Why the Past Matters

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfill it.”

— George Santayana

The above is perhaps one of the most famous quotations known today. It is it strikes me keenly psychological. The philosopher George Santayana was a contemporary of Freud’s (I don’t know if they knew one another or their work). He was also a student at Harvard of another intellectual giant, the psychologist and religious scholar William James. Santayana’s famous sentence speaks to the core of modern day psychotherapy practice and echoes one of Freud’s greatest discoveries: the compulsion to repeat.

This is from Wikipedia:

Sigmund Freud’s use of the concept was articulated…for the first time, in the article of 1914, Erinnern, Wiederholen und Durcharbeiten (‘Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through.’ Here he noted how ‘the patient does not remember anything of what he has forgotten and repressed, he acts it out, without, of course, knowing that he is repeating it….For instance, the patient does not say that he remembers that he used to be defiant and critical toward his parents’ authority; instead, he behaves in that way to the doctor’.

Freud recognized how patterns repeat in a person’s life, particular patterns that do not contribute to the overall happiness of the person. He wondered, why these patterns exist. His theory of the Repetition Compulsion speaks to the process of what happens when an experience (and its corresponding emotions) is repressed. That is, when it is not remembered.

Repression is the process of allocating some experience, usually distressing, to the realm outside of consciousness. Originally Freud thought that what was repressed were unwanted drives and impulses. Again from Wikipedia, repression is described as the process where “what is unacceptable to the conscious mind, and would if recalled arouse anxiety, is prevented from entering into it.”

Who would want to remember what is so unpleasant? The person may or may not have a memory of some painful event in the past. As is often the case with the clients I work with, a person may remember the painful event or relationship. However, it is the accompanying feelings that are often repressed. And in many cases we see, given a lack of emotional support when the event occurred, these emotions, though felt and repressed, have not been lived and processed thoroughly. They remain stuck; the person remains stuck. And as Freud discovered, these feelings and this particular dynamic are then acted out. In Freud’s example cited above, a relationship with a harsh and stern parent is acted out in someone’s hostile reaction to authority figures.

Often we see this process reflected in a person’s relationship history. Perhaps a woman has had a series of relationships and a habit of breaking off romances when the man interested in her becomes too interested. We may come to see through our work some earlier relationship, perhaps with a distant father, that is getting acted out (in this sense the client maintains distance, which is what she is used to from earlier experiences) in contemporary relationships.

The work of psychotherapy then is to help the client to remember. By talking about the past, the client not only relives it, but can experience – perhaps for the first time – the emotions associated to it. In the presence of another person, the therapist, he or she can then engage in the process of feeling and (what Freud called) working through. Those feelings, that situation in the past, no longer has to be acted out. A person is free to make choices, especially ones that enrich his or her life.

Psychotherapy is the process of remembering: Of freeing a person from having to relive the past.

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