The Mighty Logo

Becoming an Observer in My Emotional Flashbacks

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

I began thinking about flashbacks from a curious observer standpoint, cognitively and emotionally processed, in an effort to show myself a little bit of sympathy and understanding.

• What is PTSD?

The Ebbinghaus curve of forgetting shows a universally shared phenomenon that follows a very predictable path to forgetting. What you think you remember is merely how you felt at the time of the incident. And when you recall things, you are recalling the last time you recalled. And so forth. That type of degradation is helpful to understand why emotional flashbacks are so insidious.

For me, the flashbacks are full-body immersion experiences. I can hear, see and feel the place of the trauma. But in another way, it’s a fantastical expression. There are alarms and strobe lights. People are represented in garish masks of themselves, with their eyes bigger, their brows more angular and menacing.

What if it didn’t have to be like that? Can the introduction of doubting the memories’ details, which I know to be faulty, reduce the harm they cause?

For example, something I remember that brings me a lot of shame is when my mother would make fun of my abilities to cook my own food when I was a young child. She did not teach me anything about cooking or kitchen safety. She just suddenly decided I should be doing it instead of her. And looking back, I can see how she probably assumed that this is something that children learn innately. Meanwhile ignoring the massive amount of neglect on her part through either physical abandonment or weeks-long alcohol binges.

In the memory, my mother’s face is full of contempt for me not knowing how to cook rice. There is also the screaming, full pitch, about how worthless I am, how pathetic it is that I can’t even cook a simple pot of rice. Now, there is really nothing a child could do to deserve this kind of verbal and emotional abuse. But as a 9-year-old, it seemed like I had screwed up somewhere along the way. That I should have known to take the food out of the cupboards and cook it in time for when I would be hungry. That I should have been doing this, all this time, and not my mother (she had not been for several months).

Knowing my mother, I can tell that she probably felt shame herself. She might have seen another parent and their child learning to cook together, and projected that shame onto me for not living up to a standard that she herself had spontaneously created, but also failed to achieve.

So far, I’ve learned this shame I feel is not my own. I was harvesting an emotion on the behalf of an adult who was not only neglecting my physical needs but my emotional boundaries as well.

If memories are fluid, then there’s no reason that PTSD flashbacks can’t be adjusted. The shame I feel in the flashback is a projection of my mother’s shame, which is not being recalled correctly, and I can wedge distance between myself and the emotion. The beginning of becoming an observer rather than a participant.

Photo by Naomi August on Unsplash

Originally published: November 6, 2020
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home