By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
People will often tell you that they have a poor memory. They can’t remember details of their life, particularly the further back they go. They assume it is a natural thing, or perhaps, a hormonal imbalance. In some cases people will tell you that, actually, there are things they don’t want to remember. Think of the number of people who believe the past, their past, should be left alone, that it is best not to ‘go there’. This attitude stems from a very distinct attitude to memory. That, like the sleeping giant of children’s stories, it must be allowed to slumber on undisturbed.
Equally, it’s surprising how many people don’t want to remember and aren’t aware of it. That’s because the poor memory that so many proclaim to have is, in reality, a desire not to know. This is probably what differentiates psychoanalytic psychotherapy from so many other therapies being offered today. One of its central beliefs is that memory is an essential element in recovery. That's not to say that we are on the hunt for trauma that never happened or to concoct false memories. No, the issue is ordinary memories, small things, little details of one's life that actually happened. There is a wealth of knowledge about ourselves tied up in those small details.
Yet consider for a moment how many therapies have been devised since psychoanalysis first opened up the field in the late 1800s that allow people avoid the challenge of remembering. Cures, if that is not too strong a word for it, are being offered all the time that convince people there is no need to ‘go there’. I have a difficulty with relationships in my life, so let’s fix relationships. I have a fear of intimacy, so let’s focus on intimacy. I am sad all the time, so let’s work on being happy. If we cut the heads off all the dandelions we certainly will have what looks like a perfect lawn. But the dandelions are still there under the surface, ready to emerge again.
There is another group of people, very common in therapy rooms, who will tell you that there is nothing to remember. They can see it all clearly and they believe that honestly there is nothing much to talk about. This group of people are labouring under a very similar misconception as those who tell you have they have a poor memory and can’t recall much. This latter group achieve exactly the same result as the first group – they stay away from the detail of their past life - but with a uniquely different avoidance tactic. They refuse to consider detailed memories from their lives because they have already decided there is nothing of value to speak about. What they never allow themselves realise is that once they talk about a particular memory, the very act of speaking transforms it in such a way that new aspects of it emerge, aspects that were, yes, forgotten. Buried behind the seemingly obvious pictures of their past life are hidden details that only emerge when attention is focussed on recounting them.
As such, psychoanalytic psychotherapy is the opposite of those therapies that say if you can get rid of the symptom you are cured. Naturally, it is an attractive proposition. A person who goes to pieces in the company of strangers is looking for a handy tip to help them cope. A person suffering from depression is looking for the secret to happy thoughts. A person who is afraid all the time is looking for a quick way to be confident. A person who can not engage sexually with another human being is looking for the ‘right way’ of doing it. This approach suggests that the complaint or symptom is ‘outside’ of me, not really part of me, and it can be fixed with a bit of tinkering that won’t really necessitate me getting involved much at all, other than following a few simple instructions.
The psychoanalytic approach, the first and original form of psychotherapy, sees all the psychical symptoms of the modern age as the result of faulty ideas that operate unseen in the background of our minds. They are active at the unconscious level and wield enormous influence over our choices, decisions and interpretations of who we are and how our lives operate. These ‘ideas’ are formed by the often unnoticed experiences, the trivial happenings, the off-hand comments, the insignificant hurts that are part and parcel of everyday life. It doesn’t always have to be traumas. We don’t notice them because we bury them as soon as they happen, we repress them automatically in some cases. And often the ideas that result from these experiences cause the problems. We might have been too young or too afraid or too distracted to process the experiences fully. We usually repressed the experiences so quickly and so effectively that we were not even conscious of doing it. But those experiences were stored away.
French psychoanalyst and lecturer the late Dr Jacques Lacan said many insightful things but two are of relevance here. The first was his description of the unconscious mind as the ‘memory of everything we have forgotten’.
We file things away, store them, and sometimes actively wish to forget them. But in our unconscious mind they remain part of us, part of our experience and part of our ideas that inform the way we live our lives. Whenever we make a life choice and can’t figure out why, it is the effect of buried memories at work. Whenever we do something that goes against our better nature or against what we know to be the right way of doing things, it is the effect of buried memories at work. And whenever we find ourselves repeating the same negative patterns over and over again, it is the effect of buried memories at work.
And it is not the memories themselves. Rather it is the imaginary ideas that we have attached to these memories – ideas about who we are, where we deserve to be in life, how it is that we are seen by others, whether or not we deserve success or failure, whether we will ever find love or whether we even deserve to find love and so on and on. These exert powerful and unseen influences on our ability to be happy with who it is we are, and on the choices we make that ultimately guide the direction of our lives.
We de-fuse the effect of these memories and these imaginary ideas in psychoanalytic psychotherapy by giving them articulation in speech. And the more we speak about the life we have had, and the one we want to have, and about the imaginary ideas that surround us in our daily lives and in our dreams, about the insignificant and often trivial details of experiences we have had, the more we loosen the grip that misconceived ideas have on us. Think for a moment about a real person that you know, someone you believe is perfectly happy and fulfilled and has achieved what they want in life. Is that person, in your view, trapped by ideas that are dragging them down? Is that person expending vast amounts of energy holding back knowledge of themselves by suppressing memories or believing the memory of their past is just a hazy blur? The answer is probably not. In rock and roll terms, freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose. In psychoanalytic terms, it is the word for re-finding what was lost. To quote Jacques Lacan again, we do not remember because we are cured. We are cured because we remember.