Person listening
People tend to borrow other's fun memories and present them as their own, as a method of building connections. When it becomes a consistent pattern, it becomes destructive for their well-being. Image Credit: Shutterstock

I wish that happened to me.

How many times have you felt this when listening to people narrate an experience?

What happens if you take it a step further, and pretend that memory is yours?

Sometimes, people do borrow memories, just like they would for books, pens, and erasers. Dubai-based Samrudhi Roy, who works in a sustainability consultancy, found out once that a former colleague of hers had tried to unsuccessfully “borrow” Roy’s experiences to impress a person. “It just so happened that the person was also someone I knew very well, and he told me about it later,” she recalls.

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Roy explains her curious tale. Her friend and colleague went for a quiet, pleasant dinner and all was well. They shared jokes, laughed over coffee, and then the colleague decided to relate Roy’s experience of leaving her passport in a Scottish museum, as her own. It just so happened that the colleague had been with Roy at that time, and knew the incident a little too well, and not a detail was changed in the narrative.

So, what was it about Roy’s experiences that her colleague liked so much - to the extent she made it her own? Well, as psychologists explain - there’s a lot more than looking ‘cool’ by borrowing someone’s memories and presenting them as your own.

‘A soothing, broken mechanism for comfort’

isolated person
We are always measuring ourselves against other people. This elicits feelings of inadequacy. Image Credit: Shutterstock

For example, hearing your friend's exotic sea-faring adventures might spark envy and a desire to escape your own routine.

Eidde Francke, a Dubai-based psychologist from LightHouse Arabia, a wellness clinic, explains this phenomenon of retelling memories as a "soothing, broken comfort mechanism" to deal with dissatisfaction with our own lives. Feeling inferior, we might consciously or subconsciously borrow memories to become someone else, a way to escape the unfulfilling aspects of our reality.

Such people don’t perceive themselves as interesting enough, so they try to imagine someone else’s experiences as their own. It could also be deeply rooted experiences from childhood and adolescence, where people told them that they weren’t ‘interesting’ enough or laughed at them for not having such an exciting life. And so, they held on to those remarks, trying to be like someone else, and slowly trying to live their life, adds Elizabeth Law, a British Dubai-based psychologist.

‘Out-lived, out-adventured, out-fashioned, just generally out…’

Sometimes, social media can also unintentionally fan the flames.

We are always measuring ourselves against other people, adds Francke. This elicits feelings of inadequacy. However, owing to social media platforms that display seemingly garnished personas, there’s a further desperation to change oneself. “It’s a recipe for feeling endlessly out-lived, out-holidayed, out-adventured, out-travelled, out-witted, out-fashioned, just generally out - uninteresting and irrelevant,” says Francke. We become more vulnerable to view our own real memories and experiences as mundane. And so, we are unable to resist the allure of adopting someone else’s story as own.

Adopting another person's narrative can serve as a form of escapism; a soothing or coping mechanism for dissatisfaction with your own life; and a social tool to facilitate conversation and connection. By adopting someone else's experiences, you may hope to temporarily escape the unsatisfying aspects of your own reality...

- Eidde Francke, psychologist, LightHouse Arabia

Somehow, our own memories fall short of everyone else’s seemingly glamorous, fun-ridden, and wild memories. And so, we look for ways to participate, too.

A way of fostering connection?

It’s difficult when you feel like you’re the only one in the group without a story. It’s an isolating feeling, even though others are not trying to make you feel so, as the psychologists explain. Yet, sometimes, people who are particularly fuelled by these moods of loneliness and fear of missing out, try to bridge the gap by borrowing details from another memory. Sometimes, they borrow the entire memory.

Moreover, people tend to use it as a tool to facilitate conversation and connection, adds Ketaki Menon, an Abu Dhabi-based psychologist, as well as Francke. As they explain, when the group discussion begins to revolve around a particular subject, tossing in a related story that you heard about but that happened to somebody else may feel stilted. On the other hand, telling the story as if it happened to you, brings it alive.

people talking
Sometimes, people who are particularly fuelled by these moods of loneliness and fear of missing out, try to bridge the gap by borrowing details from another memory. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Possibly, they feel that others respond more warmly to such stories and engage more with a person when they reveal their fun experiences. Instantly, there is more chatter, she says. “So, they try replicating the same patterns with different people, hoping for the same results,” says Menon.

What studies say

woman with friend
This kind of “borrowing” memories is also a way of somehow boosting their image, and creating an identity that is more likely to fit in with others. Image Credit: Shutterstock

A fun party? Celebrity encounter? Meeting gone awry? Those are always some fun stories that we wish that were ours.

The research regarding this peculiar phenomenon is still limited. US-based cognitive psychologist Beth Marsh conducted a survey of college students and discovered they would hear an interesting story from others and then borrow it to tell as if it were their own experience. Her research was published in the 2015 paper Borrowing personal memories, in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.

According to the research, when students were asked whether they had ever borrowed either part or all of someone else’s experience to tell as their own, over half, around 57 per cent admitted they had. When the survey was extended to a larger crowd at US-based Southern Methodist University (SMU), she found similar results. Again, around 58 per cent had borrowed part or all of another’s story to convey as their own. She also noted that this wasn’t a solitary event: They had done this several times. This phenomenon isn’t just restricted to college students, even people above 40 claimed to do that, though the percentage was lower.

On the flipside, there were many who reported that they had caught someone “stealing” a story too, and this led to awkward social situations. Marsh observed the problem in constantly retelling someone else’s experience: The person starts to believe that it’s theirs. Over a third of those in the survey said that they were occasionally unsure whether an experience had happened to them or to somebody else.

Marsh asserted that to relate someone else’s experiences, occasionally, is normal. This kind of “borrowing” memories is also a way of somehow boosting their image, and creating an identity that is more likely to fit in with others. However, consistent patterns of using other people’s memories, shows a gradually fragmented sense of self and psyche. As Menon explains, embellishment in storytelling is one thing, but the consistent habit of adopting and portraying other’s memories, suggests deeper issues rooted in low self-esteem, poor self-confidence, fear of inadequacy and validation voids. “This is when it becomes destructive to your mental well-being,” she adds.

‘It’s not always deliberate’

Sometimes, it need not be deliberate, either, as Francke points out. “It could also be the result of complex interactions between encoding, storage, and retrieval processes in memory,” she says. These factors can influence this type of memory borrowing: Similarity between experiences, emotional significance of the story, expectations set by the conversation, and the presence of retrieval cues. There is research being done on the process of retrieving memories, embellishing them, or trying to forget them altogether.

Menon breaks it down further:

Encoding: When we experience something, our brain encodes the details for storage. If we're paying attention to someone else's story and find it interesting or relatable, we might encode some of those details alongside our own memories. This holds true for stories that evoke strong emotions or involve vivid details.

Storage: Memories aren't stored as perfect recordings. Over time, they can become consolidated, meaning the brain strengthens the connections between important details. During consolidation, details from similar memories, like our own experiences or the borrowed story, might become intertwined.

Retrieval: When we try to remember something, retrieval cues trigger the recall process. If a conversation topic closely resembles a borrowed memory, the retrieval cues might pull up details from both our own experience and the borrowed story. This can lead to unintentionally conflating the two.

She also explains that our brain isn’t always effective at distinguishing between our own memories and information from external sources. “Self-monitoring helps us note the accuracy of our recollections. In the moment of conversation, we might not always catch ourselves borrowing a memory, especially if it feels familiar,” she explains.

How can we overcome this?

Well, it takes a lot of self-awareness and then the acknowledgement of the beauty of authenticity.

“It would be helpful to learn how to accept and value our true and real experiences,” says Francke. It requires strong, dedicated introspection and some engagement with trusted friends to provide guidance and support through this process. Whenever you catch yourself trying to tell someone else’s story: Stop yourself, and ask why are you doing that? Do you feel that your experiences are not as interesting, why so? Work on building yourself, and cherishing the memories that you do possess, adds Menon.

This might push you to reconnect with yourself better than others. “It helps to address the void and challenge the problems of low self-confidence. And slowly, you will learn to appreciate your own well-earned authentic story,” says Francke.