People like to think that memory is like an internal video recorder, accurately recording the facts of our lives. Studies on memory show it just isn’t so. Memory is both unreliable and fickle. Alfred Adler, one of the founders of psychology in the early 20th century was fascinated by early recollections. He posited that the way we remember things from our past is a reflection of our current feelings, attitudes and convictions. He observed that as people feel better, their narratives change.
It’s not a great leap to think that perhaps it can also go in the other direction. If we can help clients change their personal narrative, their feelings, attitudes and convictions will change accordingly.
Theorists in both Positive Psychology and Narrative Therapy have supported this idea. Many of the exercises used in Positive Psychology (the gratitude visit, writing about one’s best self, reframing negative experiences, etc.). involve creating a more positive life story.
Techniques of Narrative Psychology invite the patient to imagine an alternative story from the facts of their life that gives them a sense of meaning and purpose. Research shows that doing so can be transformative. The outcome is a more positive sense of self.
The holiday season can be extremely difficult for our depressed patients. Mired in their own sadness, irritability and stuckness, they take December celebrations as a personal affront. Depressive stories about what other people have and they don’t can dominate our clients’ thinking and their sessions.
Those who come from challenging families are especially vulnerable to remembering only the holiday disappointments of their early years. But often enough there are stories of resiliency and strength to be found if we help our patients look for them.
I offer the following brief case summaries as examples of what is at least sometimes possible. (Names and identifying information has been changed). No one technique fits all, of course. Sometimes it’s extremely difficult to find positive moments in a traumatic childhood. Sometimes the timing isn’t right. But having conversations about childhood holiday memories is something to consider when a client’s depression seems to be maintained or deepened by holiday expectations and disappointments.
Stacy: Stacy’s family of origin struggled financially. There wasn’t enough money for presents. Christmas dinner was at the local church soup kitchen. Her single mom was depressed. Christmas was just another day – only worse. Her adult life isn’t much different. Single, lonely, unemployed and struggling, she said that she has always felt like the kid looking in the window of a room where others are celebrating.
Conversations about the holidays were bleak until she remembered the year she was seven. When she and her little sister cried because they didn’t have a Christmas tree, their mom cut out a tree shape from newspapers and taped it to the wall. The girls decorated it with their crayons and their mom made a big yellow star for the top.
Christmas morning, each girl found one of her socks stuffed with an orange (a rare treat), some sparkly costume jewelry and a scarf. They spent the day happily playing dress up with their mom. Looking back, Stacy thinks the jewelry was probably tacky stuff from the survival center’s free store. But what mattered to the kids was only the sparkles and that their mother played with them.
What matters to Stacy now is the reminder that material poverty doesn’t have to mean emotional bankruptcy. Despite her own troubles, her mother loved her and her sister so much that she pulled herself out of her despair and made them a Christmas. Taking in that love was Stacy’s first step out of her despair.
Jack: Wealth does not guarantee happiness. Jack came into treatment as an angry and depressed 19-year-old college student in a fight with his highly successful and wealthy parents. He disapproved of everything about their lifestyle. To make the point, he had become a champion of anti-capitalism and militant about his food choices. Proof to him that his parents didn’t love him was that his mother wouldn’t cook a GMO free turkey at Christmas for him. Under his sneering superiority lurked a profound sense that he didn’t matter to his busy parents.
Things began to shift one session when he told me that every Christmas morning, without exception, he’d woken up to find a dragon on his desk. It started with a dragon obsession when he was three. Ever since, his mom has left a dragon toy, a dragon figure, or, lately, a book with a dragon on the cover where he would see it first thing.
It is something special between just them. Talking about it gave us a way to start addressing his fear of parental disapproval that was a factor in his depression and his strident “rebellions.” He was able to consider that maybe his parents did love him – even if they were “poisoning” him with a commercial turkey.
Maria: Repeating a family tradition can sometimes bring about change – or at least begin the journey. Maria fights with depression every winter. One session, she recalled that when she was a girl, her mother would set up a nativity scene on their kitchen table a week before Christmas.
She always put the figurines of the three kings as far away from the kitchen as possible, moving them each night a little closer until they arrived on January 6, Three King’s Day, the day the kings are said to have arrived to worship the baby and give him gifts. The family then celebrated with small gifts for the children and a special cake.
Maria decided to repeat that family ritual, setting up a crèche and moving the kings toward it each night. “When I move the kings, I remember the kid who was me who could hardly wait for them to get there. These days, I feel like I’m inching myself along as well,” she said. “If they could so bravely look for hope, maybe I can too.”
Positive psychology researcher Barbara Fredrickson has found that even brief moments of positive feelings can help our patients feel more open to new possibilities. They are then more able to consider a different narrative about their lives and to think of new solutions to their problems. This is the toehold our clients need to begin an upward spiral out of their depression. Careful mining of positive childhood Christmas memories can help our clients reaffirm that they are lovable, resilient, and capable of taking some steps to feel better.