What’s the Past Got to do with It?

Psychotherapy often involves quite a bit of time talking about one’s past, often the very past going back to one’s childhood. It’s not uncommon then for a client to wonder about this. After all, he or she has usually come into therapy because of some disturbing issues in the present. What does the past have to do with these issues? Often the answer is: a lot.

While I am not sure about other members of the animal kingdom, I am clear about the really incredible fact of just how malleable we humans are throughout our development. We are emotional and psychological sponges; in addition to the influence of genetics, as children we soak up what our environment provides us. In this way, we are shaped and form our personalities.

A key aspect of this development is the formation of core beliefs about our self and our world. These beliefs then reside at the core of our being. If our experience as a child is loving and nurturing, these core beliefs reflect a basic belief in our goodness, our ability to feel loved, our talents and capabilities. But when there have been failures in what the environment provides, failures such as neglect or traumas, the formation of these core beliefs becomes compromised. Such beliefs then include thoughts about one’s unworthiness, about being overly responsible for others, and about a basic sense of badness inside.

Obviously, these beliefs will influence how a person then acts in the world. Perhaps, given a core belief about one’s unworthiness, a person will have avoided relationships or found him or herself in a series of abusive relationships. If someone maintains a core belief about the harshness and unresponsiveness of the world, he or she may lead more of a reclusive, withdrawn existence.

Much of psychotherapy work is to uncover these core beliefs, and when they are negative and detrimental to one’s overall wellbeing to change them. This is not easy work. Often a client will tell me, “but it’s true,” and have difficulty seeing these beliefs as just that – beliefs. Instead he takes as fact his unworthiness or she her basic responsibility for all that goes wrong around her.

By examining these beliefs, by bringing them into the light of day, and by talking to someone else about them, the transformation process takes place. Usually this process will involve grief as we uncover what the factors were that led to the formation of these beliefs. As we explore childhood. And while this work may take time and involve a lot of emotional pain, it is powerful and transformative. It is a truly stirring moment for me when a client recognizes that he or she no longer holds these negative views about him or herself. When these beliefs are more like distant memories.

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