Doesn’t it seem that negative memories–memories of failure, of embarrassment, of disappointment, frustration, unfilled expectations–always seem to linger on longer, seem to be stronger, need more attention than memories of happiness, of success, of fulfillment, of contentment–positive memories? Like, when someone brings up a situation–high school, college, a birthday, holidays–its much easier and much more ready to bring up memories that are about embarrassment (like the time I got caught kissing my boyfriend in the hallway), about failure (like the time I failed on writing a paper), about disappointment (like the time I expected a huge surprise party for my 15th birthday), and often requires a little more energy, a little more thought to bring up the happy memories of those times–the time we won a state championship, the time I received my college acceptance letter, dancing to Charlie Daniels Band with my sister. The negative memories seem to linger longer, require more attention, are easier to conjure up, whereas the positive memories seem to be more transient, have less emotion attached to them, carry less weight. Why is it that negative memories seem to be at the forefront of our executive functions?
I saw this phenomena when I coached; whenever my dance team would line up to go onto the competition floor, nerves set in that were inevitably tied to negative memories of messing up a dance section that occurred during practice–in their heads, they thought, “I messed up my triple once this week in practice–what if I do that on the competition floor?”, “I forgot that change one time when we were marking–what if that happens when we perform?”, “I pulled my hamstring doing the splits one time ten years ago, what if that happens again?”. As a dancer myself, I derived the same fear–so much so that I crafted this hour ritual of crunches and balances and tree poses that would certainly prevent me from bobbling on my turns, because of that ONE time in practice that I messed up.
Ultimately, this fear of falling out of turns during competition came from one bad turn sequence during one practice, and the memory is solidified as negative forever, so that whenever I think about doing that particular move, instead of remembering all of the positive memories when I did it correctly, I ruminate on the one time I did it incorrectly. We never focus on the billions of times that we were able to do the turn sequence; it is always that ONE bad time that we remember, we cling to that memory, and we fear it will happen again (which is where the nerves come from).
I see this happening all the time with test anxiety. One time, we took a difficult vocabulary test in which we forgot the definition for “ubiquitous” or we took one math test in which we forgot one equation, so therefore, anytime after we take any other vocabulary or math test–no matter how much we’ve studied, how well we know the material, we get test anxiety and fear that we will forget all of the vocabulary definitions or all of the equations that we studied because we associate testing with ONE negative memory and we fear our destiny is to perform poorly on every test. Never mind the probably HUNDREDS of other tests we’ve been successful on–we cling to the one memory of failure.
Or, ONE time I had a bad conversation with a co-worker, and now I am afraid of talking to any co-workers. I don’t focus on how many times I successfully interacted with a co-worker, or how many times I have remembered a formula on a test, or how many times I successfully completed my turn section–rather, what I remember is the ONE time it went wrong; I have one negative experience and that taints all experience hereafter also as negative.
Some may say this is an evolutionary strategy–that our bodies want to keep up kicking as long as they can, so we develop memories of things that we ‘fear’/things that might harm us–doing poorly on a test deflates my self esteem, so for self preservation, my mind tells me, “its a bad idea, don’t go there”. Some say maybe it is just the negative memories that stick–we are bombarded with so much information at once that our brains must organize this information into schemas (and I guess the anomalies are the ones it likes to stick into memory). Others may say that our default settings are on the ‘negative’ dial–feelings of fear, disgust, inadequacy, sadness, etc. stick with us (and we need more therapy for) than those feelings of joy, happiness, contentment; it’s a bigger memory for me to wallow in that I fell out of my turn section–I can conjure up feelings of disappointment, frustration, insufficiency–(and then gain attention from that–I get to go to therapy for those memories) that are stronger and more intense than sticking the turns (because doing it correctly would conjure up less intense memories of happiness, success, and adequacy). Negative memories stick better than positive memories; I remember all of the times I did it incorrectly, not all of the times I did it correctly.
In Brene Brown’s book, “Rising Strong”, she discusses this fear of failure–that our society is built in such a way that we avoid failing at things–but because we avoid failing at things, that also means we prevent ourselves from experiencing success, and therefore, we allow that negative memory to continue ruminating. We don’t push ourselves to do that advanced turn section, because we are afraid of that ONE time it didn’t end well. We don’t begin our test in a winning mindset, and we spend more time and energy being anxious and fearful about not passing the class/not getting into college/having a bleak and boring future working at the A&P (and then the self fulfilling prophecy takes over, and we actually DO poorly because we EXPECT ourselves to do poorly). We don’t approach that co-worker and instead, we allow those feelings to fester and build up.
My advice to my dancers? Give yourself a pep talk–you deserve the positive memory. Change your thinking. Instead of ruminating on that ONE negative memory, remind yourself of ALL the times you hit it perfectly. Before allowing your test anxiety to cloud your cognition, remind yourself of how WELL you have prepared yourself for this vocabulary or math test. When you go to confront your co-worker, remind yourself that EVERY conversation is different–they haven’t always ended poorly. Replace the promenade of those negative memories with positive memories.
You got it.