being silent rather than responding to my supporting arguments. I should note that the argument was not heated, nor particularly aggressive, but I found the way in which she stared ahead and essentially went silent to mean that she didn’t like my point and perhaps was not fond of me for having made it.

My husband, who at the time wasn’t aware that this is what motivated me to say that she didn’t like me, said in response to my assertion that she perhaps felt that I didn’t like her. I asked him if she had said something to him and he said she had not. However, at one point in the past, she asked if I would meet her at a local coffee shop near a train station about a half hour walk from our apartment. On the day that the request was made, I had a work-related appointment (I work from home) and told her that I didn’t have enough time to make the round trip to the station and talk, but if she’d like to come by our apartment, we could chat for an hour or so before my work started. She declined this offer and that was the end of that.

My husband believed that she may have the expectation that I would invite her to a similar appointment at a coffee shop if I wanted to be friends with her and my failure to proffer such an invitation could be viewed as a rejection of her. I told him that on a subsequent outing, in which the three of us ventured far afield to do some specialized shopping together, it had been my idea to invite her along. While I didn’t invite her to coffee, I did invite her on this long journey in which we spent many hours together, and during which the aforementioned argument occurred. Surely, my inviting her on this outing counted for something in regards to expressing a desire to be friends.

As he and I discussed this, I became increasingly unhappy and frustrated because he mentioned that there may be a social convention in which I must meet her outside at some point (alone, not with him) if I wanted to convey a sense of becoming friends with her. After he asserted this for about the third time, I felt pressured to do this because he has expressed that he wants she and I to be friend. He actually didn’t mean to pressure me, but this was how I felt. I became increasingly uncomfortable and apprehensive at the prospect of meeting her outside of my apartment.

As the discussion wore on, I suddenly launched into an explanation of why I didn’t want to meet any of his friends in a location outside of our home. I became increasingly agitated as I explained why, and at the end was completely emotionally overwhelmed and crying uncontrollably. I told him that I didn’t want to go out in public with anyone except him because I knew that people would make comments about my weight, stare, point, or gawk at me and I couldn’t bear the humiliation of this happening in front of new potential friends or people who I didn’t trust. I told him that I remembered all too well when I lived in my hometown and walked around stores or went to restaurants with friends and people would make fun of me because of my weight and I would flush with humiliation and my friends would adopt this certain look and demeanor which tried to hide the fact that they heard but wanted to spare me by pretending that they hadn’t. I remember how horrible it felt each time this happened and how being with someone else made these experiences far worse than enduring them alone. At the end, I put my head on my desk and wailed repeatedly that I absolutely could not bear that type of experience again. My husband felt terrible about eliciting this, and he hadn’t meant to pressure me anyway, but it really wasn’t his fault. I didn’t know this was what was going on with me, so there was no way for him to know about it.

This situation illustrated several points made in the book I’m reading. One is that often we don’t remember the experiences themselves immediately, but we recall the emotions associated with the memory. I was apprehensive about going out to meet his friend at a coffee shop, but I didn’t exactly know why. As I was pressured, I had an increasingly fearful and panicked response that I couldn’t quite track. I just knew I strongly did not want to do it. Eventually, the remembered feeling and the actual memories found each other, and I relived in very vivid emotional and visual detail these humiliating and degrading experiences from more than 25 years ago.

The other thing this showed very clearly is that the memory and the feeling definitely are intertwined and that we unconsciously may act on a memory without recollecting it because the associated feeling comes forth. We avoid something or are drawn to something, but we may not understand exactly why. I didn’t know why I didn’t want to do it, but I knew I didn’t.

The thing which this research reveals is exactly how much your life experiences, especially those in your early life (particularly childhood) affect your later life. Since you cannot uncouple the remembered emotion from the memory, it will always be there. If I have copious memories of suffering, pain, embarrassment, rejection, and fear, I cannot erase those by force of will. The brain doesn’t allow that level or reorganization. The only thing you can do it “negotiate” rationally the connections. I may connect public places and embarrassment, but I can attempt to regulate my response to the emotional and memory pairing through analysis and effort. This is no small task nor is it easy. It takes a tremendous amount of emotional and psychological effort to work through such issues, and I have realized that my recent depression is, in part, a result of burning out on exactly this type of self-directed movement away from my natural emotional responses. This started a year and a quarter ago when I started to lose weight, but it has been ongoing ever since with other issues and problems as well as continued weight-related ones.

Since the vast majority of my memories are full of a variety of problems and pain, I’m constantly trying to manage my responses. There are so many experiences which I have a painful memory association with that I’m spending copious amounts of my thinking time trying to “talk myself out of” my default response. I didn’t choose to be negative about so many things. These things are written in the library of memories and every book I open is full of painful experiences. Relative to the card catalog of my entire life, there are few books which have happy pairings, and almost every one of them involves my husband. This is why I rely on him so heavily. He’s the only one with the influence over me (and motivation) to create new and sufficiently meaningful memories which will be paired with positive responses. Without him, I’m spending my days negotiating with my old memory pairings rather than building newer, more positive ones.

So, now I have some biological insight into why I’m so negative much of the time and why fighting my nature is such a chore. I’m not saying it’s not a battle worth continuing to wage, as I want to be healthier psychologically, but I am saying that I can only accomplish so much in a certain period of time. One thing that is for certain though and that is that people “blame” their parents for their problems and this evidence (which is factual) would seem to indicate that that blame is well-placed. Your earliest memories and the feelings associated with them are laid down in large part by your parents, and the worse your circumstances are growing up, the harder it will be for you to ever be happy and whole. The template they lay down with you is there forever and no amount of motivation, willpower, or “can do spirit” can delete these associations.

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Written by yesithinktoomuch

November 6, 2010 at 1:50 pm

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