A year ago at a reunion, I met an old school friend for the first time since we were teenagers together. We sat together over lunch, in a noisy environment, and caught up on the decades since we had last met. Reflecting afterwards, I mused over the way I had summarised and shared my story, what had seemed important to tell this person, in that moment, in that context.
We met again recently when my friend was back in Edinburgh. I’d imagined we might tell different versions of our stories, with more details, about both the joyous and the challenging times. As it turned out, we talked ten-to-the-dozen about books we were reading, swapping recommendations, and about a theatre performance we’d each seen, going off at tangents about what it had stimulated. Maybe we’ll talk more about the past another time, but that wasn’t necessary to enjoy each other’s company. Our energy was very much in the present.
This illustrates one of the outcomes of counselling/ psychotherapy. Sometimes our energy is bound up in past experiences, casting a shadow over the present and inhibiting us from fully living in, and enjoying our current lives.
We can’t change our history, but we can change the stories we tell ourselves about it, which details we focus on, and how much space they occupy in our lives. We can get some distance from the past, metaphorically write a summary which we can close and put on a shelf, knowing we can choose to take it down, open and peruse it if we wish, but it no longer controls us. We can respect that the choices we made, actions we took, and ways we related made sense in the historical context, and develop other options to help us thrive nowadays.
Sometimes it is helpful to talk about our history in therapy, but often the details are not available to our consciousness. They might arise in the course of our work, but there is no need to go excavating. The patterns created by our history are held in our bodies and ways of being, including what goes on inside us, and how we relate to others. These patterns come to the surface in the therapy to be worked with and transformed in the here and now.