The Stranglehold of Memory

Be kind to me
My robot heart is fragile too
Keep it well, keep it true
My robot heart
– Hawksley Workman

There’s something that’s been bothering me a lot lately, and it comes in the form of discrepancy. I think we all tend to feel unsettled when we’re not at peace: when our actions and thought patterns defy what we want them to be, it causes inner conflict. I find that usually, simply recognising the existence of that discrepancy is enough to move toward doing something about it. But what happens when the gap seems impossible to close? Sometimes, when a behaviour or thought pattern has been so deeply engrained for so very long, it almost feels impossible to do or see things any differently. The stranglehold of memory exerts such a strong force over our minds that even when logical actions and reactions are staring us in the face, we can’t help but surrender to the reflexive patterns we’ve followed our whole lives.

One of the reasons it’s causing me such distress is because it goes against everything I try to stand for. As I mentioned not too long ago, practising acceptance of the past and focusing on the future is something that helped me get on with life after everything was thrown up in the air. Reminding myself that we only get one life, and making it a priority not to waste a second on things that have already happened has allowed me to be more productive, more proactive, and more positive. But I find I keep slipping up. I allow my mind to default to panic and disaster mode at the slightest sign of history repeating itself, despite all present-day evidence to the contrary. The trouble with investing your whole heart into people is that you give them full permission for the potential to hurt you catastrophically. And when people have done just that, and repeatedly, it’s hard not to put a guard up. One thing I’ve reiterated many times lately is that no matter how many times my heart has taken a beating, it’s not going to stop me from putting it straight back out there. But what happens when you do that, yet your mind is unable to let go of the fear it could all happen again?

“But don’t you think it’s better to be extremely happy for a short while,
even if you lose it, than to be just okay for your whole life?”
– Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveller’s Wife

A good friend recently gave a good analogy. Imagine if you were assaulted or mugged in a dark alley one night. You’d probably be a little scared of dark alleys for a while, even if they were the most beautiful alleys on the planet. It’s the oldest of lessons: touch a hot element and get burned, and you’ll learn not to make the same mistake again. But that goes so very much against how I want to live life: I want to take risks and hope for the best; I don’t want to cage myself in and become a prisoner of fear. I want so desperately to be able to get to the end of my life and look back without regret – to say I gave it my absolute all, and have “oh wells” rather than “what ifs”. I want to live with passion and zest for life, believe in happy endings and in the innate goodness of people. I want to believe that people care about each other, and I want to believe in love. Not just settling for unreliable friends and acquaintances, or a partner you wish understood you. Not just settling for a job that pays the bills but doesn’t make you excited every day. But finding those fairytale endings, those brilliant friends who’d cross oceans to make you feel better when you’re down, that perfect partner who knows you better than you know yourself, with whom you never have to wonder, that amazing job that seems designed for the most unique skill and interest set that belongs to you alone… I want to believe in it all, but I can’t stop my mind going into panic mode at the tiniest imperfection. I can’t shake the feeling that investing my heart into things in similar ways I’ve done in the past is going to result in disaster, so instead of accepting and believing that sometimes in life things can work out, I default to it’s happening all over again in some futile form of self-preservation mechanism. I inadvertently doom my own existence by allowing past events to dictate a future that by all rights has every potential to be wonderful.

I realise life isn’t perfect, I realise I’m not perfect and I realise people aren’t perfect. I realise that nobody can live a fairytale existence free of hurt, pain or disappointment – that’s just real life. I realise I probably need to lower my expectations of the world – not even expectations; hopes… any situation can go brilliantly or terribly, I just don’t know how to break free from the worry that’s become so at home in my mind after a series of life blows. It’s human nature to want to protect ourselves, but I’ve always maintained that by guarding ourselves we miss out on the incredible depths of emotion that could be felt by opening our souls to another human being. Greater openness involves greater risk of destruction, but living a half-life isn’t really living at all. So how does one break away from the risk of self-fulfilling prophecies? If you always expect the worst, it has a habit of becoming manifest. We inadvertently plant seeds of sabotage that will allow us to feel comforted should things fall apart, giving ourselves the option to later say our fears were fully justified. But doing this destroys the present moment. Kindness is questioned, assumptions are made, and the path that could be walked in bliss and beauty is strewn with imaginings of worst case scenarios, or detours to hunt for signs that history is doomed to repeat.

Why is it so difficult to let go of former hurts and simply embrace the opportunity for a fresh slate? Why are we conditioned to allow the past to dictate and curb our present ability to live? Why must memory exert such a frighteningly strong stranglehold, and why is it so difficult to simply choose to shape the future instead? I want to live in the now, free of the worry of the then invading all over again. I just don’t know how to break free. My mind is being a frightful rebel to what my heart wants it to be.

Oh, you delicate heart
There’s deep enough wells for our tears
When we break ourselves carelessly
Through a tumbling down of our fears


  1. Every now and again, I get a quote, or a bit of wisdom suckerpunched to me from various sources, and this is one of them, and pertains to your last paragraph to a certain extent.

    “Who honors those we love for the very life we live? Who sends monsters to kill us, and at the same time, things that will never die. Who teaches us whats real, and how to laugh at lies. Who decides why we live, and what we’ll die to defend. Who trains us, and who holds the key to set us free?
    It’s you.
    You have all the weapons you need.
    Now. fight!”

    1. Love it. I also love those moments where you seem to keep getting the same message from all walks of life within a short time frame. It’s hard not to pay attention when that happens. Where is this from?

      1. Its from Zack Snyder’s “SuckerPunch”. Getting the same message from all walks means that you’re on the right track. Follow it.

  2. ^ This. I don’t know what else to say but that. I can’t offer additional advice because I’ve felt most of what you’ve written at various points. All I can say is bravo and you’re definitely doing the right thing.

    1. Thanks friend. I just don’t want to hurt other people as a result of my own insecurities and neuroses, I just want to believe, without any shadow of a doubt, that life can be great :S

  3. I was just belting out that song last night. It really hits home. While stoicism has its privileges no one is immune to emotional pain.

    I was listening to a Podcast called “The Accidental Mind” and it was discussing the science of how the brain learns and interprets patterns at the cellular level. How our amygdala and limbic system tend to guide us. This is our survival instinct. And the only way to manage it is to re-establish new neural patterns. This can be accomplished through CBT. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Which in essence works through a process of using the higher brain functions to reason out that our thoughts are not necessarily true. The fact is that we are not our thoughts and we not control them.

    The show also discussed the primitive person “Lucy” in a tall grass field. She becomes startled when she hears the grass rustle. Is it the wind?! Is it a large predator cat?! If Lucy dismisses the sound as wind she might get eaten. But if Lucy exercises caution presuming that its a predator, (or engages in a false positive response), she loses nothing. Point being that while maintaining a positive attitude in spite of past experience might not always be the best course of action. It is sometimes best to trust our instincts. If it looks like a duck….etc…..

    However, I think we are kindred spirits in a way….after all I was humming Robot Heart this morning just before I opened your blog. And if that’s true, then I know that like me, no matter what happens, you will always have enough heart left to break. We simply don’t give up hope it’s our nature.

    And I think, in the end, that is all that matters.

    1. Have I said lately how very glad I am you moved back? I don’t think I could ever give up hope, no matter what happens. “You will always have enough heart left to break” is a really great and very apt sentiment. I’d rather be left with a shred and have exhausted its potential than be left with a heart untouched and unused.

  4. “The trouble with investing your whole heart into people is that you give them full permission for the potential to hurt you catastrophically.”

    This will always be a struggle for me.

    I still haven’t figured out how to completely let go of the scars of the past. And that’s the truth. So all I can do is relate to you COMPLETELY in this post. No words of advice from me. So it goes…

    1. So it goes indeed. And just because you inadvertently GIVE people that permission for the potential of heartbreak doesn’t mean they’ll hurt you just because people have before. I just need to figure out how to train myself to think more optimistically, and enjoy the present moment without worrying about what’s happened before. I feel terrible doing it because I know it doesn’t just affect me, but those around me too, through no fault of their own. I project my own fears onto their lives as they intertwine with mine and it’s a horrid thing to do. I guess I just wanted to get it out there that I want it to stop…

      1. “I project my own fears on their lives as they intertwine with mine and it’s a horrid thing to do”
        Guilty of doing the same… it’s hard not to and I think it stems from fear. But it’s not fair to the real and good people in your life…

  5. This is a hard one Em. It’s hard not to be affected by the past because thats how we learn, and if you learn that giving your heart out results in pain, it’s difficult to want to keep doing it. But you’re right, if we just gave up when things got tough then we’d miss out on a whole bunch of potentially amazing things. I really admire your strength and dedication to living with your heart despite being hurt, and I’m sure anyone around you would understand your worries and fears, and if they are good friends/family/whatever, they’ll want to show you you have nothing to worry about. Keep your head up.

    1. I just know my own fears are weighing down on more than just myself, and it’s coming across as untrusting, which isn’t the case at all 😦 Thanks though ❤

  6. This post has me thinking hard. I don’t think anyone expects anyone else to let go of memories and the past in a matter of days, weeks, even years sometimes. It depends on the memory itself. That said, letting go and being able to move on to something new is a wonderful thing that everyone grapples with but ultimately gets through. Remember that and don’t feel guilty for feeling sucked in by what happened in the past or where you think you should be now in relation to where you are. There’s never this big flashing sign with the words Right Path plastered on it.

  7. Em, can I just say you deserve so much respect for putting it all out there? You stand up for what you believe in, you admit it when you’re uncertain or hurt about something, you aren’t afraid to call people out on things that matter….. and I hope you know you aren’t alone in feeling this way. Being sensitive isn’t a bad thing, it just means you care and feel maybe more deeply than most people. The trick isn’t trying to change that, it’s in finding people who accept you for who you are and love you anyway. And there are plenty of us that do. Sure it can be hard not to guard yourself when you’ve been hurt, but just because there are a hundred assholes doesn’t mean there aren’t a handful of amazing and brilliant people. Stay strong girl, I believe in karma and you do too much good in the world to be down on yourself.

    1. You are such a sweetheart ❤ I think you're onto something when you talk about people who are willing to accept you as you are instead of fighting to get people who won't to do so. I think some people are meant to be in your life and it's just natural — no matter what you do or how you react or how neurotic you may be, they love you regardless.

  8. This is a problem I have ALL THE TIME. All through my job search, all I thought about were worst case scenarios. I never thought about being offered the job, as if by thinking that, it diminishes my chances.

    Honestly, I think we all struggle with this and I would, frankly, be surprised if you didn’t feel this way from time to time. It’s natural. I know you want to live life with more abandon and I think by recognizing these feelings, you’re on the right track to living that way all the time.

    You’ve been dealt with a lot in a short amount of time. I think you’re doing amazingly well and I know you’re going to figure this all out. ❤

  9. I love what Mindy said: “Being sensitive isn’t a bad thing, it just means you care and feel maybe more deeply than most people. The trick isn’t trying to change that, it’s in finding people who accept you for who you are and love you anyway.” I was involved in an on again/off again relationship with a less than stellar guy (I’ll be nice about it!) for almost 4 years while I was in university. He really did a number on my heart and I still have hurts – scars – mistrust issues – the list goes on and on! – years later. For a long time, I boycotted dating – I had tons of guy friends but if they even hinted at anything more, I broke off the friendship. Then I met Nathan … and even though I still had all those hurts, and even though I didn’t entirely trust him – he loved me for me and he’s still helping me work through them, even after we’ve been married for three years …

  10. Even the ‘now’ after some kind of hurt will suffer from feeling the bruises, which are the present indication of the past. It’s not easy to get a tabula rasa if a situation leaves you with aches.

    The time will pass slowly (and unfortunately, in the right order 😉 ), but you’ve got to wait until the proverbial bruises fade. Of course it’s good to get up after you’ve been knocked down, but it’s important to heal before skipping to the fresh start.

    It’s not keeping your guard up, it’s regenerating.

  11. I really get this. I still get this… It’s been three years since my world fell apart and I was deeply hurt by the ending of a relationship. I’ve healed tremendously and have since married the real love of my life. We’re not perfect…but we love each other and he loves me and tells me he loves me all the time. And yet, every now and then, I get scared. Fearful that I will be hurt again, that history will repeat itself and I will be left a complete mess.

    Everyone has something that helps them get through things and mine are words that a dear friend said to me, about herself. You can only control yourself. You only have control over your own feelings and your own actions. So let it go… they will do what they will do and feel what they feel. Hopefully your feelings and actions will be reciprocated, but it’s not our responsibility or within our power to make that happen. Live you life, put yourself out there, and fall in love.

    Because like you say, we only have one life to live.

    1. You are absolutely right, and reminding myself that really, at the end of the day I can only control me and nobody else, is something that really helps ground me. I just need to remember it more often, because I think a lot of anyone’s trouble comes from wanting to control external forces. Thanks for the reminder ❤

  12. The way I look at, sometimes the slate is just really frickin’ dirty and no matter how hard we might want to wipe it clean, it’s going to get clean on it’s own damn time, thank you very much. There’s got to be rainstorms and sandblasting involved sometimes in order to get the slate totally and completely clean and sometimes, no matter how hard we scrub, we just smear dirt and debris around in circles and that’s the way grief works. You were dealt a serious blow and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with hurting and keeping your guard up for now, while your wounds heal and while the rainstorms clean the slate.

  13. I am very very bad at letting go of the past. I’m horrible at it. I will let things that happened years ago still make me sad. It’s just ridiculous. I have no idea how to find a clean slate.

  14. I wish it was as easy as snapping your fingers to just let go of all the past worries and starting over fresh, but I think there’s a reason our minds don’t let that happen. How would we learn from our past mistakes, and no simply let the past repeat itself over and over again if that was the case? I hate letting my pain dictate my future, but I think to a certain extent it’s almost a necessity to protect yourself from more pain. I can let go to a certain extent of the past personally, but I think that no matter how much I can forgive, forgetting is much MUCH harder.

  15. It’s interesting that when things go well, it’s so easy to find some reason for the success that has nothing to do with your own hard work/effort/dedication, or attribute it to a fluke and dismiss it. But when things go wrong, we blame ourselves and the memory of that failure haunts us forever. I wish it were easier to believe the opposite!

  16. I have no brilliance to offer here to these brilliant questions!
    But, I do have a link. This woman has really inspired me and put similar issues into perspective. I hope you have time to check this out.

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