Get Off the Therapy Couch! Why Exploring the Past Is Nonsense

Client: “I’ve always been lacking the confidence to speak up. In childhood, my parents were very harsh with me and would always criticize me when I opened my mouth. There was this one time when I was 9…

Me: “Aham (cough)… I don’t really need to know that. Give me an example of how this lack of confidence manifests itself NOW.

The fascination many people have with doing a heavy, skilled analysis of their past is something I understand very well and in terms of practical benefits, I find pointless.

Coaches have traditionally been making a lot of fun of some types of therapists for focusing to much on the past and not enough on the present. I guess somebody forgot to inform the potential clients as well about this frequent weak spot of therapy.

Why We Like to Explore Our Past

There are several reasons for which I believe that many of us put a lot of emphasis on exploring our past in our personal development:

  • We have a need to know ourselves, which includes understanding clearly how our past experiences left their mark on us. This is all fine but, do you really want to put a lot of effort and sometimes money in that?
  • We have this idea (probably induced by cheap self-help books) that there is this one negative experience in our past which is single handedly responsible for a certain flaw or fear we have. And we need to find it.
  • We think that in order to change our beliefs or get rid of our fears, we need to understand exactly their source in the past. And when we do and we embrace our past, the change often happens just like that.
  • We sometimes us it as a way of running from the responsibility of acting and changing ourselves. We focus on the past so we can forget about the person development work required in the present.

The Reality of Personal Development

I will sometimes read a psychoanalyst’s opinion on how our present problems are rooted in the past and we need to skillfully uncover the past in order to heal the present. And it will crack me up; because in all my research on this topic, I haven’t found a single convincing shred of evidence to support this.

Analyzing your past, digging dip and unraveling all sort of stuff may sound cool, but it is basically a useless process judging by the improvements it creates. The bottom line is this:

Exploring your past is not necessary or very useful in transforming yourself.

Why? Because our present ways of thinking and feeling may have their origins in the past, but it doesn’t really mater. Our beliefs, thinking patterns and emotions have a life of their own in the here and now.

Consequently, it is in the here and now that we need to address them if we wanna see results. Understanding the kind of experiences that created them may give us some extra clarity and help us discover irrational thinking, but that’s about all it can do. And we only need a small amount of past exploration to get this effect.

This is why I use principles and techniques from CBC (Cognitive Behavioral Coaching) when I assist my clients change their thinking and emotional reactions, in order to improve the people skills they aim to improve. CBC has a focus on the present and on getting real, quantifiable results.

If you’re looking for improvement, focus on the present. Identify those limiting ways of thinking you have now and combat them now. Do this repeatedly, systemically, and you’ll see some real progress. The answer to your personal development is not in the past, it is in this moment.

Image courtesy of geroco

Comments

  1. Hi There,

    I don’t think I have ever read such an arrogant and misinformed article on therapy and coaching. Setting coaching up as a competitor to therapy is not just nieve but gives the impression that there is a competition, when in fact both fields can and do in the hands of skilled practitioners sit side by side.
    I myself am a trained ICF coach and also someone who has done their own therapy. Both fields have something very special to offer the consumer and I can safely say that in my case, therapy has revealed and healed some truly difficult scars from my past. Coaching has also helped me in a different way more cognitively to get around the issue and get on in spite of it, whatever it is.
    To hear that this blog advocates sitting around and laughing about therapists is really not a position in Transactional Analysis of I’m Ok you are OK, it is very clearly Im Ok you’re not OK.
    Perhaps take a look at these things in yourself as the article is written from a position that is not congruent with what the needs of the customer actually are, they are written from a point of view of what you think personally. Thus again elevating yourself to the position of master, which has another name, narcissm.

  2. Hi Eduard,

    I couldn’t agree more. Of course past events have shaped your current beliefs, views etc but they don’t have to shape the future you. The only thing that can do that is the actions you take in the present moment, so focus on now and the future, the past is gone, you can’t get it back or change it.

  3. I agree, no amount of emotional energy or thoughts can not change the past. If we think and constantly analyze the past, we will be concerned and blocked at the present moment and nothing else.

    • Marko, I have seen people in this kind of experiences: they do so much past analysis that they get stuck in this process and never move to the next step.

  4. “Exploring your past is not necessary or very useful in transforming yourself.”

    Hey, Eduard I normally love your stuff but find myself disagreeing hugely on your point of view here. While I don’t believe in regression, or in keeping clients stuck in the past, I do believe that a lot of the faulty wiring of how we think and feel in the present has its routes there.

    In a lot of my work I seek to understand where, for example, a limiting belief has come from. Not so that we can stay in the wound, but that we can incisively understand it, heal it and move beyond it. I think good coaches – and therapists – move deftly from the past to present. What were the choices we made back then? What’s the transformation in those choices we need to make in the present that’s going to allow us to fundamentally change and grow, and move forward more powerfully.

    We are a combination of our past, present and future. To cut off one of these things is cut us off from our resourcefulness.

    • Hi Christine,

      We’re definitely on the same page with the idea that it’s best for coaches and therapists to move from the past to the present. We just have different views of how much time and focus to put on exploring the past.

      If you can make your approach work for you and for your clients, I think it’s great. Personally, I do talk about sources of faulty thinking with my clients, but it’s not something I put a lot of time in.

  5. I guess I’m right in the middle on this one. I’ve been coaching for over ten years and generally I agree with you when you say the in the moment adjustments are most effective. However there are times when it is very effective to imagine a past scenario with a different outcome. As you know our minds are very powerful and don’t know the difference between real and imagined. So sometimes a little re-programming can lift a heavy burden and lighten things up.

    • Hi Tom,

      I think what you’re describing here is a specific technique related to exploring the past which is rather an exception that proves the rule.

  6. I am not a psychotherapist but a physical therapist. However, I do find myself dealing with a lot of apparent emotional energy that has surrounded my patients and their problems.
    I may not be totally understanding you Eduard, but, as I read this post, what I got was that there is no need for the past to determine the present.
    This is what I frequently have to deal with in the physical rehabilitation arena. Many of my patients tend to tell themselves that since they fell down the stair 20 years ago, this is the reason for the pain that they are having in their knee today.
    While this is possible, it’s not probable. A more plausible scenario would be that since they fell down the stairs and felt pain in their knee at that time is probably due to a muscle strain or bruise.
    But, because all they knew was pain, they developed coping mechanisms and compensatory movement strategies that were un-natural.
    Un-natural movement strategies frequently cause aches and pains. And, they may perpetuate the notion that “there is something wrong with me”.
    The vast majority of my patients go through this. Once the movement pattern is corrected, the muscles lengthened and the patient educated in the real reason their pain persisted, the discomfort and dysfunction seems to evaporate. And my patients go on to have a seemingly new life without the initial complaint that they came to see me about.
    As I read this post, what I got was that the past, while important to understanding the present, should not determine the present.

    For what it’s worth.

  7. Tell a young woman who is raped she only needs coaching.
    Tell a 10 year old child who is being sexually abused he only needs coaching.
    Tell a an alcoholic that just killed someone while driving drunk they only need coaching.
    Tell a mother who’s child is missing she only needs coaching.
    Tell a serial killer they only need coaching.

    Most people are in prison because of unsolved childhood issues and parenting, instead of being productive members of society they commit crimes like their ancestors. They know no other way to live.Many need medication that’s not available to them with it they’d be less likely to keep repeating the patterns. Open the prison doors they only need coaching.

    I’m sure I could get many of my previous clients to give you a call to let you know how reciving psychotherapy from me created great changes in their life. With my guidance they did the work.

    • Hi Tess,

      I don’t work with people with serious traumas in their past, I recommend them psychotherapy. So in this particular case, I don’t really know what approach works best for them.

      There is one thing though in which I don’t believe: unresolved issues. For me, if something happened, it’s resolved. Each experience is a whole on its own. How you interpret it now and how that influences you is something which has to do with the present, not that experience.

  8. Revisiting the past can be helpful for exploring and testing assumptions in a contextual way, but it’s not very effective to dwell there.

    I think there are 3 very important ways people get stuck:
    1. having the wrong mental model
    2. sticking in the wrong tense (past, present, or future)
    3. addressing just one part of mind, emotion, or body, when it’s important to condition all three for congruence.

    Whether you go to the past, present or the future, what really matters is whether you change a belief and condition a response (such as by linking to good feelings.) The key for using the past, present, and future effectively is for changing state and making links.

    CBC sounds effective. I’m a fan of NLP principles too. At the end of the day, it always comes down to changing thinking, feeling, and doing patterns — and testing the methods that work for you.

  9. Hi Eduard,

    I feel that since we live in the now, now should be the focus on your attention. Set about changing your mental programming now and results will change.

    That being said stuff – or negative energies from prior experiences – may arise when progressing. Face, embrace and release them. Ignore them or bury them and you risk being chained by those fears because you can’t get rid of something if it’s still in you.

    Thanks for sharing your insight.

    Ryan Biddulph

    • Hi Ryan,

      Those negative energies from prior experiences, in my book they translate as ‘thoughts’. And thoughts exist now, which is why now is in m view the time to address them.

  10. I adored this and posted it at my blog! EXCELLENT POST.

  11. Clayton Berry says:

    I agree, anylizing the past is living the past. How can we move forward if we live in the past.

  12. I am not an expert in this area but as a man who struggled with such problems for many years I agree with Eduard. I had problems with the way I thing and feel since my childhood but I didnt have to go all the way back, find every inch of detail in my past in order to realise whats wrong with me. The problem was still in my mind and I still manage to observe and find the problematic thinging in present with the help of coaching. I believe past should not be ignored and explored to a degree but it should not be the main way of dealing with present issues. I dont thing Eduard meant anything about serious traumas where problem lies in past bad experience and have to be dealt from that point.

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