How to talk usefully about the past

When people visit a therapist or counsellor, they often WANT to tell the story of their past - or feel they OUGHT to in order to get better. For some this can be helpful: "leaving it all behind, closing the door, turning the page". For other, however, it can be unhelpful: "going over old ground, spilling the beans, airing dirty linen in public, starting a wild goose chase, reveal the skeletons in the cupboard". When is it right to talk, and when is it not? Christianity has a long tradition of 'testimony', which can add to the pressure to tell - but is it always the right thing to do? How can we talk usefully about the past and not merely repeat the event and hence the abuse?

Recently, I went to a seminar on exactly this topic by Gillian Butler - not a common name in Christian circles, but a major leader nationally in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. She works with people who have very damaged backgrounds - many will have been abused in multiple ways and few will have had any of the things we associated with a health childhood like love, tenderness or attention. In her experience, re-telling at the wrong time can even be harmful, as it can reinforce the trauma and even lead to self-harm. For some, the past can be too difficult to ever talk about, even if they feel they ought to, so it is never told - or if it is, huge gaps are discovered that can cause more problems than the remembered events. Instead, she believes that you should not talk about the past until you have a 'strong sense of self'. She gave examples of people who say things like, "I could not have done this any earlier," or "you can only look backwards from a position of strength." But what does a 'strong sense of self' look like?

There are two aspects to our sense of self - who we are now, and the story we have lived. When these get blurred, this is a good sign that talking about the past will not be helpful. For example, have you ever heard a story from someone who talked about the past as though it were the present tense, as though it were actually still happening? Everything is subjective, they are at the mercy of the story as it happened then - because it still seems to be happening now! A person with a strong sense of self will be able to talk about the past in a more objective way. They will be able to reflect on thoughts, feelings and actions separately. They will be able to separate out specific events and experiences, and share and name reactions to them. They will be able to see the past as the past and not as the unhappy present or the likely future.

So how is this achieved and developed? The short answer is that it is not done easily, and the reason I am thinking about this topic is I am writing weeks 1 and 2 of our course introducing the topic of emotional health to churches. In weeks 1 and 2 we cover the past and the present - and I wanted to know what order to do them in. For example, can you talk about the past and the mistakes we've all made without talking about the Christian identity we have in the present and the forgiveness and healing this brings? The conclusion I came to was that if you have a strong 'sense of self' it probably doesn't matter. But if you don't, then a six week course isn't going to help and may even harm. Hence we are NOT recommending the course for people who are seeing a mental health professional or need 1-2-1 counselling. And if you think this article is describing you so far, then please hear that developing a 'sense of self' takes time, does not happen overnight just because you became a Christian, and will probably need someone with a strong sense of self to shape yourself again - like a trained counsellor.

If you are a counsellor reading this and want to help people talk usefully and helpfully about the past, then helping them develop a string sense of self first is essential. Psychologists talk about developing something called 'metacognitive awareness' - this means the ability to talk about something as if from a distance and not get all caught up in it. For example, rather than talk directly about an abusive past, you start with questions like: "what would it be like to tell a story of your childhood?"or "what effect did it have the last time you told the story?" Also important is building a more concrete picture of the 'self' [the thing that makes us us and not someone else. If you ask people with troubled backgrounds what they think of themselves, they may say things like, "worthless," or "like a piece of sh*t." However, an alternative way is to examine the values a person has as these often say more about the person than their statements do. For example, "how would you like people to remember you?" or "what would you teach your kids?"

Christianity adds an extra level to these two strategies. In terms of the 'self', the Bible makes very clear statements about the self as worthy, loved, valuable, worth searching for, worth rescuing. However, to people with a poor sense of self, these statements can seem trite and empty. So they need to be explained - worthy BECAUSE we are made in God's image, loved BECAUSE a good father will always love his children, valuable BECAUSE we have been paid for by Jesus himself at great price. This is who we are now. They also need to be put to the test - not putting God to the test [Jesus tells us to not do this], but tasting and seeing that the Lord is good [Psalm 34v8], and hence slowly developing and building trust in the things He has to say about self.

Christianity also adds an important layer of 'metacognitive awareness' about the past - that God understands and is watching over the world and will not ultimately let the bad guys get away with it. We can get so caught up in guilt, revenge and sorrow, that we can forget to stand back and see this important [meta]-truth. It can seem an empty promise or pie-in-the-sky; but faith can hold it to be true. A counsellor can be a key aspect of holding this faith or hope for another while they build it themselves. It can often seem that if the bad guys are getting away with it, then we must be worth punishing - but the Bible says this is not true. Psalm 73 starts with this very question: Surely God is good to the good - so if I am not having good done to me... Read it now, and see what is going to happen instead.

This is the story we have lived and the testimony we have to tell. It may seem like a mystery and lost in history, but instead it is my-story and part of his-story. When I grasp this, I can talk usefully about my past.

Rob Waller, 18/08/2008