Over and over I hear people suggest its meaningless to discuss the past.“What’s done is done”“Let’s just focus on how to move forward”“How is talking about that going to help me in my life today?”And so forth.
When I hear clients say this, I get where they’re coming from. It’s counter-intuitive to revisit pain, and seems almost masochistic really. That being said, one of the best ways I’ve learned how to help people includes revisiting the past. So it’s important to me to help people understand the why and how of healing past hurts in order to have a happier future.
The first rule is that a therapist shouldn’t jump into the past right when you get started.
I’ve heard of this happening, and I think it’s a big mistake. Unless there’s something deeply troubling to you from your past that you want to talk about in therapy right now, then there’s other work to be done first. A therapist that heads straight for the ‘tell me about your mother’ line is really doing you a disservice. Those are usually therapists that have a narrow understanding of the human psyche and are adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment. One thing my supervisor taught me early on, that I’ve never forgotten, is don’t assume you know what’s going on. This has helped me to maintain an open mind and humble spirit as I approach complicated human beings. I listen first, and then try to conceptualize later. Then I adopt specific treatment plan based upon my understanding of the client and I watch to see what the outcomes are looking like as I use appropriate interventions. If I’m missing the mark, I will adjust. A therapist that begins with a lot of assumptions and just jumps in, even if its to relevant data from your past, may not really understand the whole picture of what’s going on for you, and could actually be doing harm.
Second, it’s important to stop the bleeding before the surgery.
Usually people will start therapy because they’re in pain. Therapy isn’t easy to do, and pain is a great motivator. But when we’re in pain, all we can focus on is the pain, and how to get it to stop. So this type of work in therapy, aka stopping the bleeding, is critical before someone opens you up to more pain, including anything from your past. When I train therapists, I teach them an analogy to help illustrate this point. If you imagine hedges growing up in a yard that are untended, they eventually become wild and unruly. There are a few methods you have to deal with these hedges. First, the quickest and most effective way is to trim them. A chainsaw, clippers or a big pair of scissors, this trimming method is the best bet. And this, to me, is when a therapist is helping you deal with the immediate presenting symptoms. It might mean using cognitive strategies or behavioral interventions to help you to feel better as quickly as possible. These strategies I use tend to help client’s mood improve, they begin sleeping better, they feel more motivated and are enjoying life much more than they were previously.
At this point, most of my clients are tempted to stop therapy. They are feeling better, and that was the goal, right?
Yes and no. The first goal was to feel better, but the second goal is to stay better. If this is only a temporary band-aid and the pain returns, was therapy really successful? In my opinion, not really.
So, this is the time, when it’s best to do surgery. Essentially going after the hedges at the roots. It takes more time, and the digging is work, but if you can pull it out, there wont be any hedges to trim anymore in that area.
For example, if you come in struggling with anxiety, interventions like meditation, eliminating caffeine and mild exercise will help you to feel better quite quickly, as in brief therapy, which is about 6-8 sessions. But if you have deeper issues related to why you have the anxiety – such as low self esteem, boundaries issues, people pleasing or workaholism, the anxiety is likely to return. So, it’s important to look at these other areas, and especially where they came from. Children aren’t born with poor boundaries, they are learned. For some reason boundaries were not okay to have in that family of origin, and were met with hostility, guilt, manipulation or shame. So revisiting these issues from the past, and relearning some of these important life skills will help the presenting problem be healed, or at least in remission for a much greater duration.
Third, grief heals.
In addition to the first two points, which are making sure therapists taking time to get to know your situation before they revisit the past, and making sure they help with immediate symptoms before relearning important skills that were missed in your past, the third concept to remember is that grief heals. Again, as mentioned, it’s counterintuitive to re-experience pain. But if you have a therapist that knows how to revisit it, and what tools to use during your sessions (such as EMDR, Gestalt or imagery exercises) and what homework to assign (healing letters, making amends or bibliotherapy as examples), then it will help you to begin the grieving process. You will feel feelings that were necessary to feel back then, but too overwhelming so they got stuck and are unprocessed. Our minds and bodies are made to heal naturally. But when something gets in the way of that healing, it can take a therapeutic intervention to rekindle the natural process. For example, in EMDR, a therapist will use and eye movement or tapping technique that engages both parts of the brain and allows for processing trauma in a unique and effective way. This therapy has been proven by research to work for all types of past trauma including car accidents, war trauma, animal attacks, and physical or sexual abuse. Even for addictions and phobias, clients who do EMDR have to revisit some aspect of their past that is keeping the present symptoms going. The present is tied to the past, and EMDR helps bring this to the light where it can be felt and healed. Clients are amazed at how much better they feel when they can process, and therefore let go of, pain they didn’t even realize they were carrying.
As a local therapist in calgary, I definitely understand why clients may be hesitant to revisit their past. And I would say to them that some of that hesitation is warranted. If the therapist they meet with doesn’t seem to want to get to know their case better, or doesn’t seem interested in helping alleviate some of the immediate and pressing symptoms, it probably wont help to try to get into the past. Therapists should be interested, and take a humble approach to trying to understand your problem. You should feel that some of your pain has lessened by early interventions before you’re asked to go there. Finally, you should be encouraged to remember that grieving heals. The feelings wont have to be felt for very long (true feelings are quick), but the results will likely be a lot longer lasting than short term interventions. If you have the courage to do the work, and can find the right therapist to help you, you will have lifelong results.
Living Well Counselling Services Inc.
4803 Centre Street Northwest #4,
Calgary, AB T2E 2Z6
Living Well was created with certain values in mind. We want to help you connect with a Psychologist or Counsellor that is effective in their areas of strength and also one that is welcoming, non-judgemental & easy to work with. Whether you need to meet with a counsellor for anxiety, addictions or depression, are in need of couples therapy, anger management tools or an LGBTQ friendly therapist, one of us may be a good fit. For tips on finding the right counsellor, click here. We also strive to keep our rates lower than the set rate for most Calgary counselling agencies, and have therapists covered by benefits should you have access to extended health coverage.