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Intrusive Humiliating Memories

Question:

I am 48 years old. I have noticed that almost everything I do triggers a memory of different past humiliating or embarrassing incidents. The connections are not straightforward but very roundabout. Example: I saw a truck drive by with some school type lockers in the back. I thought back to my junior high and immediately thought of an incident of public embarrassment that occurred back then at that school. I dwelt on it, felt the old shame and didn’t think of much else for quite some time until I found myself flashing back to some other completely unrelated embarrassing moment. This type of thing is constant during my waking hours. As of yet it has not interfered with my job or home life but is becoming more and more distracting (not to mention having to relive the pain of the recalled event) Is this normal for someone of my age or any age, for that matter?

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Answer:

This sort of thing is not typical of normal thought, but neither is it so out of the norm that you necessarily need to be concerned. It wouldn’t hurt you to seek out a diagnosis and psychotherapy or medication as appropriate at this point, but it may not be necessary either. I’d say it has become necessary when this issue starts interfering with your ability to live your life (e.g., maintain your social relationships, and function at work).

It is part of the human condition to experience the past in the present, in the form of memories. Typically, however, such experiences of past memories are rather fleeting and do not interfere with the experience of the present too much. Also, past memories may be positive or negative in quality in the typical case, whereas yours are negative, mostly. Negative memories are going to be more common to experience when you have had negative past experiences.

Several conditions can contribute to the intrusion of negative memories into the present. It is a feature of depression and depressive states to focus on past negative memories, and to ruminate about them (e.g., to go over them again and again). It is similarly a feature of depressive moods to ignore or discount positive memories or information. In many cases, it is the action of these tendencies that keeps depressed people depressed. If these patterns of bias can be interrupted (e.g., with the aid of cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy), the depression will tend to remit.

Intrusive memories about the past can also be a feature of post-traumatic stress disorder, although typically the intrusive memories that are associated with that disorder are traumatic in nature (dealing with actual eye-witness memories of abuse, torture, destruction, etc.). I don’t get the sense that your own memories are quite traumatic in this death-involved sense, although they clearly have been upsetting for you.

Clinicians have known for years that once a person has become depressed, that they are at increased risk for depression reoccurences compared to people’s risk of becoming depressed for the first time. The prevailing idea used to explain this phenomenon is that depression must leave a sort of “scar” on the brain that predisposes people to become depressed again. For a number of years researchers looked for evidence of this scar without luck, but finally, evidence of a sort of scar did turn up. It turns out that depressive scars take the form of memory biases – dispositions to recall and focus on negative memories as opposed to positive ones. These scars are not apparent or measurable under normal circumstances. They become evident when you induce a negative mood in a formerly depressed person, and are not evident when the same formerly depressed people are in a good mood. What this means, is that formerly depressed people who experience a depressive mood tend to go down the negativity road faster than never-before-depressed people.

If I’m to guess what may be occurring, I’d say that you may be experiencing some depression (although whether of clinical/treatable relevance I cannot say), and this is lowering the threshold for you to spontaneously recall past negative memories. Possibly, you’ve been “set up” to make this sort of thing happen by past depressive events that left a “scar” (but that is neither here nor there).

There are several things you (or anyone in your situation) can do to help yourself. To the extent that you are depressed, you can seek treatment. Medication that improves your mood will likely raise the threshold for rexpereincing these shameful memories and make them less of a problem for you. You can also help yourself to distinguish between your past and present circumstances a little better with the aide of psychotherapy and/or trusted friends or family. The important thing to get straight in your mind is that, while you cannot change the past, your present does not have to be determined by what happened in the past. There is a reality testing skill that can be developed (to help you not allow the past to determine your present), and also a sort of acceptance/detachment skill (which can enable you to not become automatically distressed when shameful past memories occur, but instead simply recognize them as artifacts from the past that don’t need to define your present reality).

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Comments
  • steve

    Your admissions struck a chord with me also. I am 48 (male) coincedentally and am plagued by negative reflections of a life that I have much to be happy about! I can't offer anything more than to identify with you. I sometimes get really sad and or angry and possibly have other issues going on, but I like to also remind myself I at least have the rationality to recognise these are only thoughts, and that hey, something dumb that happened 20 years ago is dried up and fruitless! Its even quite funny if I was to admit it to someone else. Cheers.

  • Lisa

    it seems like just about everthing I do prompts an embarrassing or shameful memory - it 's exhausting - it hasn't stopped me from working or maintaining friendships and relationships, but I do think I have been stagnant for many years.

  • Anonymous-1

    I am 40 yrs. old and experience embarrassing memories alot. They can be from 20+ yrs. ago but feel like they were yesterday. They are all of a socially awkward experiences presented by different groups of people at different times all the same type of situation. Now, 20+ yrs later, no matter where I move to, I still am an embarrassed outsider with no social skills and no friends. I can't get a job and no one likes me. I don't know how to deal with it. I don't even want to go to social events out of fear of embarrassment. I see it developing in my son (shyness) and am at wits end. Don't even know what life to teach my son.Can't even figure my own out.

  • Anonymous-2

    Likewise, I have had similar intrusive memories for years. They are always about social situations, where I said or did the wrong thing. They can be brought forth by the simplest, commonplace, experience. Most often they happen when I'm alone and I try to blot them out by shouting, usually some 4-letter words.

    As a result of these painful social memories, I tend to avoid social situations and am ever vigilant about my behavior and what I say when I am in social situations. I can work on a project with other people, since the focus is on the work. However, when it is purely social (party, wedding, etc.) the fear of creating another negative memory is pretty strong.

    I can go for days without one of these memories and then have several in a short period of time. It is as if one leads to another.

    One of the things I have done to help counterbalance the pain of these memories is to recall

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