The Past Doesn’t Shape You–Your Ideas and Beliefs Do

Many people have this idea that the purpose of therapy is to ‘deal with the past.’ I suspect they get this idea from all those silly authors who appear on ‘Oprah’ and elsewhere. The interesting thing is: What does ‘dealing with the past’ actually mean? Perhaps it means talking about the past. I know that I sometimes do this with therapy clients. They tell me about their parents, their siblings, and how things were for them while growing up. We talk about the impact this had on them, up through and including the present.

This takes a session or two at the most. Yet the people who feel that ‘working through the past’ is important usually assume that years and years of this is necessary. Why–and how–is this the case? No answer is ever given.

That’s what mystifies me. Tens of thousands of books and interviews premised on the opinion of ‘experts’ that countless more years must be spent analyzing the past ‘ but nobody has yet explained why!

I don’t approach therapy–or life–this way, and my clients appreciate it. Sometimes I have a client whose spouse feels he or she should be ‘working through the past.’ Clients bring it up
and rather than fight them I say, ‘OK, let’s talk about your past.’ We do so, and it’s usually quite productive—for about 20 or 30 minutes or so. And then’wouldn’t you know it, we’re right back to the issue of right now and what brought them to see me in the first place.

It isn’t the past itself that shapes us. It’s our ideas and attitudes that shape us. Two people could have the same childhood, but come out of that childhood with different ideas. Johnny
could grow up with dysfunctional parents and siblings. Yet Johnny can grow up with the attitude, ‘My family members were strange. I don’t like the way they were. Not everyone is like them. I don’t have to be. I won’t be.’

Suzie, on the other hand, could grow up in the same family. She might develop the attitude, ‘People are not to be trusted. People are weird. I guess I am too. Life is pretty awful. I’ll never
really be close to anyone.’ Here you have two people from the exact same family with the exact same childhood. Yes, it’s complex and there are a lot of variables. But the most important one is the attitude you develop. That’s the key difference between Johnny and Suzie.

In the above example, Suzie needs therapy more than Johnny. Suzie needs to look at how she allowed her childhood to shape an attitude that will be a problem for her in the present and the future, unless she changes that attitude. It doesn’t matter if her attitude is an accurate reflection of how her own family was. Can’t she learn to expect different—and better—from herself and from other people? Can’t she exercise careful discrimination among those whom she chooses to associate and not associate? Those are the questions she must examine if she’s to be happier in the present. Therapy should focus on these questions much more than on her past.

The past does not determine our present. The past shapes our attitudes and beliefs. We have the power to change faulty attitudes and beliefs. This is how you ‘deal with’ the past—if
‘dealing with’ means letting go and moving on. You cannot change the past, but you can change beliefs and attitudes formed in the past.