Have you ever wondered why it helps to talk about your past? We address this question in the following blog post.
"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 therapy sessions, it's not unusual for a patient to object that talking about the past is "useless." This is particularly true when we explore the territory of early childhood and the relationship to parental figures. One young patient who was working with one of our therapists, clearly hoping for a quick fix, declared that "talking about my mom won't solve my problems." Other patients express concern that they will end up blaming their parents—as though assigning blame was the only way to make sense of oneself, the only possible outcome of exploring the past.
When we explore your past, we're taking an x-ray of your inner world, attempting to understand the structure of your inner being. An analogy may be helpful here: rather than view the past and the present as separate and distinct aspects of our experience, we might instead see our life as a continuous flow of music in which each note depends on preceding and successive notes to form a theme or melody. Scientific studies have repeatedly confirmed that our psychological, emotional, and social development—in short, who we become—is profoundly shaped by our childhood environment and parental figures. The psychoanalyst Graham Music discusses many of these studies in his book Nurturing Natures: Attachment and Children's Emotional, Sociocultural and Brain Development. Music notes that our caregivers' capacity to hold us in mind, care for us, and understand us are the pillars of the secure sense of self that we call confidence.
As attachment theory gains acceptance in the culture at large, the notion that our earliest relationships exert a powerful influence on our subsequent development has become widespread. Still, many nuances have yet to be appreciated. Graham Music cites one example: two attachment studies published in 2005, one in Germany and the other in Minnesota, found that the negative repercussions of adverse early experiences can persist long after the external environment has changed or improved. "Maltreated children might not be maltreated in their next context, for example in nursery," concluded the authors of one study, "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."
It bears emphasizing that "talking about the past" is more than mere data-collecting. Newer therapists will often ask what causes a particular symptom. The implication is that a symptom can be resolved once its causes are identified. Unfortunately, this type of analysis generally doesn't help patients grow or heal. It fosters the illusion that once we grasp the "cause" of a symptom, we've "got it" and can remain aloof from our emotional pain without opening our hearts to it. But we are complex and nonlinear beings, and it's almost impossible to identify simple reasons for particular habits of mind—as the epigraph from Graham Music at the top of this post illustrates so beautifully.
The healing power of talking about the past lies in bringing that past into dialogue with the present. A skilled therapist can facilitate this dialogue by working attentively and sensitively with the patient to understand and hold deep-rooted emotional pain. In this way, the exploration of the past transforms the present. Over time, as patients become more attuned to their psychological and emotional worlds, they develop the capacity to choose which notes they play next. After all, we write our own music.
Our blog posts reflect on mental health issues, examine contemporary social and cultural phenomena that affect psychological well-being, and offer helpful resources. Our aim is to help you become curious about your inner life and find the support you need.