Why Does Psychotherapy Revisit the Past?

Psychotherapists ask about patients’ past because the past informs the present. Each person has a history of unique past experiences, and each person learns unique “lessons” from those experiences. These lessons lead to perceptions about the self and about others which carry on into a person’s present.

These perceptions can become such an integral part of a person’s psyche that the person may not be aware of them. For example take a single child, Ally, who grows up in a home with two working parents who neglect child rearing. Say Ally tries to get her parent’s attention in different ways both negative and positive (refusing to eat, working on her art), but the parents can never muster more than passing acknowledgement for Ally. Based on these experiences, Ally will develop some perceptions about herself, about others, and about the extent to which she deserves someone else’s attention. Ally may not be aware that her perceptions may not reflect reality accurately. She will however bring these perceptions into future relationships with her friends and partners where they will influence her decisions and behaviors as well as those of her friends and partners.

In treatment, Ally may develop greater awareness of her perceptions and start to understand how they originated. By “revisiting the past” and understanding how her perceptions developed, Ally may start to gain insight into her perceptions and start questioning their accuracy. During the course of therapy, Ally could learn to monitor the emergence of these ingrained perceptions, learn alternative and more accurate ways of perceiving herself and others, and learn to act in her relationships in accordance with these more accurate perceptions.

These perceptions can become such an integral part of a person’s psyche that the person may not be aware of them. For example take a single child, Ally, who grows up in a home with two working parents who neglect child rearing. Say Ally tries to get her parent’s attention in different ways both negative and positive (refusing to eat, working on her art), but the parents can never muster more than passing acknowledgement for Ally. Based on these experiences, Ally will develop some perceptions about herself, about others, and about the extent to which she deserves someone else’s attention. Ally may not be aware that her perceptions may not reflect reality accurately. She will however bring these perceptions into future relationships with her friends and partners where they will influence her decisions and behaviors as well as those of her friends and partners.

In treatment, Ally may develop greater awareness of her perceptions and start to understand how they originated. By “revisiting the past” and understanding how her perceptions developed, Ally may start to gain insight into her perceptions and start questioning their accuracy. During the course of therapy, Ally could learn to monitor the emergence of these ingrained perceptions, learn alternative and more accurate ways of perceiving herself and others, and learn to act in her relationships in accordance with these more accurate perceptions.