Will I have to talk about the past in counselling?
Many people avoid counselling and psychotherapy in case they have to talk about the past. They assume this will stir up painful memories which they actually want help to escape from. This belief may come from the way counselling is portrayed in the media; a person is often shown telling their story and finding that all their problems miraculously disappear. However, many people thinking of counselling believe that telling their story will be where their problems really begin. Though some of us do benefit from talking about the past, and like to do so, modern therapists are very aware of the risk of re-traumatising someone and opening old wounds. They realise that many people have spent their entire lives, and an enormous amount of energy, in avoiding their memories, so why would they suddenly decide to waste all that effort?
The good news is that a big focus on the past is much less likely these days. Modern trauma therapists don’t require the story to be told, though they may be very interested in the details of happy memories or ones which demonstrate your qualities. If there’s an event or period in your life which is continuing to bother you, or which you feel you need to keep bottled up, it’s helpful to give your therapist an idea that something happened. Rather than needing lots of details about that, they’re more likely to be interested in the effect this is continuing to have on your life. In other words, what we need to know is not necessarily what happened in the past, but the effect it’s still having in the here and now.
Managing triggering memories
Some people feel bad but don’t know why, or don’t have a specific memory to pin their feelings on. In this case, general questions about the past may help you and your therapist to make possible connections between the past and the present. For instance, feeling overwhelmed when your boss asks you a question could relate to an experience of being ridiculed by a teacher at school. Recognising that your boss could be triggering old feelings may, in itself, begin a process of change. Hypothesising with your therapist about the teacher’s motives then, and your boss’s motives now, may help to separate the two events so that you feel less triggered around your boss. You might notice that there are other times when you feel like this. If you don’t feel this way when the therapist asks questions, maybe you could look at what makes this different. Or, perhaps, you could remember or notice times when your boss doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable, and work out why these times work and others don’t.
Even if it were to turn out that your boss is genuinely at fault, you may be able to learn strategies to cope with your feelings when you’re triggered or even how to avoid being triggered altogether. You might plan and try behavioural experiments, such as watching how the boss talks to other staff and how they react. Eventually, you might be able to execute a plan to talk to the boss about how you’re feeling or ask for different ways of working that you find less uncomfortable. Any experiments you opt to try will be discussed and rehearsed with your therapist so that you feel as confident as possible about putting them into practice. You’ll never be pushed into trying anything you really object to, though you may be encouraged to venture ever so slightly outside your comfort zone. The therapist will probably be at pains to point out that there can be no right or wrong result. The approach to change is that even experiments which don’t turn out the way we want them to provide valuable learning.
Notice that there wasn’t very much talk about the past in the above description of what might happen in therapy when someone was having problems with their boss. The client and therapist thought there might be a connection with something that happened a long time ago, but didn’t dwell on it. Instead, they built up the client’s resources to help them cope. If they did talk about the past, it was only to compare it with the present. If the client found it helpful to talk about what happened in more detail, though, they would have been able to do so. Equally, if they found the memory intrusive, there are techniques like eye movement desensitisation and reprogramming (EMDR) which could be used to change the memory so that it is no longer intrusive or distressing.
Counselling and psychotherapy have generally become much more collaborative and inclusive of clients’ ideas, rather than just the therapist’s. We’re very aware that the relationship with our clients is the most important aspect of therapy, so it’s important to us that you feel your wishes are respected and that therapy feels as safe as possible. It isn’t in our interests to mess this up. Having said this, therapists get things wrong just like everyone else. When they do, they’ll mostly be more than ready to admit their mistakes and try to repair any damage. Most importantly, they’ll be ready to learn from what happened.
If you do have troublesome memories, other people think something’s happened in your life that needs to be processed, or you’re just unaccountably troubled, there are specialist trauma therapists who are used to people worrying about the effect of dredging up the past. They’ll listen to your concerns and prepare you so that you’re not pushed into talking about anything scary until and unless you’re ready, and then any painful talk will be kept to a minimum.
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