Everyone has memories that they would like to erase. These memories include a disturbing incident, an embarrassing situation, or the humiliation of being insulted by a loved one. It seems no matter how hard you try to forget it; the memory refuses to leave you alone.
It’s not necessary to block out all unpleasant thoughts. Indeed, there are times when you need to reflect on things that went wrong to understand their significance and personally learn and grow. However, if the only purpose these thoughts serve is prolonging your pain, you need to get rid of them and move on. It might be easier for some to let go of these memories, while others may still be afraid to face the situation and have closure.
Forgetting is important, as it helps us move on in life without holding anything against anyone or yourself for that matter, thereby keeping us calm and happy.
According to recent research, people can actually train themselves to forget things deliberately. (1) Here’s how to forget something you don't want to remember.
- Push the thought away. Consciously deciding not to think about bad memories can help permanently erase them. When you are reminded of something you do not want to think about, don’t let your mind go there. Let it go blank and avoid making the connection.
- Forget all the details associated with the memory and avoid triggers. For flushing memories out of the brain, forget the related triggers or background aspects of the memory. The details may include smells, sounds, scents or images associated with the event that you do not want to remember.
For instance, if you do not want to think of a hurtful event, push the details related to it out of your mind. It could be a song playing in the background or the faces staring at you at the time. Certain images, objects, scents or places can bring back a bad memory to your mind. Throw away objects or images that make it hard for you to forget something you don't want to remember. Avoid going to places or spending time with people that remind you of your painful past.
- Do it on a daily basis. Blocking out unpleasant memories is challenging. Any thought that is suppressed tends to rebound. For instance, if you want to block out thoughts associated with a car accident, and if you don't block it daily; the lingering thought gets easily accessible to you. In simple words when you are not actively blocking your thoughts, they come rushing back. You need to practice blocking the memories on a daily basis. You need to push it away from your consciousness regularly.
- Accept that blocking a thought is difficult. Blocked thoughts tend to rebound more when you give the difficulty of blocking the thought too much importance and meaning. Recognize the fact that blocking a feeling is difficult, and keep working at it without obsessing over it.
- Distract your mind. Another strategy that you can try is replacing the bad memory with a good one. If you find a good substitute for an unwanted memory, it will be easier for you to forget the bad one. If the thought of a past failure keeps haunting you, try to think of all the times you have succeeded in the past. Don’t let the bad memory change your mood. The moment you catch yourself focusing on a bad memory, shift your thinking to a happier memory.
- Associate something positive with the bad memory. Learn to associate the unpleasant memory with a good memory. This will help you overcome bad feelings.
For instance, think of your embarrassing moment while enjoying a good movie or doing something that makes you happy. The positive association will make your negative memory less painful.
- Acknowledge the negative memory. If associating something positive with the memory doesn't work with you, here's another theory that suggests that acknowledging the memory and the negative emotions associated with it will help you deal with the painful feelings. (2) Feel angry, sad or hurt. Yell, scream, cry your eyes out – release your emotions in a safe place to help diminish their power over you.
- Use ritual release to erase the memory. This is a mental exercise where you create a ritual to release the negative emotions or memory trapped inside your mind. Write down every detail of the memory that you wish to forget. Allow yourself to write freely, knowing that no one else will read it. Then, burn the piece of paper.
When you see the paper being engulfed by the fire, you mentally release the memory. Tearing or shredding the paper into pieces instead of burning it also helps.
- Practice mindfulness. Learn to focus on the present moment, instead of thinking and worrying about your past that cannot be changed or anticipating the future. Don’t go through your day on autopilot. Notice and pay attention to small details, sights, smells, and sounds. Regular meditation practice will help you be mindful and more present in each moment.
- Live your life fully and create good memories. Be around people who make you happy. If possible, travel and meet new people. Socialize as much as possible. This will help you form new good memories that will naturally cause your bad memories to fade away.
- Keep yourself busy. Take up a new hobby or a physical activity. Explore your creativity and get involved in arts and crafts. Expend your energy creating something or volunteering.
These things will keep you busy, which gives you less time to spend thinking about bad memories.
- Talk to someone about it. Talking to a friend or family member whom you trust about the unpleasant memory may help. Their advice, views and similar stories can give you a different perspective on things and make it easier for you to forget something you don't want to remember.
Note: The content has been edited and reviewed by Angela Webb, Licensed Psychologist.