Have you ever watched a TV show and then noticed the scene, costumes, set and maybe even the actors have changed to an earlier time, yet with the same character names? It’s a flashback! These are great, right? As the watcher, we get insight on what happened before, why they’re acting the way they are, what event happened to motivate the current behavior. We get all the explanations! And guess: what, this happens outside of television too. This happens everyday – in our own brains, with our own memories.
I came to this realization recently during a phone call with a friend. She and I met about 4 years ago when we both attended the same coaching conference. We have a standing phone conversation every 2 weeks and usually we talk about personal development, the coaching industry, our own businesses, and what’s going on in our current lives.
But, on our last call, she asked me to tell her about when I was a flight attendant after I made an offhand comment about it as part of something I was explaining. She didn’t have a specific question- she was just curious about how that had happened for me and what it was like. So, I told her my version of the story now, 20 years later. Then, I asked her about an interesting job that she had in the past that I didn’t know about.
It was such a fun departure from what we normally talk about. We learned more about each other, deepened our friendship and got a little introspective too. At the end of our call I said “this was fun- it was like a flashback episode on a TV show.”
Flashbacks in Your Favorite TV Shows
That conversation got me thinking about why television show writers use flashback episodes. Some TV shows do this to the delight and maybe even at the request of the fans of the show. I’ve read this on forums for the shows The Handmaids Tale and Orange is the New Black. Fans actually ask for more insight on some of the supporting characters.
When not prompted by the audience, writers probably use flashbacks to explain the backstory and motivation for what a character is doing now. And maybe, although this seems kind of lazy, they use flashbacks to fill time in a series – to come up with a new episode when they’ve run out of ideas. So if we’re the writers of our own stories. And if our life is the story we tell ourselves, would we want to use flashbacks for the same reasons?
Can we craft the narrative of our memories to explain our own current situation and motivation to ourselves? Are we lazily just retelling ourselves our own stories over and over again the way we always did without checking to see if we like how the story is being told?
Just the Good Parts
Let’s assume we can craft the narrative however we want. And, since we’re not committing it to film and streaming our flashbacks for an audience to watch, we can also assume that we can change it if we don’t like it. What if we just tell ourselves the good parts and put our own personally selected spin on anything we want?
A few months ago as I was listening to The Surrender Experiment, I noticed my questions/curiosity as I heard Michael Singer’s account of his life. I remember thinking how perfectly his life seemed to have unfolded for him, and then I realized oh, of course he’s telling all the good parts. No wonder his life seems to have tripped from this amazing event to that unbelievable opportunity – he’s strung together all the carefully curated flashbacks to tell this story.
Target Instead of Victim
Similarly, I recently heard an interview with Megyn Kelly where, when asked about the allegations of her experiencing sexual misconduct or harassment while she worked at Fox, she described herself as a target instead of a victim. She made that distinction very clearly and I thought it was such an interesting, intentional decision for her to have made for herself and to state publicly- inviting other people to consider that terminology in their own retelling of their stories.
Yes, when I look back at something that happened in my life, it does change the tone a little to think of myself as the target of someone else’s actions rather than a victim.
Hearing the intentional decision to use one label over another when thinking about one’s past got me wondering: What stories do we tell ourselves that cast us in a negative light?
Are there events in your life that you think of with guilt or regret? Are there times when you wish you would have acted differently? Or when you wished things would have been different?
How are you explaining those events and your actions to yourself now? Is the explanation you’re giving yourself the only possible explanation? Probably not.
Does this all work for flashforwards too?
Continuing on with the TV show theme, some shows project the characters into the future. My favorite example of this is the series finale of the HBO show Six Feet Under. At the end of the series, we see how things end for each of the major characters. The episode was beautiful and emotional and what many consider the perfect series finale of any TV show.
So, if a television series can flashforward for fictional characters, why can’t we do it for ourselves?
Many times when you hear me talking about my future self, I’m referring to the near future, like, I’ll make the bed now so she’ll walk into an orderly room at the end of the day and I’ll set up coffee tonight so the smell of it will wake her up in the morning. But, what if I also flash-forwarded to my near-term future and long-term future selves?
What do I want her to be doing, feeling and thinking 5 years from now? How about 20 years from now? How do I imagine her?
It’s kind of fun to think about and imagine. It’s interesting too because if I want to come up with something that seems impossible or unlikely for me, that incongruity (the difference between what I think is possible and impossible) gives me an opportunity to explore why the mind in me thinks something that another part of my brain came up with is impossible.
Isn’t that interesting – my resistant mind and my imagination – both in my brain, but also both in disagreement about which future would be possible for me – I wonder which one will win the argument!
Speaking of parts of your brain winning arguments. The same thing can happen in reverse. What are the thoughts you decide to think about your own past?
Whatever happened in the past is final. It’s done. The events can not be changed. The past is reality.
But, how you frame it, how often you think about it, what you make it mean, how you let it define you in your present day – that’s all up to you!
And many of us might have differing opinions from different parts of our brain.
And many of us may never have considered that we’re the writers of our own story, so, if you don’t like the story you’re repeating to yourself about your past- if you don’t like your own flashbacks, then rewrite them!
I truly believe this just takes awareness, openness and maybe a little practice.
I’ll start with some basic, maybe universal technology examples that probably are pretty emotion-neutral and that you may not have ever specifically thought about before on purpose.
Then, if you want, we can move into what could be more emotionally-charged events to flashback to.
Can you think about the first time you sent an email? Where were you? How old were you? How did you get your first email account? What was going on for you around that time in your life?
What about your first smartphone? Why did you get it? How did you end up getting the one you got? What’s changed for you (and technology, and your reliance on smartphones) since you got your first one?
Those are interesting examples to think back to right? Did any new memories or realizations come up for you? Is there any part of the flashback you just watched that you would re-write?
Other Kinds of Flashbacks
If you want, you can also explore some other kind of flashbacks.
When was a time you felt ashamed? Why? What happened? Who said and did what? Do you still feel the emotion of shame when you think about it in the present day?
When was a time you felt appreciated? Why? What happened? Who said and did what? Do you still feel the emotion of appreciation when you think about it in the present day?
Resistance to a Rewrite
You might be having a little resistance here. There might be resistance to even revisiting some of these memories.
Someone could be saying right now “I don’t want to flashback to something that was shameful.”
Someone else could be saying “I don’t have any moments of appreciation to flashback to – I can’t think of any.”
So, if you’re feeling resistance – that’s interesting to notice too. You could ask yourself, why am I resisting this? Then just be still to listen for a reason and explore that.
Or, you could label it “I’m feeling resistance to thinking about that time in my past and it’s ok to feel it. It doesn’t have to stop me.”
Another way resistance could show up is in the rewriting. You may have no resistance to the flashback. In fact, you may replay certain scenes from your life over and over again and relive the emotions from the past here, now in the present. If those emotions are aligned with how you want to feel now- then great! Don’t rewrite those flashbacks!
But, if flashing back to those past events make you terrible in the present (even though the event is in the past, done, over, just a neutral fact), it could be helpful to rewrite that story – but your brain may be telling you that you can’t! It’s not the truth.
What is “Truth?”
Also, interesting to notice, right? What is your brain labeling as “truth?” Does it mean it’s factual – like measurable? Definable? Something that could be proven in a court of law? Or could be replicated in a peer-reviewed study? Or, is your brain labeling “truth” as what one person said. Or what you thought when you were an adolescent? Or what your brain imagines “everyone” would think?
If any of those “truths” are what’s coming up for you, I want to remind you that those are all optional and personal to you.
To illustrate this, consider the novel Daisy Jones and the Six written by Taylor Jenkins Reid. She wrote the 1970s Rock Group and Iconic Singer story in the style of an oral history where the same events were recounted by the individual band members’ from their own perspectives. So, they were all telling the truth. They were all sharing their own flashbacks. But, probably not surprisingly, there were quite a few disparities and it was up to the reader to decide what to believe.
Both Writer and Reader
In your life, you are both the writer and the reader of your own history!
The whole point of this post is to compare our memories that we all think about and replay and live our life by to fictional entertainment that can be written and edited and re-written and, can end up on the editing room floor if the stories or scenes are no good or if they don’t really fit in with the overall vision.
We flashback to what happened to us in the past- what we did, what it meant, how it created our current situation and we use our current thoughts about what happened in the past as explanation.
The current you, today, gets to choose your current thoughts and beliefs and labels about what happened in the past. You’re already doing it even if you’re not aware of it. So, you might as well think, believe and label with intention and love!
Try it and let me know how it goes! Let me know if you have any resistance to what I’ve shared today.