Past Is Only Useful As It Relates to Present Functioning
A trap some therapists and their clients fall into that mirrors a trap many people fall into in the wider sphere of life is that they tend to focus on the past at the expense of the here and now. Thinking about the past can be useful but only as it relates to present functioning. Otherwise it’s like walking through the ruins of an ancient civilization or digging up archeological relics; sure it’s interesting but there’s no life, no vitality, no vibrancy.
There are a few psychological reasons that people focus all their attention on the past. The biggest one is that for many, their past is their present. What I mean is that they haven’t been able to find a resolution, a sense of closure about what happened to them, and as such these past events are still very much alive. The problem of course is that they can no longer do anything to influence this past, they can’t channel their psychic energy where it needs to go, so it sticks around regardless of how many times they play out what happened in their heads.
For others talking about the past is a good way to escape the present. The past feels safer, precisely because it’s set in stone and carries no uncertainty with it, no risk. By focusing on the past they can keep things at the theoretical level instead of the more dangerous visceral level that fully committing to the here and now entails.
Thinking about the past is only really useful when it gives you vital clues about present functioning, about the way you relate to yourself, others, and the world. The only thing that is real is the present moment; it’s the place where you spend the entirety of your life, even when you’re projecting yourself backwards or forwards in time. The key is to better understanding how your current patterns of behavior are connected to what happened to you so that you can take the next vital step of changing these behaviors.