Learn to Heal Painful Memories

Sometimes people get stuck when they try to get over their anger or to forgive. They can’t seem to erase the terrible memory. A key way to deal with this is called healing of memories. Dennis and Matthew Linn have studied the whole process of healing memories, and they suggest that there are five stages in healing a memory, similar to the five stages of facing death outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross:

  1. Denial: The person refuses to admit he was hurt.
  2. Anger: The person blames others for hurting him.
  3. Bargaining: The person puts conditions on his willingness to forgive. In other words, he decides what it would take for him to forgive. Although these conditions are usually unlikely to be met, the offended person at least allows that forgive­ness might be possible.
  4. Depression: The person is down on himself for allowing this hurt to paralyze him.
  5. Acceptance: The person seeks to grow from this hurt.

The authors propose four emotions to be worked through to become healed: anxiety, fear, anger, and guilt. They describe the case of a woman named Mar­garet who was deeply hurt by being refused reentry into India, where she had been teaching as a missionary for several years.

She identified her first stage, that of denial, in her dis­missing the feeling that she would not be asked to return to India after coming to the United States on a vacation. She chose not to face that possibility with her superior.

Her anger stemmed from the fact that her superiors had blamed their refusal to bring her back to India on the fear that she might catch malaria. Her health was excellent, and she had just passed her checkup with flying colors. It was a false excuse.

Next came bargaining, and the conditions she set for herself for forgiving the offending parties. She would for­give them only if they reversed their decision, realized the harm they had caused, and became committed never to do such a thing again. They did none of these, however, and they continued to harm others in the same way.

When she moved on to depression, to acknowledging her own failure in all of this, she realized it was not the offense that had caused her misery. It was her overreaction that had brought her down. Was her value tied only to this fulfilling mission in India or in her being a child of God, deeply loved by him? And now that she was a mission director, she was beginning to act just like her former boss, happy to refuse volunteers on flimsy pretexts.

When she arrived at stage 5, acceptance, she began to see the benefits she had gleaned from being turned away from the missionary work she loved. She saw how this experience had moved her to a closer relationship with God and with other people. She realized that her value stemmed not from her work or from the opinions of others, but from her Father in heaven.

This article is from a chapter in Overcoming Sinful Anger. Click image to preview or order.

She sought out a priest and went to confession. She confessed simply, “I’m sorry for being away so long, heav­enly Father.” She experienced a deep peace and became quite sensitive to others who were dealing with similar hurts. She warmly comforted a woman who had also been denied readmittance to India for the same mission. In fact, this was the same woman who had denied her reentry before!

At the peak of her misery she had contracted cancer. After being bedridden for two years with the disease, and then after healing her memories, she was able to take a full-time job counseling cancer patients — this, despite the opinion of six cancer doctors that she should have died several years before.

Two things helped Margaret to heal her memories: tell­ing her story to friends, particularly to one who had told her, “You’re angry”; and telling her story to Jesus. Having heard those words from her friend, she acknowledged her anger and spoke of it to Christ. She expressed to him her unwillingness to forgive her antagonist but then began to work through the other stages to final acceptance. It was suggested that had she simply said, “I forgive her” without engaging her deep anger, she might have remained at the denial stage and never achieved healing.

Margaret moved slowly through the five stages, because her friends and Jesus didn’t rush her. She was able to take time to move from stage to stage, and thus her healing was deep. The authors of this study, however, caution against insisting that each stage be formally experienced. It is pos­sible to skip certain stages, according to the workings of the Holy Spirit.

Anxiety, Fear, Anger, and Guilt

Margaret had gone through many sleepless nights, anxious over her situation. This anxiety was an indicator that she was “emotionally overloaded.” She passed through her stage of denial to come to realize the source of her anxiety. What had made her anxious was the fact that she had to get a new job, find new friends, and pursue a whole new way of life.

Her anxiety began to subside when she spoke with Jesus and her friends about her fear, anger, and guilt over her situation. Her main fear was that she was going nowhere; her existence was without direction. Once she identified what she was afraid of, she was ready to deal with her anger and guilt.

Her anger was aimed at the boss who out of envy pre­vented her from returning to this job she loved in India. Her guilt stemmed from failing to act on her premonition that her missionary job might be terminated and for plac­ing too much importance on her India activities. Life is much more than a good job.

As she passed through her fear, anger, and guilt, she got to the bargaining stage. There she lowered her terms for forgiving her offending supervisor. She forgave the woman, despite the fact that she had not backpedaled at all regarding Margaret. Margaret reached the acceptance stage by seeing the good that could flow from her rejec­tion. She realized that her importance comes from God, not from persons or from a job. And she could use her own experience to become more sensitive to others, and even to her own petty treatment of missionary volunteers. By apologizing to those volunteers, she even developed many new friends.

The authors explain how the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus provides a pattern for healing. The disciples went through anxiety, anger, fear, and guilt, and then they experienced the unconditional love and kind­ness of Jesus. Once he had explained the Scriptures about himself, they felt forgiven and they appreciated all they had been through. They returned to Jerusalem with their hearts healed.

One final story of the many given by the Linn brothers involved a physical healing through the healing of memo­ries of a woman called Agnes. The vision in her right eye had been growing worse for fourteen years. Her left eye was beginning to fail as well. She attended a workshop for healing of memories, where the participants prayed over her. She needed to heal the memory of her father, who had cut off all communication with her forty-five years before, when she had entered a nursing career. She tried not to think of this memory since she saw it as the root of her sad life without her father’s love.

On day 1, Agnes expressed to God her anger at her father’s abandoning her. But she also expressed her own guilt at not having contacted her father. On day 2, she brought herself back forty-five years to the onset of the wound her father had caused and imagined God the Father embracing her in unconditional fatherly love. She felt her sadness fade as the Father continued to hold her. Then the Father held her hand and asked her to give that same lov­ing forgiveness to her father, deceased fifteen years already at that point.

On day 3, she tried to deepen her love for her father, and she tried to see what blessings she might have received from her difficult life without him. She took comfort in the way her separation had moved her to pursue a strong relationship with God through prayer and to serve patients in their loneliness for thirty-eight years.

As her memory began to be healed, so did her eye! It improved gradually each day, and by the end of the workshop, she was able to read to the other participants the passage in Mark 8:22–26 about the blind man who re­gained his sight gradually when Jesus laid hands on him.

Agnes later wrote to Fr. Linn to express her gratitude. She was very happy to have received her eyesight back, but she added, “Oh, the deep healing of memories I have had with my father is beyond any blessing I have ever experienced or expect to experience.”

You can use these same steps to heal your own painful memories.

  1. Consider whether you are in denial that you were hurt. If you are, admit this denial so that you may move to the second step.
  2. Get deeply in touch with the feeling resulting from the hurt.
  3. Decide on what terms you might forgive the of­fender. This bargaining, of course, is not terribly virtuous, but its value is that you concede that you might indeed forgive. It is an intermediate step, which is better than the initial position of completely refusing to forgive.
  4. Redirect your anger at yourself for allowing this wound to hold you back from living a productive, anger-free life.
  5. Acknowledge the hurt as an opportunity for growth, and identify how it has helped you de­velop virtue. Name the benefits you reaped from the event, especially the ability to be more sensi­tive to others who have been hurt.

By following these steps you will truly be able to forgive those who have hurt you, and you will find some peace about the past. In doing so, you will likely feel anxiety because this hurt has repercussions and will or could cause trouble in your life. You might go through a period of fear that you may be unable to forge ahead in your life. You might fear that this hurt will paralyze you and keep you from getting beyond this and living a productive life (es­pecially if the hurt involved a major disappointment). You must acknowledge your anger at the person who hurt you. To deny your anger while feeling it deeply within would only delay the healing.

A necessary emotion in the process of healing is guilt over the fact that you let this bother you so much. This is not the unhealthy guilt that you hang on to long after your reform, a guilt that stems from pride. This is the healthy guilt that leads to a change in behavior, analogous to that needed for a good confession. This guilt inspires you to pro­ceed in healing your memories and accepting that the event can be used to help you grow and become a better person.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Morrow’s Overcoming Sinful Angerwhich is available from Sophia Institute Press

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Rev. Thomas G. Morrow graduated from St. Charles Seminary in Philadelphia and was ordained in 1982 for the Archdiocese of Washington (DC). He has an STL in Moral Theology from the Dominican House of Studies and received his Doctorate in Sacred Theology (STD) from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. He was host for three years (1989-1992) of Catholic Faith Alive!, a radio program on WNTR in Washington. He is the author of Overcoming Sinful Thoughts, Christian Dating in a Godless World, and Overcoming Sinful Anger.

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