‘Personal archaeology’ - the benefits of exploring the past

Many of us seek therapy as a result of current difficulties and soon discover that these challenges have their roots firmly buried in the past. We may be struggling with recurring memories and thoughts of past disturbances, reliving them again and again and being left with yet more distress. As a result, difficult thoughts, feelings and beliefs are projected onto our current life situations keeping us stuck in cycles of frustration and disappointment.

This is the nature of our minds - one moment pulling us into the past and the next hurling us into an imagined future. It’s as if our minds believe that by going back or forward in this way we’ll somehow figure it out and better prepare ourselves for any future problems. Instead, this activity disempowers us, leaving us drained, anxious and depressed. It also often amplifies our fear of the future and reactivates past traumas

Past exploration - What's the point?

Going back in time during therapy is different from being alone with one’s beliefs and memories because now we have a self-regulating presence in the form of a therapist. Through being witnessed, mirrored and contained the past becomes, over time, less charged. Therapy acts as a pressure valve and enables new perspectives. It also helps us to see how these past situations are reflected in our present life scenarios. It is here in our current relationships, work situation and day to day encounters where we’re triggered and the feelings of the past surface and form patterns of behaviour and belief.

Therefore, the point of journeying into the past is to discern from where these patterns originate, how they are still feeding and directing our lives today and then begin to release and retrieve ourselves. This releasing is a freeing process, which enables us to feel more alive, empowered and engaged within our current lives rather than dictated to and trapped by previous difficulties.

Similarly, another useful aspect of past exploration is seeing how it has shaped our belief systems - both about relationships and our understanding of ourselves. We might realise that we have been carrying firm beliefs about - people in authority, how safe we feel to give or receive love, to express ourselves and what certain actions or behaviours in other really mean. From here we can appreciate the nature of our current fears and phobias and bridge the gap between what happened then and what we believe is happening now. This enables more self-compassion for how we react and engage within our world.

Our reactivity may not immediately dissolve but what was originally experienced as something all-consuming can be viewed as a process of pattern recognition. By this, I mean signs we see or hear around us, which match internal memories and are then reactivated. This is how trauma works. Initially, this awareness may happen sometime after the event but over time that gap will lessen. It is possible to eventually find ourselves in challenging situations and notice that, what would have been, our previous reactivity has now completely changed. This may mean that difficult feelings don’t consume us for such a long period or that we feel more open and at ease in situations, which ordinarily we may have avoided.

Remembering the past and dreaming of the future is not the issue here as this can be a very creative and pleasurable activity. The guide here is whether it causes distress, takes the enjoyment out of our current life and holds us back. The future may also grip us in similar ways. We can be trapped in fantasising an imagined future, conjuring up scenarios that fill us with dread and fear. Whether our minds are plugged into the past or the future the only place where we can fully empower ourselves and within the hear and now.
Therefore, the challenged we all face is how to do this, how to remind ourselves to do this and how to keep doing it. It is important to know that when our minds are invested in the past or future that this is what we are practising. When we continually practice something we get better and better at it. The same is true when we chose to practice empowering ourselves. It’s useful to ask ourselves -

“What am I practising and what am I getting better and better at?”

We can’t change the past but we can develop a better relationship with it through reframing and diffusing. As a result, we can then influence our futures. Although we’re all shaped by our prior experiences it isn’t the totality who we really are.

Freeing oneself from the grip of the past doesn’t mean forgetting but rather rescuing and reclaiming our lost selves. Then, over time who we really are, beyond internalised difficulties, challenges and traumas, flows more freely and helps cultivate sustainable feelings of confidence and optimism.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, WC1A
Written by Neil Turner, MA, UKCP, MBACP | Psychotherapy | Adults and Couples
London, WC1A

Having worked in the design industry for many years I now work as a psychotherapist in central London with individuals and couples. I specialise is anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, stress and self-confidence and have an MA in psychotherapy through which I researched the nature self-doubt and how to move beyond it. I also have an art practice.

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