Why It’s Important to Explore Your Past in Therapy—Even When It Seems Unrelated
There’s a prevailing belief that exploring your past in therapy is pointless. A complete waste of time. After all, talking about past circumstances doesn’t change them. It’s also self-indulgent and narcissistic, right? And it takes too darn long. You can talk about your childhood for years and not get anywhere.
Plus, rehashing the past means blaming your parents for everything, and perpetuating the role of victim.
In actuality, these are all common myths and misconceptions.
Psychotherapist Katrina Taylor, LMFT, pointed out that there’s a difference between blaming and accountability. “If your parents have hurt you in the past, it’s important to take an honest look at how that’s affected you.” Doing so might spark a productive, healing conversation with your family and stop you from repeating similar patterns with your own kids, she said.
Exploring the past doesn’t mean perpetuating a victim stance either. Acknowledging our pain means acknowledging our vulnerability and humanity, Taylor said. “Being in touch with those feelings is what allows us to do something different in our lives.”
“By looking backward, one can better understand their present and make positive changes for the future,” said Emily Griffiths, LPC, a licensed psychotherapist in private practice who specializes in the treatment of anxiety, depression and trauma in Austin, Texas.
Exploring the past gives clients “corrective emotional experiences,” she said, which is “when a client experiences something that challenges a previously held belief.” For instance, maybe you grew up thinking that most people can’t be trusted or that you’re not good enough or capable.
“When people talk about their past they realize the distortions they had because of their age or position, they see how a reasonable thought then could be an unreasonable thought now, or they realize that they’ve blamed themselves for something they’d never blame another child for,” said Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, Calif.
After telling their story or answering a question, Howes’s clients have often said: “Wow, when I said that out loud, it seemed [‘not as scary’ or ‘totally irrational’ or ‘just what my mom would say’ or ‘not me at all’].”
Exploring their early environment helps clients understand who they are and why, said Taylor. They might explore everything from whether their parents encouraged independence or prolonged attachment to whether they invited emotional expression or wanted kids to be “seen and not heard,” she said.
Looking back also helps to uncover your relationship patterns, Taylor said. “[A] man who comes to therapy saying that his wife complains of his emotional coldness will understand himself on a different level when we explore the relationship with his stoic mother who encouraged him to ‘grin and bear it’ rather than cry.”
You might discover why you do all sorts of things today—why you say yes to things you don’t want to do, why you sabotage your performance when you can actually succeed, why you dwell on the negative. And then you can take action to challenge these patterns, Howes said.
In fact, mining the past for clues into your present behavior can be transformative. “When you realize you’ve sought out unavailable partners because you always wanted love from an unavailable parent, this can liberate you to seek love from people who really care about you,” Howes said.
Exploring the past is especially helpful when old messages persist and have contributed to a poor self-image, Howes said. You can learn where messages like “You’re a bad person,” “You’ll never make it” or “You’re just a phony” originated from and dismantle them, he said.
Howes also noted that delving into the past may be necessary when a client has experienced trauma. The key, he said, resides in retelling the story of the traumatic event, because the more you talk about it, the more you tend to lose the emotional impact. “By the tenth time [you tell] the story, it [feels] like [you’re] reading from a script, and you [don’t] feel the trauma at all.”
Griffiths agreed. “Reliving difficult experiences in the safety of the therapeutic relationship can help the client disconnect the memory from the physical aspects that are the source of extreme discomfort such as night sweats, panic attacks, and fixating on thoughts and past events.”
Griffiths underscored that if a client has discussed the traumatic event, doesn’t feel safe or doesn’t think it’ll be helpful to talk about in the moment, she doesn’t believe it’s essential to explore it. She focuses on creating a safe space for her clients to share their trauma when they’re ready.
Moreover, turning to the past is critical when there’s a longstanding problem the client has been unable to overcome. Taylor believes that a high percentage of people who start therapy struggle with problems that stem from their childhood experiences. The key is to zero in on the defenses—or adaptations, as Taylor calls them—that people have developed to deal with their family environment.
“At some point the symptom served an important purpose for the client and it continues to persist. Perhaps the client knows this is something they need to change but seem unable to do so.”
Taylor shared this example: A person keeps having relationships with emotionally abusive partners. They don’t want to keep doing this, and yet they regularly find themselves in these relationships. This client “consciously wants to change, but unconsciously feels pulled to repeat a familiar kind of relationship”—the early relationship with their caregivers. Maybe they internalized the message that they don’t deserve anything better than abuse, or maybe being criticized feels more loving than praise, she said.
“Exploring these questions is what allows the client to understand the motivations behind their choices and to begin to choose differently.”
You don’t always need to explore your past in therapy. As Howes said, if the problem is recent—you’ve been symptom-free your whole life, and a hit-and-run has made you feel uneasy on the road—he’s not going to ask about your grandmother. “Some problems aren’t rooted in the past, and digging would be a fruitless endeavor.”
Taylor shared these additional examples: a client needs space to grieve the loss of a loved one, they’re dealing with an empty nest, or they’ve lost their job. (However, if a client frequently loses their job, it’s time “to get historical and understand how the past is influencing the present and causing this person to sabotage themselves.”)
Some clients simply don’t care about the past. For instance, you have a strong dog phobia, and instead of learning how it developed, you just want it to stop, Howes said.
Not all therapists prioritize the past. Cognitive-behavioral therapists, for example, mainly focus on current thoughts and behaviors, Howes said.
“It’s the therapists who choose to look at relational patterns, early trauma, and the unconscious who find value in exploring the past.” Howes noted these therapists may use the following words to describe their work: “relational,” “attachment-based,” “Freudian,” “Jungian,” “depth-psychology,” “psychodynamic,” or “psychoanalytic.”
Howes believes that “we are shaped by data from our genetics as well as our past, with a strong emphasis on our earliest experiences. As the Alexander Pope quote from 1734 says: ‘Just as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined.’ We can’t help but be influenced by our early life, especially the profoundly positive or negative experiences.”
“The therapists who dive into the past do so because they believe the origins of the problem, or the reasons the problem is intensified or remains stubborn, lies in the past,” Howes added.
Taylor believes that exploring our past goes beyond the individual; it benefits society.
“We all unconsciously repeat childhood patterns in our lives that we’re not aware of. We value certain emotions over others, we expect people around us to behave in certain ways, and we may struggle with empathy and compassion for those different from us.”
When we look into the past, we uncover these unconscious patterns, and when we better understand ourselves, we better understand others, too, she said. When we have compassion for all our parts—including the darker parts—we’re more respectful of others’ humanity.
“Overall, the work of therapy, and particularly with a focus on past relationships, contributes to a kinder world.”
If exploring the past is stopping you from seeking therapy, start your session by expressing this fear directly. According to Taylor, you might say: “I’m here because certain things in my life are not working but I’m hesitant to explore my history and I’m not sure why.”
As Howes added, “The beauty of therapy is [that you and your therapist are] united in a common cause—understanding you and helping you manage your life.”