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Why look at the past in psychotherapy?

“Whenever we give up, leave behind, and forget too much, there is always the danger that the things we have neglected will return with added force.” -Carl Jung

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” -George Santayana

When a person seeks out the services of a psychotherapist, generally, the therapist may encourage them to wonder and explore how past experiences may be impacting them in the present, or how the past may be relevant to their current problems. The usual suspects are childhood and early adolescence – what was your family environment like? How did people treat you? What experiences did you have? How did you understand these things at the time?

Our younger self tends to make meaning of our early experiences which impacts how we see ourselves, how we see others, and particular ways of coping are developed that reflect these views. These same coping mechanisms we developed while younger are often the very things that cause us problems as adults. For example, one client I worked with sought therapy for problems at work. This client had difficulty making decisions which was problematic because she had risen to the level of manager at her job and had new leadership responsibilities. Upon reflecting on how earlier experiences might be relevant to this problem, she discovered that childhood difficulties with impulsive behavior had resulted in her relying heavily on her parents and other adults for guidance on “how to act” (she often got into trouble at school and other formal occasions) which eventually led her to look to the judgment of others vs. being able to cultivate trust in her own judgment. A functional way to avoid trouble as a child evolved into a dysfunctional way to approach decisions as an adult. Understanding the impact of her past helped this client be more gentle and forgiving of herself and her struggles in the present, and helped her identify ways she could cultivate confidence and trust in herself moving forward at her job.

Another great example of using the past to understand the present is discussed in this post on the blog Postpartum Progress by Katherine Stone where she talks about understanding how her early childhood experiences left her vulnerable to postpartum onset Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder:

It can be emotionally difficult to revisit the past, and often there is a tendency to dismiss it. You may have heard people say (or said it yourself) things like, “that’s all in the past” or “that was so 10 years ago” or “let’s focus on moving forward”. The past, like most things, if focused on too much can lead people to get stuck. However, if treated as life experience that has something to teach us, the past can help us understand a bit of what is happening in our lives in the present making the past a reference point that can be enormously helpful.

Thanks for reading! As always, I welcome your questions and comments!

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