Why Does Your Therapist Ask About Your Childhood?
Painful past events should be left behind and forgotten, right?
Posted Jan 22, 2018
by Harvey Schwartz, M.D.
“I don’t want to waste my time digging into my past” is a common refrain from therapy patients. In fact, in many ways our adult lives are both enriched and limited by our childhood experiences and perceptions. The warmth of a mother’s love is the template for all future tenderness. The pain and hurt caused by a cold, aloof parent cloud later intimacies. Abuse contaminates adult self-esteem and increases the likelihood of chronic illness. Indeed, the past influences the present. The challenge in therapy is not simply to learn about our pasts. It is to learn how our past still lives in the present and influences us beneath our awareness.
The beauty of a psychoanalytic psychotherapy is that it allows an individual to discover the ways that past experiences remain alive. This is accomplished through the fascinating experience of transference—that is, we come to recognize that we relate to our therapists in a manner similar to how we related to our adult caretakers as children. Sometimes, we also observe through transference that we treat our therapists as we ourselves felt treated as children.
Ann began her intensive therapy with her female therapist in a combative mode. She dressed to compete with her somewhat younger therapist. She compared educational degrees and paraded the accomplishments of her successful husband over what she imagined to be the lightweight husband of the therapist. The problem for which she sought help was that she couldn’t stop having multiple affairs. She felt compelled to seduce any man not already smitten by her. But she received no pleasure in these liaisons beyond the satisfaction of adding another notch to her well-worn belt.
It turns out that she was raised by a mother she experienced as cool and aloof, who more often than not was on the golf course rather than home helping with homework. Ann was, though, the darling of her successful father, who showered her with gifts and seemingly preferred her over her more academically inclined younger sister.
One might consider that Ann’s initial stance of competitiveness with her therapist was an aspect of her transference to her—that is, she emotionally experienced her therapist as the intellectual sister whom she needed to triumph over in order to maintain her preferred place in her father’s eyes. This was felt by her to be automatic behavior outside of her awareness. It also reflected the awkwardness she felt about admiring her therapist/sister for her intellectual abilities that she herself, it turned out, had painfully set aside to secure her place as arm candy for her powerful husband.
As treatment progressed, Ann began to discover a deeper set of longings. This became evident when she surprisingly found herself feeling jealous of another female patient she saw leaving the office before her. She imagined that this was the therapist’s preferred patient, and that she now was the second-best child.
In the transference, Ann experienced herself as displaced: This painful sense of being unwanted and unvalued by her mother, which had been dormant since childhood, now had the opportunity to emerge in the safety of the attentive doctor-patient relationship. Now she could recognize feelings from long ago that had been contaminating her current life out of her awareness. The ghost of her aloof mother returned, and through the hunger she now experienced with her therapist, she could own those old painful feelings and allow them to rest in the past.
From this experience, she could recognize that she was replaying with the men she seduced and rejected this aloof dismissal that she had felt at the hands of her mother. As she was now able to experience this pain from her past, she no longer needed her affairs to replay this distress. She ended them. She was able to recognize and tolerate her longings for affection and could ask her husband more directly for his love. They struggled for a while with this change in their relationship, but ultimately he appreciated her greater honesty with him, and their intimacy deepened.
Ann’s past was unknowingly living in her present. Through the examination of the transference, together with her therapist, Ann was able to uncover feelings that were out of her awareness. This allowed her to leave the past where it belonged.
If you recognize that the patterns of your life are providing neither growing satisfactions nor deepening intimacies, then perhaps you are operating under the cloud of burdensome schemas from earlier years. The psychoanalytic uncovering of the unconscious influences from our pasts—our transferences—can liberate passionate energies for a more creative future.
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Harvey Schwartz, M.D., is a Training Analyst at the Institute for Psychoanalytic Education (IPE) affiliated with the NYU School of Medicine and the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia. He is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, PA.