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Therapy, an April fool and the art of lost memory

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The acceptance of a specific day when practical jokes and pranks are played upon unsuspecting others is not just a UK oddity but a worldwide phenomenon. There are different days around the world and across the continents but here In the UK, April 1st has traditionally been known as April fool’s day

There seems to be many different reactions to activities on April fool’s Day. These range from a mischievous anticipation of fun to come to a rather world weary sigh or complete indifference. For some there may alas be a sense of foreboding as the day comes around with the fear that a prank may become some form of humiliation or even bullying behaviour.

Those who are the recipient of the ‘trick’, tend to react in different ways.  There may be a flash of anger, some self-deprecating humour or something akin to embarrassment. That embarrassment can extend to a feeling of being ‘shown up’. This in turn carries a mix of potential emotions from awkwardness to even shame.

These difficult feelings can be exacerbated by a fear that this disconcerting event will live long in the memory of those who witnessed it. That sense of discomfiture can also be present when we think back to other occasions when we have done something ill advised, said the wrong thing or acted inappropriately.

Clients talk of a hot redness, a blush coming over them at the very thought of the recollection. Yet as a therapist with rather poor colour vision, this is a reaction I may not actually be unaware of!

That those around us are unaware of our agitated, uncomfortable reaction to an event can be far more prevalent than we encourage ourselves to think. Despite the anguished concern about what others may have thought of us, the more likely reality is that the event was not actually seen or the words not heard. And even if the incident was witnessed, the event may not have registered on the consciousness of the observer.

This highlights ideas around memory and what we are automatically programmed to remember.  Our personal memory of what happened to us during those awful embarrassing moments can be almost faultless. We recall exactly what took place and when. We remember with precision why and how it occurred.

The strength of that reminiscence is such that it can come as a complete surprise to learn that others who were also present at the time, whether that was last week, last month or last year, will often have little recollection of just what we are talking about.

Our interpretation of what took place is not recognised. Those words we are so ashamed of uttering (or slurring!)  were not actually heard. The outfit which was so ridiculous was not even noticed and perhaps worst of all, the tears we cried were not even seen. 

The unfortunate (or perhaps fortunate?) reality is that we can be extremely skilful at distressing ourselves over something which as far as the rest of the world is concerned, did not actually occur.

Of course there are times when events are captured not just in memory but also on the dreaded video clip. Social media in the click of some key strokes can then be used to expose our humiliation to the watching world. We have become used to the expression that ‘it’ has gone viral.  Yet the very prevalence of all those clips that have ’gone viral’ can serve to provide some reassurance.

Warhol talked of the fifteen minutes of fame.  Now even the most extreme of viral clips is likely to only claim some fifteen seconds of fame before our attention is directed elsewhere.  That restless and continual search for something new means that our moments of discomfiture are unlikely to ever live long in the universal memory.

And we can easily test this. Think back quickly to what was viral a year ago? Or six months? Or even last month?  Of course some things will come to your mind but my guess is that you have thought of the extreme. It is very unlikely to be the clip of your colleague stumbling over some words in an acceptance speech or a neighbour slipping over on the ice.

So remember that although whatever happens on April fool’s day may embarrass you in the moment, it will soon pass. You may recall the event in great agonising detail in the days and weeks to come but those around you are unlikely to. 

The reason is that we are all at the centre of our own personal world. Our memory is self-absorbed  and relatively narcissistic.

And others? Well at best they will have a passing interest in what you have done but their specific individual focus is most likely to be elsewhere. It will be on what happened to them, on how they presented and on what they said.   Our individual memory is a very self-centred memory

Whilst you fear your friends and colleagues are looking back with scorn, their attention will probably be centred on other thoughts.    Rather than inwardly laughing at you, they will be worried that you are still remembering the time at that party two years ago when they split their drink down the front of that dress with the ridiculously low top which they had always regretted wearing …!

And your thoughts about that?   

“You don’t remember….!?”   That is not what your friends are expecting to hear.

“ What do you mean …..’you don’t remember!!’   How can you not remember something so embarrassing…….?!!” 

I guess the answer may depend on what happened to you later that evening at that same event…!  Now that really was embarrassing.   Or perhaps that is just what you think!



Geoff Boutle

added on 1st April 2015

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