Long Reads

This is why it’s harder than ever to forget about an ex

From WhatsApp to Facebook, our relationships are leaving an indestructible digital trail…

There are 21 people in my WhatsApp archive; it is a store for conversations that are effectively dead, for people I don’t want to speak to, for people I can’t speak to, but thanks to the magic of technology, people that are still undeniably there.

Some of them are people I dated. It didn’t work out and we don’t keep in touch. There are also groups I’ve left and friends I’ve muted. I still look at them sometimes, if I’ve let my mind wander to that person.

I’ve never really considered deleting these conversations because archiving always seemed to be the most practical solution. It feels good to have the power to refer back to them whenever I want – if only to prove to myself how much of a dick that person was.

Of course, it can be hard when it comes to, say, past relationships. It’s difficult when there is a record of a past love, dating back to those heady days when all we did was talk and take pictures - when every bad word was, as yet unsaid, and every crushing deed, undone. I have driven myself half spare scrolling and scrolling, reading every intimate exchange or trying to pinpoint the moments when it went wrong – just remembering, remembering, remembering. The relationship is over, but I can’t forget, and maybe I don’t want to.  

Stalking an ex online

“I have driven myself half spare scrolling and scrolling, reading every intimate exchange or trying to pinpoint the moments when it went wrong”     

Last year, the iPhone turned 10. That’s a potential 10 years of stored memories, an indestructible trail of pictures, videos, messages, notes and emails. Who among us isn’t weighed-down by so many photos of holidays and videos from drunken nights out (that we’d otherwise have long forgotten) that we’re constantly getting the dreaded ‘memory full’ notification?

Facebook, too, has long been a repository for old snaps - bleary university shots taken before selfies were even a thing. And last year Instagram added to the problem by launching an archive feature, meaning there’s no need to ever truly delete a post. Technology has given rise to infinite stores, a proliferation of past selves that should, by anyone’s account, have been consigned to hazy, corporeal memory.

The human impulse to archive, rather than obliterate, isn’t new. What was never properly documented – what we never deemed necessary to keep records of, before now – was the mundane day-to-day exchanges that make-up the fabric of our lives. Even the prolific diarisers among us, or those who stored hundreds of photos in leather-bound albums or weathered shoeboxes, never had such instant, unfettered access to 8,489 old couple selfies or the 316 messages comprising an argument that should have been long forgotten. Referring back to a past point in our lives is now as simple as a thumb-swipe.

But far from being useful, our modern quest to document and remember everything (and everyone) may have some seriously adverse side effects. From an emotional and mental health standpoint, constantly remembering and re-remembering is not a good way to process and learn from past events. In fact if, like me, you’re prone to bouts of nostalgia, scrolling through an old Facebook album is both as satisfying and damaging as picking off a healing scab. 

Old Facebook photos

“Scrolling through an old Facebook album can be as satisfying and damaging as picking off a healing scab”

I’m not trying to pathologize all nostalgia. Looking at a cute old holiday picture thrown up by TimeHop isn’t the same as repeatedly re-reading messages from an ex, but modern culture is so obsessed with looking back that companies have begun to use nostalgia to sell us their wares. And even if we aren’t fixating on a trauma, filling our lives with junk memories can stop us from living fully in the present. 

Perhaps more worryingly, it can also impair our brain’s ability to make good decisions for our future. Memory is the most crucial brain system when it comes to learning and decision making. But according to a recent review paper, forgetting is as important as remembering for the function of a healthy memory system. 

For instance, our brain allows us to forget unnecessary details and just store the gist of an experience. This means that we’re better able to apply whatever lessons were learned without them being clouded by random, unhelpful details. We also forget old and out-dated information when new, more useful learnings come to light. As Dr Blake A. Richards, who co-authored the paper, told Science Daily: “If you’re trying to navigate the world and your brain is constantly bringing up multiple conflicting memories, that makes it harder for you to make an informed decision.” 

One study found that our brain’s memory capacity is about a quadrillion bytes. A quadrillion is 10 followed by 15 zeros. A gigabyte is 10 followed by nine zeros. Given that an average laptop has five gigabytes of memory, it’s obvious that our brains have an incredible capacity for storing data, much bigger than any machine. But they aren’t infinite. In our culture, so obsessed with looking back, the ease with which we can access all the grim details that would usually have been wiped from memory, is bound to mess with anyone’s ability to apply the lessons we should have learned. 

Our brain’s memory capacity is about a quadrillion bytes - much more than any machine

Our brain’s memory capacity is about a quadrillion bytes - much more than any machine

Therapist and author of The Anxiety Solution, Chloe Brotheridge, often works with patients who struggle to get over the past. “It’s important to redirect your attention to the present moment, or even towards creating positive images and plans for the future,” she explains. 

If we find ourselves too fixated on a past event, too often scrolling through old pictures or reading old messages, she advises taking action. “Say to yourself ‘stop’ and then take a moment to notice three things you can see, three things you can hear and three things you can feel. This brings you back to the now and the immediate surroundings.” And, she points out, keeping things like pictures at your fingertips is a recipe for disaster.

Relationship selfie

“Keeping pictures of past relationships at your fingertips is a recipe for disaster”

Many of us have so many photos stored that in order to take more we have to start deleting old ones, which seems like a small corrective. But how long before we never have to delete another message or picture again?

Learning from our past mistakes and experiences is undoubtedly a positive thing. But perhaps that learning process includes a degree of forgetting. And while it might be difficult to let go, perhaps it’s also time for me to finally, irreversibly delete some of those dead conversations.

Images: Getty, Unsplash

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