The Power of Assigning Meaning to a Memory

The Power of Assigning Meaning to a Memory

Would you believe that at 40 years old, even with the personal work I’ve done on myself, I still feel guilty at times for what my 4-year old self did or didn’t do?

Holly Arnaud

The Digging Deep Project is honored to work with a range of guest authors. Here, educator and counselor Holly Arnaud describes the perspective she has gained by looking back at her difficult childhood through the lens of time and education. You can find more of Holly’s writing at TheCounselorCorner.com.


One of my earliest memories involves my father beating my mother. As I sat in the kitchen in the aftermath, upset and anxious in the events that had occurred, my mother turned to me.

“Why didn’t you do anything?” she demanded, her hand on her face where she had been hit.

I was 4.

I have worked past much of my emotional baggage, but this was certainly an impactful memory. Would you believe that at 40 years old, even with the personal work I’ve done on myself, I still feel guilty at times for what my 4-year old self did or didn’t do?

There are memories we all have, pivotal moments in our lives, that will always stick with us and influence us to varying degrees. We tend to remember them with striking clarity. Some may term them as traumatic. This was one of mine.

The thing is…the meaning I gave to the event at 4 is not the same meaning I give it at 40. Through the years, I have been able to reshape this story into something else. Though I still have to fight spurts of emotions, I can give it a more truthful perspective. I can assign this story a new meaning. Yes, it takes time. Yes, it takes work. Yes, it takes willingness. Ultimately, it is not moments that define us—it is the meaning that we give to it. 

For me, the meaning I now assign to this story is a cautionary tale that I bring to my own role as a mother.

I know I’m not perfect and I am sure there are other issues they will have to face as a result of their childhood, but I do know that my children will never have to face what I faced. They will never have to wonder if their mother is going to be present. They will never have to wonder if their mother is going to love them and protect them. They will never have to wonder if their mother is going to take care of them. They will never have expectations to play roles that they never should have to play as children.

I can’t control the past or what my parents said or did. What I can control is what I do with these memories and how I let the story influence me. I know that now as an adult I have the opportunity to interpret and reframe these stories in a way that leads to growth.

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