Does My Past Really Matter in Therapy?


by L. Chris Cannida, LPC, June 2014

I love waterfalls.  They mesmerize me and I find myself wondering about the beginning of each one.  I enjoy the streams created at the bottom of them.  Sometimes they’re bubbling and rambling over rocks, tree roots, and leaves.  Others are just quiet pools, content to be peaceful places for reflection.  This Spring while enjoying some falls in the Smokey Mountains it occurred to me that waterfalls are like humans – they have a past and a present.  A then and a now.  I consider the life of the waterfall.  From where is the water flowing?  Does its flow create changes in the landscape as it passes over?   Considering the movement of waterfalls reminds me of how we, as humans, take the time to consider the whole of our lives.  Our then vs. now.  There are some of us who like to consider our pasts, the events and relationships we’ve endured or enjoyed and how each has shaped who we are today.  Then again, there are those who decide there is no worth in considering from where we’ve come and how it created who we are today.  However, when clients enter therapy, they at least briefly struggle with this very consideration.

Did my landscape change as I endured the waterfall of my life over time?  Does my past really matter? Would talking about it help me to better survive my present-day challenges?

I have a definite answer. Maybe. 

I think about my childhood and earlier adulthood experiences.  I ask myself what benefit there is in allowing such thoughts to enter my mind when I have many present-day decisions and tasks that require my attention.  And of course, I ask myself “What’s the point?”  My immediate short answer – because I’m human and that’s what we do.  We search for understanding in hopes it lessens the sting of the more painful experiences.

Part of enduring or healing is to search for understanding.  

Yet, being a pragmatist, I am not satisfied until I can identify what new life lesson I might learn from all this remembering.  I am distressed if too much reminiscing gets in the way of my daily life now.  This is where I must strike the balance of using my memory to gain insight and understanding, finally healing from emotional wounds by letting go of emotional residue that now serves no purpose and making new discoveries about my own strengths and skills in order to gain resilience for moving forward.

Recently, I’ve witnessed many clients looking for that same balance.  When they begin developing a plan for our work together in therapy, or “treatment planning” as my industry so labels the map of a person’s soul work, they inevitably ask questions surrounding the same issue.  Considering the investment of time and money that comes with entering psychotherapy, people want to be discerning about how they utilize both.  It is a conversation well worth having with any therapist you consider.  I ensure my clients take the time to consider all possibilities.  Carefully and honestly answer the following questions may help you use your time in therapy to the most advantage:

*   Is there evidence that a past event or relationship is having an effect on your ability to function in your current roles as employer, spouse, parent, friend?

*   Do you function well, for the most part, in your daily living but find yourself using ‘down-time’ or times otherwise marked for relaxation to think about those past events or relationships? If so, what questions are you asking yourself about those times? What statements do you make about what those times mean to you?

* Do thoughts of your past/life interrupt daily living? (disrupted sleep, change in appetite, making simple decisions, poor concentration or the inability to feel enjoyment).

*   Do current relationships bring up thoughts and strong feelings that seem familiar though you can’t put your finger on when you’ve experienced them before? This may be an indication that something we therapists call “transference” is occurring. This is when we take previous experiences we’ve had with others in our past and transfer them onto more recent/current relationships though there may be only slight resemblance between the two.

* Have you been through a horrifying, traumatic experience that you have not yet processed in a safe, structured environment?  What might you need to experience with a professional that will teach your body and mind how to hold such horrific memories more comfortably?

Over time, and with difficult relationships or events endured, we are like landscape changed by the flowing water.  

Suffering loss of trusted relationships, loss of loved ones, loss of self-certainty, or loss of hope changes us.  In all that loss, we can even lose a sense of who we really want to be.  Sometimes talking about our past gives us a way to reclaim ourselves amidst the losses suffered, develop a perspective on life that we can better tolerate, and begin to have more fluid experiences as a person.

Does my past really matter?  Is there worth in talking about it?  There is certainly worth in considering the possibilities.


About L. Chris Cannida

I am a licensed professional counselor practicing in Oklahoma.
This entry was posted in Counseling, Counseling and Mental Health, Psychotherapy, War and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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