• When we want help with an issue in the present, it might seem counter-intuitive to talk about the past

  • However, our childhood has been shown to affect our relationships and mental health into adulthood, says therapist Shelley Williams

  • If you would like to talk to someone to make sense of your early experience, find a therapist here

Psychodynamic psychotherapy is sometimes associated with undesirable notions of ‘wallowing in the past’ and ‘digging up old wounds.’ When you come to therapy, you want to know how to feel better. Looking at the past may seem incongruent with your current difficulty. You can’t change the past, so why does it matter?

Our early relationships, our family dynamics, our friendships and our schooling, the way we learned to adapt to our surroundings, and the way our unique personality shaped and perceived our experiences, all mix to form the ingredients that make us who we are today. We cannot change what has happened to us. But if we are suffering in the present, understanding how past experiences exacerbate current problems can enable us to reframe our thoughts and better regulate our feelings in response to what is happening today.

Oliver learnt, in childhood, that it was safer to push his vulnerabilities out of awareness and show the world a hardy front. He later found a way to compensate for this lack in himself by choosing ‘needy’ partners. When trauma in adulthood triggered feelings of vulnerability and helplessness, he became anxious and overwhelmed. His once-successful survival strategy – disowning his vulnerable feelings and placing them safely into others – now fails him. Developing emotional insight into his past and present experience, Oliver comes to realise how, and why, he came to manage his feelings in this way. Liberated from the emotional shackles of his past, he begins to find new, more balanced ways of coping with these feelings in himself today.

How do we recognise the past in the present? Relationships are one window to our history’s imprint. Our minds internally map our early relational experiences, guiding the way we relate to others. This includes the way we relate to our therapist in the present. Psychodynamic and psychoanalytic therapists call this ‘transference.’ Within the unique conditions of the therapy setting, our therapist can help us to recognise the way that our past relationships influence us now. This is a powerful tool for change. In fact, while the concept of transference is rooted in psychoanalysis, findings show that effective therapists recognise and utilise the therapeutic relationship notwithstanding their primary therapeutic approach.

The past matters only because it is present, unconsciously tethering us in its murky depths. Bringing our patterns of relating into awareness helps free us from our historical script allowing us to come to know our range of feelings and review the way we relate today, both to ourselves and to others, opening new possibilities for our future. Sometimes, to go forward, we have to take a step back.

Shelley Williams is verified welldoing.org therapist in SE1 and BR2. Contact her here.

Further reading

How childhood shame shapes adult identity

The impact of childhood trauma

How your attachment style affects your relationships

The lasting impact of adverse childhood experience

Is your childhood sabotaging your relationships?

This article was originally published as part of welldoing.org's partnership with Health Unlocked