Pop psychology loves to tout the purpose of therapy as “dealing with the past.” I suspect that at least part of that comes from the feel-good prattle that pervades Oprah, Ellen, and the rest of daytime TV’s vast wasteland. But when the TV’s off and the chips are down (in a therapist’s office, for example), what does “dealing with the past” actually mean? If it just means talking about the past, then, yes, 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. In solution-focused or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, this takes a session or two at most.
Those who feel that “working through the past” is important usually assume that years and years of this is necessary – complete with the stereotypically bearded Freudian, cradling his empty notepad while dozing in an overstuffed chair). But if somebody asks why and how this is the case, no answer is given. It just … is. And the cartoon psychoanalyst continues to doze. There are tens of thousands of books and interviews premised on the opinion of “experts” peddling countless years of therapy spent analyzing the past – but nobody has ever explained why.
I don’t approach therapy – or life – that way, and my clients appreciate it. From time to time I’ll see a client whose spouse feels he or she should be “working through the past.” When they bring it up, I say, “OK, let’s talk about your past.” We do so, and it’s usually quite productive — for about 20 minutes. And then, wouldn’t you know it, we’re back to the issue of right now and what brought them to see me in the first place.
It isn’t the past alone 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 grows up thinking, “My family members were strange. I don’t like the way they were. Not everyone is like them. I don’t have to be like them.” Suzie could have grown up in the same family, but might develop the attitude, “People are not to be trusted. People are weird. I guess I am too. I’ll never really be close to anyone.” Of course, there are a lot of variables, but the most important one is the attitude one develops. That’s the difference between Johnny and Suzie.
In the above example, Suzie needs therapy more than Johnny. She needs to look at how she allowed her childhood to shape an attitude that is now causing problems for her in the present and as an adult. It doesn’t matter if her feelings are an accurate reflection of how her family was. If she looks at the issue objectively, isn’t it possible for her to expect different behavior from herself and others? Can’t she discriminate among those with whom she chooses to associate? Suzie’s therapy should focus on these questions in the here-and-now, and not so much on her past. The past is done. It’s over with. Talk about it all you want; it’s not going to change. It’s time to get on with life and be happy as an adult.
The past does not determine our present. The past shapes our attitudes and beliefs, but as thinking human beings we have the power to change faulty attitudes and beliefs. If you deal with the past at all, that’s how you do it, as long as dealing with it means letting it go and moving on.
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