In solution-focused work, we don’t investigate the past for cause or blame. It’s one of the things that distinguishes it most from other talking therapies. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place or time for this in therapy. So, in this post, I’d like to explore the pros and cons of looking into the past.
The general assumption is that your therapist needs to know your whole history of issues before they can begin to help you feel better. So looking forward rather than backwards can be a strange concept to get to grips with initially.
But ultimately, therapy is there to help you get better, so you need to find out what works for you. And the following pros and cons of looking into the past can help you with that!
The pros of looking into the past
Pro #1: Find a reason or cause
Some people need this. Knowing the root cause of your symptoms can be a huge relief to some people. Talking that through gently with a therapist like a counsellor will help you understand and put that into perspective.
You can see where the problems began, you can address this with anyone involved or choose to let it go. From there you can begin to make peace with the situation.
Pro #2: Be more objective
Looking at things that happened in your past, in particular in your childhood, helps you to rationalise and forgive yourself. especially seeing that you’re looking at it now from your perspective as an adult with far more knowledge and experience.
This can bring about an enormous amount of relief. It also removes the negative emotion from that memory, and you can begin to move forward.
Pro #3: Forgiveness
As mentioned above, imparting forgiveness is a huge step to moving forward. And when examining your past you can see where you can forgive yourself and others.
This improves relationships with those people going forward. Hopefully, you’ll begin to create new more positive memories to replace the negative ones.
Pro #4: Acceptance
By accepting the past and rationalising it, you will understand that it cannot be changed, it ‘is what it is’. This can be a huge shift in mindset and immediately reduces stress and anxiety levels. It also helps you to understand what is within and out of your control.
And now the cons, the reasons why we don’t examine the past in solution-focused work.
The cons of looking into the past
Con #1: Reliving the trauma
One thing that we know about the mind, and I emphasise this in every session, is that your mind does not know the difference between imagination and reality. So by reliving and going over specific traumatic incidents of the past, you are reliving them as if they were real.
For example, if you had an accident and you keep going over it in your imagination, each time is real when it comes to your mind. In fact, I have had many clients like this who have come to me, very upset that they are reliving their trauma and want to move forward instead.
In my opinion, all this is doing is filling up the stress bucket. You’re not able to move forward as you keep reliving your past.
Con #2: Altered memories.
Another important point when it comes to looking into the past: How you remember an incident and how it happened may differ. It’s very difficult to gain an objective view of past incidents, especially if they happened a long time ago.
Your memories in fact could be very inaccurate. There is no denying that you felt a certain way. But if you’re looking for facts, we’ll never be able to know the truth. So, it’s sometimes best left alone.
Con #3: It cannot be changed
No one can change the past, what has happened has happened. If you can gain some acceptance around that then it’s easier to move forward to feeling better.
Some self-talk here is very helpful. Here are some useful phrases for you to try if you keep going over your past:
- I did my best.
- I did what I thought was right, at the time, with the information I had at that time (hindsight is always 20/20).
- I can learn from it and move on.
- I will make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Con #4: Incorrect blame
This goes back to those altered memories. If you do want to blame something or someone, this could easily be misplaced. And you can begin to create a whole new set of anxieties surrounding it.
A phrase that has always helped me in times like this is “There are two sides to every story. And then there’s the truth.” Everyone can believe their own narrative, a narrative that probably suits them. But the truth lies somewhere in between all the different versions, and you may never have all the facts.
Don’t create further stress by placing blame where it might cause more harm than good.
Solution-Focused Therapy & looking into the past
I must make a final, the most important point in my opinion, about the pros and cons of looking into the past. In solution-focused work, we don’t disregard the past.
We accept it for what it is and understand it can’t be changed. So we focus on solutions going forward instead. We know that that is how the brain works and that’s how you will begin to feel better.
I am Gin Lalli, a solution-focused therapist, speaker and author.