How important is your past in therapy?

Clients are often (justifiably) concerned about getting stuck or dwelling on their past for months or years as part of the therapy process. Sometimes clients have a concern that therapy might encourage them to rely on their past as “an excuse” for whatever their issues might be in their current lives (“I can’t get my life together because, when I was a kid all this bad stuff happened to me…”). This blog will explain that this is not how I practice therapy, and is not the experience clients have in therapy with me.

Sometimes this concern is bolstered by popular culture ideas about therapy—think of the image of Freud or some other older man, and the client is lying on the couch going on and on about his relationship with his mother.  We hear about folks who have been in therapy several times a week for years on end with little progress (Woody Allen comes to mind for me when I think about this).  But, sometimes this concern is the result of a client’s actual experience in therapy, where they may have worked with some other therapist for years, going around and around about their family and childhood histories, with little progress.  Or, perhaps they saw a friend or family member have this experience, and want to avoid it.  These are valid concerns. I want clients to avoid getting stuck in therapy.  I use specific tools and ideas to help prevent clients from dwelling on their past, while also helping them understand ways their past might continue to influence them now so they can put a stop to it.

There are modes of therapy that do focus intensely on childhood development issues as a way to explore deep-seated “psychological neuroses.”  One of them is called Psychodynamics. This is the main kind of therapy we think of when we think of Sigmund Freud with his client lying on the couch for years. I understand the concepts behind this mode of therapy. Psychodynamic therapy can be useful from time to time with certain clients. However, I do not make the assumption that going through a detailed history of a client’s childhood is always relevant to a client’s needs in therapy. Sometimes it is, but often it is not.  Even when it is necessary to help a client understand some basic connections between their childhood experiences and the decisions and feelings they have as adults, that doesn’t mean I need or want to know everything about a client’s childhood or their parents and other family members. It all depends on how a client’s history affects their current situation.

So, here’s the question I ask myself when trying to decide if childhood and other historical experiences are relevant to a client’s therapy process: “is there some way learning more about the client’s history would help us solve the client’s current issues?”  In other words, how is the past connected to the present?  When clients tell me they think they “dwell” on their past or are stuck in the past, I tell them that they might want to ask themselves the same kind of question I ask in therapy: “is there a purpose to having these thoughts, these questions, these memories? Is there some reason I might be having these thoughts and memories now, based on my issues, needs and goals?  Will it help me attain my goals in my life or avoid making unhealthy decisions by figuring out something from my past, and is this the reason I am thinking of these things now?”  If the answers to these questions are either maybe or definitely yes, then its probably worth pursuing these thoughts and memories and the feelings that go along with them; don’t push them away, see where they go, write about them, talk to friends and family about them, discuss them with me in therapy.  If, however, you really can’t see a reason you are having these thoughts and memories, you might then be “dwelling” on the past, which might lead to either avoiding the present or justify what is happening in the present.

I ask all clients limited and basic information about their personal history in the beginning of the therapy process simply to rule out the need to spend additional time on the client’s past.  More often than not, clients do not need to spend much time on their childhood histories in therapy, although it may resurface from time to time. Only when they make the distinction I suggested above (by asking themselves if there is a purpose to revisiting their past), can they begin to identify memories that keep coming back because they are the result of unresolved issues from those that have no value at all. By facing the past, neither running from it, or dwelling on it, clients learn to live in the present without being overly bothered by their own histories.

The balance is to think about the past when necessary (to understand its influence and avoid repeating mistakes) without spending more time than is really necessary. I also recognize that many clients are not bothered by their past, and do not need me to create any reason for them to be bothered by their past. For those clients, we don’t spend time discussing their past once we’ve ruled it out as not particularly relevant to that client’s needs in therapy.

If there is a purpose to thinking about and remembering parts of your past, you are not dwelling on the past; you are simply trying to learn from it. If there is no purpose to it, and this part of your past is best left in the past, then learn how to let it go, without denial, so you can live the life you have right now.

Copyright, 2011, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.

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