Emotional Memory & the Power of Our Thoughts

At one time, we thought there was a single memory system in the brain. Thanks to recent advances in science and technology, we now know that memories are formed in a variety of systems and can easily be divided into two major categories:

Conscious Memory (i.e. explicit factual memory systems)


Unconscious or Subconscious Memory (i.e. implicit emotional memory systems)

We know that Narcissists operate only in a world of explicit memory where emotions are non-existent. They have excellent explicit memory, which includes the details, the how to, when, where, and what of a situation or event. However, they have horrible implicit memory, which is always triggered by an emotion via a sense of smell, touch, taste, etc. Narcissists are incapable of bringing forth emotional memories, only factual memories.

It is important to understand the difference between the two types of memory when trying to get over a Narcissist. The reason is simple. Our emotional memory is extremely powerful and by learning how to harness its power, we can dramatically improve our quality of life.

I was recently certified in what is called “Subconscious Restructuring.” "Subconscious Restructuring" is a type of coaching that is based on the belief that we respond to events in our life based on images and memories we have stored in our subconscious. We can change how we respond to certain events in our life by restructuring our subconscious. I believe our subconscious (i.e. emotional memory) drives all of our behavior. Therefore, learning how to tap into its power has amazing benefits.

To give you an idea of how powerful the subconscious is, compare it to the rate at which we speak. Our subconscious operates at a rate four times faster than we can speak. This is how we can multi-task, walk and chew gum at the same time. It is also how something we were trying to remember a few days ago suddenly pops in our head out of nowhere. Have you ever forgotten someone's name or title of a movie? You can't think of it and tell yourself that you'll think of it later. When you do remember, it's while you're doing something completely unrelated. You weren’t even thinking about it, but for some reason the name or title popped into your mind out of nowhere. Well, that is your subconscious mind at work. It never rests. It is always at work.

I use both sides of my brain (left & right); why not use both hemispheres (the conscious and the subconscious). Thanks to advances in technology, we are learning how to tap into the power of our subconscious and more importantly, how to rewire and retrain our brain so that it produces behavior that is productive vs. non-productive. I believe it is critical that we take this knowledge and apply it to our recovery.

Psychologist, Joseph M. Carver Ph.D. helps us understand how Emotional Memory Management (EMM) enables us to manage our emotions in a way that will produce more positive outcomes for us. The key, of course, is managing how we RESPOND to our emotions.

We all know what memory is, but in the past we thought this memory simply contained data much like a computer maintains a system of files. New studies in psychology and neurology now tell us that the files not only contain data and information, but emotions as well. In a manner that is still not fully understood, our brain stores the emotions of an experience as they occurred at the time the memory was made.

As a result, memory files contain two parts: the information about the event and the feeling we had at the time the event occurred. Therefore, when we remember an event, we experience the same feelings we had at the time of the event. It is critical we understand how this impacts our behavior and the choices we make.

We experience a variety of emotions throughout a typical day. A specific area of the brain will hold memories for about five days. After this period, memories that are not important are typically erased and will never be recovered. A memory is important if it has a strong emotional impact on you and will hence be stored in your brain. Over time, we create a large file system of memories that consist of both positive and negative emotions.

Our brain pulls these memory files constantly without us even realizing it. According to Carver’s research, our brain has the ability to pull memory files both on purpose and by accident. The good news here is that we can control what memory file we pull by selecting our thoughts. Perhaps even better news is the newfound knowledge that the brain only allows one emotional file out at a time.

According to Carver’s research, the brain will focus on anything we choose, which means that we can choose which emotional file or tape we want to play. Even more significant, in my opinion, is the fact that the brain will only allow one emotional file or tape to play at a time. This means, if you decide to pull a different emotional file, your brain will completely go along with that idea.

Carver explains that the brain doesn’t care which file is active. He compares it to breathing and explains that the brain operates in automatic just like when we breathe. It will automatically pull files throughout our day, just like breathing occurs without having to focus on it. However, in the same way that we can control our breathing by slowing down our inhale and exhale, we can also control our emotions by controlling what memory file we select.

When the brain operates in automatic, the files it pulls are influenced by our mood. Therefore, if you are depressed and your brain is on automatic, it will pull negative files that reinforce this mood. The good news in this research is that we have the ability to influence our behavior by choosing how we RESPOND to the things that happen to us in life. It’s all about choice.

Based on this research, I believe if you use the formula below when you are obsessing about your ex or stuck in a pattern of negative thinking, it will help you move on to more productive and healthy thoughts.

Negative Emotional Memory File is Pulled
(causing you to think of your ex and remain stuck in negative thinking patterns)


Replace with Positive Emotional Memory File
(enabling you to replace the negative thinking with positive thinking and move on to more productive behavior)

The power of positive thinking is huge. We’ve heard it all before, but I’d like to expand on why this is the case. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “We are what we eat,” right? Well, I also believe that “we are what we think.” If we choose to think positive thoughts, our lives will evolve accordingly. If we choose to think negative thoughts, a cycle of negativity will result.

It is important to understand you do have the ability to influence the direction of your thoughts. I view depression as “anger turned inward,” which is a direct result of years of uninterrupted negative thinking patterns. The key is to INTERRUPT the negative patterns of thinking by replacing them with positive thoughts. Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? Well, it is, but it does take time and dedication.

Depression develops over time so it may go without saying that it can take the same amount of time to recover from depression and break the pattern of negative thinking. The brain can heal itself after trauma, but it does take time. You can break the negative patterns of thinking by forcing your brain to strengthen other areas of your brain that are not related to memories of your toxic relationship.

If we think positively, endorphins and other pleasure-related substances are released, which strengthens a positive feedback cycle of thought, rather than negative. In this way, we do have the power to retrain our brain.

The knowledge that we can restore our brain’s capacity to engage in healthy thinking patterns again is very reassuring. We must remember that anxiety is something we all experience. We cannot avoid it. It is part of the human condition. The key is learning how to RESPOND to anxiety.

“Learn to select your thoughts the same way you select your clothes every day. Now that's a power that you can cultivate.”
~ Richard in "Eat, Pray, Love"

Jul 23 - 9AM
Thomas Sheridan
Thomas Sheridan's picture

Excellent article and spot

Excellent article and spot on.
Feb 23 - 12AM
jen79's picture


Narcissists are incapable of bringing forth emotional memories, only factual memories. I didnt know that! Wow. That explains alot. I had the feeling, that at least in the first meeting, he really felt something, and I never got, why he wouldnt like to feel that way again. Never got that. Can you describe more about how replacing one memory file with a better one. I get the principle, but maybe an example?
Feb 9 - 10PM
gingercat's picture

I learned to do something

I learned to do something similar to this to help control OCD that was mild but would escalate (often worse with cycling hormones) and found it to be extremely beneficial. I know you have written extensively on OCD and am thankful for this new post because it never dawned on me that I had any type of control over memory files. Really cool......and I can't wait to try it. Working on "Healthy Thinking" is what I am going to call it. Lisa you have been a life-saver.
Feb 1 - 10AM
spinning's picture

Yes, yes, yes...

It takes work and dedication but I believe it is possible and beneficial to work to "retrain the brain." Lisa E. Scott, you are the best! Your blogs are so helpful and I am so very grateful to you for the healing place you have made from your own painful experience. Talk about shifting the focus onto the positive...!!! Thank you again, sincerely (still trying to stop) spinning


Feb 8 - 9PM (Reply to #1)
Lisa E. Scott
Lisa E. Scott's picture


Yes, retraining the brain is definitely possible! Thanks for your thoughtful notes, ladies! Glad it's helpful. xoxo