Hooked on a Bad Memory – Article by Author Annie Highwater

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Hooked on a Bad Memory


Painful memories. We all have them. Things that still sting when they come to mind.

Recently I found myself hooked by one; prompting my old, miserable codependent tendencies to be activated. For a moment I wondered if all the recovery work I’d done had even mattered.

The issue arose when upon visiting a town close by, I passed a church I used to work for.  Out of nowhere an intense conversation I’d had with a close family member while working there came flooding back. This individual was a major player in my formative years, her thoughts mattered to me.

It is worth mentioning that this unrecovered relative had a toxic way of handling issues of conflict, faith and belief.  Her goal often seemed to be to win an argument with condemnation, shame and fear instead of making a point or solving a problem.

Common disputes usually ended with an attack on not only your identity, but your eternity.

In the course of the dispute that came to mind, I had been defending myself against her repeated list of everything wrong with me, most being things she believed were sending me to hell.  Eventually I brought up that her faith was actually supposed to be about love, forgiveness, becoming a new creation and how we each have worth.

Her response was, “No. Not you.”

As simplistic as that statement seems, what took root in my subconscious for years after was the shadow beliefthat I had zero worth and was beyond repair, forgiveness, or love.

Ultimately her bottom-line message was: “You are irreparably, intrinsically and permanently bad.”

Many of us have had people in our lives speak poisonous core beliefs into us, some since we were small children.  Prompting untrue, negative programming that tells us “You…are…just…bad.” 

These thoughts become our inner enemy.

For me, comments like that steered the course of my life for decades to come, leading me from one miserable, codependent situation to another.

When you don’t believe you are forgivable, lovable and valuable you can find yourself at the mercy of everything and everyone around you. Very often choosing friendships, relationships and settings that treat you like you don’t matter, as if you are always wrong, always bad.

Now granted, I’ve processed through most of my inner junk over the last ten plus years and this memory wasn’t as bad as some others.  Even still, when it returned I couldn’t shake it for days.  I was hooked on the injustice of it. The realization of how much damage these statements had done burned in my mind like a hot coal refusing to go out.

I caught myself revivifying that moment over and over and went completely limbic thinking about it.

Toxic words can cut through you and go deep, they have an ability to hurt and paralyze you for a very long time.


Depending on the severity of the effect, there are steps we can take to move past the pain of toxic memories.  Things like prayer, yoga, a recovery meeting, a 20-minute walk, DBT therapy resources, meditating on letting go and so on, are helpful tools.

I couldn’t seem to get past that memory in my own efforts. I knew I wasn’t in crisis, so I didn’t need to speak with a therapist for professional expertise. However, I needed something outside myself to move through it.

Sometimes you just need a safe place to offset the burden so you can get beyond it.


When you find yourself hooked, turning to someone who can be trusted to be safe, kind, fair and wise is powerfully helpful.

Someone with compassion (the word compassion means “to suffer with”), who will be with you in the moment, validating and supporting.  Yet, not someone who will make you feel worse, help you stay stuck, or attack the one you’re at odds over.

I turned to someone I can trust, who knows my journey and gets my motives. I didn’t have to go deep into my story or defend that it was upsetting for me. She got all that.

I explained that I needed support to move through how enraged I was feeling.  My exact words were “I don’t need you to do anything, to agree or take my side, I just need someone to support me for a few minutes while I freak out about how terrible this feels so I can let it go and move on without walking around with it on me, or lashing out somehow because I’m struggling inside.”

“A problem shared is a problem cut in half.” After the 20 minute phone call, I felt a thousand pounds lighter.

I was able to let it go, returning to the knowledge that the unkind behavior had come from a damaged person and truly wasn’t my burden to carry for so many years.

It is never ours to carry, and yet so often we internalize mistreatment from others because we’re not whole or aware.

This is why recovery work is critical.


On another note, it is not helpful to turn to those who minimize your right to feel the upset or outrage.

Anyone who invalidates or belittles you in moments of intensity, implying that you’re being sensitive or ridiculous; rather than being a safe sounding board, is notyour foxhole friend. Such people make it worse.

I love the picture painted by Sherrie Campbell, Ph,D., when it comes to who we are wise not turn to in a moment of emotional stress:

“Get over it”

“This is a classic statement toxic people love to use to get us to stop disputing poor treatment. This statement takes the focus from the problem and places us in the position of being the problem..the person who “just can’t let things go.”

“Get over it” is an incredibly cruel thing to say to another person, especially someone who trusts you. Not only does this phrase tell you that they could not care less about how you feel or what you’re trying to express, but it also insinuates that if you were smarter, you would let it go.

“Get over it” says that what you think and feel is irrelevant and stupid. “Get over it” makes the toxic person the authority and frees them of any obligation to listen. How can that be healthy for anyone?

The only person this kind of statement works for, is the toxic person. They use these statements to shame you out of expressing yourself.  Seems awfully selfish and one-sided to me.”


Moving through anguish with self-compassion, which is different than self-care

Your most important relationship is with yourself.  Self-compassion means treating yourself like you would a good friend struggling with your same issue.

Give yourself a break, don’t beat yourself up for how you are feeling or the thoughts you’re having about a painful memory.  That only makes you feel worse.

Getting unhooked requires kindness from others, as well as yourself.


While still a work in progress, growth shows itself in the realization that even if a they hit hard and hang on for a while – flashbacks and triggers are now like mosquitoes, where before they were like elephants.

These days when I get hung up on a memory or a feeling, I am aware that I’ve made it through worse and passed through hard feelings before.

We can always remind ourselves that “this too shall pass.”

Like a slap across the face, the sting may last for a time but you can be sure that eventually, and especially with effort- the feelings will evaporate.  We don’t have to feel stuck, overwhelmed, or swept away for great lengths of time.

The goal is to feel, deal and heal.  And then let it go.

Moving on means letting go and pressing forward to what is better for you. Letting go of the pain, the poison and any thoughts toward changing what has already happened, in order to recover and rise.

“Let go of what has happened. 
Let go of what may come.
Let go of what is happening now.
Don’t try to figure anything out.
Don’t try to make anything happen.
Relax, right now, and rest.”
 ~ Tilopa

Recovering to me means feeling whole, confident and at peace in your own identity.

“Our worth and our belonging are not negotiated with other people, we carry those inside…” ~Brene Brown

For me personally, never again is the issue of my worth up for debate, it’s not on the table.  Nor will I allow myself to remain trapped by another’s unkind words and faulty perceptions.

And that is some great progress.

Still learning,


Author of Unhooked

*Book 2 coming soon!*

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