Why it may be hard sometimes to simply leave the past in the past.

A developmental perspective

People seeking therapy are usually quite eager to change their present predicaments and ways of feeling about themselves. They may become concerned that embarking on therapy may lead to a futile exercise of revisiting a past that won’t address or help alleviate current difficulties. Additionally their past might be perceived as painful or full of conflicting feelings, and hence something they would rather avoid. So why sometimes the past can’t be simply left there in the past?

It is a commonly shared knowledge that parents play an important role in shaping their child’s developing sense of self. A child needs her parents to look after her, and out of this need grows love. Thus she may curb her impulses (such as greed or aggression) because she wants to please a parent that might disapprove of this behavior, or because she might fear punishment. Gradually these parent-related reactions become built into the child’s own moral code, or conscience, and develop into feelings of guilt. A conflict that was initially an external one, between herself and her parent, becomes an ‘internalized’ conflict. Examples of this might be someone who desires to eat sweet cakes but can’t do so freely out of feelings of guilt, or someone who finds getting angry with a loved one very difficult and instead of experiencing anger might feel overwhelming guilt instead.

Children learn from their parents and other adults, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, leading to other important forms of ‘internalization’ that influence their development. She not only imitates the way her parents go about their everyday work and play, their mannerisms and speech; she also identifies with their ways or relating to others and the ways they have of coping with problems and traumatic events; she tunes in to their emotional reactions. Children gradually build their parents wishes, prohibitions and attitudes into their own internal world, becoming a part of their own personality and animating their representation of how relationships work. It is therefore important to notice that the past and parents that one might revisit in therapy are not actually the real parent, but the parents that the person experienced, understood in a particular way, and internalized while growing up.

This is one reason why often in order to fully understand oneself (or particularly problematic aspects of oneself like negative thought patterns or other forms of internal conflict) examining one’s thoughts and feelings in relation to past experiences of growing up may become a relevant and liberating process. The company of an experienced and ethical therapist, trained to draw one’s attention on not only conscious but unconscious dynamics, can be particularly helpful in this endeavor.

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