It has been said, by many wiser than me: time is a healer.
Whilst this may be true, I also think time is a little bit of a bullsh*tter.
Our minds can play tricks on us—not out of malice, but out of need—practicing neurological survival for us to feel better, to soothe our self-esteem.
Due to this protection mechanism, our memories over time can often be distorted.
We all look back at past periods of our lives, especially in regards to relationships, friendships, and personal experiences, with “rose-tinted glasses” on. These glasses are not adorned as a fashion statement; they are not literal; they are programmed into our brains and tint our vision of past events, distorting them into more favorable and positive recollections—to make us feel better.
In short, our own memories lie to us, and we believe them!
In a celebrated book of cognitive research, published in 1994, a whole chapter was dedicated to this subject; in the chapter “A Theory of Temporal Adjustments,” renowned psychologists and researchers Terence Mitchell and Leigh Thompson cite that:
“Rosy retrospection is the tendency for people to remember and recollect things more positively and fondly than they evaluated them to be at the time of their experience.”
We romanticize past relationships, not initially, but after some length of time has passed. Have you ever looked back and thought about the “good times,” but did they actually happen as you remember them? Really?
Your first holiday as a couple, for example, you might remember how you held hands and walked and talked until the sun came up. The road trip, miles of adventure ahead of you, singing in the car, the buzz of exploring a new place, eating at that amazing seafood restaurant, and the crazy locals in the pub that welcomed you with open arms; the boozy nights that ended in romantic walks home, stargazing as you stumbled back to your apartment—drunk and in love.
You don’t look back so easily and remember the more negative aspects: that argument when you took the wrong exit, the silent treatment, and sulking because you couldn’t read a bloody map. You being pissed off because he was drunk and embarrassingly loud, or the fact your shoes were killing you on the walk home, and you were both tired and irritable. His obnoxious attitude with the waiter, your frustration that he ordered one more drink. The hotel room with the missing amenities. Him getting ratty because you took an age to get ready, the argument over who packed the bloody toothpaste. The aftermath of your mosquito devoured body from walking home that night.
Funny right? It’s like the bad bits didn’t happen.
It’s so easy to look back and imagine a reality that never was. It’s how we get into toxic cycles; it’s how we repeat behaviors; it’s how we end up back to square one. It’s why we revisit old lovers and take so long to heal.
But, it’s also feeding our nervous system, giving us hope, keeping depression at bay even.
So, how does this happen? And is it good or bad?
Our memories are reconstructive. When we recreate memories, they are not replayed moment-by-moment like in a film. We cannot remember things exactly as they happened, line for line, act by act. It’s impossible!
So instead, we fill in the gaps using our knowledge, beliefs, prejudices, hopes, and sometimes, assumptions of what occurred. We have a much better capacity for remembering good memories than bad, which explains why our feelings toward a particularly traumatic period or event soften with time.
Whilst our memories may be playing tricks on us, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad thing. In a study published by Shelly Taylor and Jonathan Brown on the relationship between illusion and well-being, their conclusion was as follows:
“Many prominent theorists have argued that accurate perceptions of the self, the world, and the future are essential for mental health. Yet, considerable research evidence suggests that overly positive self-evaluations, exaggerated perceptions of control or mastery, and unrealistic optimism are characteristic of normal human thought. Moreover, these illusions appear to promote other criteria of mental health, including the ability to care about others, the ability to be happy or contented, and the ability to engage in productive and creative work.”
Having read a lot about this recently, I have become much more aware of when I’m myself in the middle of a grand reedit rather than remembering a true reality.
In just having an understanding that this is a thing, it automatically liberates us from its complete control. I now actively question my memories.
I don’t beat myself up about this, and I enjoy the positive feelings that these recreations produce. However, my newfound awareness is also able to protect me from making repeated mistakes.
Whilst rosy retrospection is built to protect us, it could also become an enabler and lead us back into temptation, rekindle relationships that should not have been, and spin us into a cycle of repetitive mistakes and regret.
So, how can we cheat the rosy system?
Journaling is a great way to overcome this; the power of writing things down is a time-served solution cited in many self-help books. Keeping a diary or a journal could help refresh our memories, allow us to fill in the blanks, remember more truth, and create less fantastical recollections—this will anchor us back to reality when we really need a truthful memory jog.
There is a whole heap of psychobabble around this, theories and lots of studies which are well-worth a further read; but the shortened version is this: we do this as a protection mechanism. Our brains are hardwired to do this. And, honestly, it may even promote better mental well-being.
There is little we can do about it; but, an awareness of this and acknowledging this is a process is a great place to start and can certainly help us identify times where our rosy retrospective is in play.
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