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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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Memories: Who Is Correct?

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 8th 2008

 More than a few patients starting therapy let me know that they are not sure that their memories of growing up are accurate. This is particularly so when they have complaints about the ways in which parents mistreated them. Attempting to demonstrate loyalty to their parents despite having complaints they defensively let me know that I should not rely on their perceptions. Are they correct?

One of the things we know for sure is that memory is subject to various distorting factors. Some of these are that memory fades, is subject to confabulation, where we confuse or fuse several similar events, and memory is influenced by newer and more recent events. In addition, memory is very influenced by our biases, feelings and opinions. Therefore is our memory of the past accurate? The answer to this question is "no."

I clearly "remember" ("no pun intended") how when I was a child, my maternal grandparents would bitterly quarrel over whose version of some past event was accurate. The arguments became so intense that they resorted to calling each other names(we will not mention the types of names)and, at times, even accused one another of telling lies. Clearly, they had different perceptions or points of view of these events. Who was correct?

I have worked with angry married couples who told directly opposite versions of events that marked their lives together. Here, too, people became so heated that they accused one another of deliberately distorting the truth. Which on is correct?

It occurred to neither my grandparents nor these married couples that each person has their own, private version of the past. Even eye witnesses to terrible crimes have widely varying descriptions of the crime that they happened to see.

In my version of my childhood, growing up in my family was extremely difficult. I often felt offendedd, misunderstood and controlled to such an extent that I experienced the the family as very authoritarian, even dictatorial. Yet, other relatives believe that I had a good childhood. Am I wrong and they are correct? My late uncle insisted that my version of the past was "wrong" and that the family did the best it could.

I always caution couples and individuals in the context of psychotherapy that there is no such things as an accurate memory. There is only our own point of view.

"So," I hear the reader say, "how valid is therapy if our memories are distorted?"

The answer is the following:
 
When it comes to memory, particularly of our childhoods, all that matters is what we remember and how we feel about, accurate or not. A huge proportion of our identity consists of how we remember our past. Our individual version forms our story, as we know it, as we remember it.

One of the driving forces of human life has to do with the fact that we have varying perceptions and points of view. This is partly why there are wars. For example, in the Middle East, Palestinian Arabs feel displaced by the Israelis and demand their land back. The Israelis view Palestine as their land based on the fact that it is their biblical home and based on the fact that Jews have always had a presence there. Who is correct and who is mistaken? That all depends on your point of view.

The same happens when adult children attempt to argue with their parents. The reason for the argument is that the adult child is attempting to get the parent to admit to their wrong doing while they were growing up, as though such an admission would somehow heal the past. The parents, on the other hand, usually reject the notion that they did wrong, insisting that they "did the best they could and that the adult child has no reason to fret about the past." Who is correct? That depends on your point of view.

Sound familiar? What are your "points of view?"

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at dransphd@aol.com for details.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    question - DH - Apr 23rd 2008

    One daughter (out of 4) has suddenly decided she can't "take it" any more, and has cut off all contact. The rest of us thought we had one of the more loving families we know - as did everyone around us. We're struggling to make sense of our "new" family.

     My question - do you think it would be helpful for all of us to sit down together and go through our shared experiences - scrapbooks - photos - journals - to come to some conclusions? If so, would it still be helpful if the one daughter doesn't participate? (This is something the girls always meant to do)

    At least you've expanded my thinking - I'll accept whatever varying perceptions crop up, and just enjoy the outcome. I'm fairly sure I would have worried about "agreeing" otherwise.

    Thank you! 

     

    Memory, Who Is Right or Wrong? - Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, PhD - Apr 12th 2008

    Your memories and the feelings you have about those memories are all that matters. The reasosn is that your memories and perceptions and feelings shape your life. No one can tell you that you are wrong because on one sees things the way you do.

    Dr. Schwartz

    Wow, way familiar - Kalima - Apr 11th 2008

    My parents both seem to remember my child hoods as fairly idealic. Neither my sister or I agree with their memory and view it from a conpletly different point of view. I remember saying to my mother one time that she and my father seemed to have an almost constant 'rough patch' she denied this and told me that they didn't even fight with one another until I was about 8 or 9. But I remember their arguments, I can picture some of those memories from before that time really clearly. So who's wrong? or are we both?

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