#26: The Persistence of Memory

On self-respect and more

On Tuesday, I visited friends (I’ll call them Jiyan & Lola for anonymity), who I have not seen since August 2020. A lot has changed for them: they had a baby, moved into a new house, and are co-living with two of their good friends.

I had previously met their friends - several times, actually - so when I entered Jiyan and Lola’s house, on Tuesday, I greeted their friends as if we had previously met.

“So good to see you again,” I said, to the female friend.

She looked at me puzzled.

I turned to her husband and said, “Great to see you, too!”

He looked at me confused.

Crickets…chirp…chirp.

Neither of them remembered me. I continued talking, trying to jog their memory. “We met at the picnic Jiyan and Lola organized, right after their wedding, and I was in the car with Jiyan and Lola when they gave you a ride home. I saw you both again at the baked goods party that Jiyan and Lola threw.”

Finally, the crickets stopped chirping and some light bulbs go off. “Oh, yeah!” the female friend exclaimed. “You have a great memory!”

Urggh…

Was it really that I have such a good memory?

No, I don’t think so. I think it’s just that my encounters with Jiyan and Lola’s friends were meaningful to me, and not meaningful to them.

Science shows that we remember things - events, experiences, words - when we attribute meaning to it. For example, we don’t do very well with rote memorizing nonsense syllables, but if we use a mnemonic our recall of the words improves, and we remember the pneumonic forever (e.g., PEMDAS to assist with the order of operations in Algebra).

Both times that I saw Jiyan’s and Lola’s friends, I was the outsider. I was entering an established friend group and I was trying to make a good first impression. I wanted them to like to me.

I was disappointed to learn that my effort to be liked was a failure. Why did I put forth so much energy, only to be invisible?

High-achieving, productive people, in today’s post-Industrial modern world, tend to be people pleasers. We say “yes” to too many things and we expend our energy, often at the expense of our long-term wellbeing.

We say “yes” when we’re trying to prove our self-worth - to our bosses, our colleagues, our friends, our spouses, our kids. We think that if we say “no” we won’t be liked, or people will get angry with us, or we will fail at being our best selves.

This is a myth. Saying “no” to more things than you say “yes” to is a sign of self-respect. It shows you that you have clear boundaries and value your time and energy. Constantly expending yourself to prove your worth is actually a trap. Eventually, you burn out and have to deal with all of the unpleasant feelings and events that follow burn out.

People don’t actually remember the things that you do or say or how you act as much as you think they do. My experience with Jiyan and Lola’s friends taught me: you are invisible to most people you interact with.

This is a sobering realization; a tough pill to swallow, but an important lesson to learn.

Most people are caught in their own heads, thinking about their own life and problems, playing on repeat their own unique story and narrative about the world, and no matter how much you try to please them and get their affection and make them value you, they will still do whatever they want to do - whatever they are incentivized to do (I want to write more about incentives in a future post).

You may be thinking, “but, Rika, what about being a good person and giving people the benefit of the doubt? Or, what about helping and giving to others without expecting anything in return?”

I hear you, and I agree with you. We should give and help others and model altruistic behavior. This is how we create a flywheel of positive-sum relationships. But, we also need to be realistic about expectations. Since we are all running different stories in our heads, and we are also fallible human beings, our altruistic actions can sometimes end up hurting us more than helping us.

We’ll inevitably make mistakes, but to get better at not making the same mistakes in the future, we need to reflect on our actions. For example, after you expend energy: on a social interaction, on a favor for someone, or on a work task; you can ask yourself: “What impact did my behavior have?” “How do I feel?”

Self-reflection, not memory, is our real superpower.

Take care, and have a great weekend!

P.S. I’m in Phoenix, Arizona this weekend with a group of friends celebrating our friend’s wedding. This time, I’m in the inner circle and it feels really damn nice :) Here’s a photo from our Airbnb.


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