More often than not, we find ourselves in counselling because of things that are happening in the here and now. Perhaps we feel things in our lives aren’t quite right. We may ask ourselves why; why do I feel angry or sad or upset? Why do I feel the way I do when I am with a particular person or in a certain situation? Why did I do that? Why am I the way I am?
When we come face to face with our counsellor and they’re curious about what’s happened to us in the past, the idea of ‘dredging stuff up’ or ‘picking over previous events’ can be uncomfortable. But what if looking at the past enabled us to start piecing things together, join some of the dots and to start to make sense of ourselves?
So, why are our past experiences relevant, and why do we think about them in psychodynamic counselling?
Building blocks of development
It can be helpful to think about past experiences as the building blocks of our development. And our life experiences are not just those we can remember; they go back to before we can recall memories. Indeed, research suggests that this starts in the womb.
Of course, these early memories are not accessible to us consciously; after all, we learned to walk and talk, to hold a toy and eat solid food too early to recall. But throughout this time, we were accumulating an understanding of who we are and what it is to be alive, to be cared for and nurtured, based on the care we received and the environment we grew up in.
These formative experiences create a kind of blueprint for how we see and respond to the world around us. And these experiences, both good and bad and everything in between, leave an unconscious impression which we take forward as we grow and develop. They have a way of colouring how we see the world and relate to others.
We’ll also have found ways to adapt to our early environment, or to survive adverse or traumatic events. They can be so effective, we may find ourselves repeating these patterns of behaviour into adulthood, or long after the original threat has passed.
When old ways of doing things are no longer helpful
So, our past experiences – and especially those from childhood – can lay down patterns for how we see and respond to the world, how we see ourselves and the relationship we have with our own feelings.
Whilst these patterns may serve us well for a time, there can come a point where they no longer fit or their effectiveness starts to wane.
For example, if we’re used to shutting down our feelings, we may find they eventually start to bubble up dressed as anxiety, depression, rage. If we experienced pain or abandonment at the hands of others, we might have learned to minimise the risk of this happening again through avoiding making meaningful connections, leading to difficulties sustaining relationships in adulthood.
So, whilst it is true that ‘dredging stuff up’ won’t change the past, talking about it can help us understand why we are the way we are and do the things we do. In turn, this insight can help put us in charge of how we live our lives going forwards.
Taking a first step into counselling and finding that there is space to talk about things that have happened to us, perhaps for the very first time, can feel like a huge relief.
Being able to express things that we have held onto inside, feeling that we could never tell anyone, can make us feel less alone.
Bringing those unconscious experiences into consciousness and looking at the patterns we have formed might feel daunting, as might the idea of sharing difficult or uncomfortable personal experiences. But to be able to express feelings about them, be heard, understood and to have those experiences validated and witnessed by an empathic other can be incredibly beneficial, helping us to move forward.
Who is in charge?
Exploring our past, our responses to it and the feelings this brings up can evoke feelings of uncertainty and anxiety in itself. All our counsellors at The Counselling Centre understand that this is sensitive, careful work that must take place at your own pace, within a counselling relationship built on trust.
You are in charge of the process, disclosing only what you are comfortable with, when it feels right to do so. You won’t ever be pushed to talk about anything you don’t want to or are not ready to express. We also understand that perhaps you’ll never feel ready. And that is okay too.
Ultimately, however you choose to engage in counselling, the aim is to help you find your own solutions and build an inner resilience which will support you beyond the completion of your counselling. A little personal excavation may just be a part of that.
Find out how to make a first appointment here
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