I keep a diary. Like everything else in my life right now, my habit of writing in it does not obey a regular pattern. It’s not an eloquent journal of events and intelligent observations. It’s a raw first draft bashed into being as I process my emotions. It consists of traditional diary entries, less traditional letters, quotes I’ve enjoyed, violent rants, considered plans, lists and maybe slightly intrusive observations of strangers made on trains, planes and from the corners of coffee shops. This makes it the closest I’ve got to an honest reflection of how I actually think.
Primarily, I keep this notebook because it allows me to experiment with words and and ideas on a page which magically enhances my clarity of thought. An unexpected benefit however has recently emerged: my diary entries are more accurate than my memory.
The memory that lies
Recently, a friend told me (and it was implied by another) that I had approached a particular situation with a less than ideal attitude. Because such an attitude matches with my known past behaviours I didn’t question it. I absorbed the criticism and let it sink in. I chastised myself for repeating the same mistakes as I have time and time before. I felt guilty and that I was making a bad situation worse by my childish and selfish ways. Was this weakness becoming more prominent with time or was I just becoming more aware of it. In either case, how did I overcome it. I constructed a reading list and an action plan.
When, later, I flicked back through my diary, I read my description of my emotions preceding and proceeding the event in question. It surprised me. No, stunned me. My fears, apprehensions, desires and other emotions contrasted with what had been assumed. Assumptions I’d unquestioningly believed. My attitude had been both much more complex and appropriate.
My memory was wrong. My friends assumptions were wrong. Decisions were being made on faulty data.
Now a wise friend questioned whether or not I perhaps lie to my diary. This is a good question asked by a good scientist. As far as I’m aware though, whilst I might omit details because I’m not yet ready to write about them, I don’t outright lie. If I write ‘I had a great day today’ I believed what I wrote at the time I wrote it.
The uncomfortable necessity of assumptions
No understanding can be made without assumptions but there’s a point when we stop recognising assumptions as assumptions and start thinking of them as facts. I’m probably guiltier of this than most people. Finding patterns is an obsession. I want to understand the story. However, making assumptions based on out-dated presumptions about someone else’s motivations is damaging. It stops us asking the question of what’s really going on here.
Assumptions are necessary if we’re going to imagine the stories that allow us to empathise with one another. I’m all for empathy, but the most important piece of the empathy puzzle, as I see it, is acknowledging that our feet don’t fit someone elses shoes. My sister’s feet are similar enough that we typically wear the same size shoes. Sometimes I use those squidgy insoles that stop your feet aching if you’re strutting around in heels for a long time, but other times my sister complains that I stretch them. My experience walking in her shoes is very much different to her experience walking in the same shoes.
On discussing how to approach a study of a subjective experience such as happiness, psychologist Daniel Todd Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness states, “In short, if we adhere to the standard of perfection in all our endeavours, we are left with nothing but mathematics and the White Album.” Therefore, we can expect to make some mistakes from time to time about others.
The future of the diary
Yet what I believed I’d felt like and the words I chosen to describe the experience as it was happening to me were so astoundingly different. This experience has shaken me. It threw me into a Socrates feeling of I know I know nothing. If I know so little about how I felt a mere two months ago, how can I make decisions based on what I thought I felt years ago?
Why does it happen? My hypothesis is that I’m most susceptible to remembering my emotions wrong when I am insecure about how I feel. In other words, when there’s a contrast between what I think I should feel and what I actually feel. This is particularly acute when the behaviours/motivation relate to my recognised weaknesses.
In hindsight, I’m likely to label my memories as selfish, manipulative, bossy, controlling or clinging because I’m overly fearful of such descriptions. In the moment, I’m going to feel independent, clever, determined, organised or attentive.
Unwinding these practices is an impossible task, but maybe using my diary is a start.
I must stop this silliness and start being curious about what’s actually going on in my mind. What do I actually believe? Repeating mistakes of the past isn’t inevitable. Maybe actually I’ve learnt more than I give myself credit for, I just can’t see it.
The difficult part is believing in the change.
Have you tried anything similar?