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Repressed Memories

 

 

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Page Contents: Introduction / Freud: The Beginning / Repression: The Validity / The Repressed Memory Debate / The Clinical Solution / Three Fictitious Stories / The Clinical Issue of Being Believed / Repression as Protection from Anger

 

Repressed
 
Memories

IT WOULD be hard to imagine a more lively debate about psychology—filled as it is with accusations, counter-accusations, and downright insults—than the controversy about so-called “repressed” memories. The debate centers on whether or not traumatic experiences can be repressed out of conscious awareness and then later recalled, either spontaneously or through psychotherapy. [1]

 


 

Freud:
 
The
 
Beginning

Sigmund Freud more-or-less started the whole issue about repressed memories when his clinical case studies in the late nineteenth century inspired him to develop his psychological theories Sigmund Freud about the nature of unconscious mental processes. He used the term repression to describe the way emotionally painful events could be blocked out of conscious awareness so that their painful effects would not have to be experienced.

Note that this repression process is a completely automatic psychological defense against emotional trauma and does not involve conscious intent. In contrast, deliberately pushing something out of awareness because you want to avoid any responsibility for it is called suppression.

Freud’s theories all came together in his technique and philosophy of psychoanalysis, and repression has been a key concept within that philosophy ever since.

 


 

Repression:
 
The
 
Validity

Let’s pause here to note that Freud’s theories emerged from case studies and that the concept of repression has not been scientifically substantiated. Some studies on the subject have been attempted, usually through “round-about” methods—such as whether the awareness of an electric shock associated with a particular word, in a laboratory setting, will be pushed out of awareness. But, to be honest, repression is an obscure concept and a credible scientifically controlled experiment would be unethical and nearly impossible. Imagine taking several hundred babies, giving them identical upbringing, all the while subjecting selected groups of them to various kinds of horrific trauma in childhood, and then waiting years or even decades to see (a) if any of them remember anything of the trauma or (b) if the different kinds of trauma affect memory in different ways. 

There has, however, been some progress in investigating the issue from naturalistic studies in which known cases of child abuse are followed by researchers over the course of many years. In this research [2,3] the abuse is well documented, so if the child forgets about it, that also can be documented. And then, if the grown child, adolescent, or adult (all depending on time) remembers the abuse, the recovered memory can be documented and compared to the actual records.

 


 

The
 
Repressed
 
Memory
 
Debate

Anyway, Freud’s speculative theories have today been taken up in the context of allegations of childhood sexual abuse; i.e., when an older child or adult suddenly “remembers” having been abused in childhood by some particular person, usually a parent. The camps are clearly divided here, some saying that these things happen all the time and that they reflect historically real events, while others say that recovered memories are false. Some groups even argue about the definition and reality of the mechanism of repression. It can get very ugly.

 


 

The
 
Clinical
 
Solution

As a clinician who has been trained in research, I certainly know about the reality of child abuse, and I know about the danger of false memories and self-justification by clinicians. I have also treated clients who remembered “forgotten” traumas. I have even seen improvement in physiological symptoms apparently because of previously forgotten events that were recalled and discussed in therapy. But I always approach such occurrences as “personal revelations” whose historical truth is irrelevant, because, after all, the point of therapy is to help the client cope with dysfunction in the present. I don’t go looking for “repressed traumas,” but if “remembered” events give clinical relief, so be it. I’m also careful to be honest about hypnosis and guided imagery, acknowledging their wonderful healing power, yet never trying to attribute any particular “reality” to the results.

It would require intense scientific scrutiny to allow the personal revelations of a client to take on any legal or cultural significance, or to use them to substantiate any theoretical claims. All objective details would have to be meticulously verified by outside sources. In the end, I’m not willing to be a private investigator—I’ll focus on helping people reclaim their human dignity, even though we might never know what “really” happened in the past.

Furthermore, I myself have had to come to terms with ordinary remembered experiences in my own life that were later shown to be seriously distorted. As a result, I know how tenuous and fragile an “identity” can be, and I realize that the only thing we can be sure of in life, besides doubt, is what we believe in and value.

 


 

Three
 
Fictitious
 
Stories

In order to illustrate the therapeutic points made above, let’s consider three fictitious stories.

The first story begins with two of your friends, Billy and Bobby. One day Billy borrows a large amount of money from you. But when he repeatedly fails to pay it back, you realize that your friendship with him is ruined, and you lose contact with him for several years.

Then one afternoon, when you start to prepare dinner and reach into your cupboard, a can of soup falls off the top shelf and conks you on the head. When you come to your senses, you have forgotten about the money Billy owes you. A few days later someone asks you something about Billy. You suddenly realize that you haven’t seen him in a long time, so you call him on the phone. Billy, being very sharp, keeps his mouth shut about the money and just enjoys having you back as a friend.

Then one morning while you’re trying to get a piece of toast out of the toaster you get an electrical shock. Slowly you begin to realize that someone owes you money, but you can’t remember who it is. After a while, you get the impression that Bobby owes you the money. When you ask him, he denies that he owes you money, and in your anger you break off the friendship.

OK. Notice that this story illustrates two points:

1.

An event that you cannot remember can be psychologically equivalent to an event that never happened.

2.

An event that you falsely remember can be psychologically equivalent to an event that really did happen.

 
Now, this first story, in its emotional sense, is overly simple. It’s even silly. A real trauma would diffuse itself across several ego states and make things more complicated. So let’s look at a second story to illustrate this.

You’re a very young child, and for some reason your mother must leave you in the care of your uncle for a few months. During that time, he sexually abuses you, most often by the swimming pool in his back yard. Eventually your mother takes you back home, and your whole family moves away; you never see your uncle again. Let’s assume that the memory of the abuse becomes repressed, for whatever reason, but in its place you’re left with a general fear of water and the inability to go swimming like other children. This phobia lasts for years. Then, as an adult, you enter psychotherapy for your phobia of water, and suddenly you remember the abuse. So the therapy focuses on the trauma, and, in due time, you’re no longer afraid of water either.

Here, in this story, we have the illustration of a trauma being repressed and diffusing into a phobia that is metaphorically connected to the trauma itself. Then, in psychotherapy, the real trauma emerges, and with its ultimate resolution the phobia is resolved as well.

Now let’s put a twist to these events with a third story.

This time, let’s assume right from the beginning that your uncle never abused you, but that he was an odd man, emotionally cold and given to teasing others. One day, at a family gathering, you fall by the swimming pool and split open your lip. This causes an uproar in the family, and, during all the confusion, your uncle makes fun of you, right in front of everybody, for being a “cry baby.” None of this gets repressed, but it does just recede into the back of your mind like most childhood events. But for some reason, you develop a fear of water. Years later, you seek therapy to resolve this phobia. As you work on your emotional experiences, you slowly develop the suspicion that your uncle sexually abused you in childhood. So the therapy focuses on those “memories” and works to resolve them. And with their resolution, you find that the phobia of water resolves also.

This third story illustrates the point that even a false memory can be used therapeutically. Maybe your unconscious mind created the memory of abuse because your uncle really was a cold man who enjoyed humiliating others, and, by seeing him as a child abuser, you were able to deal with the emotional fears of humiliation that motivated the water phobia. Who knows? But just remember this: such a false memory may be a therapeutic help, but it would be a grave mistake to try to prosecute your uncle for actual abuse. We, by benefit of the story, know that the memory was false. But in real life, without independent corroborating evidence, you will never have the benefit of knowing conclusively whether a recovered memory is true or false. If you make an accusation, and you’re wrong, you’re really wrong.

 


 

The
 
Clinical
 
Issue
 
of
 
Being
 
Believed

While a child is being abused, for example, the child’s greatest desire is that someone with power and authority will recognize the abuse and put a stop to it. If this doesn’t happen, and if the child simply endures years of pain into adulthood without ever being believed, there will always be a childlike part of the adult that desires desperately—and repetitively—to make others recognize any sort of injustice. This frustration can even be one of the underlying psychological factors motivating terrorism.

If such a person enters psychotherapy for the treatment of trauma, the issue of “Do you believe me?” can quickly emerge as a therapeutic problem.

Clearly, if the psychotherapist says, “Oh, that’s all in your head. Why don’t you just get over it?” then all of the client’s inner experiences surrounding the traumatic “memory” are invalidated.

And here is precisely where the real damage is done. Mind you, the damage has nothing to do with accepting or denying the past. It doesn’t really matter whether the psychotherapist believes that the event in question actually happened exactly as the client remembers it. But it does matter that the psychotherapist believe the client’s pain because the real therapeutic issue is whether the psychotherapist can help the client believe his or her own pain enough to sit and listen to it without running from it.

In the end, psychotherapy is all about the adult part of the personality finally listening to the frightened child part tell its story—and taking adult responsibility for the healing process that the child part cannot manage on its own. For the psychotherapy, then, “Do you believe me?” is not a question about facts but a yearning for emotional respect and comfort.

  

Worrying about whether any abuse actually happened won’t help you. Nor will trying to get the suspected person(s) to admit the truth help you. The best thing to do is vow that, regardless of what others around you do, you will purge dishonesty and lust from your life.

  

 


 

Repression
 
as
 
Protection
 
from
 
Anger
 

Although it should be no surprise to a clinician well-trained in the psychology of the unconscious that psychological disorders tend to originate for self-protective reasons, the average person can be shocked by—and even skeptical of—this clinical truth.

Imagine a psychologist explaining to a client that “you got depressed to keep yourself from going crazy.” The client would be astonished to hear such a thing.

Yet when children grow up in dysfunctional families, in which the parents are cruel and critical, it can be so emotionally traumatic for the children to admit the truth about their parents’ lack of caring that, to protect themselves from being torn apart by the cognitive dissonance of fear and anger, the children will turn the anger against themselves, blaming themselves for their parents’ cruelty. The children will construct negative beliefs such as “You’re to blame,” or “You’re bad,” or “You’re disgusting,” or “You’re just damaged goods.” And so, under the pressure of this self-imposed judgment, the children will become depressed, because, as every skilled clinician knows, depression is anger turned inwards.

Well, in a similar way, memories of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse in childhood can be repressed as a self-protective mechanism. Because some part of the child’s personality knows that the abuse could provoke intense and damaging anger—both toward the perpetrator and toward the self—the memory of the abuse can be suppressed to protect everyone from the risk of the child’s own violent rage.

Consequently, for real emotional healing—not just containment—to be possible, it is necessary for adults who have been abused as children to understand and make peace with their fear of their own anger.

This is a deep psychotherapeutic process, but, in its essence, it begins with the understanding that anger is not an emotion but a desire for revenge—that is, a desire to hurt someone as you have been hurt; then comes the understanding that impulses to anger—that is, angry fantasies of harm to others and harm to the self—are not shameful but are natural products of the human mind; and finally comes the understanding that when these impulses are recognized—rather than suppressed in fear and shame—they can be psychological cues for rejecting aggressive responses to emotional hurt and for consciously choosing healthy and assertive emotional boundaries.

Once this process has been mastered, then it can be safe for full memory of the past to be recalled without the danger of wild rage overwhelming you.

 


 

The
 
Book
 

Anger and Forgiveness
(3rd edition)

Shows how to turn the emotional wounds of daily life into psychological growth. Available as a paperback book or as an e-book.

More information

 


 

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Notes:

1. See Geraerts, E. , Lindsay, D. S., Merckelbach, H., Jelicic, M., Raymaekers L., Arnold, M. M., & Schooler, J. W. (2008). Cognitive Mechanisms Underlying Recovered-Memory Experiences of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Psychological Science, (20)1, 92–98, a research study that may focus this debate.
    In short, “Repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse which occur spontaneously may be more reliable than those that pop up during therapy sessions,” says Tom Jacobs, in a summary of this research.
 
2. Williams, L. M. (1994). Recall of childhood trauma: A prospective study of women’s memories of child sexual abuse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 6, 1167–1176.
 
3. Widom, C. S., & Morris, S. (1997). Accuracy of adult recollections of childhood victimization: Part 2. Childhood sexual abuse. Psychological Assessment, 9, 34–46.

 
Additional Resources
 
Dissociation:
Dissociative Disorders  from THE MERCK MANUAL, Sec. 15, Ch. 197.
International Society for the Study of Dissociation
 
Trauma:
The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) provides a forum for the sharing of research, clinical strategies, public policy concerns, and theoretical formulations on trauma in the United States and around the world through its education and training programs and its various publications.
 
Related pages within A Guide to Psychology and its Practice:
Anger: Insult, Revenge, and Forgiveness
Death—and the Seduction of Despair
Diagnosis
Forgiveness
Honesty
Identity and Loneliness
Personality
Psychology and Psychiatry—and Psychoanalysis
Questions and Answers about Psychotherapy
Trauma and PTSD
Types of Psychological Treatment
The Unconscious
 
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