I was going to start a new habit and then completely forgot. Again.

8025692978_23480bb612_oOn a recent Saturday, a coaching client described something I’ve come to think of as a particular kind of amnesia, ‘amnesia of intention’. It’s a kind of forgetfulness, but extremely complete. While she and I were talking, I had an ‘ah-ha!’ moment because it was the first time I’d heard someone describe the experience. While I’ve had the experience, and been frustrated by it many times, I haven’t written about it. It didn’t occur to me that it could be a widely-shared issue.

If you’ve experienced this amnesia, it feels like completely forgetting to start a new habit that you were eager to begin. It’s a kind of amnesia that strikes and takes with it our best self-care intentions. It feels like forgetting, but runs deeper. It’s a kind of forgetting that feels a bit PTSD-y, a bit impossible to believe, a bit crazy, and like something was blotted out — like amnesia.

Have you ever completely forgotten that you were going to start a new self-enriching habit? Maybe writing in the mornings, calling a friend each week (to hear how they are doing), planting a garden, meditation, beginning a morning routine of gentle exercise, or eating a salad every day?

When I use the word “forgotten,” I mean it. I don’t mean that you wanted to start a new, healing habit and then avoided it or made excuses for why you can’t start today, why tomorrow is inconvenient too, as well as next week. This is different. I’m talking about a kind of amnesia of intention, a complete blotting-out of the decision or bargain you made with yourself.

This kind of thing, this type of forgetting, used to completely throw me off balance. It freaked me out. Who forgets that they were going to start going for walks in the afternoon? Me. And clearly it was a sign that I was going just a little bit crazy. (Going crazy is always just around the corner lurking, isn’t it?)  I couldn’t understand why I could make a decision for my well-being and then just — blip! — just completely space-out about it.

Here’s a bit how it looks. If this sounds familiar, please post a comment or send me an email. I want to know.

Here’s the Amnesia Cycle

1. Realize that you have always loved sketching (or playing guitar, running, etc.)
2. Make a plan to buy a sketch pad and pencils (or a guitar, running shoes, etc.)
3. Research a weekend art class (or music classes, running clubs, etc.)
4. Feel hopeful and excited about cultivating the Real You inside
5. Continue on with your day and evening and go to bed.
6. A couple days or weeks later realize that you COMPLETELY FORGOT YOUR INTENTION
7.  Wonder if you’re crazy

What’s going on with this type of Forgetting?

Is it a kind of emotional amnesia? Self-soothing that triggers amnesia? Do we forget to act on our plan because we got something desperately needed from simply thinking about doing something? Is the soothing so deeply nutritive that our bodies-minds gobble up the sweet center and toss away the rest? Does the long-term plan for self-cultivation get tossed away too?

Are we so in need of emotional soothing that at times the very idea of a soothing plan of action gives us a quick fix?

This turnabout of the mind strikes me as a survival-living byproduct. It smells like something that has to do with survive-the-moment-living because we forget. We start with a plan to turn over a new leaf, to start a new behavior and habit of self-kindness, and end with relief followed by amnesia (as well as a bit of shame when we once again remember).

It makes sense.

If we’re wired to be cocked and ready for chaos, ready to handle a parent’s sudden rage, how could we also have time to plan for the long game and take the long view about our well-being? Well-being is a calm activity and that’s in conflict, metaphysically, with victim-of-chaos living. Due to our nurturing, we seek soothing ideas, situations, and substances — which include thoughts about new hobbies and habits.

The part we have to learn — by teaching it to ourselves — is the part that involves writing our plans down, the part that involves putting the plan into our calendar, and the part that involves taking the first step and putting a lot of energy behind that first step, knowing how hard solidifying a new habit is (but also knowing how powerful a habit is once solidified).

Don’t Scold, Apply Compassion

If we do nothing else when disappointed by having fallen prey to this kind of blot-out amnesia, we can be compassionate toward ourselves about it. Forgetting at this level is a signal that we need attention. We need our attention. Our self-guidance, self-parenting, and self-compassion.

Apply ample quantities of compassion to your amnesia and it will eventually self-correct.

- be kind to yourself.

 

 

Comments

  1. ML says:

    OH MY GOODNESS! YES! I have become a person who isn’t very productive in life, because I literally forget everything all the time. Sometimes, I even buy the “trappings” of some new habit, but put them away and forget. Then, I will buy the EXACT SAME THING two months later, and find the original. It occurs to me just now that one of the things we can do is build a system with friends, the way we might hold each other accountable for daily exercise, for instance. Obviously we manage our own lives, but I am trying to learn more how to have a “trusted tribe” in life. We can also do this for others, and perhaps removing ourselves by that one step, being accountable to helping your friend, will make us remember.

    • Amy Eden says:

      Hey Chillyblue. (I love that handle.) YES, right!? I’m so glad that you commented and chimed in. The example of buying the trappings more than once really makes a point, really underscores how deep this type of forgetting can go.

      I really love your sentiment about “trusted tribe” – YES. That is something to cultivate and honor. And I agree that doing it for a friend — reminding them of what they want and love — will in turn help us remember for ourselves.

      Thank you!

  2. Sarah says:

    Hi Amy,

    Thank you so much for this post – I am so glad you’ve written about this! This is sounds SO familiar, it’s scary… Especially because those intentions really do get lost so utterly and completely, that I even feel like my mind is completely unreliable at times… Sometimes I find fully outlined plans on my computer, and wonder: how did I get THIS into starting something, only to forget about it entirely…?

    The number of times I’ve come up with a brilliant plan for a new habit or a plan of action for the future, only to have it pop up in my mind months later (at which point it invariably seems irrelevant due to changes in circumstance or my attitude), I cannot recount… It makes me extremely sad at times, because I feel like it also happens with parts of my personality, literally causing me to forget what suits me and what doesn’t…

    I am getting better with age, step by step, at seeing the patterns and actively bringing back my attention to my inner world, but it saddens me so much that sometimes the important answers I’m looking for (desperately), I then find out that I already came up with them months or even years ago, but then lost sight of them again… This dynamic has not done much for my self-trust and confidence, seeing as it has led me to lose faith in my ability to achieve anything that means anything to me… I don’t want to be too negative, and hold on to the hope that I’ll be able to break the cycle or find a way to remember, but it’s a tough dynamic to break through…

    I’m happy to hear I’m not the only one (thus not ‘crazy’), ’cause, man, it can feel like that sometimes… And it also gives me hope to see that you are still able to manage this blog, publish your book, and use your experience to share with and support others. Very grateful for this; thank you!

    Warm regards,
    Sarah

    • Amy Eden says:

      Hi Sarah. Thank you!

      WOW. What you described about the experience of finding an outline on your computer — YES. I’ve done that. And was even impressed with my work and wondered how I could have so completely abandoned/forgotten something that had so much potential. “I could have been working on this all this time…” but forgot to. It’s impossible to make sense of this kind of forgetting! Yes, the mind feels unreliable!

      You touched on something else that I (completely forgot) to include as an example in my post: having repeat realizations! The coming up with the brilliant realizations, plans, or answers…as if for the first time…again and again. The repeat of the experience of being stricken by the sizzling rod of inspiration…is at once oddly satisfying and discouraging. If I weren’t so preoccupied with keeping the sky from falling and scanning my environment, I might allow my mind to focus on something I care about so that the focus is singular, uninterrupted, and so that it’s a current of energy that doesn’t break.

      And I am able to do this, as you’re doing, over time and bit by bit. It happens. One example is having my writing tools in plan sight at all times around my livingspace — carrying my pen with me, grasping it, having my journal out and open…sending me signals ;-) lots of books, all reminders of what and who I actually am. You understand what it’s like to completely forget who you are. There are times I just need to remember and remind myself who I am and what I stand for…particularly when the influence of others is too sticky and strong and silently throws me off course.

  3. Mallory says:

    Wow!

    This.this.this! I can’t tell you how much I can relate to this and sometimes I even cry about it. It reminds me to be gentile with myself. (I often repeat the opening Welsh Poem found in the classic book Of Mice and Men…

    “The best laid plans of mice and men aft go a glee.”

    As I have been married to an adult child of an alcoholic for over 20 years and having married so young and not even knowing the enormous relationship challenges he has and we have your blog is like a balm for me. It helps me know that there are others out there that know and help me understand his life and ours. Thank you for your courageous and open blog life!

    • Amy Eden says:

      Ahhhhh. I’m so glad to hear we’re not alone in this. When I had the conversation with my coachee, I’m not kidding, it truly was an AH-HA moment. “This forgetting issues is bigger than me”. Glad I spoke up and glad you spoke up, too.

      What do you feel is the biggest lesson in loving an ACOA?

      That’s a hilarious and very sweet quote, so apt.

      Thank you.

      • Mallory says:

        Amy,

        What a great question!

        The biggest lesson about loving an ACOC? That what comes out of him is often times what he is yelling at himself on the inside. That I have to learn to look past this “noise” and step back. Give him space to regroup. Give me space to regroup. And to learn to forgive. He’s not perfect and neither am I. It’s definitely one day at at time around here for me.

        He’s an amazing man that has done so much in his life despite his upbringing.

        And as in life… the best laid plans of mice and men… aft go a glee. But we get up and keep going!

        Many many thanks for the posts!

        Mallory

        • Amy Eden says:

          That is beautiful.

          And – YES. Spot on. To be able to hear what he says as a message from within him/about him rather than personalize it or take it literally. To see the forest for the trees (and the storms that blow through that forest). What you shared is wise, and also so wonderfully compassionate. Clearly you have taken the time to understand him. That’s a real gift. And it sounds like it’s a gift that gave back in your direction, too.

          I had a recent exchange with a reader who said that reading the book “Loving an Adult Child of an Alcoholic” transformed her relationship with her now husband, who is an ACOA.

          Get up and keep going. That’s all. And it is so much.

          Thank you :-)

  4. nichole says:

    Yes, this is true of me as well. It makes me wonder how I forgot something I was excited about. I agree with the ptsd effects, crisis feelings creep in easily and it’s very distracting. I have started something many times because of this and while it is frustrating, I choose to (may I quote you here) ‘be kind to myself’ and patient and try again until I get it, even if it takes 50 beginnings. I’ll get there, I’ll reach the goal, and the journey is so much nicer this way without the condemnation. It helps to know others are dealing with some of the same things. Thanks for bringing up the topic. :)

  5. maks says:

    I never had this kind of experience but I find what you wrote about “Is it a kind of emotional amnesia? Self-soothing that triggers amnesia?” very interesting because Laura Markham who is a parenting coach and an Aha!parenting website author when talking about a kid having a tantrum because he/she doesn’t want to stop playing and go to bed or wants 33 more cookies or whatever it is, one of the tips she gave to parents was to say “You don’t want to go to bed. You want to stay up and play. I bet when you grow up you will play all night” and that would help soothe the child since human brain doesn’t really distinguish between what you really will do and what you just say you will do, for it just your imagining doing a thing is enough. Athlets use that technique to train, when they are picturing performing an execrise in great detail and scientists now have proof that it actually improves their performance. They get actual muscle memory just from thiking about it

    • Amy Eden says:

      That’s interesting. It’s a good description of Executive Function, a term that’s used a lot lately to describe what people with Attention Deficit Disorder struggle with — putting off one action or Want for the long game. Like, “I want to eat more chocolate cake, I really, really do, but I’m not going to because it’s not goig to support my health and I’ll regret it in the morning, and I hate that regret feeling, the feeling that I let myself down.) It sounds like the Aha!parenting site’s advice is to (1) recognize what the child is really feeling and then (2) to set up a kind of sense that it will happen…someday. Recognizing what the child wants is important, and helps to support their development and selfhood.

      I would revise the second half; I would say, “when you grow up you’ll be able to stay up all night if you decide to”. To signal that they’ll have the option and the freedom, and that being a “decision” that it’s a choice and not a compulsion.

      I’ll have to check out Aha!parenting, thanks for sharing this.

  6. Moon Girl says:

    This is so me. I can’t seem to remember much of anything. It truly bothers me when it’s something that makes no sense to forget. I too have bought items twice and wrote down new ideas only to find them already written somewhere. Interesting post.

    • Amy Eden says:

      Thanks for sharing this, Moon Girl (love that).

      For me the first step in coming to peace with and reversing this was becoming aware that there was a thing going on, a thing beyond what I assumed was having a faulty mind and not being smart or good enough to remember what was important to me. I figured that the difference between me and people who accomplished things was that they have sturdier minds. Not so. They have tools. So I got tools: reminders, lists, reminders for the reminders, putting things in plain sight, and above all: kindness and extra love toward myself when ‘amnesia’ strikes.

  7. Beth says:

    Um… wow! This resonated so in my heart. I never thought of my great intention/lack of follow-through and then subsequent self-criticism as a learned survival behavior. Oh my. Thank you and wow. I can see so much of my restlessness when doing anything from this – as in “I should be doing something else (more important/should be doing this better)”. Oh my. Wow. I always loved the cartoon type lightbulbs that come when something shows me the way to myself. This was a huge lightbulb. Thank you.

    • Amy Eden says:

      Ahhhhh. :-) This community never fails to embrace one another. I’m glad I posted about this, because it certainly brought me a lot of pain and confusion over time to forget what I most wanted and craved. It really helps to put a new perspective on something that is NOT a “sign” we’re losing our grip.

      I’m glad I posted about this.

      Thank you so much for letting me know it hit the spot!!

  8. Jennifer says:

    I have done this exact thing not only in my personal life but in my work life as well. Just recently I was procrastinating on what I thought was a new project, only to find that the materials I thought I needed to create, I had created some time ago. The work was extensive enough that I sat there and wondered how in the world I had forgotten that I created it.

    • Amy Eden says:

      That’s a great example. And this perfectly illustrates the phenomenon because you’d put much work into the prep! In this case it’s not exactly intention amnesia, per se, but a complete disconnect occurring between one phase and the next. Thanks for sharing this!

  9. Ella Gamberi says:

    I think that there is something more to this than the long game and looking after ourselves. I am not a psychologist (thank God) but it occurs to me that we forget on purpose, although it doesn’t seem that way most of the time. We forget because we were taught that whatever we want to do with our lives we might as well forget it because it won’t come to pass. We were told over and over that we weren’t worth the effort, ‘who do we think we are’, or we were in fact actively sabotaged by our parents.

    My mother in particular chose to begin working outside the home the day I began high school. It was up to me therefore to do housework, cook meals etc on holidays or when she got home late. I actually loved doing this (or maybe I just loved her not being there) because I felt I could actually achieve something, I was teaching myself to do. However, she would inevitably go through the house and make ‘meh’ noises at what I had done or tell me to redo something or tell me I had missed something. She would never encourage or cheer me on, just the unspoken, or spoken, message that I was not up to scratch. (Here I think of Gru’s mother in ‘Despicable Me’)

    I can even remember taking guitar lessons in first year of high school. The guitar teacher seemed to think I had a natural gift, but for some weird reason as soon as I discovered he thought I was good at it, I decided not to pursue it. I just stopped turning up for lessons, I ‘forgot’ to go. He even contacted my mother who asked me once why I wasn’t going, and I made up some pathetic excuse but feigned indifference. I had to, or she would make my life hell. In fact, I have been playing guitar and teaching myself since I was 10, that’s over 40 years. I love playing, and I have been told by a lot of people that I am good at it and they enjoy listening to me. But, as I said, as soon as I was singled out by a teacher, I immediately ‘forgot’ that it was something I actually enjoyed and actively avoided the attention.

    I knew my mother would get her nose out of joint if somebody else told me I was good at something because this is what she would always do, and then it would be ‘who do you think you are’, ‘do you think you are sombody special, because you aren’t'… etc.

    SO, now, pursuing your bliss is automatically pegged in the ‘don’t do it or they’ll get you’ basket and as a means of self-protection and survival, you let it go.

    We have to stop punishing ourselves for being good at things, and push through the emotions and thoughts which tell you that it is bad for you to enjoy yourself and do good things. Those things are real hard to ignore, it has to be a labour of love and faith and you have to push yourself through it.

    Good luck.

    • Amy Eden says:

      Thank you for this – and especially sharing about the guitar lesson story.

      Do you mean “forget on purpose” as a means to self-protection, a conscious choice to not pursue something because we know won’t get validation and support for it? Or do you mean that we choose keeping from rocking the boat over our own needs? Did you feel it was more important to keep ‘mom happy’ – stay tuned into the chaos at home – than to pursue your talent which could mean ruffling feathers at home?

      What I’m wondering about, and thinking out loud about in this post, is, ‘do we ‘forget’ because we’re hard-wired to prioritize chaos-control above our own personal interests’ and we’re only now (as adults) taking a look at what that’s all about?

      I just love that you have played guitar for a while now. Grrrr-YEAH. That is wonderful.

  10. Kara says:

    One of my favorite things about my ACoA group is the sense of humor we share. There’s nothing quite like being able to lead with your punchline. I’ll begin a story with, “You know I am REALLY GOOD at starting things…”, and the crowd goes wild.
    I knew that this was somehow a manifestation of our survival traits, but I could never see the path because I felt so much shame around it. I mean- I get so excited at the beginning! And then I forget. Or I can’t commit. Or I’m on to the next (addiction) exciting new thing.

    I love how gentle the thought is that even thinking of soothing ourselves can be enough to soothe us. Self-soothing is my superpower. That does not sound much like a flaw to me.

    Thank you for this perspective- I can surely use the balance!

    • Amy Eden says:

      I love your phrasing – Self-Soothing is my superpower! No, it doesn’t sound like a flaw at all — What a refreshing viewpoint. Thank you. :-)

      And I agree completely on the sense of humor!

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