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Blog Short #181: Are You Stuck in Your History?

Photo by elenaleonova, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Your past, especially those years growing up, has a significant impact on your present. That’s nothing new. The real question is: Is your history still driving your life right now? And, if so, is it a roadblock to your happiness?

That question is sort of angsty but worth pursuing. When someone enters into psychotherapy, that question is front and center.

You might not like that and think that it’s a moot point.

After all, isn’t therapy about blaming your parents for where you are and how you function?

Actually, it’s not. Parents are people and have issues they bring along when they become parents. If you have kids, you likely know that because nothing makes you more aware of your deficits than being a parent. However, your parents and the circumstances of your life growing up are influential factors in how you feel as an adult.

Even if you think you don’t need therapy – which is fine – you can still make use of the information I’m going to go over today to help you remove psychological obstacles that are in the way of your functioning and pursuit of happiness.

Let’s start with the primary goals of therapy.

Three Goals of Psychotherapy

When people start therapy, they usually have a specific concern they want to work on, which is always a good place to start. Yet, as therapy proceeds, there are three factors underlying any particular problem that need exploring. Here they are.

1. Identify and edit personal narratives.

When you wind your way through your early childhood and adolescence, you internalize narratives about who you are.

These narratives are created through your interactions with your parents, primarily during the early years, and expanded to include extended family, teachers, peers, and other adults with whom you interact, such as coaches, friends, friends’ parents, etc., as you move through adolescence. These narratives are composites of strong messages you got from all these sources.

The stronger and more repetitive the messages, the deeper they become internalized and ingrained in your psyche, and the more you identify with them.

For example, if you were the oldest child, you might have been expected to provide caretaking duties for your younger siblings and take on adult responsibilities early on. As an adult, you identify yourself as the person in charge and the caretaker whose primary purpose is managing, solving problems, and caretaking. Those repetitive messages, experiences, and expectations have shaped your identity.

Or, let’s say you grew up hearing the message, “You’ll never amount to much of anything.” If you heard it repeatedly from your parents and extended family, and eventually from your teachers in school as you underperformed, you internalized it and now consciously or subconsciously tell yourself the same thing. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that shows up in your adult behavior. Maybe you dropped out of college, can’t keep a job for long, and sabotage your relationships.

In both the above examples, the messages you received growing up, either directly or indirectly through expectations, discipline, criticism, experiences, and characterizations by your parents, are your narratives now. You repeat them regularly through self-talk, interactions with others, and behavioral patterns that reinforce them.

As an adult, these narratives are well ingrained and automated psychologically and neurologically.

Sorting out and identifying those narratives is the first primary goal of therapy because doing so provides a clear picture of where you are and what needs to change.

The narratives may be positive or negative, but identifying them helps you see where you’re constricted and what needs editing.

2. Identify, express, and regulate emotions.

A second goal of therapy is to widen your awareness of your emotions. You need to attend to how you feel in various situations and circumstances.

If you’ve learned to suppress emotions in your family of origin or because they’re painful and you wish to avoid them, the therapist will teach you how to label them with greater accuracy and understand and accept them.

You will then learn to see them through the lens of mindfulness, which provides some distance from them so you can improve your ability to express and regulate them productively and usefully.

3. Increase reality testing.

The last goal is to increase your ability to become aware of cognitive distortions and learn to question and analyze your thoughts and perceptions.

Your view of yourself and the world is colored by your interpretations of your experiences and the conclusions you draw from them.

No one sees from a 360-degree view. It’s inevitable to distort what you see to some degree.

To lessen that tendency, you need to get in the habit of questioning your thoughts and conclusions to reduce distortion as much as possible. By doing that, you come closer to pinpointing what’s of value, when and how to moderate your behavior, and you increase your self-awareness.

Do You Need Therapy?

Not necessarily. If you think you’re stuck and can’t work through the issues holding you back, then by all means, seek out therapy with someone who will walk you through the steps we’ve outlined above.

You can also work at all three of these goals yourself. Use these exercises to get started.

Identify the narratives.

This exercise is key. Most of us don’t think about creating narratives.

You might ruminate about how you were raised and feel victimized in some cases, and maybe you were. You might blame your parents or circumstances, but you may not have thought about specific narratives you’ve internalized about who you are.

Those narratives are always tinged with a value judgment – either negative or positive.

Start by listing as many of those narratives you can identify and get familiar with the messages you’re repeating to yourself now.

One of three things will happen as you do this:

  1. You’ll agree with and like the narrative and want to keep it.
  2. You’ll agree with and dislike the narrative and want to change it.
  3. You won’t agree with it and will want to discard or replace it.

This exercise will increase your self-awareness of the stories you tell yourself about who you are and make you question them. You get a good look at your self-talk.

People self-talk all day long and often don’t recognize how influential those messages are. It’s a constant feedback loop. You tell yourself something repeatedly, and then that message folds back in on you and influences your behavior to validate the message. It creates a cognitive bias.

Identify your emotions.

This step requires courage if you’ve become skilled at suppressing and avoiding your emotions, especially those that are painful. I’m always telling you that suppression doesn’t work because your emotions go underground and still exert power, which is true.

The more aware you are of your emotions, the more control you have, and the better you can regulate them.

That doesn’t mean you must act on your feelings every time they surface. Sometimes, you put them away until you have time to deal with them because your attention is required for something else at the moment. Sometimes, you release them.

Do this: Ask yourself, “How am I feeling right now?” as you go through your daily experiences.

Get good at labeling your emotions more accurately. If you don’t know how to do that, download the lists of positive and negative emotions I’ve attached at the bottom. It’s incredible how many there are; being more selective will help you pinpoint how you feel.

The second step is to watch your feelings as they surface, but reserve time to think about how to respond.

That’s an arduous task, but the more you do it, the more automatic it becomes and the better you regulate yourself. Try widening the space between feeling and responding more as you go.

Detect cognitive distortions.

You’ve already engaged in the first step of this activity when working with your narratives. I’ve also attached a handout describing the more common distortions people use to help you identify how you fare in this category. It includes exercises you can practice.

The Best Way to Proceed

You can do all three steps simultaneously, but it is good to be aware of each separately to help you focus on what you need to work on most.

The most important takeaway is that you can change anything about yourself by consistently using the strategies we’ve gone over today. You don’t need to be stuck with old narratives from your history that are keeping you entrapped.

That’s all for today!

Have a great week!

All my best,





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