Emotional Memory


Children are more liable than adults to make better progress learning to manipulate their thinking and emotions. After all, children are wired for social learning. It’s pretty much all they do from birth to early adulthood, when they start to use the lessons they learned in a broader spectrum of society. (You are still wired this way. You just need a strong reminder. You learned a long time ago to act your age and leave behind anything about yourself that wasn’t age appropriate. Your flexible emotional resolve was one of those cherished gifts you left behind. You replaced resolve with inflexible beliefs. We will have to find a way to overcome that.)

In his Guide to Rational Living, Albert Ellis describes the most damaging beliefs common to most people:

  1. The belief that you HAVE TO be loved and approved of by all the significant people in your life. Without their cooperation with this belief, you can never be truly happy.
  2. The belief that you SHOULD always be completely competent, productive and successful. If you’re not, you can never be truly happy.
  3. The belief that people OUGHT to never act obnoxiously or unfairly toward you or toward people you care about. If that happens, you can never be truly happy.
  4. The belief that people who act foolishly, make poor choices or behave irresponsibly SHOULD be damned.
  5. The belief that you HAVE TO view things you don’t like as awful, terrible, horrible and catastrophic.
  6. The belief that you MUST be miserable and unhappy when you have pressures and difficult experiences and that you CANNOT be happy in your life until you have no difficulties.
  7. The belief that you have VERY LITTLE CONTROL over your disturbed feelings.
  8. The belief that you’re past will always influence and will forever determine your feelings and behavior.
  9. The belief that people and things absolutely MUST be better than they are.

What we teach children about their emotions will become the framework from which children build their perception of, among other things, their social world. Children have greater potential to utilize their brain’s plasticity (ability to re-form itself) and their innate trait for emotional flexibility. (We all have the potential for emotional flexibility, at any age. We just don’t use it much as we get older.)

Imagine that you pick up your child at the daycare and you arrive home only to find your house has burned to the ground. Imagine your response. On average, an adult will respond hysterically, “What will I do now? I have to call someone! My pictures! My mother’s quilt! My cat! My penny jar! I’m ruined!” Whereas a child may look at the wonder of the smoldering embers and ask, “Can I get a new Nintendo?” As the caregiver and child go further into the process of resolving the tragedy, the child will learn from the adult how to respond to future events of adversity. This example of experiential emotional memory can be applied to nearly any event in a child’s life. Children develop an emotional memory based on how their caregivers teach them to behave and emote.

Children, to a certain age, often haven’t yet trained themselves to emote in any strict, inflexible manner. They depend on adults to teach them. If their caregivers are inflexible in their emotional instruction, their children will be, as well. If the caregiver is more liberal, permissive or and laissez-faire, the child will learn from that unique experience. (There is no implied value judgment in how to raise children. This is an illustration of how children develop their emotional memory.)

We are the adults our parents raised us to be.

We each carry an emotional memory that may not work well for us all the time. Children might be taught, for example, to fight when their friends criticize them. Children will grow up to express the same reaction to criticism in adulthood. Children can, as well, be taught to forgive people who act foolishly. And they will likely respond differently to criticism in adulthood. In fact, children can be taught any number of responses to adversity. Children can learn to think once and be quite successful for the remainder of their lives, if they are trained early and properly. They frequently are not. Case in point: You and I were once children; yet we are searching for a way to re-form our brains and promote better emotional intelligence. Sadly, some of our emotional education was not so life-enhancing.

If I were bold enough, I would say that we have to surrender many of our rigid, inflexible beliefs about social behavior and go back to the beginning, to being a one-year-old – before we were infected with the nutty beliefs we have about ourselves and other people.

We may simply have to learn to think all over again.

To think twice.

This time with flexibility!

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15 responses

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