Going Back In Time In Order To Move Forward

Clients often present to session carrying difficult and distressing emotions, including fear, worry, sadness, emptiness, dissatisfaction, frustration, anger, or shame…and their initial goal may be to get rid of these emotions or to be able to function despite them.

The thing is, though, that we are wired to feel emotions automatically as gut reactions to our experiences, and so they can be useful indicators that there is something wrong in our lives, such as a perceived lack of control and mastery over our circumstances, the absence of meaning and purpose in our lives, or our fundamental needs not being met.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (or CBT) works to shift our automatic thoughts about a situation in order to change how we feel, and critically to change our behaviours in order to break vicious cycles – such as confronting our fears in order to learn that we can overcome them, or making changes to how we spend our time so that we can feel engaged and empowered rather than fatigued and aimless.

Sometimes, previous therapy experiences or early attempts to shift distorted thinking, confront fears, and apply practical skills can feel unnatural or insufficient to clients or don’t facilitate much lasting change within a short-term course of therapy.

This can be a sign that we need to go further back in time before we can move forward.

Beliefs about one’s self, how we relate to others, and how to navigate the world start to form early in childhood. And as children, we have fundamental, universal needs, including needs for safety, a sense of self, freedom to express our feelings and needs, and space to be playful and spontaneous while keeping within appropriate boundaries.

Occasionally, however, a child’s fundamental needs may not be adequately or appropriately met, which can result in a lack of opportunities to develop critical life skills and the formation of coping modes that are tailored to help that child manage their emotions in that environment.

The problem is, as that individual grows up and their environment changes, their old ways of coping may become outdated.

A child who was ignored or punished severely for not complying may develop into an adult who is overly fearful of saying ‘no’, and as a result, suppress their own needs and feelings and become excessively self-sacrificing to avoid being abandoned, rejected, or attacked.

A child whose feelings were often dismissed or invalidated may grow up and struggle to navigate the world because they struggle to trust their own emotions and they have to be overly reliant on others to figure out how they should feel, resulting in a confused sense of self and a lack of agency.

An inability to articulate one’s emotions may also interfere with effective emotion regulation.

Together with a therapist, it may be beneficial for these individuals to go back in time to explore their early childhood experiences and interpersonal dynamics. This schema therapy process would allow individuals to understand to origins of their entrenched patterns of thinking and behaviour. It may be important to acknowledge that these patterns once served a function and supported their wellbeing. But that critically, the continued application of these old rules in a new environment may actually be perpetuating incapacitating beliefs and holding them back from a more meaningful life.

Going back in time helps us make sense of our selves and indeed move forward in living our life.

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