Why Do I Talk About the Past?
"Any life lived means not having lived other potential lives, and it is the coincidence of being born into a particular family, in a particular culture, historical period, and social group, with the experience of unique life events, in combination with genetic inheritance, that provide the ingredients that form a person. "
-- Graham Music
In sessions, it's not unusual to hear a patient proclaim the uselessness of talking about their past. This is particularly true when the patient and I are in the territories of childhood experiences, exploring the types of parenting the patient has received. One recent statement I heard is from a young person, "talking about my mom won't solve my problems," the person demanding a quick fix of themselves. "I don't want to blame my parents" is another version I encounter, as though assigning blame is the only solution possible in these moments of making sense of oneself.
Contrary to the belief that "the past" and "the present" are different segments we live out of, our life is a continuous flow of music, each note depending on the ones coming before and after it to form a melody, a theme, or a particular expression. When we approach your past, we're taking an x-ray of your inner world, attempting to understand the structure of your being. In Graham Music's book Nurturing Natures, Attachment and Children's Emotional, Sociocultural and Brain Development, the author compiles many recent research findings to illustrate how an infant develops into a unique psychological, emotional, and social being. The author's fundamental understanding is that what makes us who we are is profoundly shaped by how we adapt to our environments, especially our early attachment figures. Our early caregivers' capacities to hold us in their minds, think about, care for, and understand us are the pillars of forming a secure sense of self that we call confidence.
As attachment theory is gaining popularity in pop culture, it has become common sense to some audiences we carry forward to future situations how we've been treated since a young age. Still, the public can benefit from understanding the subtlety of this. Graham Music shares an example of such subtle influence. He cites the findings from massive longitudinal attachment studies by the Grossmanns in 2005 in Germany and Sroufe in 2005 in Minnesota to demonstrate the long-term effects of early experience, "the maltreated children might not be maltreated in their next context, for example in nursery, but they can end up somehow being less liked and more shunned than other children. Such children can find sitting still and concentrating harder, they might get into more fights in school, be unhappier, and such patterns can show continuity all the way to adulthood unless there are helpful interventions or changes of circumstances."
I also want to address the misconception that "talking about the past" is only data-collecting. In my work with newer therapists, I often receive the question, "so what causes this (certain symptoms)?" The implied thought process here is that we'll make the symptoms disappear as long as we know the causes. Unfortunately, this type of "analyzing" doesn't help patients go much further from where they are. One reason is that this type of intellectual understanding creates an illusion that we've got it and can remain above our emotional pain with our hearts closed. Another reason is that our being is so complex and nonlinear that knowing what causes what is almost impossible -- the quote from Graham Music at the beginning speaks to this beautifully.
The healing power of "talking about the past" lies in a therapist's capacity to link patients' past with their present experiences. Remember Graham Music's critical viewpoint that the lack of parental emotional sensitivity and mind-mindedness in early childhood shapes someone's psychological struggles? This condition can shift in the presence of a therapist who works attentively and sensitively with patients to help them understand their emotional pain and suffering that are still alive in the present. Even though the therapist goes into past narratives, the work is about assisting patients in cultivating an embodied understanding of their emotional experiences in the present. Over time, patients can recognize their psychological and emotional worlds as much as possible through the therapist's attunement and determine which notes they play the next. After all, we write our own music.
on suffering and healing
Recently the question about what psychological healing is has circled back to me. While maybe not all of us have thought about or had an answer to the question, many have experienced emotional struggles and mental anguish of various sorts. Therefore many of us know what it's like to be mentally unwell. It's tempting to go to the opposite of a troubled state of mind to find the answer about healing and think that healing means having no more emotional pain and feeling pleasant. Not too long ago, I overheard an exchange between two people:
One asked the other, "What would it be like if you weren't actively involved in your inner dramas?"
Without much thinking, the other person answered, "Oh, I'd feel so good and have so much happiness!"
"But life is also full of sorrow and sadness," the first person said, sending the other person into silent thinking.
In the essay Suffering from her book The Way of Woman, Awakening The Perennial Feminine, Helen Luke distinguishes two kinds of experiences we call suffering, "that which is totally unproductive, the neurotic state of meaningless depression, and that which is the essential condition of every step on the way to what C. G. Jung has called individuation." She goes on to point out, "Deeply ingrained in the infantile psyche is the conscious or unconscious assumption that the cure for depression is to replace it with pleasant, happy feelings, whereas the only valid cure for any kind of depression lies in the acceptance of real suffering. To climb out of it any other way is simply a palliative, laying the foundations for the next depression."
So healing seems to have something to do with "the acceptance of real suffering"—what does it look like exactly? Luke puts it in contrast to "subjective emotional reactions" and offers a few examples. When we fear humiliation, we can feel a deadweight of moods and depression. Still, we have the option to pick up the pain of humiliation and carry it without self-justifying or demanding to be freed from it. When we hear tragedies of others, horror and pity might fill us, but staying in this emotional state lifts no burden. However, "the smallest consent to the fierce, sharp pain of objective suffering" may create meaningful impacts. A nurse can react with intense personal emotions when faced with a patient's misery. Suppose they allow these emotions to consume them. In that case, they may eventually learn to repress what they cannot bear and become hardened and unfeeling, or burden the sick one with their concerns. A true nurse, deeply concerned yet unpreoccupied with their emotional dramas, chooses to suffer with the patient and let their experiences change them.
In my work with a young population, their exploration of love and challenges in dating and relationships are where I often see the refusal to suffer and the entanglement in personal emotional reactions. One can talk about their experiences of having an unavailable partner, unrequited love, being rejected, being nervous about the first date, etc. When they refuse to suffer the pain, they go into emotional reactions featured by blaming themselves or others. Some of the common themes of the stories include "I'm not enough," "I'm too much," "they aren't enough," "they're too much." They can feel stuck in the never-ending cycle that compromises their capacity to create new stories and see new versions of themselves. Depressiveness, anxiety, hopelessness, cynicism, and sometimes resentment and hatred ensue. The genuine suffering of the pain from disappointment, rejection, sadness, humiliation, loneliness, and heartaches is kept out of the process. So is the opportunity to add to their life experiences and expand the understanding of their inner landscapes as human beings.
Luke takes it a step further and states that each time a person "exchanges neurotic depression for real suffering," they share "to some small degree in the carrying of the suffering of mankind, in bearing a tiny part of the darkness of the world." Such a person releases themselves from their personal concerns and inner dramas into a sense of meaning. She believes that even though one may not think consciously in those terms, the transition can be recognized by the disappearance of their pointless moods and depression. Perhaps we can agree that we're moving towards healing as we learn to break out of our personal narrative and start to suffer the pain, sorrow, and darkness of life itself.
My name is Bingwan Liu. I'm dedicated to the study and practice of understanding our psychology and alleviating mental suffering. I'm a licensed clinical social worker in New York State and a Zen practitioner.