“Experience is, for me, the highest authority. The touchstone of validity is my own experience. No other person’s ideas, and none of my own ideas, are as authoritative as my experience. It is to experience that I must return again and again, to discover a closer approximation to truth as it is in the process of becoming in me.”—Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person1
While we can remember a night’s out most fun moments a whole life long, despite our special memory, we often lose the unhappiest memories of our childhood, because we learned to repress them. But if we can no longer remember the historical causes for emotional problems that we suffer as adults, such as for example a lack of self-confidence or a negative self-image, then we will unjustly think the problem is with ourselves.
Rather than understanding the true causes, we close access to the past with medication, with therapy that forces us to seek forgiveness or by seeking our self-destruction in drugs and alcohol. Only when we break down those defense mechanisms, as well as allowing unpleasant memories back into our consciousness, we can begin to process past pain for the first time.
Permission to Remember
The Dutch ‘Skeptics Foundation’ (Stichting Skepsis) holds “a critical view of extraordinary claims, pseudo-scientific theories, dubious therapies and paranormal convictions.”2 The foundation warns against arousing ‘refound’, or in other words false childhood memories. People supposedly wouldn’t be able to discern between such false memories and real ones. Not only could adults easily talk young children into believing events that didn’t happen, whereof the children subsequently would believe they had actually experienced them, but adults could also begin to believe in their own made-up memories.3
If the foundation is right, it also puts memories of early child abuse in a questionable light. Are the memories that come to our mind really real, or did we make them up ourselves? Some quacks posing as psychotherapists specialize in arousing such memory falsifications and do considerable damage to their unsuspecting patients.
Organizations such as the Skeptics Foundation therefore deserve appreciation for their effort. Still, something isn’t quite right: why do so many institutions and therapists warn us against false childhood memories, but do they fail to warn us against the opposite situation, namely when we unjustly repress true memories?
The Blocked Road to the Truth
Often, our social environment doesn’t co-operate in processing early childhood traumata. A first hurdle we must overcome in order to remember traumata is the response of our loved ones. In many cases, family, friends or colleagues will resist our early memories, for example, because they aren’t open to their past themselves.4 Because of that, their own ignorance protects the falsified memory of a happy childhood and thereby also the image many people hold of their idealized parents.
The mantra we hear is that we ought to let go of the past, but letting go differs from processing. It’s a misconception that we aren’t allowed to dwell on the past, on the condition that we focus our attention on finding solutions. Then we can use all the support of friends and family in order to successfully complete the process.
Even science impedes truth finding. In the twentieth century, a scientific trend arose that would occupy itself with children’s developmental psychology. Scientists reduced the child’s mind to a soulless toolkit that could only become functionally ‘complete’ after childhood. The influential theories of for example Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget classify the child’s mental growth in a number of developmental stages, such as for example the “preoperational stage” for children aged two to seven.5
Such ambiguous language that considers children ‘pre-operational’ as human beings, i.e. technically unfinished products, says more about the scientist’s worldview than about children. This belief in a mechanical brain development insinuates that we can’t yet trust children’s abilities to sense and remember. Critic Webster Callaway investigated his subject’s works in his book Jean Piaget. He concludes that the developmental psychologist had given his utmost best to hide his true intentions with layered ambiguities:
“Piaget’s nihilistic, almost unthinkable plan to make his true position incommunicable presents a formidable obstacle to any who try to elucidate his theory. One must ponder the unique methodological and psychological issues of someone compelled to write constantly about his metaphysical doctrines, but who at the same time must keep these doctrines form being clearly understood. […]
[His methods of deceit] are so unthinkable that, although evidence is present on almost every page of his many books, they have been overlooked, apparently because no one wished to consider such monstrous behavior as a possibility, especially from such a ‘kind old grandfather-type who loves children’.”6
The Danger of Repressed Memories
By disqualifying a child’s ability to store experiences, societal father figures such as Piaget keep closed the door that gives us access to the true memories of our pasts. But adult victims of early abuse should in no way think their memories aren’t authentic just because they were still children when the supposed abuse took place. The biggest danger lies not in false, but in repressed memories.
Paradoxically, the abuse itself also impedes its own memory. According to scientific research, the brains of physically, emotionally or sexually maltreated people are damaged to such an extent that victims will later have great difficulty in retrieving the memories.7 As a result of early violence, some brain components shrink, such as the amygdala and the hippocampus, precisely the components that play a role in processing and retrieving memories.8
Thus the human brain has a built-in self-defense mechanism that tucks away painful memories. That’s why adults maltreated as children estimate the abuse they suffered as less severe or less frequent than what really happened.9 Official public health figures on child maltreatment also appear to be greatly underestimated.10 This amnesia that protects the child puts the traumatized adult at a disadvantage, because he loses the possibility to understand the true causes of his current emotional condition.
Nature’s cynicism won’t help us any further, but perhaps we can help ourselves by no longer suppressing unpleasant memories of the past, but by allowing them into our consciousness whenever they offer themselves to us. By letting go of emotional inhibitions, we can begin an analysis of the past. Then we can alter the negative image we hold of ourselves in our own benefit.
For example, someone who is capable of understanding his negative self-image in the light of years of humiliation can begin to transform his negative self-image into that of a healthy and self-confident individual, because he no longer needs to believe the lies about his existence.