Counselling – An Emotional Timeline

This article discusses an extended timeline for examining emotional life encompassing both the known and the unknown.

It has been suggested that integrative counselling first emerged to bridge the schism within the counselling world between the positivist activists and the internal reflectors. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) was regarded by some as the strident flag waver of the former with psychodynamic work seen as the traditional standard bearer for the latter.

Both methodologies are situated along side fellow travellers on the therapeutic continuum albeit at very different places. Although each approach supports a commitment to personal understanding and change, the positivist activists may seem to concentrate on change whilst the internal reflectors can appear to place a greater importance on the power of understanding. Yet both modalities also work with structures and models which have some common features.

One commonality highlights the intriguing tendency of the therapeutic world to consistently adopt a threefold model or process. From the Id, Ego and Super ego of Freud and the psychoanalysts, through to the Thoughts, Rules and Core Beliefs of Cognitive Therapists, and even onto the Parent, Adult, Child of the Transactional Analysts, this emphasis on three distinctive phases to the emotional process is a curious constant. The threefold model is not however a recent phenomenon and the origins of this tripartite split predate the emergence of psychoanalysis.

A three stage concept can be seen in the work of thinkers over two millennia ago from Augustine to Aristotle. For example in creating a framework for exploring the nature of being and the place of humanity in the cosmos, an early emphasis was placed on a threefold distinction within the time continuum. This tripartite approach split time into the past, present and future. It is not clear who originated that distinction but the thoughts of Augustine have certainly encouraged the concept to cross the ages. That awareness of time allows one to think of being present in an emotional sense along a personal time line and to be able to look both back and forward whilst remaining in the now. 

As far as therapy is concerned, this threefold division when re-designated as a past present, a present present and a future present, is clearly influential in aspects of contemporary psychotherapy. It is certainly evident in both traditional psychotherapy and also the more structured work of contemporary positivists such as those within the CBT school.

Given that this tripartite path is so well established it may appear rather presumptuous to suggest an extension to that structure. There is however an obvious addition to be proposed which may prove helpful for those working within the therapy room. 

The suggestion of a ‘present’ whether past or future, promotes the impression of consciousness and of being cognisant. We are often very aware of aspects of our past.  Images, words and events can be quickly recalled to mind from both the recent past and also many years ago. Discussions with colleagues from a few days ago may still sit with us as we internally fashion a response. We are also able to reach back to important events from earlier in life. This ability to achieve recall over decades is perhaps best evidenced by that well-worn question as to where one was when a momentous happening occurred such as the assassination of President Kennedy or the death of Princess Diana. The drama of that external event acts as a link which allows us to remember our personal situation at that time. 

If this recall is described as the past present, there is also a more distant past where memory has slipped away from our conscious mind. Recall may lay just below the conscious layer to be reawakened by gentle probing within the therapy room or by more sensual stimuli such as taste or smell. Alternatively remembrance may be well hidden, buried many levels down in the unconscious to be accessed only in dreams or in time of acute stress. That may include memories that were never full processed in real time because of age and the limitation of our cognitive abilities; or alternatively the memory may have been deliberately suppressed in order to protect our emotional well being. If the time model set out above is to be extended to include this type of hidden memory, we could adopt the term the past absent to describe that phenomenon.

Although it may sound counter-intuitive we can also be absent in the present.  That can reflect occasions ranging from when we just shut out those situations or people that we do not wish to experience through to a more subtle form of closing our eyes to what is happening around us in the moment. The child slamming a bedroom door in a fit of rage, knowingly creates a barrier as far as the rest of the family is concerned. There are many adult equivalents. The capacity to deny reality and to repudiate what is self evident is not limited to children. There is also the deeper impact perhaps from periods of disassociation or during occasions of great stress when our mind may simply close down and refuse to accept and process what is happening around us. This mode of functioning can be regarded as a time of present absence.

There is also a future equivalent in the emotional continuum. The future present can be seen as reflected in our known plans and day dreams. It is recognition of our expectations when we talk with partners about what lies ahead, be that in a week, a month or a decade. The discussions with friends about that forthcoming play on Friday night or that light hearted teasing about which of our children will be selecting our nursing home can all be seen as examples of our acknowledgement of that future present. The apprehensive reflections about a future court case or the imaginative concern about the impact of long term austerity measures on current employment are also more fraught instances of the future present at work.

There is also another future which is outside of conscious reach. It is the future that we cannot see perhaps because it is either beyond our comprehension or because we do not wish to see it. For example twenty years ago the idea of spending hours of life fixated on ‘social media’ sites would have been beyond most people’s imagination. It is very likely that in twenty years’ time, or more likely in ten or five years into the future, there will also be another ‘social media’ equivalent. At this time most of us are not sufficiently imaginative to be able to see what that future demand on our time will be or the shape it will take.

If that inability to see is due to a lack of intellectual creativity, there is also that a future that we simply do not allow ourselves to see. This is the future that frightens us. It is the future that is threatening, that has the potential to be disruptive, to damage our emotional wellbeing and is therefore unconsciously suppressed. That may be reflected in an individual’s refusal to acknowledge a forthcoming relationship split despite those signs which are clearly visible to others. It could also be the impending loss of someone close to us. That loss may be inevitable but it is also excruciating to consider and the thought is therefore banished from our minds. For some that intolerable future which we do not allow ourselves to see may relate to our own mortality. Yalom for example imaginatively writes of our difficulty and reluctance to  ‘stare into the sun’.     

We can describe these ideas as examples of the future absent to differentiate it from the future present which is lies within our conscious grasp. 

Since the early days of psychoanalysis, models have provided a useful structure to both boundary and support the work with clients within the counselling room whatever the specific therapeutic approach adopted. The references to time as past present, present present and future present has been part of that tradition. It encourages us to consider the importance of what has gone and what is to come as well as the demands of the moment. Yet our emotional lives have a greater complexity and depth than is suggested by this relatively simple structure.  What is absent from our thoughts may also be as important as what is present both with regard to looking ahead as well as glancing back behind us.

If we are to fully appreciate our place in this world we need to understand not only those times when we are emotionally present but also when we have been or are continuing to be emotionally absent. The six stage model outlined in this paper is intended to help us to understand the complexity of either our own lives or those of our clients. Lasting change is more likely to be achieved when it can be built on a firm ground of understanding. That maxim is likely to be true whichever therapeutic approach is used.

Extended Emotional Timeline

Past present           - the past that is available to us

Past absent            - the past that cannot or will not be accessed

Present                  - the now, the immediacy of our existence

Present absence      - the now which is not seen

Future present        - that which can be expected or foretold

Future absent         - the future that cannot be accessed or envisaged

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

Share this article with a friend

Written by Geoff Boutle MBACP (Snr Accred)

An experienced counsellor based in central Chichester I work with individuals who are facing with difficult personal issues. My concern is to work with each client in the way which is most helpful for each individual. I also offer relationship counselling to couples
At present I will offer telephone and Skype sessions in place of the usual face to face to face work. Please text or email me … Read more

Written by Geoff Boutle MBACP (Snr Accred)

Show comments

Find the right counsellor or therapist for you

All therapists are verified professionals.