NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, April 4, 2016

You Can't Change Your Past, But You Can Change How the Past Affects You Now

Part of being an adult is knowing and accepting that there will be loss and difficult times.  No one can escape experiencing emotional pain at certain points in life.  And, even though we can't change what's happened to us in the past, we can learn in therapy how to change how loss and traumatic events affect us (see my article: Reacting to the Present Based on the Past).

You Can't Change Your Past, But You Can Change How It Affects You Now

Without even realizing it, many people who experienced loss or psychological trauma in the past continue to experience these events as if they're happening now.

On an intellectual level, they know that they're not experiencing the event now but, on an emotional level, they continue to feel it as if it's happening in the present.

Even when someone is aware that s/he is "stuck" emotionally and s/he wants to get "unstuck," it's often hard to do alone.

How to go about getting "unstuck" is different for each person and situation.  For many people, in order to start the healing process, they have to grieve for the loss or change in their life.

This can be challenging because, even when people want to feel better, there can still be a part of them that wants to hold on.

Grieving is often an acknowledgement of irreparable loss, which can be painful as compared to holding on and having the illusion that life can go back to how it was before the loss or traumatic event.

Each person will go through this process in his or her own way, but working with an a licensed psychotherapist, who has experience in helping clients to overcome these types of problems is usually more helpful than trying to do it on your own.

After someone acknowledges that the loss or event has caused a change, it's beneficial to look at how this loss or event is affecting you now and what you can do to change how it's have a negative effect.

Let's take a look at a fictionalized scenario, based on many different cases, to understand how therapy can help.

When Sandy was five, her father left the household to move in with another woman.

Prior to his moving out, Sandy heard her parents arguing at night about this other woman when they thought she was asleep.  Because of these arguments, Sandy feared that her father, whom she was very attached to, would leave.  So, when he actually left, her worst fear came true and she was very upset.

Not only did she feel that she lost her father, she also felt that she lost her mother too because her mother became depressed and withdrawn after Sandy's father moved out.  Sandy could see that her mother really tried to put on a brave face and tried to assure Sandy that everything would be okay.  But Sandy knew that her mother was devastated and things wouldn't be the same.

Her father came to see Sandy on the weekends.  He tried to seem cheerful and assure Sandy that he would always be there for her, but Sandy felt confused, angry and unhappy that he moved out.

Even though he tried to explain to Sandy that his leaving had nothing to do with her and that it was a problem that was between Sandy's mother and him, she couldn't understand why he wouldn't just move back in.  And, as is natural for children her age, she felt like it was her fault that he left, no matter how much he tried to reassure her.

Her father tried for a long time to repair his relationship with Sandy.  But by the time Sandy was a teenager, she still had a lot of anger and hurt, and she told him that she didn't want to see him anymore. At that point, her father gave up and told her that if she was ever ready to have a relationship with him again, she could call him.

Although she never realized it before she came to therapy, Sandy's experience with her father colored her adult experiences later on with men.

You Can't Change Your Past, But You Can Change How Your Past Affects You in Therapy

By the time Sandy came to therapy, she was in her late 20s, and she couldn't understand why all of her relationships with men fell apart.

Her most recent relationship had just ended, and she was in despair, wanting to be in a loving relationship, but fearful of ever attempting to be in a relationship again (see my article: An Emotional Dilemma: Wanting and Dreading Love).

Her ambivalence about men and relationships was evident almost from the beginning.  When her therapist asked her to describe her relationships with men, she said in a negative tone, "Oh, you know how men are…" and then she described a string of relationships where she ended up heart broken.

In each of these relationships, her boyfriend hurt her by either cheating on her or leaving her for someone else.

This had happened so many times to her that she believed that "all men are dogs."  And since she believed that all men were emotionally unreliable, she felt she was in a unsolvable dilemma because she wanted love, but she didn't believe it was possible because she feared she would always get hurt.

When someone has a propensity to choose emotionally unreliable romantic partners, it's often hard for him or her to see that there's an unconscious process going on in terms of choosing these unreliable people.

The fact that it's an unconscious process makes it difficult to see because, at least on a conscious level, most people want to make healthy choices in relationships.

As Sandy and her therapist explored these issues further, her therapist asked Sandy if she knew any women who were in happy relationships with men who are loving, kind and trustworthy.

Sandy named several of her friends who were in good relationships with kind, loving men.

As soon as Sandy said this, she surprised herself.  Even though she knew how she felt about men and she also knew that she had women friends who were in happy relationships with men, she never put the two "contradictory knowings" together.

When she thought about these two contradictory knowings at the same time, she realized that they couldn't both be true:  If her women friends were in good relationships with men that they were happy with, then all men can't be "dogs."

Rather than thinking that her feelings about men were objectively "true," she realized that her feelings were her own personal perceptions.

Then, she became curious as to why she had these longstanding negative feelings about men--not just about the men that she had been in relationships with, but about all men.

As her therapist worked with Sandy on this, Sandy realized that her perception of men was based on her early experience with her father and that, until now, this had been unconscious.

Shortly after that, Sandy told her therapist that she didn't understand how it would help her to work on this issue because she couldn't change the past.

In response, her therapist agreed that no amount of therapy could change the past, but they could work on changing how the past affected her.

Her therapist also discussed how early childhood trauma often gets unconsciously repeated later on in an adult's life.

Sandy gradually realized that she was unconsciously choosing men who were unreliable and who would be more likely to hurt her, so it wasn't about all men--it was about the men that she was choosing.

Over time, Sandy realized that her perspective about her father was based on her childhood feelings.

As a child, she had only a limited perspective about her father and his leaving.  As an adult, she could have a much broader perspective.

And, while, even as an adult, she didn't condone his infidelity, she understood that her parents' relationship was much more complex than she could have ever understood as a child (see my article: Looking at Your Childhood Trauma From an Adult Perspective).

Shortly after that, Sandy contacted her father.  He was genuinely remorseful for hurting Sandy when she was a child.  Over time, they were able to reconcile their relationship.

Getting Help in Therapy to Change the Effects of Unresolved Trauma

Sandy was able to make healthier choices about the men that she dated.  Eventually, she met a man that she loved and who loved and respected her, and he became her husband.

  • Many people avoid attending therapy because they believe that nothing in their life could change because they can't change the past.
  • Even though no one can change the past, we can develop ways in therapy to change the way the effect of the past.
  • Adult relationships are often based on earlier childhood experiences, both positive and negative.
  • When an adult has unresolved childhood trauma, the trauma has an unconscious effect, especially when it comes to choosing partners for a romantic relationship.  
  • People are often surprised to discover what a significant impact an unresolved childhood trauma can have.  
  • Without therapy, many people spend their whole lives affected by an unresolved trauma.
  • Without therapy, many people don't question their assumptions (similar to Sandy in the vignette above who really believed that all men were "dogs").
  • Therapy can help clients to uncover the unconscious cause of current problems so that they can be free of their traumatic history.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you're struggling on your own with emotional problems, you could benefit from seeing a licensed mental health professional who can help you to overcome these problems so you can lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to free themselves of their traumatic history so they could lead happier lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.