Why Does My Therapist Care So Much About My Past?

Open journal and three photos of a family at the beach lie on tableMany therapists, myself included, feel that the most potent work in psychodynamic treatment is in what’s called “working with the here-and-now.” Addressing what’s going on in the therapy room—and by that I mean what’s coming up between the person in therapy and the therapist—means we’re really cookin’! It puts the “dynamic” in psychodynamic therapy.

If you are at a place with your therapist where you feel okay about talking about your therapeutic relationship, it likely indicates a healthy level of trust between the two of you. You’ve moved from talking “about” issues (such as describing the latest negative interaction with your boss, the last argument with your wife, or the most recent bout of passive aggressiveness with that annoying neighbor) toward experiencing an issue together.

It can be scary. It takes guts. And it’s where so much amazing work happens.

So if the here-and-now is so important, why do therapists ask so many questions about the past? Why are there so many stereotypes about therapists asking about, say, your mother or father? Heck, why does your therapist want to know about your parents at all? After all, it’s you in therapy, not them, right?

Looking for Patterns

Early on in treatment, many therapists try to get a sense of your early history—questions about where and how you grew up, the family members who were (or weren’t) around, and much, much more. Was Dad down all the time? Did Mom never let you see her cry? Were you the oldest and thus “in charge” of your siblings? Were you always compared to another family member?

Therapists are often looking to suss out patterns, many of which tend to be dutifully followed in a less-than-conscious way. Emotional patterns could be strong feelings that come up for you seemingly out of nowhere. A therapist may ask you if a feeling is familiar. It may lead you to a memory of something small or large, but trusting it and seeing where it takes you can lead to uncovering and healing a long-held wound you didn’t know was still there.

Therapists are also attuned to relationship patterns and how they may be affecting you now. These may be recurring types of relationships (“Why am I always dating the same type of person who treats me this way?”) as well as patterns in your family’s history. For example, a man who feels he needs to hold the family together without showing emotion may have been modeled that by his father, who may have been modeled that by his father, perhaps instilling an unconscious limitation regarding what a father can be.

Using Patterns to Promote Change

In this way we are moving back and forth, examining how your past was the forerunner to who you are now. It dictates nothing. Someone else with your exact past wouldn’t necessarily be in the same place you are now, but we can often connect dots that led to the issues you may be struggling with.

Someone else with your exact past wouldn’t necessarily be in the same place you are now, but we can often connect dots that led to the issues you may be struggling with.

The past can provide some insight. It’s a reminder that your mental health is not all about “you” because there’s a larger picture of you in an environment, a greater context. The past can help put all of this together to better understand who you are. When you look at a pattern that has led to “you” and realize you’ve been using what you were given the best you could, you invite room for self-compassion. Positive change is very difficult without allowing yourself some of that.

It’s not about the insight, though. Insight-only therapy would make treatment an interesting intellectual exercise, but one that led to little actual transformation. Once we connect with past issues, uncover patterns, and unpack how strong emotions elicited by passing thoughts are actually learned responses to old hurts, we can finally heal those hurts.

That’s what we do when we work with the here-and-now.

We can finally let out anger that previously found its voice as depression.

We can finally cry about something that had been manifesting as resentment in every power dynamic we were on the less empowered side of.

We can truly, deeply laugh at something we once held as morbidly sacred.

Using the present to connect with the past, and then the past to connect back to the present, is how we move forward.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Justin Lioi, LCSW, therapist in Brooklyn, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Leila

    October 10th, 2016 at 8:05 AM

    I think that he or she is probably very interested in looking at your patterns of behavior, how you may have reacted to something in the past and how this is now influencing how you react or may in the future. I know that we sometimes think that that past info is irrelevant but it gives them a picture of who you are and that is going to be important for the treatment and how they work with you.

  • Justin Lioi

    Justin Lioi

    October 10th, 2016 at 8:38 AM

    Exactly, Leila–thanks for writing!

  • Pat

    October 10th, 2016 at 10:19 AM

    Well if you think about it, the things that have happened to you in your past are the exact things that have brought you to this specific place in your life. Like it or not it is up to them to help you sift through some of the older things and hopefully get to the root of the issue or issues that has in turn brought you to them.

  • carey

    October 10th, 2016 at 2:16 PM

    better to act interested than not involved or caring at all!

  • Miss Johnson

    October 11th, 2016 at 10:23 AM

    How we have done things in the past can be a pretty good indicator of how we plan to do things in the present. It’s not that you can’t evolve and do better, but there are some of us who do need a little more help with making those changes and moving forward in how we live our lives. I think that your therapist would very much appreciate an honest recap of those things so that they can get a better handle overall on who you are as a person.

  • Jim

    October 11th, 2016 at 2:28 PM

    Oh good grief if you are worried about them learning about your past then this is not the right time for therapy for you.
    You are not quite there yet with being able to open up and share

  • me

    October 13th, 2016 at 8:37 PM

    This article seems unexpectedly powerful to me in this moment. I do understand why childhood is an important component to therapy, especially for me. There are some things I need to sift through from back then. But, I get extremely frustrated when I can’t remember as much as I would like. Just makes things feel incomplete. Good article though. Thank you.

  • Holly

    October 15th, 2016 at 6:30 AM

    Of course there are always going to be those things from the past that you might not feel the most comfortable sharing, but that is part of what therapy needs to be, a little bit of pushing you out of those natural comfort zones that you have created for yourself and working toward something that gives you a little more freedom from within.’
    It’s not easy and it is not meant to be easy. The easy thing is to sit back and do nothing, and obviously by signing up for therapy you know that you are ready to do more and be more.
    Let the process happen, allow it to unfold naturally, and live with a little bit of discomfort so that you can get to the other side with some measure of peace.

  • Eleanor

    October 17th, 2016 at 10:18 AM

    Uh you do understand what therapy is all about right?

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