Why is that sometimes I see memories clearly as self-defining moments and sometimes just as something that happened? Why do I see my story as being made up of certain specific memories but when I think about my whole life an entirely different set of memories arises?
Dr. Susan Bluck & Hsaio-Wen Liao presented a way of looking at the past in this 2013 article that helps answer those questions. Bluck & Liao describe the two streams of memory that we constantly navigate as chronological self-continuity and retrospective self-continuity. They describe the creation of self-continuity as “remembering and reminiscing about the self in the past.” In other words, our self-continuity is our ability to use memories to understand that I am the same person today as I was yesterday, last week, or last year.
The key difference in these two forms of self-continuity is the injection of self-reflection. Chronological self-continuity is made up of every memory we can think of. It is an extensive history of our experiences. It is every experience, without preference for what it meant in our personal growth. Retrospective self-continuity is the created when the individual chooses their self-defining memories and creates their story. It is the understanding of what events shape identity. One doesn’t really get to choose their chronological self-continuity, but they have the ability to effect their retrospective self-continuity by self-reflecting and writing their story.
I look at these different types of memory as The What and The Why. The What (chronological self-continuity) is the massive series of experiences in my life that show how I’ve become the person I am day-by-day. The Why (retrospective self-continuity) is the set of experiences that I realize had a direct impact in my understanding of who I am, my “self.” I get to choose these experiences. I get to decide how they impact me. This is my story and I get to write it.
Both The What and The Why are important. Knowing your What helps you to see how you got where you are. Understanding your Why allows you the freedom to be able to choose how those memories guide you into the future.