Much of psychotherapy is about identifying the key patterns that have developed in one’s past and changing those that no longer benefit the person. I often refer to these patterns as “templates.” Templates form through repeated experiences, and they then create a way of acting and of thinking about oneself and about others that may persist well into the future.
Perhaps a person has grown up with a particularly critical parent. For that person, it was as if he or she could never do anything right; he or she would never hear a compliment or receive an acknowledgement from the parent. A template may form for that person that others are critical and he or she is not good enough. It is not surprising, then, to see in that person’s subsequent adult relationships this pattern emerging. Bosses are critical. Romantic partners are critical. And he or she can never do the right thing. In fact it takes a great deal of work in order to stop the repetition of this mind set.
From my perspective as a psychotherapist, one of the best ways to work with these templates, to identify them and change them, is by observing them in the relationship that exists between my client and me. I believe that these templates are powerful forces in a person’s life: they are applied in all areas of a person’s life. And they will emerge at some point in the psychotherapeutic relationship. This phenomenon was identified by Freud over a hundred years ago as transference. It was Freud’s discovery that we make relationships out in the image of these key relationships of one’s childhood. Freud did not (nor do I) view this as a problem (although often when these templates emerge, it can be difficult emotional work). The emergence of these templates is inevitable. Together, then, the client and I can set about the difficult work of changing them.
It might be that as in the example above the client may come to feel that I have been critical or perhaps withholding of praise or acknowledgment. In this way, the template is alive in the room. To begin with, the client can tell me his or her feelings – something that so often he or she was not able to do in the past. In these situations, I strive to be open, to hear the client and to reflect on my behavior. There usually is some truth in these instances: perhaps I could have said something in a warmer tone or responded better to some request. By being able to tell me his or her feelings, we are already changing the template (which usually developed in silence and with the client’s feelings being unheard and unspoken).
This work also involves gaining better insight into the mechanics and origins of the template. We will endeavor to see just how this type of seeing – this way of organizing experience — originated. And in doing so, we are then able to allow for what I think of as healthy skepticism. It is true that people can be critical. But it is also true that much of the way we experience something has to do with our own subjectivity, including our history and our expectations based on that history. To break the templates of the past takes some space in which to reflect, to ask oneself, “Well let’s see, that seemed like a critical thing. I wonder if he was really being critical of me?” Sometimes this process, in the room with me or in the other rooms of the client’s life, involves asking the other. I often work with couples to ask one another “Were you just being critical of me?”
And sometimes it is not at all about asking or endeavoring to find out if the person was being critical or not. Sometimes it is about how one reacts. When the template is changed, there are far more choices, a greater range of reaction, available. When the client is able to see in a new light, then not every response from the other is a criticism. And even in questionable cases, the client may be able to react in a nonreactive way. There are now more choices in how to respond and in how to feel.
Breaking these templates is one of the hallmarks of psychotherapy as I understand it. In this way a person is no longer controlled by his or her past. The past, although it cannot be changed, no longer stretches into the present. There is more of a clear line drawn, a demarcation, from past to present so that the present and future can be different than the past.