A popular misconception about psychotherapy is that it’s all about one’s past. This probably stems from the clichéd image of the bearded Freudian psychoanalyst quietly dozing in his leather chair, further bolstered by the circus parade of insipid “self-help” authors who inhabit the wasteland of daytime TV.
But that doesn’t stop clients from asking me about the past and occasionally wanting to talk about it. And that’s OK. 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. Interestingly, the people who feel that “working through the past” is important usually assume that years and years of it – with that sleepy bearded Freudian, no less – is necessary.
That mystifies me. Thousands of books and interviews based on the opinions of supposed “experts” insist that countless years must be spent analyzing the past – but nobody has ever explained why! Sometimes I suspect that the primary reason is to eventually put a swimming pool in that therapist’s back yard.
I don’t approach therapy or life that way, and I’ll tell you for sure that my clients appreciate it. Sometimes I’ll talk to 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, “That’s fine. Let’s talk about your past.” We do so, and it’s usually quite productive — for about 20 minutes. And then, surprise, surprise, there we are, right back to the issue of right now and what brought them to see me in the first place.
It isn’t just the past that shapes us. It’s our ideas and attitudes. Two people can have the same childhood, but grow up with different ideas. A person can grow up with dysfunctional parents and siblings, and survive with the attitude that, “My family was strange. I don’t like the way they were. I don’t have to be like them, and I won’t be.”
On the other hand, another person could grow up in the same family and develop the attitude, “People are not to be trusted. People are weird. I guess I am too. Life is pretty awful. I’ll never be close to anyone.” Here you have two people from the same family with the same childhood. These examples are simplistic, of course, but therapy is complex and contains countless variables. But the most important one is the attitude you develop. That’s the key difference between these two people.
The fatalist client in our second example certainly needs therapy more than the first. She needs to look at how she has allowed her childhood to shape an attitude that will be a problem for her in the present and the future – unless that attitude is changed. It doesn’t matter if it’s an accurate reflection of how her family was. The client has the power to think and to learn to expect better not only from herself, but also from others. She can exercise the option to discriminate among those with whom she chooses to associate and not associate. Those are the questions she must examine if she’s to be happy in the present. If the ultimate goal of therapy is to bring peace of mind, then it must focus on these questions rather than rehashing what’s past and unable to be changed.
Our childhood, parents and siblings do not determine our present. The past can shape our attitudes and beliefs, but we have the power to identify, challenge and change any of these that we find to be faulty. If you “deal with” the past at all, do it by letting it go and moving on.