Why psychotherapy need not be a digging expedition into your past

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It is not uncommon for clients to come into therapy feeling apprehensive. 

Talking to a stranger about your problems, potentially including your deepest insecurities and fears can be daunting.  It is good then to know how often people find in time that the confidentiality of therapy and the separation of the therapeutic relationship from the rest of their life is a liberation. Often they report that they can take risks in the therapeutic relationship that they do not yet feel able to take elsewhere in life.

There is another fear people come to psychotherapy with that I wanted to write about today. I have heard so many passionate pleas from clients not to spend extended time exploring the past.  The suggestion that we would do so confuses me.

Psychotherapy for me is about working out what you want to have happen, now. You come into psychotherapy because you want something to change. You might want symptoms to reduce or end, you may want to enable yourself to do things or be ways you currently can't, or you may not really know what you want, and just not want things to be as they are now. 

While any safe therapeutic practice is going to include taking a history from you, the history taking is not, in my view, the therapy itself.  Therapy does not happen way back when, it happens now.

At the beginning of your work you might expect to be asked about your psychological symptoms over time, and your therapist will seek to understand your circumstances, relationships, family and health both past and present as a context to the work you do. 

As the work progresses, this context may prove useful in your sense making as you seek to understand what is happening for you now, in contrast to what you would like to have happen.  

The critical thing to remember though is that you can only make change happen now. You can not change the past. You can change how you relate to it, and the effect it does or does not have on you here and now. This change seldom happens by spending extended time exploring the past in detail.  It happens by focusing on your current experience, and exploring how you are getting what you are getting.  

Once you are clear about the patterns in your experience, you can work with your therapist to change them.  This can be done in many, many ways.  Psychotherapist draw on many approaches and ways of working, and their role is to find ways that fit for you. 

Change does not happen in the therapy room, it happens out there in the world in between sessions.  It happens by changing the way you relate to yourself, and in turn changing the way you relate to others, and how you behave.

Psychotherapy at its best is a vibrant, vital pursuit, happening spontaneously in the moment.  If the past is being explored, then be clear what the outcome is that this moves you towards. I guess a good question to ask when considering the past is 'so what?' What impact does it have now?  How can that impact be improved? How can you live in this moment?

If you find yourself of on a detailed digging expedition and you wonder what it is all about, ask.  As a purchaser of a service, or a service user investing your time, you have every right to understand how what is happening relates to what you came into therapy for, and what the planned therapeutic approach is.  In therapeutic work the relationship between you and your therapist matters, trust and honesty achieve way more than compliance ever will, so speak up if you are not up for what is proposed.

Fe Robinson, Psychotherapist

Hi. I'm Fe, and I'm here to help you thrive, whatever life brings. I believe every client is unique, I work with you to help you explore, discover and grow in whatever ways are right for you. I work with a wide range of clients, both long and short term. I offer Psychotherapy, EMDR therapy and Couples Counselling to UK clients online and in Gainford, Co.Durham in North-East England. I am UKCP Accredited and an EMDR Europe Practitioner, and offer Clinical Supervision to counsellors and psychotherapists online and in person. Following a career in Organisation Development I became a therapist because it's my heart work. Before having my family and starting my private practice I worked in the NHS and mental health charities.