In any growth endeavor we can often feel that once we do the work and experience some healing, we’ll have arrived, living happily ever after. I know I fell/fall prey to this lie and there is nothing better than life itself to smash this kind of naiveté to pieces. I’ve noticed other clients wanting to read more, work through the past more, get it all figured out so they’ll finally not be in pain, or finally stop doing the same thing over and over. The lie of psychology and psychotherapy is that if you can figure out the cause or the problem, then you can fix it, but not only fix it, live in health and happiness with ease. This started off with Freud in looking to the past for answers and unlocking repression basically. Now, there is nothing wrong with that process in and of itself. There is nothing wrong with wanting to get better, reading books, and doing any type of growth work. What’s wrong is buying into the lie that it will stop there.
I will have to say that there are definitely theories of psychotherapy and change that do not fall prey to this as much as some others, but in general, the paradigm and foundation of counselling and psychotherapy has been about the therapist’s office and the wonderful healing that happens in there, mostly regarding the past.
So if it’s not just about the past, and you can’t just keep reading and going to workshops, what is the issue? What is it all really about? Well, it’s simple. We don’t actually live in the past, although we bring it with us, and we don’t actually live in the future, although we often try. We live in the present. I’m not going to get into what it means to live in the present as there is enough writing out there at this time on “living in the now” to dull your senses. What I want to focus on is how to take what you’ve learned in therapy or in reading and apply it to your life now.
For example, someone comes in for counselling about a pattern in his/her life and they feel they need to look backwards again to work through more of their pain. But to me, at this point in their healing, this is not necessary. They’ve already brought attention to their past and worked through some tough grief. What they need to do now is consciously work toward shedding their false self, to put it simply, in their everyday life. There is definitely an aspect to working through the past in order to process unfelt grief. But after that, the hard work is in changing how all that unprocessed grief affects you everyday. Now therapy is about this person’s everyday life and how the hardened shell from the past is still impacting them – not because of the past directly, but because they now have to chisel away at the shell.
It is about living consciously now, making new choices, noticing reactions, and doing things differently when you want to do what is safe. So it is no longer a search for the Holy Grail to free oneself from suffering. When a person finds the Holy Grail the first time through counselling there might be a ton of healing and a huge weight lifted off their shoulders. But the impact of not working through it for so many years is still there in many ways. This is now the “work.” I call it work because this is where we can get frustrated that we’re not just healed or fixed. “You mean I did all that tough grief work around my past and now I actually have to continue paying attention to how all that crap continues to impact my life in more subtle ways?” Yes.
To summarize in simplicity:
1. Work through the unprocessed emotions and beliefs of the past.
2. Notice the remnants of the impact of the past showing up today and making new choices in the midst.
I believe that a lot of people, and psychotherapy in general, forget about or ignore or are blind to, number 2. Sometimes we just have to start changing, letting go of the past.