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Do You Really Need To Talk About Your Past?

1200px-Hapgood_Pond_-_Flickr_-_USDAgovDoes therapy absolutely require you to “talk about your past?” Do you need to “go down that road?”

My answer, adapted from Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On, may surprise you.

Your therapist will, beginning from the very first session, evaluate how you cope with problems and challenges. Where your coping skills aren’t as strong as they might be, a good therapist will teach you how to strengthen them. I believe that generally, only then, should your therapist ask your permission to go ahead and explore important events in your past.

At some point you may find that even though upon entering therapy you wanted to discuss your past, now you have changed your mind. You may decide that exploring the past isn’t important to you right now, or even necessary. Of course, you and your therapist together will have to figure out what is important to discuss, and what is not. However, it should be completely up to you to give the go-ahead.

If you feel pressured, bullied, or very uncomfortable (remember, at least some level of discomfort is normal in therapy), you should let your therapist know right away. If you do decide to go ahead and discuss your past, you must believe that your therapist is trustworthy. When exploring the past or the present, it should feel as if you are making a journey, with your therapist right there by your side. Sometimes they might be a step or two ahead of you, sometimes a step or two behind, but always there, guiding and supporting you.
As you proceed, if you experience extreme discomfort or unbearable emotional pain, you should feel able to stop the discussion and be able to count on your therapist’s full support to do so. You should do your best to tell your therapist if you are experiencing extreme discomfort, and they must help you understand and manage that discomfort.
The progressive process outlined above is diametrically opposed to some therapy methods in which the patient is asked shortly after beginning a course of therapy to uncover as many chunks of past information as he or she can, no matter how painful. Some clients may benefit from “jumping in.” However, you shouldn’t feel pressured to talk about the past in the first session or two, before your coping strategies and skills have been built and before a trusting relationship between you and your therapist have had some time to develop. Directly ask your therapist to slow down if you feel they are rushing things.

By ripping off the “psychic bandages” that a person has spent years layering on, a hasty therapy technique can cause emotional bleeding that is impossible to stop. Therapy that pressures the patient to expose too much too soon shows that the therapy process is about achieving the therapist’s goals, not the patient’s. Your long-term goals, goals that are in your best interest, should be the focus of therapy. Clearly, therapy should not proceed too slowly or too quickly.
Psychotherapy is often about beginning—only when you are truly ready—to uncover, analyze, and rethink influences and choices from your past and, sometimes even more important, your present life. Your past influences, despite the almost mythical proportions they are given in pop psychology culture, may actually be less important than you think in some cases. My experience shows that it is far too easy to get mired down in the past during therapy and that spending too much time on it can even be a waste of the patient’s time and money in some cases.

Helping a patient work hard to change a disruptive behavior rather than over-analyze the roots of that behavior is a therapy approach based in part on my addiction-treatment background. This may not be the most common approach, but in many cases it seems to me the most humane one. It helps a person alleviate present-time pain so they and their therapist are then free to decide how to (or whether or not to) analyze the past.

By exploring an appropriate mix of past influences and present choices with a trustworthy, knowledgeable psychotherapist, you will learn new ways of seeing your life. Then you will be able to apply the emotional skills you have learned in therapy, to the very next moment in time—again and again, throughout the moments, days, weeks, and years that make up your life.
When therapy is effective, you will be able to not only cope with events as they are happening or are about to happen, but actually improve your “emotional plans” for your short- and long-term future. And most important, you will be able to apply what you have learned independent of your psychotherapist. You will “graduate,” and he or she will no longer be needed.

Do You Really Need To Talk About Your Past?

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2015). Do You Really Need To Talk About Your Past?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 23, 2020, from


Last updated: 18 Aug 2015
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