Understand the past, embrace the present, enjoy the future

BACP Senior Accredited Counsellor

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An Emotional Timeline

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Discussions within the counselling room will often include reflections on key events which have occurred at certain times in the life of a client. That notion of time can be significant. Irrespective of whether one is working with CBT, solution focussed therapy or some other form of counselling, time will often play an important part in discussions.  Even mindfulness which looks toward some Buddhist practices in dealing with some of the difficult issues of life will have a sense of reflection on the passage of time. 

Traditional counselling approaches have acknowledged the reality of everyday life.  Whether we are working with contemporary therapy or invoking Augustinian ideas from over two millennia ago, the usual division of time in our lives has been into past, present and future.  There may be some debate about what we mean by the present.  We may be encouraged to live in the moment but that can be a surprisingly difficult thing to do.  The moment we contemplate the present it becomes the past.  We cannot hold on to what is ‘in the now’ but instead we see this slide instantly and inexorably into what has been.  That suggests that the present can be held in terms of hours, days or years but not in terms of immediacy. 

When we talk informally with friends of what is or what has been, we automatically pin event labels to the time line. Those labels are usually past, present and future. In therapy we can extend this and refer to the past present, the present present and the future present.  This rather odd terminology acknowledges the presence of a high degree of consciousness and indicates that we are able to talk with understanding and meaning about events, people and experiences within those three time periods.  

There is a further extension of this emotional timeline when we discuss within the therapy room events, our emotions and the passage of time.  In addition to those things that we are conscious of, there are also occasions when we may not fully recognise what is happening to us or around us. 

There will for example be some events in our past which will have affected us but which we cannot recall.  That may be because we were too young and lacked a sufficiently advanced level of cognitive functioning to fully understand what was happening to us.  It could also be that sometimes the event may have been so alarming that our conscious mind refused to process what was happening and we shut out from our conscious thought, the occurrence.  I describe this type of not knowing as the past absent.

There is also the concept of a present absence. This is a challenging concept but there may be things happening around us in the now which our subconscious does not want to acknowledge.  These may be events, ideas or emotions which are disturbing to us.  In some instances we will do the emotional equivalent of slamming a bedroom door shut; and creating a barrier between ourselves and what is going on.  This notion of present absence can be a classic defensive position taken by our unconscious to protect our emotional self.

The same phenomenon can be considered when we look forward.  There may be some forthcoming events which we do not consider simply because we do not have the capacity which allows us to understand the particular issue. For example many people currently spend much time on social media such as Facebook and Twitter.  I have no idea as to what will be the next big thing after social media and I cannot therefore anticipate that activity. Yet it will be there in our lives.

There may also be other personal events looming in our lives, perhaps the loss of a relative or the breakup of a special relationship. These events may be already anticipated by others close to us but we do not allow ourselves to see this because those thoughts would be too emotionally painful to bear. As we are oblivious to this aspect of our future I regard that state as the future absent.

The ideas around this extended emotional timeline can be useful to work with whether in individual counselling, couples counselling or with relationship counselling.  Therapy can include bringing into full consciousness, ideas and concerns that are perhaps in part unseen. That aspect of the past, present or future which is real but unacknowledged, may be key in enabling us to achieve an improved understanding of our situation. It may assist us to move on to where we wish to be in our lives.

There has been a recent trend within the counselling world to focus on structured techniques such as CBT and solution focussed therapy. This approach works with the conscious present and for some clients these can be successful strategies. For others these techniques may not always bring about a deep enough understanding of the self to encourage fundamental change. That may be because there has not been sufficient attention given to that which has been absent from the conscious time line. 

It can be said that we all walk along an emotional continuum.  That time continuum may contain some shaded areas which perhaps need to be brought out into the light if the desired personal understanding and development is to be achieved.  

For a further discussion of these ideas please see www.counselling-directory.org.uk/counsellor-articles/counselling-an-emotional-timeline







Geoff Boutle

added on 3rd February 2013

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