Striking the Right Balance with the Past

Posted On August 2, 2016

The past can be incredibly powerful. We all have one, and it shapes us to varying degrees, ranging from childhood trauma to the accepted patterns of our homes that created a sense of normalcy throughout childhood. Our past shapes us. Yet counselors have often struggled with how to handle the past, bouncing between the poles of ignoring the past (we can’t change it, after all), to obsessing about the past (as if it determines our whole identity). Good counselors must learn to interact carefully with an individual’s past.

Both a disregard for the past and an obsession with it can cause real damage in counseling. Disregard for the past seems to suggest that our past has no shaping influence on us and that any particular trauma we may have faced in the past is irrelevant to us now. There are some counselors who seem to think that since we cannot change the past there’s really no point in dwelling on it.

Such an approach confuses people because the past can feel so haunting and so heavy. Furthermore, it will never allow people to rightly process and understand what they have experienced, along with how it has influenced them. So, for example, I once counseled a young man who could not see how a particular trauma was impacting his relationships with other women. He needed to work through that event before we could successfully help him reform his habits with the opposite sex.

Complete disregard of the past is unhelpful, but so too is an obsession with the past. There are some counselors who, by their practice, suggest that the past is more than influential it is determinative. Who you are at present is directly tied to what happened to you in the past. Some counselors may even look to create scenarios from the past that explain behaviors in the present. This approach is disastrous for reform, however, since it suggests that your identity is grounded in what has happened to you.

You can no more change who you are than you can go back and change your past. This also allows some people to simply blame their past for their present faults. They have an excuse for their sin and selfishness because they experienced a particular trauma, or since this is how they were raised. Such an approach does not promote responsibility or transformation.

So, one man I counseled explained away his anger by simply saying, “It’s how my father taught us to respond.” His father’s abusiveness was a real issue, one that he needed help confronting, but it was not an excuse for his behavior. His lack of a positive role model was a challenge, but it was not an insurmountable one. His justifications, however, suggested that it was simply the way he was taught and there was nothing that could be done about it.

Navigating another person’s past in counseling is difficult. We must learn to provide a context for exploration, attempt to develop an explanation, and apply consistent confrontation. These three words provide a helpful grid for navigating the past. This is, of course, a somewhat simplistic attempt to explain a very complex and long-term process. No counselor should forgo good training as they seek to help others navigate their past influences.

Good counselors must first provide a context for exploration of the past. Giving people a chance to explain their childhood, their adolescence, their transition into adulthood and all the challenges, and joys of those years are important. Learn to ask good questions. Ask people about their relationship with their parents. Ask about how conflicts were resolved growing up, how love was demonstrated and experienced, and what unspoken rules existed in their house. Ask them about specific hurts, harm, or fears. Encourage people to talk about childhood traumas.[1]

Give people a chance to explore their past with you. Sometimes they are not even aware of how their past has influenced them and will need a chance process it formally in order to consider all that they’ve experienced.

As you explore someone’s past your goal is to help them make sense of it. Attempt to offer people an explanation that shows how their past has influenced them.

For the one gentleman I mentioned, he knew he had experienced specific traumas as a child, but he did not see how that was shaping his views of sex, sexuality, vulnerability, and the opposite sex. He knew what he was doing to and with the opposite sex was a sin, but he did not see how it related to his experiences. He needed help connecting the dots.

Counselors want to help show the relevant influence of the past by offering explanations for how this past is shaping the individual in the present. The knowledge itself does not change a person, but it allows them to see it more clearly and hopefully to be able to make appropriate adjustments. Without recognizing the influence we won’t know how to counter it.

Finally, a good counselor must apply consistent confrontation to the counselee. Our past is powerful, it shapes us but it does not determine our futures. We cannot blame our past for our present sins. God does not allow us that convenience. The Bible tells us that as Christians who we are is rooted and grounded in Christ, that this identity trumps our past. Paul says it this way:

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).

In Christ, we are no longer defined by what we’ve done, or by what has been done to us. We are not defined by how we were raised, who our parents are, or where we lived. We are defined ultimately by Christ. He sets the new standard. We are no longer simply victims.

We may struggle, and rightly so, from the traumas we’ve experienced, but they don’t define us. Nor do our experiences excuse our decisions in the present. We are all responsible for what we do (Gal. 6:5-7; cf. Matt. 16:27 and Job 34:11).

A good counselor does not overlook moral culpability but applies gracious confrontation where needed. We are often afraid to do this when there has been significant trauma, but it is actually freeing to know that I am more responsible than I first thought. God hold us responsible and a good counselor will not shy away from confronting where appropriate. [2]

Good counselors must learn to navigate another person’s past with balance. Neither disregard of the past nor obsession over it will serve a counselee well. Steve Viars, in his book Putting Your Past In Its Place, recognizes the tendency towards extremes. He notes:

Both extremes are problematic for students of Scripture. If the past is nothing, then why did God create us with the ability to remember? Why are we instructed, for example, to not let the sun go down on our wrath (Ephesians 4:26) if today isn’t going to affect tomorrow? But the past is everything view is equally troubling. The Scripture does not encourage us to view ourselves as helpless victims whose choices today are outside our ability to understand or change. (18)

We need balance in our approach of the past. The past is powerful. It’s not determinative, but it is influential. We can’t disregard, but neither should we obsess over it. Good counselors strike the right balance.

[1] This must always be done with care. We never want to press people to talk about things until they are comfortable and ready to discuss them. Encourage without pressure or manipulation. Also, learn to ask appropriate questions regarding trauma. We do not want to cause more harm by asking too many unnecessary specifics.

[2] Once again, how we do this is important. We must be sensitive to the fragile state of someone and careful in how we confront them.

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