Thursday, February 3, 2011

How Much to Remember: The Balance Between Looking Back and Looking Forward

"Do I really have to talk about that?"  "It's painful to remember those things."  "I'd prefer to focus on the future.  Can I move forward without having to go back?"

Clients often fear that their counselor is going to insist that they talk about unpleasant things from the past. Sadly, this is misunderstood.  Counseling by definition is a process always guided by client choice.  Clients always have the right and freedom to refuse any recommended treatment process or intervention.

But there can be advantage to looking back. Consider this analogy:

You live in a house that has a first floor, second floor and a basement.  Imagine that they sink on the second floor is clogged.  You get a plumbers snake from the tool box that is long enough to run through the pipes to the basement.  How far do you run it down from the sink on the second floor?

Some of you answer "all the way", but some answered, "As far as you need to in order unclog the drain."  That's my answer in counseling.  Look as far back as necessary in order that you can go forward.

Many clients have reasonable resistance to looking back because they've experienced trauma, which is defined as events beyond normal human experience; events such as near death experiences in which they thought that they or someone they love was going to die or be seriously injured, or they were the victim of sadistic abuse by a spouse, parent or stranger (e.g. rape).  The dilemma such clients sometimes have is that intrusive thoughts of the past interfere with the present, but intentionally thinking about those events is extremely painful.  What to do?

The conversation I've had with innumerable clients goes like this, "Why am I remembering all of these things now?"  Two explanations seem to bear out: 1. Triggers to those memories have been happening; similar dynamics or occurences in a new relationship, a season of the year, sounds, sights, smells that bring back a specific memory, person or period of time, and 2. Your subconscious mind has assessed correctly that are in a position to be able to handle remembering.  You are in safe relationships, including our therapeutic relationship, and your mind knows that you can remember and be cared about by me, your spouse, and good friends.  Your mind wants closure on things you've suppressed (conscious pushing away of unpleasant thoughts and feelings), and repressed (subconscious hiding of thoughts and feelings so that they are beyond conscious awareness). 

My consistent recommendation to clients that have intrusive thoughts of trauma in their lives is to take control of the process, "Set specific times, including our sessions, that you will intentionally go there to the extent that you are willing.  Yes, this may be uncomfortable, but what you are doing is sending a message to your subconscious mind that it doesn't need to keep knocking at the door with intrusive thoughts or flashbacks to get your attention; that you are going there of your own volition." 

Clients who take a long-term slow paced approach to thinking about and grieving traumatic past experiences eventually experience freedom from being emotionally terrorized and overwhelmed, AND they move forward in life w/out symptoms that interfere with their adaptive functioning.  They are once again able to concentrate on work, to be emotionally and mentally present in family relationships, and/or focus on and perform on par with their academic abilities.  

How much to remember?  As much as you need to in order to move forward.  But remember, it should go at your pace as you are willing to push yourself to tolerate unpleasant memories and experiences that your mind once protected you from by denial, numbing and repression.  Those defenses are a gift from God as I see them, but aren't band-aids to be left in place forever.  Complete healing and restoration comes when bandages are peeled back, wounds exposed tended and submitted to the Great Physician and Wonderful Counselor for restoration.

May God bless you on your journey,

Jeff Williams
Professional Clinical Counselor - Supervising Counselor
State of Ohio, #E-3098