Little Event, BIG Response!

Photo by  Annie Spratt  on  Unsplash

It was a simple request, really, (Susan asked to get a link to the recording of one of my training sessions), but it elicited a big emotional response. My heart rate increased, and I could feel my anxiety rising. That simple text changed my whole day. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I started internally defending my reasons for not wanting to give any link to any recordings. I couldn’t let it go. I felt like my whole day was hijacked by that one small text.

Little event, BIG response! What is this about!?!  

Do you ever notice internal (or maybe even external) responses that are out of proportion? Too big? Too emotional?

Where do these reactions come from?

They stem from Memory. But, wait a minute! I had no prior memory of this woman asking to hear my recording, no experience of a similar situation going poorly with her. How could memory play a part?   

I’ll return to this story in a moment, but for now let’s talk about memory.  

“We do not remember days; we remember moments.”
— Cesare Pavese


What did you do last week?

What did you eat for breakfast?

What have the significant events of the last year been?

Do you remember your first days living where you do now?

What do you remember about your first trip overseas?

These questions elicit Explicit Memory. These are memories that we can describe, visualize, and place in time, or alternatively, they are facts that we can recall. (What city did you live in when you were two? What is 2 x 2? Where is your passport?) Our brains are developed enough to start having explicit memories (albeit short-term) starting between 18 and 24 months - about the same time that the left hemisphere of our brain is developing with its focus on language, time, and logic. Explicit memory is connected to words, time, and reasons.

Photo by  meriç tuna  on  Unsplash

Photo by meriç tuna on Unsplash

Implicit Memory is very different. You’ve heard of “muscle memory?” The way you know how to walk, or tie your shoes, or ride a bike, without even thinking? This is a type of implicit memory, and it’s not necessarily linked to words.  

Implicit memory is connected to the deeper, earlier-developed portions of our brain: the Brain Stem, the Limbic System, and the Amygdala. It’s connected primarily to the right hemisphere of the brain, with its big picture, body/spatial awareness, and emotional strengths. Implicit memories are mental models (senses, beliefs, feelings, ways of viewing the world around us) that we possibly keep from as early as the third trimester - before birth!   

Without having any explicit (time bound, visual, or word-based) memory, my mind has a memory of how those around me responded when I cried out for help when I was just an infant. My mind remembers, wordlessly, how people looked back at me when I began to smile.

I also have this non-verbal memory of what it felt like when my dad asked to see my tests or look at my report card. I have no specific memory that I recall. But deep in my brain, I know it — actually, it’s more accurate to say I feel it. Even as I type the sentence about my dad, I can feel my gut tightening and my anxiety rising. That’s implicit memory!  

That’s the kind of memory that gives us BIG reactions to what should feel small.

Photo by  Toa Heftiba  on  Unsplash

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Susan, in my story, asked to hear my recording. But, here’s the thing. Susan has a quasi authoritative role in my life. It’s been implied, but not made explicit (that’s a topic for another article). When she asked to hear my recording, it triggered an implicit memory.  

Since implicit memory isn’t connected to a specific event (rather, more typically, a series of events), and is not connected to the language centers of our brain, but rather to the emotional centers, I ended up with a big emotional reaction that didn’t really make sense.

It was later, after realizing that my emotional reaction was bigger than the situation merited, that I took time to think about it and realized that my implicit memory — probably of my dad, step dad, and certain teachers  — had kicked in!


  • I go "home" to see my parents, and my husband says I act differently. (I’m still responding like I did when I was a child.)

  • I feel unusually close to a new colleague. (My brain knows he reminds me of my favorite uncle, even if I’m not conscious of it yet.)

  • My boss is so unreasonable in his expectations. (He spoke in that same tone my dad used to use.)

  • I feel anxious every time I go back to that big city I used to live in and see the traffic. (I don’t have to even be driving in it - just seeing it from afar triggers the same anxious feelings.)


Research into marital conflict suggests that 80% of conflict stems from implicit memory related issues — experiences and behaviors that developed before the couple had even met!   

We spend the first 5 years of our lives laying primary foundations for how we view the world and developing ways of reacting to the world around us so we feel safe and loved. We were building our implicit memory foundation. Because we live in an imperfect world, with imperfect parents and caregivers, these ways of interacting with the world around us are inevitably scarred in the process.  

As a result, our task as adults is to be transformed into the people we long to be. And this task is not so much about learning, but rather, unlearning.


Unlearning, and then re-learning, is a lifelong journey. It’s a journey of growth and development and, as such, can bring great joy and reward.

Here are a few steps to get you started.

A. Learn to pay attention to what is going on inside of you. Because implicit memory is connected to emotion and to your body, become more comfortable with these areas. When you have a big reaction to something small: 

  1. Take a moment to slowly scan your body and notice where in your body you are feeling this situation.

  2. Tune into your emotions and put words to them. Many of us have a very limited emotional vocabulary, so using an emotion chart like those found here can help.

B. Talk about the experience with an empathetic listenerThis helps you move a primarily emotional and sensory experience of the right brain to the verbal left brain. Doing so is a good first step to making sense out of what’s happening.

  1. Share the current story, including the feelings it elicits.

  2. Share what it reminds you of from your past.

C. For many of us, wading into implicit memories are frightening waters — dark, murky, turbulent, and deep. Engaging a trained counselor or therapist enables us to know we have someone who is:

  1. confident and competent to move us forward

  2. focused solely on us - we don’t have to worry about their feelings in the midst of a difficult journey ourselves

  3. knowledgeable in how to help us sift through the complicated pieces

Take time to notice when your response is out of proportion; it’s a sign that something deeper is going on. Use the experience to grow and develop you as a human being, bring others into the journey of growth with you, and let something big come out of it for you.  

(By the way, I sent Susan the link!)