Category Archives: Memory

Memory and the Ability to Bear Pain

The other day a patient reported a conversation between his teenage children at dinner.  The topic was how long the baby in the family would remember his parents if they suddenly disappeared/died.

Of course, this conversation, and the reporting of it at the end of a session, was highly overdetermined (psychoanalytic jargon for “had many strands of meaning”).  But I’m not going to address all that here.  Those meanings were particular to the session and the patient.

Rather, I’m going to talk about the very counterintuitive, but I believe profoundly truthful, psychoanalytic understanding of the kind of memory his children were discussing.

To put it simply, we believe that someone’s ability to remember another in their absence is a function of their capacity to bear pain.  If someone you care about and depend on is absent, and you think of them, you experience loss. If this feeling is overwhelming or the pain goes on too long, you might deal with the pain by deleting the painful object from your emotional memory – you “forget” them. Presto!  The pain is gone.

So… what’s the problem?  We’ll talk about this in a moment, but first, let’s backtrack a bit.

Think about a mother and a baby. (Analysts do, all the time!) The mother is everything to a baby, the source of food, warmth, comfort, understanding.  The baby literally can’t live without her.  So when the mother is absent, the baby is flooded with feeling – panic, anxiety, fear of dying, loss, etc. The good-enough mother will gradually acclimatize the baby to their absence, by being away only for short and then gradually longer periods of time. She will also remind the baby of her presence (by singing, talking) when they are out of sight. This mother instinctively understands that if she’s gone “too long,” the baby will cut off, “forget” her, as he will be overwhelmed by feeling and pain. But as she slowly extends her absences, the baby begins to learn that when she is absent, the mother is not gone/dead but simply away.

As no mother is perfect, it is inevitable that the baby will repeatedly break the connection with her, when she is away for unbearably long.  And that the mother and baby will need to re-make the emotional link between them.

The baby’s capacity to bear absence is increased by the acquisition of the ability to symbolize.  Freud observed his grandson (at 18 months) playing with a reel that had a string attached to it.  The young boy would throw the reel over the side of his cot so it couldn’t be seen and say “fort” – gone.  And then he would draw it back using the string, triumphantly saying “da” – here.

Now, back to the problem.

“Forgetting” or breaking the emotional link with the other works like a charm in terms of getting rid of the pain of loss.  But it has serious unforeseen consequences.  To enumerate a few:

  1. It makes it difficult to learn.  Painful lessons you learn from relationships are “forgotten” along with the pain.  So you keep making the same mistakes in life.
  2. It makes it difficult to sustain relationships.  When your partner or close friend hurts you, or is away “too long,” you cut your emotional tie to them. So when you get together again, you are “cold,” “aloof.” In the case of friendship, it might mean you don’t contact them again, or don’t respond to their attempts to understand what has happened between you.
  3. It means you are denied the comfort of being able to remember and think fondly of those who are absent or who have passed on, to reflect on what you’ve shared and learned from them.
  4. It creates “gaps” in your memory, and in your life story.
  5. It keeps you “young” or like a child, at least in certain areas of your life.

For all these reasons, therapists are always concerned with how people deal with absence and loss.   Our clients are often repeating painful situations, seemingly unable to learn from them.  Their early defence of forgetting/cutting off/breaking emotional links which shielded them from unbearable pain when they were young, has become a serious liability to their capacity to form satisfying relationships, or lead fulfilling lives.

This is part of why the relationship between a therapist and a patient becomes so important. Because as a therapist becomes more important to a client, the pain of the end of a session, the weekend, or of a holiday can become unbearable, in the same way as the mother’s, a partner’s, or a friend’s absence.  Naturally, a client will deal with this pain by their old tried and tested method — they’ll cut off. But this will mean that in some way they start each session afresh, needing to re-establish a relationship, before any other work can be done.  And of course, they’ll lose the capacity to reflect on, and learn from what happens in the sessions between them.

But as this is all highlighted by the therapist, the client may find a different way to deal with the pain of absence, by putting it into words.  And as they do this, their ability to recall the past and to learn from it and the present will increase.

It’s slow work.  It’s counterintuitive.  Men, in particular, often find it difficult to see the advantage to experiencing loss/dependence/neediness. Every fiber of their being protests against it.  But as they understand the cost of their “pain free” existence — the absence of intimacy, not being in contact with others, being alone – they may come to make different conscious choices.  And discover that life can indeed be profoundly different when one can bear the pain of keeping in touch.