The Ups and Downs of Living in the Past

The conventional wisdom about “living in the past” tells us the place is a toxic sinkhole to be visited sparingly, if ever.

I’d say this is often true, but not always. In my last post I described the value of “living in the present moment.”

Not today. Let’s look back. Start with the upside of spending time in

THE PAST

THE THERAPEUTIC USE OF THE PAST:

Psychodynamic psychotherapy allows us to observe repetitive patterns of our historical behavior, the better to recognize areas we need to change. History is grist for the treatment mill. The close examination of our life course permits the discovery of unresolved relationships and misfortunes. Historian George Santayana advised us all to keep hold of our bygone experience:

When experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

My friend Henry Fogel put the same message a different way: “I like to make new mistakes.” In other words, don’t replicate the old ones.

When we recall prior examples of resilience under the duress of a painful present, we can also boost our confidence. Knowing we came through earlier challenges reminds us of what enabled our survival and recovery. Those capacities are likely still within us.

POSITIVE REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST: 

The past can be a sweet reminder of loving relatives and friends, triumphant moments, hurdles surmounted, and what has been good about life. In those who are middle-aged and beyond, remembering the youthful beauty of your sweetheart can spark continuing attachment, even though you and your love no longer resemble springtime flowers. In the elderly or the infirm, positive memories sustain one in the present, especially when a limit exists now on what might be experienced and accomplished. Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXX ends this way:

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

THE NEED FOR A COHERENT STORY: 

Most people value their own story to make sense of the life they are currently living. It binds them to those with whom they have marched together through time. It tells them what they valued and what remains of importance. No wonder amnesia sufferers are so distressed. Their self-definition has been lost along with their story.

One cannot doubt, however, that the past can resemble the sinkhole mentioned earlier, if used to foreclose present opportunities. What is the downside of living too much in the long ago?

VICTIMHOOD IN SERVICE OF THE EGO:

A focus on the past allows some people to claim a status they would be unable to achieve in the present. I treated a woman of about 40, disfavored by nature and fate. Testing revealed her intellectual limits. She was neither physically attractive nor graceful. Worse still, her early life had been one of abuse, neglect, and rejection. Life’s unfairness to her historical-self was what she focused on, to the point of telling new acquaintances of her bad luck soon after meeting them. They fled, thus further confirming her sense of unique disadvantage.

One day I questioned her about the extremity of her beliefs. After once again acknowledging how fortune’s wheel had been unkind, I asked if she thought perhaps there were also others who met similar tragedy. “No.” What about in the history of the world? “No.” Not even Jesus or victims of genocide or torture? “No.”

In coming to grips with this, I wondered what advantage she found in the belief she was the most unfortunate person ever. I concluded this attitude allowed her to claim a distinction she could not otherwise attain. In effect, she prided herself on her disadvantage. Such a manner of living caused her to continue pleading her case with every new acquaintance, always failing to obtain the friendship and validation she wanted. In her own way, she gave it to herself in the ever-present litany of woe she called up daily. Her ego was thus bolstered.

AVOIDANCE:

Yesterday may appear safer than today or tomorrow. Whatever happened at a distance tends to be less acute. The past will not change and holds no surprises. Even if it is a dark place, no new demons arise. You know the territory. Indeed, one becomes quasi-friends with those demons. Stay put, some people think. They rationalize their stasis as a wise avoidance of fresh pain and heartbreak, humiliation and failure.

Psychotherapy helps a willing client recognize the cost of such an escape into yesterday, thus encouraging a return to human contact in spite of the risk we always face in our effort to live full lives and attain happiness.

POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS:

This condition is not a voluntary choice. One who has witnessed a murder or shocking death, or been threatened with the same, can be triggered by reminders of the event into a visceral return to tragedy, sometimes unable to tell past from present. They then re-experience the awfulness and are re-traumatized.

The worst example known to me of such repeated reliving – due to brain damage and not PTSD – was an elderly women about whom I heard the following. Her memory was so compromised that each morning she awoke believing her long-deceased husband was alive, and proceeded to search for him in desperation. The nursing home staff then had to inform her of his death. Thereby she was newly stricken every day. To the good, actual PTSD can be treated, as this woman’s condition could not.

TREATMENT STUCK IN THE PAST: 

Significant focus on the past is a necessary part of many psychotherapies. Still-tender wounds and long-nursed grudges must be grieved. How much your history remains a central topic is up to you and your therapist. At some point life has to be lived, because we cannot repurchase our yesterdays. Cognitive behavioral therapies try not to delay such a reentry into life. Remember, there is always more self-examination possible, in or out of therapy. Even Socrates – the man who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” also lived his life.

As Kierkegaard wrote, “Life is understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” No one ever understands everything about himself, past or present, including this writer.

Understanding is but one part of human existence. The driver’s seat in the vehicle of life faces forward, just behind the windshield and steering wheel. Rearview mirrors are less prominent. The rules of the road tell us to consult the latter only on occasion.

The second image is Brassai’s 1936 photo, Les Escaliers de Montmartre. The following photo was captured by  Alfred Stieglitz in 1894. It is called Venetian Canal and was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What Happens in Psychotherapy?

What does psychotherapy do and how does it do that? Good questions, and even some therapists might have a hard time answering them. Of course, some of the goals are obvious: reduce depression, have better relationships, eliminate anxiety, enjoy your life more, and stop worrying. But what are the elements that get you there? I’ll give you a sense of some of the factors that permit those goals to be achieved.

1. Trust. Many people entering treatment have trust issues: they trust too easily or not at all, usually the latter. Trust will start with the relationship between you and the therapist. Simple things: does he listen? Does he understand? Does he seem interested and dedicated? Is he dependable? Does he care? If the answers to these questions are “yes,” then it will be a bit easier to begin to trust others. The experience of a benign relationship with one person can open you to the possibility that this experience can be achieved elsewhere in your life.

2. Validation. Many people coming into psychotherapy having been told that they should “get over it,” that they “shouldn’t feel that way,” that they shouldn’t complain or “whine;” or having been ignored, dismissed, or criticized too often when trying to express themselves. Some folks believe feelings are unimportant; others might state that it is not “masculine” to feel too much, and so forth. As a result, many new patients have so buried their feelings that they are alienated from themselves and don’t know whether it is appropriate to think or feel as they do. A good therapist creates a safe place for talking about such things (trust again), and gives the person a sense that there is value in what they feel and think. Over time, this action, by itself, can help improve self esteem and reduce sadness and alienation.

3. Grieving. If one has not had supportive relationships (with people who are both trustworthy and validating), the sense of loss or absence contributes to sadness, and sometimes to depression. The relationship with the therapist allows you to express the emotions related to loss (both sadness and anger) to someone who listens patiently and shows concern. As you process those feelings of loss, your sadness should gradually diminish. The therapist serves as a witness and again, as someone who validates your pain. Grieving in isolation too often contributes to the feeling of disconnection and alienation from the world. Grieving with someone who cares reconnects you to one of the things that can be good in life: human contact.

4. Learning new things. Any good therapist needs to provide some guidance and tools that enable change. This might come in the form of helping you learn and practice new social skills (including acting these skills out with the therapist), assisting you in changing how you think (cognitive restructuring) that helps you reduce self-defeating thoughts, training in how to be assertive (again with role playing in the therapy session), or meditation.

5. A change in perspective. A good therapist will provide you with new ways of thinking about the world and about your life. Since he can see you from the outside, he is more likely to see you in a way that you cannot see yourself.

6. Facing things, not avoiding things. We all practice avoidance some of the time, and some of the time it is a useful thing. Unfortunately, many of us practice it all too much. We distract ourselves from pain and avoid challenging situations. We can use food, TV, shopping, sex, drugs, alcohol, the internet, and computer games to get us away from whatever it is we can’t handle. We worry about problems rather than coming up with a plan of action and taking them on. We don’t ask out the pretty girl for fear of rejection, or say “no” to people who want to befriend us for the same reason. We stay at a “dead-end” job because of our insecurities. And, of course, unhappiness is the result.

A therapist can assist you in identifying the patterns of avoidance, help you to gradually become able to tolerate anxiety (by use of such things as cognitive restructuring, role playing or meditation) and give you tasks that gradually increase in difficulty so that you reduce avoidance and begin to take action that works.

7. Acceptance. By acceptance I am referring to acceptance of the nature of life and the discomfort that comes with living; acceptance of the fact that being open to life allows you to experience satisfaction and joy, but also opens you to pain; and awareness of the temporary nature of most of that discomfort. The more that you take life on its terms, the less you will be trapped by it.

Remember playing with the Chinese Finger Puzzle as a kid, the cylindrical woven structure made of bamboo, open at both ends? You put your two index fingers into it, but when you pulled hard to get your fingers out, you became more stuck. Only by releasing the tension and moving your fingers toward the center of the device, did it collapse and no longer held you tight. Life is a lot like that to the extent that we must stop engaging in behaviors that only make us more “stuck.”Acceptance allows you to free yourself, at least somewhat, from what is distressing about life.

8. Valued Action. If you are caught in the struggle with your emotions, or focused on avoidance of pain, what is good in life will be hard to achieve. Therapy can help you to think about the life you would like to lead, the life that is consistent with your values, and help to relieve you of the habits that keep you so wound-up that you don’t have time to think about what it is you would really like to do, and what it is that would lead you to a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. What is your true self? Therapy can help you find out and encourage that person to exist in the world.

The description I’ve given you is based, in part, on my experience in life and training, especially training in such therapeutic approaches as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based behavior therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and psychodynamic psychotherapy. Other therapists may have a different view of what is important and how to help you get to the point that your life is more satisfying and less fraught with depression, anxiety, or chronic relationship problems. But here, at least, I hope that I have given you some sense of direction and some reason to be hopeful about the possibility of change in your life.