Digging up the past: Helpful or harmful?

When I meet clients for the first time, I always tell them a little bit about what to expect from me and how I work with them as a therapist. One of the things I talk about is how the therapeutic process will sometimes shift back and forth between the here and now and what has happened for them in the past.

One misconception about therapy is that it mostly involves talking about people’s childhoods and blaming everything that is not going well in that person’s life on what happened. In therapy, there are definitely times when it is important to focus on what life was like for individuals while growing up, so the misconception here seems to be around the intention behind digging up the past and what that achieves.

We may be mistakenly led to think this because of how deceptively simple it is believe that someone or something outside of yourself is the cause of whatever is happening to you. We make someone else responsible for what has happened to us while believing we are helpless victims. Using information from the past to assign responsibility for how our lives turned out is a type of blame. More importantly, it implies that people or situations are defined by their past and so cannot or will not change.This fixed and deterministic view leads to a kind of hopelessness and helplessness for anyone who finds themselves in what they perceive as less than ideal circumstances.

It’s important to know that therapists’ interest in the past does not begin with the intention to blame nor does it end with finding the “culprit” from the past. Whether we like it or not, parts of who we are remain tethered to our early experiences in life. The intention behind looking back to those experiences is to relate it back to our present in order to take our lives a direction that is better for us. When there is deliberate and meaningful exploration of significant past experiences, we can make use of certain pieces of information to guide us to the kind of future that we want for ourselves.

For many people who decide to make an appointment to see a therapist, they are clear about the apparent issues happening in their lives which they would like to address in therapy. There is an expectation that sessions will be used to discuss those issues and the goals they have defined for themselves. What may be less expected as the therapy process unfolds is a gradual deepening in understanding the original presenting issue as one instance of a pattern that may appear time and time again in that person’s life. This process is almost like discovering and understanding how to use formulas to solve different math equations. There is a lot less focus on the specific ‘equation’, and more on being able to recognise the bigger pattern the problem represents in order to accurately apply the correct formula.

Problems are a normal part of life but what we sometimes get more tripped up on are the emotions that these challenges stir within us. The fact that the same situation can bring out very different emotional responses in different individuals shows how much we fall into our own learned patterns developed over the years. By taking a closer look at our formative past, we are essentially evaluating the way we reacted or were responded to by the people and environment most significant to us.

Maybe it was necessary to protect yourself with a cloak of anger against an emotionally abusive parent. Or maybe it was better to shut down from all emotions after repeatedly witnessing adults you relied on, hurt each other. Perhaps it was taking on the responsibility and role of never disappointing others by quietly and carefully making sure you became the perfect child. We may find ourselves dealing with a colleague instead of a sibling, a spouse instead of a parent but unless we are conscious of our patterns, we will likely respond in the same unconscious ways that we always have when we were younger when the same feelings are stirred up.

It’s no coincidence that we ‘bury’ the past. Bringing up the past can sometimes be painful, not to mention overwhelming and tiring, which is why sometimes we would rather not ‘go there’. Therapy does not force anyone to examine their past if they do not feel ready nor is examining the past about re-experiencing and suffering through painful feelings or memories all over again. Good therapy involves providing individuals with a safe environment and the right set of tools to pick out significant patterns in their past in a purposeful and deliberate way. It’s also about learning how to contain and hold difficult or uncomfortable feelings associated with the past and differentiating between the person that you were then and now. The problems we encounter fall into familiar themes that stir different emotions which guide us on what to do. We feel hurt and are reminded of our own vulnerability; we feel helpless in the face of pain and despair; we feel ashamed or guilty that we may have let ourselves or others down.

Sometimes, we may be afraid to confront our past because we are still afraid of the way we allowed it to define us when we were young and helpless. We forget that what happened in the past does not have to define us. What defines us is the meaning we choose to assign to the past and the kind of future we shape for ourselves. We look back to our past grounded in the knowledge that we are not the same person as we were and return from those dark places because we want to define ourselves and our future differently now.