Stopping Self-Haunting


The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

~Milton’s Satan

I find that some memories, the particularly miserable ones, do not lie obediently in the memory graveyard. Their decayed hands burst through the soil. They pull themselves to the surface. And then they plod forward, growling and moaning, with a singular goal: eating my brain.

Perhaps a better metaphor is a cold case investigation. The memories don’t assault me; I assault them. I exhume them and perform repeated autopsies on them.

I force myself to relive failed social interactions. I poke through a memory to figure out what I did wrong so I can beat myself up over it. I deduce what other people must have been thinking about me, and let it hurt my feelings.

Why do I often find myself mulling over unpleasant experiences?

I do it under the theory that I’ll learn better social skills by understanding my mistakes, but this theory is flawed. Relentless mental self-flagellation is not the route to self-improvement. You undermine yourself when you turn your mind into a hostile environment.

The following pertinent quote is attributed to Voltaire:

Life is thickly sown with thorns, and I know no other remedy than to pass quickly through them. The longer we dwell on our misfortunes, the greater is their power to harm us.[1]

There ought to be a statute of limitations for prosecuting yourself for past crimes. One day at most. Learn what you can in one day from a miserable experience, and then move on. When an ugly memory tries to rise from the memory graveyard, grab your heaviest shovel and whack it solidly on the head. Stomp that fucker back into the ground.[2]

Think of your mind as a place. What sort of place is it? Is it court room where you prosecute yourself and others? A haunted house where undead memories chase you? A torture chamber where you’re chained to a metal table and sliced apart with surgical tools? Time to redecorate!

Your mind should be a friendly environment, like a high end massage spa in a secluded forest, with tranquil music playing and a view of a water fall.

Be nice to yourself in your head.

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  1. [1]See here.
  2. [2]I am experimenting with a new method that occurred to me for dealing with ugly memories that pop into my mind. The ones that bother me most are recollections of my own failures. Perhaps these memories stick with me because I’ve been unable to accept my own mistakes. So rather than whack such a memory on the head with a shovel (by which I mean refuse to dwell upon it by averting my thought), I try to exorcise it by taking a few moments to fully accept the mistake I made that is still bothering me. “Yes, that happened,” I gently admit to myself, “and I wish I had behaved differently.” This seems to be effective. Is it a form of exposure? It could be helpful to research techniques that CBT psychologists use to treat sufferers of PTSD.
 Posted by on February 23, 2012
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