Let the past be the past?

By: Arthur Wenk , Nov 03, 2012
  Question

Why can’t we just let the past be the past?

Essentially, our past has a strong influence—some might even say a strangle-hold-on our present and our future.

Psychotherapists hear a lot of variations on the same theme: “Why can’t we just let the past be?” “What’s done is done.” “Let’s be done with the past and just move on.” “Let’s leave well enough alone.” “It’s over; I’m through with it.” As a specialist in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), I hear additional variations such as: “EMDR brings up memories I don’t want to think about.” So why can’t we just let the past be the past?

Essentially, our past has a strong influence—some might even say a strangle-hold--on our present and our future. Unprocessed memories don’t just disappear. They remain in our subconscious along with negative beliefs about ourselves: “I am inadequate,” “I am a disappointment,” “I cannot trust anyone,” “It’s not okay to show my emotions.” These negative beliefs play havoc with our ability to sustain a healthy sense of self-esteem or to form and maintain intimate relationships. Moreover, these negative beliefs do not, of themselves, diminish over time. Unprocessed memories of childhood trauma can extend their adverse influence for decade after decade.

The plea to “let the past be the past” often reflects a fear of having to re-experience a daunting traumatic event. “I’ve already survived that experience,” the client is saying. “Why should I have to do it again?” EMDR offers a means of processing trauma without having to re-experience the trauma. Clients are always aware of being in the room with a therapist. This “dual attention” prevents the client from going back into the experience and being re-traumatized. “It’s all scenery,” we tell clients. “The scenes may not be pleasant, but you’re just passing through.” During an EMDR session clients may see glimpses of various life experiences, but they don’t re-experience the actual events.

George Santayana’s famous statement—“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”—applies to personal experience as well as communal history. In personal terms, the statement might be rephrased as “you recreate your trauma.” Therapists keep hearing stories of abuse victims who continually find themselves in abusive relationships. Failure to confront the demons from one’s past means surrendering control of one’s present and future to these same demons.

I liken these unprocessed memories to boulders obstructing the stream of one’s life. A sufficient number of boulders may reduce the flow of water to a mere trickle. EMDR may be compared to a giant crane that lifts the boulders out of the stream. Before long clients experience a more normal flow of water, occasionally for the first time in their lives. Dealing with the past offers the possibility of a liberated present and future.

Arthur Wenk holds a doctorate in musicology and masters degrees in information science, music theory, and psychology.

Art‘s client-centered approach is based on empathic listening, helping clients integrate thoughts, feelings and actions, and assisting them to revise self-stories that have kept them enmeshed in problems: all in the interest of achieving mental, emotional and spiritual wholeness.

Art currently practices at Wilson Counselling Associates in Oakville, Ontario. http://www.oakvillepsychotherapy.com/