Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer


Posted by Dr. Vollmer on March 6, 2013


Somehow, in our brains, we have a better memory for feelings then for actual events or narratives. Maya Angelou is right. One could imagine an evolutionary advantage to remembering how someone made us feel in that that memory serves to guide us whether to go forward and deeper into a relationship with them. This information is more critical than the facts of a conversation. I find this “feeling memory” so interesting because these memories serve as tools for future endeavors. Vivian, fifty-nine, married a man who makes her feel as bad as her father did. She finds herself constantly feeling humiliated and “stupid”. This familiar feeling hearkens back to her childhood and yet her narrative memory of her father is one of a man who was “strict”. The memory of her feelings with her father is brought to life through her current relationship with her husband. “Why else would I get myself in this horrible marriage?” She asks me, understanding that her repetition of this feeling of humiliation is a profoundly sad experience for her. When “feeling memories” begin at a tender age, there is often an unconscious continuation of these deep experiences. Understanding these early feelings can break the chain of repetition. Psychotherapy gives hope to this broken chain.

6 Responses to “Memory”

  1. Ashana M said

    Someone who enjoys humiliating others will look for that person who is most likely to tolerate humiliation. He has had a lifetime to figure out what this kind of person looks like, so he is usually quite good at recognizing the signs. He then sets out to seduce her. Someone who has been subjected to humiliating treatment won’t notice initially that anything is wrong when it begins, nor take steps to avoid it the way someone less used to it does. She is most likely to blame herself for it, which keeps her there and available for further humiliation. Like someone trained to play hockey from early childhood, someone subjected to humiliation from an early age will have special skills needed to tolerate it. But at the same time, she will lack skills necessary for other types of relationships, just as the hockey player might lack skills needed for other endeavors due to the intensity of the training. What comes through so tragically in what you write is Vivian’s belief that she somehow deserves this–that she is unfixably damaged and has brought this on herself because of it. Changing that belief can be really difficult. but its also about building skills so other possibilities become available.

  2. Jon said

    Shirah, I agree with both you and Maya Angelou. The human memory is notoriously bad. Eye witness accounts have been shown to be sadly wrong in a lot of cases. An entire niche market has developed in fallacious “recovered memories.” While I have never seen any studies, I would guess is not the case in “feeling memories.” Do you know of any research in this area?

    • Thanks, Jon. No, I do not know research in this area, but it would be interesting. As you say, narrative memory is subject to confabulation, where we fill in the blanks with our own ideas in order to make the story make sense to us. On the other hand, feeling memory has a much longer shelf life in our brain storage system. I am not sure how that research could be done, but you make me curious to think about such things. Thanks again.

  3. Shelly said

    What kind of advice would you give Vivian? Obviously you would help her recognize the signs and patterns in her life, of marrying the type of man who humiliates her and makes her feel stupid. Or is it she constantly feels humiliated and stupid by everyone? Because if she felt this way in her childhood home, then it seems obvious that it would take very little for her to feel small by comparison to others. In all likelihood, her self-esteem issue was caused by her father when she was young. How do you help Vivian over come this?

    • The first step is to help Vivian be aware that she re-creates her childhood feeling of humiliation with her current close relationships. With this awareness comes the option to change the dynamics of the relationship and set better boundaries against humiliating comments. Thanks, as always.

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