Emotional Health

When the Past Interferes with the Present

All of us have had the experience of overreacting to certain events or people. Often, it is hard to explain why we are being “set off” by something or someone. Yet we find our feelings curiously hard to shake. I find that a rule to remember when dealing with feelings, especially strong ones, is “if it lasts, it’s in the past.” A common example of this is what has been termed “triggers.” This refers to things that bring up fears or discomfort because of past events and/or trauma. Victims of sexual assault are often “set off” by reminders of similar crimes around them. Sometimes we are “triggered” without realizing it—feelings are stirred up that relate to forgotten, or repressed memories.

A zombie is my term for the feelings about things, ideas, and people that live within us and trip us up. They can be very powerful, are hard to fight, and almost impossible to kill. One reason for this is they lurk in the shadows: usually we are not aware of them when they are operating, so their power is all the greater. Understanding them can be difficult, as Sigmund Freud discovered when he started treating patients at the end of the 19th century.

One of the first roadblocks that Freud came upon when he was developing his method of therapy, which he called psychoanalysis, was that patients were “resistant” to change. He wondered about this, especially considering that change would undoubtedly bring his suffering patients the relief they longed for. Why was this? Humans cling to patterns of behavior even if they are self-destructive. One of the terms he came up with for this kind of resistance to change was repetition compulsion.  As with zombies, who keep marching forward no matter what, our patterns can be relentless.

Like with many things he observed, Freud traced the origins of this behavior to the unconscious. He theorized that while we cannot remember consciously all that has happened to us, we do keep these memories preserved in the unconscious—the term he devised for what we retain but cannot remember. In geological terms, the unconscious is like the layers of rock that are way beneath the surface, layers whose history scientists can read when they are exposed. Often these memories exert tremendous influence on our behavior, but since we have no conscious memory of them, we are powerless to overcome them.

Freud thought that the essential tool of therapeutic change was to make the unconscious conscious. Through listening and interpretation, he sought to help patients gain insight into their unconscious processes (or dynamics, as he called them) and thereby set them free from their influence.

Of course, this wasn’t easy. How can we know what is in another person’s mind, especially if she can’t remember it? (Most of Freud’s early patients were women). The method he devised is called “free association.” Freud would ask his patients to lie on a couch, so as to relax and be free of distraction (and he disliked being looked at all day long, too!) They were instructed to say whatever came into their minds, no matter how trivial or irrelevant. That way, he and the patient could make connections that could bring meaning to the patient’s thoughts, hopefully with insight into the unconscious.

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