We have all had experiences we would like to forget. Perhaps it was being called names in middle school, missing that catch in football, or being in a car accident. How should we treat these painful memories? In our culture, there is a prevailing belief that bringing up unpleasant past experiences only causes more pain and suffering. There exists plenty of evidence for this. We all have encountered people who seem to be stuck ruminating about past failures or tragedies and any advice we offered about moving on may have had little effect. We see it in ourselves, too. It can be difficult to let go of that old boyfriend or girlfriend even though we know that we should. Dwelling on negative experiences such as these can truly lead to misery. Better to forget about it, so the popular wisdom goes.
Because psychotherapy is often stereotyped as an exercise in rooting around in the unpleasant past memories, it is little wonder that so many people avoid treatment. However, there are over 400 different approaches to counseling representing a wide range of techniques and emphasis. The psychodynamic approaches (such as Freudian), heavily focus on the past, whereas Solution-Focused Therapies see focusing on the problem as the problem itself and tend to be more forward looking. Most practitioners adopt a stance somewhere between these two extremes, believing that our current situations are very relevant past experiences and choices, but not necessarily determined by them. These approaches maintain that by increasing our understanding of the past, we are better equipped to cope with our current situation and make choices that will improve our future well-being.
The way I see it, there are two unhealthy ways of coping with a difficult past and they both fall on opposite ends of a spectrum. On one extreme is wallowing in sorrow. This involves staying stuck ruminating on what could have been or what should have been. Having this parade of negative thoughts is not helpful. In fact, this is just a rehearsal of negative thoughts. Each time you rehearse something, you get better at it. If you spend hours or even weeks rehearsing something, you can get pretty good at it. This is an insidious patter that can be very difficult to break. Many clients I see with anxiety or depression are suck in these patterns.
At the other end of the spectrum is denial, or willful forgetting of uncomfortable past events. I often see this in guys who are brought up to be a “real man” and not show any emotion. They are told to “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.” Women often use denial, too. Denial can be healthy in some contexts, such as when used by a kid who grows up in an abusive environment. When I ask these clients about their parents and childhood, the most common answer is that it was good or fine. They may be totally convinced that the past was not painful. Denial can be a psychologically necessary way to survive hard times. However, in these cases, then denial becomes a one-size-fits-all solution to even the smallest discomforts which results in a person who is totally disconnected from emotions. These people often struggle in relationships without understanding why. They may also feel empty and without meaning. If denial has been learned as a child, it operates automatically and unconsciously, but with some work it can be overcome.
Exploring the past in the context of psychotherapy is very different either of these extremes. In fact, if a person presents with either of these relationships to the past, then I see that as a priority to focus on in treatment. So what is a healthy way to relate to past events?
It is important to see the past as getting us where we are today, for better or worse. Everything is the past falls into the category of things we can’t control. Unless a time machine is invented, the past cannot be changed. Anything other than fully accepting the past for what it is only adds another layer of suffering. Acceptance of a painful past is something that is cultivated over time, because the mind may be in the habit of ruminating on things. Acceptance must be applied every time we realize that the mind is up to its old habits.
One powerful approach to handling past traumas is to find meaning in them. As Victor Frankl said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” In other words, we can endure almost anything as long as we can see the reason for it. With a little creativity, it is possible to find meaning in any tragedy.
For those in denial, a good listener is needed. The person shares about the past, and the listener validates and normalizes. It might help to imagine the story is being told about another person. That objectivity is sometimes enough to help the person see that what happened really was painful or inappropriate.
Another approach I use I’ve named “Finish the Story.” I will write a description of it soon.
Forgiveness often plays a big part in this, both in forgiving the self and the other.
This is just a brief overview of how the past may be experienced and treated. If you have any questions about it, don’t hesitate to let me know.