What to Do with the Insights of Therapy
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
I remember the first time a client brought forward some genuine wonder about what to actually do with some freshly-gained insight about her past. “Alright,” she said, “so I understand that my fear of rejection and abandonment probably stems from the devaluing and critical remarks of my father, and his overall absence from my life when I was little. But now that I am in touch with those painful feelings, what should I do with those? How do I change this?“ There’s no doubt more people have had the exact same question~ How to actually proceed after realizing some challenging truth about their past? And why is their past so important, anyways?
Indeed, sometimes in therapy it may feel as if we open up “Pandora’s box”. Many people may be afraid to dig deep into themselves, out of fear of what they may discover; thus the notion of Pandora’s box that nowadays means “anything that is better left untouched, for fear of what may come out of it”. But, is ignorance really bliss? Or do you prefer to see bliss as conscious, fully aware existence, even when it entails confronting traumatic memories?
Realistically, many clients start examining their past in therapy, then uncover a hurt that they had carefully hidden and preserved under the carpet for a long time, start exploring it, figure out further meanings about it, understand present situations and problems from a new perspective after filtering this past experience, and then become all perplexed, and wonder “And what now? What am I supposed to do with this in order to move forward?”
Admittedly, this is one of the most crucial questions in psychotherapy. Many have talked about the potential of awareness. The first step towards change is awareness; the second is acceptance (Nathaniel Branden). Professor Dumbledore in Harry Potter book series proclaims “Understanding is the first step to acceptance, and only with acceptance can there be recovery” (J.K. Rowling).
In other words, only when we recognize that a particular problem exists, and try to understand its sources and underlying factors that contributed to its development, may we clear the path towards positive change.
And still, it is not a straightforward process. Change is something that requires conscious effort and commitment; which is why it is so easy to fall back onto well-learned patterns of behavior , even when we know they are harmful to us.
Other clients may resist attempts to look into their past while in therapy. What happened in the past is in the past, and what’s important is what can change now- they may posit, thereby avoiding to explore a past traumatic event or experience. Some may minimize the potential significance of something that hurt them in the past, presuming it shouldn’t matter anymore or that it is irrelevant to a present experience.
This resistance to explore what happened before is understandable, since for many people the reasons why psychologists tend to urge them to look back are unclear, or they may prefer not to come across uncomfortable, distressing emotions that belong to the past. Yet our past is what brought us where we are right Now- and that is why psychologists have a special interest to it most of the times.
Therapy is all about recognizing patterns. A pattern is defined as “a regular, repeated and intelligible form or sequence discernible in the way in which something happens or is done”. There are people among us that are more reflective and analytical, quite keen on discovering patterns in their lives. However for others this may be a completely new process, since they may seldom or never have realized there may be similarities in the ways they relate, behave or react to specific circumstances between their Past and Present.
A logical question then is, How do we recognize our patterns? This is something you will be learning while in therapy, but there are simple ways to uncover a possible pattern in your life. Realizing your triggers is one of these ways; “The triggers are the teachers”. Triggers, external events that provoke strong emotional reactions which the person may at first experience as coming “out of nowhere” when taking into account the situation that caused them, can be signals of a substantial past experience that has shaped the emotional patterns of that person.
So if you describe an intense emotional reaction to an external event, your therapist may ask you to consider what really bothers you in this situation, what it reminds you of, and whether these feelings are familiar from somewhere in your past.
Moreover, therapy is about putting the pieces back together, as if trying to make up a giant puzzle of your own personal history. Therefore it makes sense that you may be brought back to your past often while you’re sitting across from your therapist. The Past has shaped and formed you into who you are today. Moreover, when you look back to the Past, you will probably realize that there is a bigger picture to be conceptualized, a greater context, a whole system of other people with learned behavior patterns that taught you to be who you are.
The Past can help you better understand who you are, and even if you get surprised at a certain past behavior and cannot connect your present Self to how you acted back then, it is helpful to remember that at any given moment, we do the best we can, with the resources we have available.
This perspective can help foster self-compassion, another wonderful concept that promotes self-growth. Though we can not be sure of what exactly happened back then, as our memory is selective and we deduct meanings that fit a greater picture, together we can come up with some hypotheses that may “click”. The more someone is “trained” in introspection and self-reflection, the more they get familiar with getting a basic feel of where something comes from, or attribute meanings to specific events.
So gradually we gain insights on our past. As previously stated, insights and awareness are of uttermost importance in therapy, but without commitment to change no positive results can occur further. Interpretations are interesting, but without an action plan of what to do from now on and an active intention to be different in the future, psychotherapy would be more of an intellectual exercise, a theoretical experiment without clear applications. As stated in a relevant article, “if we define insight as intellectual understanding, then the critics are probably right: Nobody was ever really changed by simply knowing about their problems or having an explanation for why they do things the way they do them.”
Yet the aim of therapy is to eventually lead to actual transformation, a metamorphosis of the individual- to actively promote growth and change. Therefore merely gaining insight is a necessary but not sufficient condition towards change.
Ideally, therapy can provide us with existential insights about who we are and how we experience life as a whole. Therapy is a process of providing a person the opportunity of an encounter with the truth of their own experience. How the person will use this insight is essentially up to themselves.
What truly matters is to break the cycle of dysfunctional patterns of the Past and start acting in new ways, towards becoming the person you are meant to be.
But the path towards change is not a straight line, as it’s quite hard to unlearn past behaviours. Let's say you gained insight about an unhealthy pattern in your life, and you would like to start to make changes. Once a dysfunctional pattern has been uncovered, you could evaluate the consequences of this pattern by considering how life could be easier for you if you chose to break free from it. You can try visualizing your Future Self in a similar situation, but acting in an improved way. Think to yourself, “What would it feel like if I could be more patient/ I could regulate my emotions more efficiently/ I could react more maturely? How would I feel? What would I think if I succeeded? How would others respond to me in similar situations?”
Mental experiments are fun, plus it is proven that our brain changes when we visualize practicing new behaviors. This process entails a conscious effort to change. It is not guaranteed that change will stick, as you may relapse to old and well-established patterns. Should this happen, be compassionate with yourself. Don't judge too harshly! Rather, observe what is going on, should you find yourself acting in a similar way again. This time, you can stop yourself, realizing this way of behaving consists a familiar one that may have brought up unfavorable results in the past, and question your automatic urge to act like this again.
After recognizing that something does not really fit with the vision of yourself you'd rather have, it is fruitful to stop for a moment, gain some perspective, and evaluate whether you really want to act like you would have, if you didn't have the insight of your past pattern.
Examining your own perspective on the past can help you understand how that perspective influences your present and future opportunities. After all, this process of moving back and forth between Past and Present is the way to move forward towards a better Future.
Interested in finding out more about your patterns?
I am all ears for You, let's start exploring your history together.