Changing your present through exploring the past
For many people coming to therapy for the first time, there is often an important question on their minds “How can talking about my past change the way I feel in the here and now?”
The question is very valid, after all no matter if we are talking about a few days ago or decades ago, you cannot change the past. You may recognise that things you experienced in the past were unhealthy, but ultimately you cannot change what has gone before, so how does talking about it help with feelings, thoughts and behaviours in the here and now?
We first need to look at how we as individuals learn to understand the world around us and our place in that world. We call this our script. Just imagine that someone comes up with an idea for a movie. They will get creative input from a variety of sources which helps determine the direction, feel and final identity of that movie. As infants, we do exactly the same, except the movie is our life and the creative input comes mainly from family, especially parents, older siblings, close grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. Socioeconomic factors such as our society’s religious beliefs, opinions on education, work, future prospects, level of income, social class, etc. also have a big impact on how we write our life script. And then there’s environmental factors such as being raised in a big city, in the countryside, on a remote island with limited human contact, etc.
Once we have our life script as an infant, we then desperately cling onto it like a treasured prize, as without it, we have no idea who we are and where we fit into the world which is an extremely terrifying prospect, especially for a child. Although we may make occasional changes to our life script as we grow, incorporating new experiences whether they be positive or negative, by the time we reach our teens, our belief about ourselves, our abilities and where we fit into the world is pretty much complete. For the rest of our lives, we unconsciously set up reinforcing this script, discounting anything which may contradict our beliefs and actively searching (although out of conscious awareness) for situations which reinforce our beliefs. This is why many people who experience painful or traumatic events in the past continue to find themselves in difficult positions in the future, unable to break the cycle of misery and unable to find anything positive to hold onto. Ultimately, our script beliefs, if left unchallenged, will then go onto influence the next generation (our children, young relatives, etc.) and so the cycle continues.
This can be seen in the diagram on the left above. The bolder outer triangle represents external sources such as family, societal and environmental whist the fainter inner triangle represents you.
Before any exploration of yourself, those external sources have a much greater influence on you (as represented by the boldness of the outer triangle). This leads to the development in childhood of our script behaviour which is unconsciously reinforced in adult life, leading to instinctive reactiveness (e.g. anger, anxiety etc.), critical thinking towards self or other and confusion as to why you struggle in life. The resulting behaviour then filters back to that external source and perpetuates the cycle in yourself and others.
During therapy, you gradually become more aware of your life script and how those external influences have been internalised over the years. You begin to replace reactiveness, confusion and criticism with curiosity, understanding and awareness which over time helps you to recognise the pull of your script in everyday life, allowing you greater control over your actions and behaviours. This ultimately leads to Autonomous Behaviour where you are still exposed to those external factors but are able to recognise them for what they are and either allow them in or disregard them as appropriate.
So although talking about the past in therapy cannot change what has gone before, it can change how you feel about yourself and how you approach future situations. Therapy is not about erasing or dwelling on the past, but about understanding, awareness and ultimately healing.