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How to Take the Power Away from Bad Memories

written by David J. Pollay 2 December 2008

David J. Pollay, MAPP '06, is a co-founder of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA). David has an Economics degree from Yale University and has held leadership positions at Yahoo!, MasterCard, Global Payments and AIESEC. He is an Executive Coach who specializes in business relationships. He is also an author and keynote speaker known for his best-selling books, The Law of the Garbage Truck (how to navigate negativity) and The 3 Promises (how to create personal fulfillment every day). David's articles are here. For permission to reprint David's articles, please contact him.



Our brain automatically tries to keep us safe.  We are wired not to hurt or kill ourselves.  The challenge is that the brain has an alarm system that can be hypersensitive.  We often receive physical and emotional alerts to warn us of problems that pose no real threat.  As a result, we are left to respond to psychological and physical false alarms.


Memories often trigger fear

In a paper published called Memories of Fear, How the Brain Stores and Retrieves Physiologic States, Feelings, Behaviors and Thoughts from Traumatic Events, psychiatrist and former Chief of Psychiatry at Texas Children’s Hospital, Bruce Perry, wrote:  “The remarkable capacity of the brain to take a specific event and generalize, particularly with regard to threatening stimuli, makes humans vulnerable to the development of ‘false’ associations and false generalizations from a specific traumatic event to other non-threatening situations.”

Essentially, events in our lives that have long since passed can continue to exact their toll by triggering fear in us. 

Waking up happy

Most days I wake up feeling happy.  Why?  The answer is simple:  I get to awake each morning to the warm embrace and beautiful voice of my wife, Dawn.  Dawn wakes me so that I can wake up my little girls and make their breakfast before they go to school.  I cherish my morning wake-up routine.  While some days I get up a little tired, I still feel happy:  I am focused on what I care about.

Waking up with random memories

Contrast these typical mornings when I am home with the days when I’m traveling on business.  It is not uncommon for me to wake up to memories of twenty years ago, a random thought, or a feeling I cannot explain.  And some of these thoughts are negative.  I wake up thinking about the money I lost years ago on a bad financial decision, or when I failed a test in school, or when I made a mistake in an important relationship.  And then my unchaperoned brain automatically starts searching for evidence of whether I’m still making bad financial decisions, or I’m still not studying enough, etc.  And, if I’m not careful, my unattended brain will find some shred of evidence to build its negative case.  And the result is that the initial bad memory or random thought captures my attention and then sets the tone for my day. 

What can we do?

The first key is to recognize that our brains will continue to send us unconscious warning signals every day of our lives.  The second key is to understand that our initial emotional reaction to these warnings may also be subconsciously activated by the memories our brain associates with the alarm.  Positive Psychology researcher Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, references the research findings of social psychology researcher Dan Wegner: “Automatic processes generate thousands of thoughts and images every day, often through random association.  The ones that get stuck are the ones that particularly shock us, the ones we try to suppress or deny.” 

The third and final key is to realize that there is no need to engage all these negative memories:  We do not have to reflect and analyze them each time they surface. 

A time to “smile, wave, wish them well, and move on”

Garbage TruckThankfully, I discovered the power of applying The Law of the Garbage Truck™ to bad memories (see my October 2007 column here). I do not suppress or deny my memories and random thoughts:  “I just smile, wave, wish them well, and I move on.” 

There comes a time in our lives when we must let our bad memories pass us by.  We must not let our past reduce our joy, our confidence, and belief in what is good and possible in our lives.  We can live our best possible lives now. 

© 2008 David J. Pollay




Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Basic Books.

Perry, B. (1999). Memories of fear: How the brain stores and retrieves physiologic states, feelings, behaviors and thoughts from traumatic events. Originally appeared in J. Goodwin & R. Attias, Splintered reflections: Images of the body in trauma. Basic Books.

Ped-Bus Accident courtesy of Oran Viriyincy

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abby 2 December 2008 - 10:56 am

What an appropriate post, right after Thanksgiving! Everytime my family gets together for any holiday we all regress, even though we do not want to 🙂 This post hit home and helped me coping with the aftermath. I always feel so terrible the week after. Next holiday I will make sure I make it a good one!

Chris 2 December 2008 - 11:01 am

Thanks David for another great post. It’s interesting to see how many different ways The Law of the Garbage Truck can be applied in life. As always, I look forward to next month!

David J. Pollay 2 December 2008 - 11:45 am

Thanks Abby for the post!

You’ve pointed to the challenge a lot of families face. There are lots of great things that happen at family gatherings, and there can be plenty of difficult moments. Our challenge is to recognize which of these situations we can influence, and which ones we cannot control and should just let pass by. And the same goes for when the family gatherings are over and we are left with some negative memories of the events. The key is to acknowledge that it’s natural to have some of these memories (and they will bubble up when triggered), and that we can let many of them pass by with a “smile and a wave.”

Have a wonderful December full of holidays! Best wishes with this month’s family gatherings!

Best to you,


David J. Pollay 2 December 2008 - 11:46 am

Thanks, Chris! I appreciate the post.


Kare Anderson 2 December 2008 - 12:35 pm

As a longtime fan of Pollay’s ideas and crisp writing, I really enjoyed this post!

A great follow-up to Learned Optimism: when we live at the pessimist end of the continuum we react to bad events, believing they are personal, permanent and pervasive.

Another way to bolster that smile/wave/wish is to turn to contemplating how to bring out the best side in the person you are around.

As they like the way they act
when around you
they are more likely to
see and support your best side.

That sparks a spiral up into connection and positive feeling. There’s a much better chance that you will become happier an higher-performing with others, making that an instinctual first step when with others.

That approach is bolster by several studies,some from positive psychology – and at the heart of the Me2We of the methods and stories at MovingFromMeToWe.com

In a civilization when love is
gone we turn to justice and when
justice is gone we turn to power
and when power is gone we
turn to violence.

Opportunity is often inconvenient.

Remember the many
compartments of the heart,
the seed of what is
possible. So much of who
we are is defined by
the places we hold for each
other. For it is not our ingenuity
that sets us apart, but our
capacity for love, the
possibility our way will
be lit by grace. Our hearts
prisms, chiseling out the
colors of pure light

Laura C. 2 December 2008 - 12:57 pm

Thanks for the reminder of the power of our thoughts. I saw the Bishop of our Diocese here in San Jose speak recently. She (yes, SHE) said that events don’t produce feelings, thoughts produce feelings. That’s really stuck with me. I like what you’ve said about smiling, waving and moving on from negative thoughts that don’t have a place in my life. Thanks again for the post!

Melanie 2 December 2008 - 12:59 pm

I love this post! It is so very important for us to not negate the bad memories and thus stuffing them for later emergence, but merely acknowledge them, and as you said wish them well and let them pass you by. What a gift it is when we realize that they don’t control us any longer, we conquer them with a new direction for our thoughts to travel. Can’t wait to read the next post! Have a blessed season!

waynej 2 December 2008 - 3:03 pm

David, when I first started running positive psychology courses I use to offer advice along the lines of “I just smile, wave, wish them well, and I move on.” It worked for me because I had that sort of disposition.

However the reality is that its isn’t that easy for many people.

I then did a little research and discovered mindfulness seems to be effective. See http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=356.

Mindfulness seems to make those negative thoughts less “sticky”. Probably because it slows the amygdala (the stress center of the brain). See http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=87.

David J. Pollay 2 December 2008 - 3:42 pm

Thanks Kare for your post! And congrats to you on your work. Your references to bringing out the strengths in others, positive emotion, and love are right on. A number of the chapters in my book support your thinking. One in particular, “How to Reach a Garbage Truck,” helps people connect with some of the most difficult people in their lives. We make the world a more beautiful place when we see the best in each other. I also enjoyed your poetic and thoughtful ending to your post. Thanks.

Best to you,


David J. Pollay 2 December 2008 - 3:44 pm

Hi Laura!

Your Bishop sounds great! Her message is awesome. Thanks for the post!

Best to you in San Jose!


David J. Pollay 2 December 2008 - 3:49 pm

Thanks Melanie for your post. Your comment sums up the message so well. As you wrote, we can send our thoughts in a new direction – one of our choosing. Thanks for the wonderful energy you just sent to me by way of your post.

Happy holidays to you!


David J. Pollay 2 December 2008 - 3:52 pm

Thanks, Wayne for your thoughtful references. Mindfulness is key. I think you will enjoy my book, Beware of Garbage Trucks!, when it comes out next year. It addresses your point and digs deeper into how we can apply The Law of the Garbage Truck and the No Garbage Trucks! Pledge to our present, past, and future thinking.

Congrats on your work, and thanks for the post.

Best to you,


waynej 2 December 2008 - 4:00 pm

David, I ran a workshop on Monday. At the end one of the partcipants came up to me and said “it’s so refresshing to hear someone say that you don’t have to think positively”

David J. Pollay 2 December 2008 - 4:11 pm

Amen to that, Wayne! “Think positive” has a hollow ring to it for most people. Our message is much deeper than a platitude. Helping people experience positive emotion (among many other things) on their own is much more powerful, and does not necessarily require a smile (which some people are also relieved to hear).

It’s great your seminars are reaching people like they are! Keep up the good work.

Best to you,

waynej 2 December 2008 - 4:34 pm

David, you can access my workshop powerpoint online if you are interested. http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=349. You might have some useful material for your book

Louis Alloro 2 December 2008 - 5:04 pm

Thanks, David for a wonderful reminder of the choices we have to wave goodbye to the garbage truck.

I love how you highlight your morning breakfast routine with your daughters. Developing positive rituals is so crucial to our well-being. And of course, this is done mainly within the context of our relationships — which makes it important to invite others into that coactive process.

David J. Pollay 2 December 2008 - 5:27 pm

Hi Louis!

Thanks for the comments about the positive routine. It really is great that we all help each other start our day full of a lot of positive emotion and love. And your point about “inviting” our loved ones in is important (in some ways, we are re-inviting each other every morning). And Dawn and I actually took time to design our mornings. And we have alternate routines when the circumstances change (i.e., sometimes one or both of our girls wake up before we do!).

Thanks again for your insight on positive routines.

Best to you,

Jeremy McCarthy 2 December 2008 - 7:47 pm

Thanks for a great article. It reminds me of “Why Zebras don’t get Ulcers” a comprehensive book about stress by Robert Sapolsky. The zebras get chased by a lion, get amped up on stress while they run for their lives, but as soon as the lion goes away, they immediately return to grazing as if nothing ever happened. For some reasons we humans have a hard time of letting go of our stress. Reminders like your article seem to help though!

David J. Pollay 2 December 2008 - 8:43 pm

Great program, Wayne! Thanks for sharing your good work. I can see why people get a lot out of your programs. And I’m sure you bring your good energy to the workshops to match your good content.

Best, David

David J. Pollay 2 December 2008 - 8:47 pm

Hi Jeremy,

The connection you make to the Zebra experience is exactly what we’re going for: React to the true alarms in life (charging lions) and let the false alarms pass us by. Thanks for the great post, Jeremy. It’s nice to hear from you!

Best to you,


Lil 3 December 2008 - 12:40 am

Hi David, What a wonderful post! It struck a deep chord with me. Ruminating is a foe of mine. Your column gives me hope and practical ways to combat those memories that disturb quiet times and restful sleep. With great appreciation. Lil

David J. Pollay 3 December 2008 - 10:37 am

Hi Lil,

Thanks for your heartfelt post. I’m so glad this is valuable to you. I appreciate your note. Have a great week!

Best to you,

waynej 3 December 2008 - 4:04 pm

David, I’m wondering whether “wave and move on” is enough – the equivalent of mindfulness. Do you really need the positive embellishments (“smile and wish them well”). It would be interesting research comparing the two approaches. I suspect the different approaches might work for different people. And I suspect the people who really need it might find mindfulness easire. But who knows – I guess thats the point of positive psychology.

I hope you don’t mind but I’d like to use this in my workshops as a way to distinguish mindfulness.

And by the way – once you have dealt with the negative emotions using mindfulness, then its easier to smile and wish them well (it slows the amygdala). So perhaps the sequencing should be changed?

I teach a technqiue called clear thinker that involves

1. Breathing (slowing the amygdala which makes it easier to recall a positive memory)
2. Recall a calming memory (activate a positive emotion to broaden thinking capabilities)
3. Then ask yourself “What would I say to my best friend?”

When you are next in oz you might want to check out one of my corporate workshops.

David J. Pollay 3 December 2008 - 5:10 pm

Hi Wayne,

Thanks for the OZ invitation! It would be fun! And thanks for your interest in my work; I appreciate it.

And thanks for your interest in potentially using The Law of the Garbage Truck in your corporate workshops. Email me separately at david@themomentumproject.com and we can chat about the commercial use of The Law of the Garbage Truck. I can share with you how that typically works.

Take a peek at http://www.bewareofgarbagetrucks.com and watch The No Garbage Trucks! Pledge if you have not already. I think you’ll enjoy it. You’ll also see that The Law of the Garbage Truck is more than a cognitive technique, it is part of a bigger mission (the “wish them well” part of the approach speaks to it). I have been involved in international organizations for more than twenty years with the focus of bringing people together. My conferences and forthcoming book are focused (in part) on helping people dig deep into the transformational message of The Law of the Garbage Truck.

Have a great rest of the week!


p.s. Your calming technique is a good one; you’re clearly helping a lot of people.

Max 3 December 2008 - 7:37 pm

Thanks David for a very thought provoking post. I will try to incorporate your suggestions. You are always right on. Max

David J. Pollay 3 December 2008 - 8:27 pm

Thanks Max for your post. It’s nice to hear from you. Have a great week!


Elissa 5 December 2008 - 5:32 pm

Hi David,

A lot of what you said rings true for me. I had an extremely traumatic experience in my childhood which has ruled my live for the last 17 years. I am ruled by my fear which seems to generalise more and more every year which makes it worse. I have seen countless psychologists and am keen to try a different approach. Would you be able to point me in the direction of any readings or anything that may help.

Thanks again for your article!


David J. Pollay 8 December 2008 - 9:06 pm

Hi Elissa,

Thanks for your great post! It is good to hear from you. I do have a couple references for you. And I will also let you know when my book, Beware of Garbage Trucks!, is out next year. Email me at david@themomentumproject.com and I can point you in few directions that may help.

Best to you!


Barry Elias 15 February 2009 - 9:24 am

December 2, 2008

Dear Mr. Pollay,

Love the “Garbage Truck” metaphor (see email reproduction below from Positive Psychology News Daily).

I attend a Happiness Meetup group (originally facilitated by Senia Maymin), which has been a wonderful learning experience.

My degree is also in Economics (Binghamton University, Phi Beta Kappa), and I am very interested in the nexus of business (e.g., economics, finance, strategic analysis and planning) and psychosocial behavior.

I would like to learn more about how The Momentum Project has impacted the lives of your clients.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Barry Elias


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