When the jukebox in my mind gets stuck

I have a giant jukebox of memories in my brain, and I have little conscious control over which old songs it chooses to play for me. Its song choices are triggered by the things I encounter in daily life, bringing up these old ghosts from the past to haunt my present.

Most of the time, these random replays from the past float in and out of my consciousness with little impact, but there are certain old songs that get stuck like broken records echoing again and again in my mind whenever life presses their buttons on the jukebox. And those broken record songs have a way of pressing all of the other related buttons on the jukebox to bring up every last tune in a similar key.

Those broken record memories are the ones that are likely to set me on a downward spiral in a hurry, if I’m not careful.

For example, a few years ago, a coach I had hired told me that I was so unhealthy that I could cause nothing but damage to anyone I tried to be in relationship with and that I therefore did not deserve to have any friends at all. Unfortunately, her insistence on this point came at a time when I was particularly vulnerable and every one of my close relationships was under great strain (for a number of reasons), making this feedback sink in more deeply than it perhaps would have otherwise.

It’s taken a really long time and a lot of hard work to deal with that particular song at all, but it’s still one of jukebox’s favorite ones to play for me. Any time a real-life situation comes anywhere near that particular song, that button gets pressed, and the old song goes on repeat. And every time that happens, it not only continues to replay whatever current relationship challenge that triggered it, it replays every relationship I’ve ever screwed up in any way for all time.

All I can see in those moments is validation of her assessment of me. I do damage everyone I come into relationship with in some way or another at some time or another. While I know on one level that this is true of the human condition, when this old song is stuck on repeat, I am seized with the terror that I am indeed nothing but damaging to those closest to me. Naturally, this causes me to try to isolate myself (to avoid causing more damage), which usually causes more hurt to those I care about, and winds up just adding to the list of songs in this particular key for the jukebox to play for me.

Unfortunately, this jukebox in my mind does not appear to have a plug that I can pull to turn it off. It just continues to play its theme song, repeating those harsh words and the many examples of times I’ve done damage over and over and over and over again until there’s little room to entertain other options.

So I’ve had to learn other ways to break the cycle, even as the jukebox plays its broken record.

I’ve learned that this tendency to focus on negative memories is a normal part of how the brain works. In Buddha’s Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius, they review the neuroscience research about how our brains function. This research shows that not only to negative events make a greater impact on our brains, it takes about five positive interactions to overcome any one negative one. While this makes a great deal of sense biologically since negative outcomes have a greater survival impact, it is not nearly so helpful when it comes to living a happy, well-adjusted life.

However, understanding that this is what is driving the song selection in my brain’s jukebox has allowed me to hear the songs in a slightly different way.

First, I can recognize that the song selection is not representative of reality. It will always choose more negative songs to play than it will choose positive ones because it is trying to protect me by warning me of the possible dangers out there. Just knowing that I don’t have to believe that the song choices are representative of reality breaks some of its control over me when the broken record gets stuck.

Second, I can actively choose other songs to play even when the jukebox is stuck in a negative key. Many years ago when I was in a difficult job situation, I started keeping a file of any positive feedback that came my way (including simple thank you notes), so that I could go back and pull those things out when I needed a boost. I do something similar to this day with encouraging and positive notes that come my way. Consciously choosing to listen to these positive songs even for a few minutes breaks the monopoly of the negative and brings back some balance.

Third, I can hear the broken record song as the protective warning it is intended to be, thank my brain for its help in trying to keep me safe, and then choose my actions from a considered place that acknowledges the warning without being controlled by it. (I’m still working on this one!)

We’ve all got these broken records that the jukeboxes in our brains like to play for us. Mine tells me that I can’t be a decent friend to anyone ever. Yours probably has some other message that you once heard in childhood or adulthood and a whole catalog of other songs to demonstrate why that broken record song is true. It’s just how brains work.

But we are more than our brains and more than those jukeboxes of memories. Will you join me in choosing to new ways to respond to your jukebox’s broken records? I’d love to hear the things you do to break the cycle when your own jukebox goes on repeat with its favorite negative tune!


Jukebox – 1947 Wurlitzer model 1080 by canorus, on Flickr. Used via Creative Commons licensing.

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