A Perfect Example of Memory Processing

Posted on March 5, 2015

There are at least five different therapy models that fall under the category of Memory Processing. The three most prominent are TPM, EMDR and Cognitive Processing Therapy. In each of these methods, the person undergoing therapy goes into certain memories to dissect them and discern the true meanings rather than the beliefs and pain that are “stuck” there.

But many people ask me “what does this really look like?” Many assume it is like hypnosis or self-talk, neither of which is true.

In researching an article I am writing for a magazine, I reviewed the Disney movie “The Kid”.  I have seen it several times and I count it as one movie I would show children if I wanted to both instruct and entertain. In order to use it to explain memory processing, let me summarize the main plot (Warning: lots of spoilers coming).

We are introduced to Russ (played wonderfully by Bruce Willis) who is a dynamic, successful and unhappy media consultant. Russ struggles to connect to anyone or anything except his job. During the course of the movie’s beginning, we see Russ painfully try to connect to people. His girlfriend is a martyr trying to win him over. At one point, she will temporarily give up on the process.

Coming up to a landmark birthday, Russ meets a young boy. We find out that the Boy is actually Russ from a younger time. He has crossed the time-space continuum, but neither of them can figure out why. The Boy is disgusted by the man he becomes…he is not a pilot and doesn’t even have a dog. They spend half the movie trying to convince each other their version of Russ is the best.

At one point, they travel back to the Boy’s timeline. They show up on a painful day: Some of the schoolyard boys are picking on a three-legged dog and the boy Russ will get into a fight defending him. The adult Russ thinks this is the pain the memory contains. He believes the pain comes from being beat up, from losing the fight and from leaving the dog defenseless. So he teaches the Boy Russ how to fight and stand up to the bullies. 

The Boy wins the fight and defends the dog. But that’s when Adult Russ realizes this  is not where the pain is really coming from.

Here is the picture of memory processing I want you to see. This is what often happens as we go back into childhood memories, especially those we have not properly processed. With most memories that do not contain a lot of pain, we think through them over time and come to reasonable and accurate viewpoints on what the memory means. But this is not what happens with painful or traumatic memories. We don’t want to think very much about them, so we put labels on them. The labels are often inaccurate. The label may say “this is where I failed” or “this is what causes me pain” or “this will always keep happening to me.” There are a thousand other labels we could put on these memories. The stumbling blocks are found both in the details of the memory and the emotions. 

The difficulty lies in the details. Years later, as we are experiencing daily life, details very similar to an unprocessed memory can occur. When they do, all of a sudden we have a shot of pain, fear, guilt, shame or any number of negative feelings. We don’t know why we react so strongly, because the presenting problem or situation doesn’t seem to warrant it.  For example, adult Russ doesn’t know why he didn’t get a dog. He just didn’t do it and the thought of buying a dog seems to be a ridiculous and even painful thought. He never properly processed the memory, so the dog represents his pain. He is about to find out this memory has nothing to do with this dog.

Another example: Any time adult Russ runs into a problem, instead of trying to negotiate and help others, he bulldozes them and defeats them. Therefore he has no friends. One takeaway from the schoolyard fight is the idea that he cannot allow others to beat him in a battle again. He becomes a warrior in every conflict and develops no other approach.

Back to the movie memory. The Boy Russ’s father is called to pick him up at the school for fighting. Russ had forgotten this part. Adult Russ follows the boy and his dad as they drive home. Before going into the house, the boy and his dad talk on the front lawn. Their conversation is a difficult one. All of a sudden, the adult Russ, seeing this scene, realizes this is the most painful part. Not the dog. Not the fight. Dad has just found out his wife is dying of of cancer. And as he began to grieve, he gets a call from the school about his son being in a fight. 

Standing on the front lawn before going into the house, dad bursts out with these words “Don’t you know that you’re killing your mother?” The kid is devastated. The adult Russ realizes he has never dealt with the pain of this accusation. He has never processed whether this statement by his father is even true or not.

The boy comes back to the adult Russ and they talk. The adult Russ tells the boy that his mother is about to get very sick and that it is not his fault. In a deep and liberating conversation–one that you almost never see in a movie, let alone a children’s film–the adult Russ is set free from a false belief: That he was responsible for his mother’s suffering and death. He realizes that through the years, instead of putting the correct meaning to this event, he assumed the pain was about the fight. 

Once adult Russ is released from this false belief, he begins to change. He changes how he sees people. He changes how he sees himself. He changes his profession to better match his new reality. Everything changes.

This is what happens with all memory processing therapies. When the therapist and client process the true meaning of the events that shaped the client’s beliefs, a newer and more accurate understanding emerges. What used to take years to accomplish, I can now do in a few sessions with memory processing. In two of the processing therapies, the counselor and the client decide on the truth. In the case of TPM, God actually helps a person to walk through those memories. Ultimately the client must decide if they want to hold onto the childish version of the events or the more accurate version that reflection and God has revealed.

As the Bible says, “you shall know the Truth and the Truth shall set you free.

And that’s not kid stuff.