Understand the past, embrace the present, enjoy the future

BACP Senior Accredited Counsellor

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Counselling – and the art of reframing

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We may not be able to change the past but perhaps we can carry out some subtle realignment – and that can be described as ‘reframing’ 

 ‘That the only certain things in life are death and taxes’, is an observation usually attributed to Benjamin Franklin.  Another apparently immovable feature of life is reflected in the often heard comment that one thing we cannot change is the past. We may feel this is particularly true when reflecting on the individual events which have happened to us.

That view of the past as something permanent and unchanging is reinforced by certain counselling approaches which urge clients to focus on moving forward rather than looking back. The suggestion is that as the past cannot be changed there is little benefit to be gained from undertaking any personal retrospective.

There is a raft of therapies which adopt this path and CBT may be seen by some as a representative of this counselling genre. These approaches usually have a directive spine with an emphasis on providing techniques and solutions. With that prescriptive approach it is hardly surprising that this way of working in the therapy room is embraced by those health organisations who want to pathologise emotional concerns by always focusing on achieving a cure. 

This sentiment also chimes with a populist expectation that a fulfilled life must always be characterised by smiles and celebration. In fact that expectation is now so great that some anticipate the imminent appointment of a government sponsored ‘happiness tsar’, to be quickly followed by the imposition of happiness targets and objectives. I am not sure whether those suggestions are simply mischievous or seen as a realistic forecast of what is to come!  

A counterbalance to this overall perspective is a comment attributed to George Santayana, that…. ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’….    My interpretation of Santayana’s use of the word ‘remember’, is to point to the importance of actually understanding the past.

There is a challenge within the therapy room as to how we reconcile these two very different therapeutic concepts.   Can it be helpful to look back and learn lessons from what has not gone as well as we would have liked?  Is it useful to remember where that deep emotional scar originated and why; or is it preferable to just apply the cosmetic cream and pretend that it did not happen. Perhaps a bad memory can have some advantages.

As an integrative therapist I have sympathy with both approaches. Santayana’s phrase resonates with me because who we are now is surely a function of what has been. We carry our memories with us. They inform who we are. The way we act today reflects the lessons we have learned from life. The habits we have today reflect the behaviours we have observed.  If we want things to change, then we need to change. A first step on that road to change is to acknowledge what needs to be different within us. That demands an enhanced measure of self-awareness.

It is important to have a good understanding of ourselves and our emotional development.   That may then help us to at least question if not challenge the view we have traditionally held of our past history.  There is a general acceptance that we cannot alter what has already occurred although the introduction of the false memory syndrome may now seem to may suggest that some degree of internal change can occur. False memory syndrome indicates that a degree of internal manipulation is possible and can affect our recollections but that very label of ‘false’ suggests that this is not a desirable form of change.  I would agree with that reservation and propose that an alternative and healthier approach is to look very directly at our past using the concept of ‘reframing’. 

From an artistic perspective we usually see frames as that construct which surrounds and presents the painting or sketch.  Frames can be ornate and loud, or subdued and unobtrusive.  In the same way that the look and feel of a painting can be altered by a change of frame, if we now turn from art work and think of ourselves, so our perceptions of the past may be affected by changing our frame of reference.  By that I mean placing those past events in a different overall context.

We may not be able to alter the actual sequence of events and the detail of what occurred, of who said what to who and when. Nevertheless if we place those events within a different frame or perspective, that may help our understanding of exactly why we acted as we did and that can inform our present feelings.

For example, the angry parent we recall from our childhood may not have been displaying anger at us but at themselves for letting an event occurred.  Nevertheless we may have taken that anger as being directed at us because something inappropriate happened. That personal feeling of guilt which we may have then inadvertently carried into our teenage years and on into adulthood, could be eased if we can reframe the sequence of events to allow other figures in the drama to become more prominent.

When we are looking back with embarrassment at our own actions, at what we perhaps saw at the time as a personal frailty, we may with reframing, understand as the natural exuberance or curiosity of youth.  This can permit us to apply a more mature reaction to a difficult set of circumstances which we just did not fully understand at the time. 

I will leave you to fill in a narrative which will reflect your personal story. But we need to remember that reframing is not suggesting that things did not happen. It is just to accept that the story may have been too complex at the time for a child or adolescent to fully understand; or perhaps even too frightening for a young adult to completely engage with. If we now put a different frame around those events, perhaps the story can be seen in a different way with our own actions viewed in a kinder and more tolerant light.

In my therapy room there are a number of paintings which I have acquired from different sources.  Each work has a specific story. If I change the frame of the picture although the work of the artist remains constant, the nature of the some of the paintings will change. Different colours will be highlighted. Other features of the painting will stand out. The very fact that the surround has been altered will encourage me to look again at the picture and perhaps become more aware of the message from the artist.

We can do the same with our past. We have gained knowledge and experience of life since those difficult events of many years ago.  If we can look anew at what we and others did then and reframe those actions in the light of what we know today, we may reach a better understanding of who we were. We may develop a greater awareness as to why we and others behaved as we did and also why things appear as they are today.

That reframing process may just be a first step, albeit a necessary one. We may well want to go on beyond this process of reframing.  If we just continue to rake over the same ground, the surface will become uneven and unsettled. That underlines the importance of moving on in our lives, of looking ahead to how we wish things to be and to identify the changes that we wish to make in the future. That is where useful techniques such as CBT or Solution Focussed counselling can come into play.

If we do want that subsequent change to be long lasting it is important that the transformation is built on firm foundations. Our self-esteem is a key part of establishing strong emotional foundations.  Of course we cannot alter what has happened. The ridiculous, careless or destructive things we may have done, still sit with us. There may however be another way of looking at those aspects of our story which is less self-critical and that is where reframing can be a helpful process.

Reframing is a challenging thing to do. For art works the craftsman has to ensure that she or he has all the tools available to hand, to ensure that the painting is not damaged during the reframing process.  The same is true with our personal reframing.  We may want to be careful not to inadvertently stir up that which would be better left alone. We will want to avoid having to struggle with an unexpected and painful reality. That is why sometimes it can be useful to work with a trained and experienced therapist who can help to facilitate that process.

Some careful reframing of what has occurred in life can help build those firm foundations for the future.  We cannot change the past but we can with reframing improve our self-awareness and understanding

And that may be helpful when we turn and face our tomorrow.


Geoff Boutle

added on 1st July 2013

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