You can’t turn traumatic memories into positive ones, but you can change the story you tell yourself about them. Here’s how.
It can sneak up on me, without warning and out of thin air. I can be minding my own business, doing dishes, driving, or daydreaming, and suddenly I am 13 again, humiliated by having to leave the school carnival early because the rides, lights, and blaring music overwhelming me and making me physically sick.
Do you ever have painful memories that sneak up on you? My body often responds involuntarily to these memories, with a jolt of adrenaline that causes a physical twitch or pang of embarrassment deep in my stomach that makes me double-over.
Most highly sensitive people (HSPs) have embarrassing (or difficult) memories tied directly to their sensitivity. The basic components of our trait, which is identified in the research as Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), can cause us to respond to situations in painful ways. The acronym DOES highlights these components: Depth of processing, Overstimulation, Emotionally reactive (a.k.a. Empathetic), and Sensitive to Subtle Stimuli.
Harnessing the Power of Self-Compassion and Sensitivity
Have you ever unintentionally ostracized yourself in a social setting, just because you were observing everyone and everything around you without even realizing it? Do you regularly have to come up with an excuse to leave a friend’s get-together early because you’re embarrassed by how quickly just being there has drained you? Ever been simply overcome with emotion for another’s experience? What about feeling overwhelmed by an environment where everyone else seems unfazed? If these examples conjure up your own memories, your DOES is showing!
These aspects of our experience can be hard to navigate in and of themselves. Add to them a rather non-sensitive society’s unawareness and unacceptance of DOES, and a life riddled with painful memories makes sense.
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But what if we could take a closer look at those memories? What if we gave them room to teach us more about ourselves and the world? What if we could reframe the embarrassment or difficulty in light of the superpowers of our sensitivity?
Reframing my own painful memories in this way has helped me harness the power of self-compassion, which has brought healing to my past. It has helped me forge ahead toward a courageous future — embracing my sensitivity, with all its strengths and struggles.
Steps to Reframing the Past
To reframe a memory, first think of a particular moment, situation, or transition in your life. Transitions can be especially helpful to reframe, as HSP researcher Dr. Elaine Aron explains in her book, The Highly Sensitive Person: “…every new situation, transition, or change involves many new stimuli, and since we pick up on more stimuli because we include all the subtleties, every change is a bigger change for us than for the non-HSP.”
In terms of painful or upsetting recollection, it’s a good idea to choose a mid-range memory. Save the traumatic (or deeply wounding) ones for a trained professional, who can properly support your exploration and reframing.
Now that you have your memory in mind, answer the following questions, as outlined by Dr. Aron in The Highly Sensitive Person’s Workbook:
- What was the situation, and how did you respond in the moment? I was embarrassed when I got sick at the middle school carnival.
- When you think back on it, how do you feel about how you responded? I can remember how sick I’d been feeling, but I still feel like I overreacted. I should have been able to just enjoy myself like everyone else.
- Now think about all that you’ve learned about your highly sensitive trait. How does this knowledge affect how you feel about this memory? My sensitivity to everything at that carnival makes my response make total sense. Of course I was overstimulated, and of course it took a toll on my body. I often put myself through too much and then berate myself for struggling to keep up.
- How might the situation, and your response to it, have gone differently if you had known about your sensitive trait? I would have approached the whole event entirely differently had I known I was an HSP. I would have sought a way to enjoy being there with my friends while protecting my sensitive self from overstimulation. I might have planned ahead of time to leave early anyway instead of feeling ashamed that I had to leave.
- If knowing then what you now know about your sensitivity would have helped you in the situation, allow that to sink in for a moment. It can be a powerful realization to see that your sensitivity played a big role without your knowledge. I have so much appreciation for all I have endured simply due to my lack of awareness of my sensitivity. I ignored my needs as an HSP for so long, and my body, mind, and spirit took the brunt and kept going anyway.
- What do you think about the situation and your response now, given all this? If it helps, write down a new description of the event through the lens of your sensitivity. I put myself through too much that day at the carnival, and my body sought to protect itself. It serves as a reminder of my own limits and stirs self-compassion in me, due to all I put my sensitive self through. Going forward, I want to honor my sensitivity by prioritizing my needs, so I can thrive in my life instead of needlessly suffering in self-neglect.
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Let Self-Compassion Lead the Way Forward as You Reframe Your Past
Reframing painful memories — in light of your sensitivity — can yield a more compassionate understanding of yourself. Researcher Kristin Neff has dedicated her life’s work to the study of self-compassion and its powerful effects on the human experience. She outlines three key components of it:
- Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgment. Dr. Neff describes self-kindness as an active stance of caring for oneself, alleviating our own suffering, and comforting ourselves.
- Common Humanity vs. Isolation. People tend to be able to embrace our common humanity — until something painful happens to them. Then, all of a sudden, we become islands of our experience, convinced no one else has felt the pain we’re feeling — which can be especially common for HSPs. We convince ourselves that we are alone in our suffering, which can be isolating and frightening.
- Mindfulness vs. Over-identification. Dr. Neff emphasizes the need to give our suffering time and space to exist instead of rushing to dull its sting or fix its problem. Approaching our pain with curiosity allows us to interact with it and tend to it instead of dismissing it or slapping a solution on it.
When we honor our sensitivity, these self-compassion elements can flow effortlessly — and also help prevent compassion fatigue, which is all too common among HSPs. Most highly sensitive people have spent at least a portion of our lives denying our sensitivity, whether due to unawareness of the trait or in an attempt to “cure” our sensitive nature. In my experience as a lifetime self-denier, honoring my true nature has always resulted in more contentment and personal growth than denial ever has. It took me a while to get there, but it’s worth the journey, I promise.
Dr. Neff highlights ways we can cultivate self-compassion. Try one or two of these as you reframe painful memories and see how your sensitive self responds:
- Write a compassionate letter to yourself. Make sure it’s to the self from your painful memory, but written from your sensitivity-informed self.
- When a painful memory catches you off-guard, pause and consider how you would respond if a friend had gone through the same thing. Dr. Neff adds the element of a “fierce” friend who protects and supports unabashedly, a fierce, brave, unrelenting person (i.e., self-compassion). Respond to yourself as a “fierce” friend would.
- Try keeping a self-compassion journal, making use of the three components of self-compassion. When a painful memory crops up, jot it down and note the self-judgments you put on yourself (i.e., I was so stupid for saying that or I can’t believe I got overwhelmed again). Note the ways your actions or feelings (the ones you judged in yourself) are common human experiences. Finally, write a compassionate reflection regarding the moments you were so hard on yourself about.
Attach Positive Feelings to Painful Memories
One of the most helpful meditative practices I have learned regarding painful memories is from Psychologist and Author Dr. Rick Hanson. Dr. Hanson has dedicated much of his career to the connection between contemplative practice and neuroscience. He offers the simple method of recalling a painful memory, sitting with it in silence and acceptance, and attaching a positive feeling of loving-kindness to it — even as all its jagged edges remain. He suggests visualizing the memory floating into our awareness, tagging it with loving-kindness, then releasing it to float away.
Yes, this may sound counter-intuitive, but it reframes the painful memory into something less painful.
Overall, as HSPs, practicing memory reframing with fierce self-compassion can open our hearts to courageous futures. All the while, we’ll continue to embrace our sensitive trait and wield it as the superpower it was always meant to be.