Can you change the past?

Although there is usually a great emphasis in therapy on encouraging clients to take more control of their lives, and to build their own futures, the one thing that it seems cannot be changed is the past, however much we might want to go back and start all over again. Perhaps this is the reason why some therapists play down the relevance of the past, even if their clients seem deeply troubled by it. This is not necessarily because the therapist actually thinks the past is irrelevant but more that as there is no way to change the past why waste time mulling over it?

However, I think the key thing to remember when we talk about ‘the past’ is that what we are actually referring to is our memory or other people’s memories. And just to be clear, this is not memory of the past but memory as the past. Furthermore, memory is something that is being constantly revised and reconstructed; in other words, our memories are not fixed but fluid. Another interesting characteristic of memory is that what happens in the present changes how we remember things. Just to give a simple example, when someone whom friends, family and neighbours always thought of as ‘just a nice, ordinary person’ commits a terrible crime, for example a murder, suddenly everyone starts to ‘remember’ that there was always something ‘a bit strange’ about that particular individual, that he or she was always ‘a bit of loner’ etc.

But if ‘the past’, as memory, is that fluid, then surely it can be changed, reinterpreted? And, of course, this is the basis of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT); people feel anxious, depressed, and so on because of the way they view the world, including how they view their own histories. Therefore the way to help them feel better is to help them reassess how they view their world, and to start looking at things differently. I’m grossly simplifying things here, of course, but in essence this how CBT works; and in the short term at least it can be very effective.

Unfortunately, things are not that simple. Although ‘the past’ can be defined in terms of memory, it is always memory of something. And sometimes it can be memory of something terrible that happened in the life of the individual, for example sexual abuse as a child, or even something closer to the present. In this sense, no amount of ‘reinterpretation’ is going to change what happened. At best the individual can be encouraged and supported in trying to come to terms with what happened and to get on with their lives.

There is, however, another twist to the story. One of Freud’s lesser-known ideas is that trauma only ever happens retroactively. For example, if someone is abused as a child they are not necessarily going to become traumatised at the time; it is only later on, when another event occurs which resonates with the original one that they will become traumatised and start to display all the classic symptoms, for example flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, and sometimes dissociation. This ‘second’ event may be something that happens to the individual themselves, for example they might be sexually harassed at work; or they may read or hear a news story about sexual abuse.

However, and contrary to what some therapists have argued, Freud is not suggesting that the ‘second’ event somehow ‘reminds’ the individual of what happened to them at the time of the ‘original’ event and ‘triggers’ what was already lying ‘dormant’ in the memory of the individual. Rather, it is that the ‘second’ event essentially creates the trauma in the present. Just to be clear at this point: this is not to suggest for one moment that the individual was not subjected to abuse or some other traumatic event in their childhood or even in their adult life. Rather, it is that the trauma itself, with all its symptoms, only ever occurs in the present.

And this brings us back to the original question: can you change the past? Perhaps it might be better to rephrase the question and ask: can you work (therapeutically) with the past? And I would argue the answer is an emphatic yes, because what we are actually talking about here it not something ‘long dead’ but rather something that is very much alive in the here-and-now: the past as present. 

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