The Therapeutic Search for Your Past

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Unless your symptoms can be relieved without an excavation of your ancient history, most counselors will encourage discussion of your past. For some patients this is at their fingertips in fine detail and painful intensity. For others only the emotions are reachable, without being joined to specific memories. A blank slate is found in still another group of clients: they own few recollections, feelings, or interest in bygone days. Yet if the healer believes you were damaged early, he must find a way to assist you in the search for them.

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of a particular aroma or flavor evoking a childhood recollection. The most famous literary example comes in Swann’s Way, the first volume in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The narrator unknowingly refers to the therapeutic dilemma of retrieving the past when it does not come easily of itself:

It is a waste of effort for us to try to summon it, all the exertions of our intelligence are useless. The past is hidden outside the realm of our intelligence and beyond its reach, in some material object (in the sensation that this material object would give us) which we do not suspect. It depends on chance whether we encounter this object before we die, or do not encounter it.

The narrator tells us how the enormous world of his early memories was opened by the simple act of eating the crumbs of a petite madeleine (a small French sponge cake) mixed with tea, reminding him of this treat offered by his aunt and leading to more and different recollections. Here is the attentive therapist’s key to assisting his patient: a knowledge that the sensory world can help unearth the client’s excavation of his early life. You must dig with your bare hands — get your fingers dirty, literally — if you spent youthful time playing in your backyard in the grass, clay, and soil. There, in the movement, scent, and contact might you find a piece of yourself.

We all recognize our five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Thus, the therapist can suggest his client return to his old neighborhood and walk the path he took to school or the playground, or once again ride the bus along a familiar route. I have even known people who persuaded the new occupant of their old apartment to permit a brief tour. If the patient lives far from this place, an imaginary journey is still possible.

Photos of yesteryear can do some of the work — the heavy lifting of evocation. Songs of the time or those sang by babysitters can spring the release of powerful emotions. Proust’s example leads us to recall what foods we ate when we were small, what sounds were present in our flat and nearby, what games we played and TV or radio programs we watched and listened to, what childhood possessions we treasured. None of this is foolproof, guaranteed to open yesterday’s locked door. Yet such efforts sometimes work like a domino game, one toppled piece striking the next and that piece hitting another in turn, as if each object were a newly triggered memory. Nor should consultation with an old friend or relative be ignored. Their recall may trigger your own.

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A similar occurrence recently happened to me. Since crayons will find their way into my grandson’s hands before long, those coloring sticks became a topic of discussion. In my early school years, Crayola Crayons — the Cadillac brand of coloring hardware — were on the equipment list for the summer’s end march to your new daytime captivity. Mom, ever frugal because of her own impoverished childhood, bought an economy size for me, perhaps only the smallest box of eight or the next step up. To my chagrin, however, all my classmates (or so it seemed to me) had larger boxes, several hugging and lugging the giant 48 (or was the number 64?) cardboard container to Jamieson School. Apart from saving me from a possible hernia, I can now remember a sense of shame and loss of status connected with my small Crayola box. Size, long before I understood anything about sexuality, did matter.

Recollections like these are grist for the treatment mill, capable of revealing the origin of insecurity, depression, anxiety, and more. You can also use them as adjuncts to self-understanding outside of therapy. Distant memories tend to be available for retrieval because of an attached emotional charge, whether joyful or dispiriting. The thrill or disappointment or humiliation of a childhood event seems to bind the occurrence to a place somewhere in our consciousness, even if we must struggle to find it.

As Harvard psychologist Robert Kagan said:

The task of describing most private experiences can be likened to reaching down to a deep well to pick up small, fragile crystal figures while you are wearing thick leather mittens.

Searching your past is not for the faint of heart: you do not know what you might find. Yet among the detritus uncovered in your archeological dig, there may be sharp-edged treasures, perhaps even a key to release you from invisible tethers restricting your enjoyment of life’s fullness.

The old joke tells us that if you find yourself in a hole you should stop digging.

Funny how psychotherapy advice is sometimes just the opposite.

The top picture of the Madeleines de Commercy is the work of Bernard Leprêtre. The photo of the very First Version of the Crayola No. 64 Box comes from Kurt Baty. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

8 thoughts on “The Therapeutic Search for Your Past

  1. Love your tips for reconnecting with our forgotten past. Like your box of crayons, I have early memories connected to seemingly insignificant objects. Songs and scents also evoke forgotten joys and individuals. Some phrases – “children should be seen and not heard” – still linger. In a dream, some years ago, I returned to my childhood home only to find the rooms empty.

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    • Thanks, Rosaliene. The empty room reminds me of a therapy anecdote. I was treating a man who was, among other things, interested in finding the meaning of life. When his father died and he was going through his dad’s files, he found one labeled “the meaning of life.” It was empty.

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  2. In conversation with a friend recently I was reflecting on my family of origin. I recalled how aloof and undemonstrative my parents appeared to be (at least in my memory). I noted that I was, for the most part, really quite afraid of them. I was always tip toeing around them, never wanting to upset them in any way. I believe most, if not all, of my eight siblings would say the same thing. My sense is that that experience is not uncommon for children raised in the 50’s and 60’s. I don’t think we were the only family that was ruled with an iron fist (or two). But what difference does that make now? I can know that about my past but how does it impact me now? What I know is that I was determined to have an entirely different family life than the one in which I grew up. I maintain that my parents did the best they could do with the tools that they had so I am not about putting them down but I also wanted a more connected life for my children and the family that I created. And I think I was successful in that. What more would I do with that memory of childhood? Yes, it is painful to recall now and to think about the small child who watched so carefully for any signs that the parents were getting angry but that was then and this is now. I took the part that I wanted to change and I changed it. Is there more that can come from such memories? I also am quick to add that memories are tricky things. I am seeing that child with 63 year old eyes. Perception is also a tricky thing. So childhood perceptions seen through older eyes? How reliable is that?
    Thanks for a thoughtful column. We are feeling fall’s arrival here in NorCal. This week has been gray and cool (highs not more than high 60’s) and the trees and vineyards are showing early fall colors. Not sure if I am ready for that…..

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  3. Good points, JT. The therapist’s job is to assist in the repair of whatever concerns the patient in the most efficient way possible. If he can do this without a deep dive into the past he will accomplish what the client needs more quickly than the slow process of a psychodynamic engagement with history. In your case, it seems, there was not any need that you couldn’t take care of on your own. And yes, memories can be written and rewritten with repeated review. That does not mean, however, that for some the recollections will still be largely accurate at a distance. One final note: while one might say parents, in general, do the best they can, this can be pretty cold comfort for a child who lives with the injury for a long while. I heard the “did the best they could,” comment from some of those who had been severely abused. Here is what I wrote about that: https://drgeraldstein.wordpress.com/2010/08/10/guilt-about-betraying-parents-they-did-the-best-they-could/ Thanks for your comment and be well.

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  4. Hi Gerald, I resonated more with your comment to JT and the link to your previous post. So much of my childhood recollections are so tied up with trauma yet I do have things such as food and toys that can bring up a sense of nostalgia. Unfortunately my therapy is all about the slow excavation of buried pieces of memories in the archeological site that is my childhood with each piece needing gentle handling and the dirt of pain slowly brushed away before it can be put on the shelf to be looked at but not relived. I can’t believe that after more than 25yrs of working at this site I ( or as in this case my therapist) am still finding new skeletons. Alot of this work Ive done on my own and have had previous therapists who pitched in but gave up because of long hours in the hot sun. The therapist who works along with me now has been very tenacious but the work is slow and he’s been at it for 4 yrs and I can see that there is still so much work ahead, I worry alot that he to will get sick of it. Could you please write a post from your point of view your thoughts about working with long term patients and what helped you to stay motivated in working with them? It would be much appreciated
    We are shaking off our winter coats here in Australia and moving into spring.

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    • It sounds like it has been quite a slog, Claire. Your suggestion of a blog topic is a good one and I will think about it seriously. You have lots of company in worrying that the therapist might give up on you — I certainly heard this fear in my practice. Spring! We are headed into autumn, of course. Spring is the season of hope — hang in there, you are a good and earnest soul!

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  5. As a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, I enjoy reading memoirs. It’s fascinating to see how others unfold their histories, which tangled threads they choose to weave into a compelling narrative, and how a pivotal event reverberates into the future. Sometimes there is a feeling of deep connection with the writer and other times gratitude that my history feels so much lighter. Thank you for your insightful and engaging writing, Dr. Stein. You have a gift for words.

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