All too often some counselors and their clients fall into a trap many people fall into in the wider sphere of life is that they tend to focus on the past at the expense of the here and now. Thinking about the past can be useful but only as it relates to present functioning. Otherwise, it’s like walking through the ruins of an ancient civilization or digging up archeological relics; sure, it’s interesting but there’s no life, no vitality, no vibrancy.
Most of us know that having had a hard childhood can affect our adult lives. Depending on the severity of childhood hardship, and the amount of counseling, who you are as an adult can be based on what you knew as a child. In fact, an Adverse Childhood Experiences scale is a popular tool clinicians use to assess childhood adversity. Such experiences can interfere with a person’s health, opportunities and stability throughout his or her lifetime—and can even affect future generations.
We all know people who act a certain way because of the unhappiness of their formative years. The child who had to deal with an alcoholic parent, one who suffered abuse at the hands of family members, witnessed their parents’ hostile divorce, children who were exposed to the horrifying aspects of poverty — anyone who has had what is commonly referred to as “dysfunctional family dynamics.”
There are a few psychological reasons that people focus all their attention on the past. The biggest one is that for many, their past is their present. What I mean is that they haven’t been able to find a resolution, a sense of closure about what happened to them, and as such these past events are still very much alive. The problem of course is that they can no longer do anything to influence this past, they can’t channel their psychic energy where it needs to go, so it sticks around regardless of how many times they play out what happened in their heads.
For others talking about the past is a good way to escape the present. The past feels safer, precisely because it’s set in stone and carries no uncertainty with it, no risk. By focusing on the past they can keep things at the theoretical level instead of the more dangerous visceral level that fully committing to the here and now entails.
As you get older and you gain more life experience, the way you perceive your past changes. As you mature, you begin to recognize the life lessons that you’ve learned through your past experiences, and this can influence the way you look back at your past.
I think there is something to be gain from exploring the past with a client. It is helpful to understand a client’s life history to conceptualize their present functioning. Part of an intake session is going over a client’s life story as well as their presenting problem ie what is bringing them to counseling. I don’t think it’s automatically a waste of time to work on your past in therapy. I’m not saying counseling should exclusively be about your present circumstances, and anything focused on the past is misguided. It’s not that black or white. I just want to push back against the idea that counseling is about focusing on the past or blaming one’s parents for their current life problems, a common generalization I hear from critics of talk therapy.
As a clinician myself, I always utilize Gestalt therapy with my clients as part of my tool bag of techniques. Gestalt therapy is a client-centered approach to counseling which helps clients focus on the present and understand what is really happening in their lives right now, rather than what they may perceive to be happening based on past experience.
Thinking about the past is only really useful when it gives you vital clues about present functioning, about the way you relate to yourself, others, and the world. The only thing that is real is the present moment; it’s the place where you spend the entirety of your life, even when you’re projecting yourself backwards or forwards in time. The key is to better understanding how your current patterns of behavior are connected to what happened to you so that you can take the next vital step of changing these behaviors.