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  • Writer's pictureEric Strang. PsyD

In Defense of History

There is a divide within the mental health community regarding the importance of a person’s history. Some feel that the developmental experiences that taught us to behave as we have been are irrelevant to adopting new more effective strategies. Others see the context for the development of the current behaviors as fundamental to understanding the function of the maladaptive behavior so that it can be comfortably relinquished in favor of more effective modes of striving.

I find it useful to think about this using a horticultural analogy; in order for new behavioral seeds to have a chance to take root, the hardened earth of the past must be worked and softened so that they are not blown or washed away before the new habit can emerge.

I do believe that there are patients seeking change that can adopt new behaviors without knowing the origins / functions of their old methods. But I also have observed that a great many people who have been plied with effective skills training find themselves needing to circle back to find some understanding of how and why things got to be the way they were.

The vast majority of people I work with are smart and talented individuals who are very perceptive and emotionally sensitive. Some of this propensity was no doubt innate but some of this was also a result of needing to read the, often unpredictable / chaotic, emotional terrain of their family of origin.

While it is not in itself sufficient to give a person seeking relief from their pain a retrospective understanding of its origins and meaning, it is also not humane to simply give them new tools without explaining the purpose of the old ones. One of the battles that I see occur in clinics is between these two extremes which actually (wait for it) constitute a dialectic. The Buddha showed us that being in the present is the most important antidote to human suffering. He also espoused a middle path that acknowledges the pain of the past and looks to a more positive future. Like most things in the universe it seems that what we need is a blend that allows us to ride the razor’s edge between the extremes. What is interesting to me is that the primary source of what I see as a war on history comes from a discipline that has Buddhist principles as its basis (Dialectical Behavior Therapy).

I think that it is safe to say that when someone is in pain they must first stop creating more. Stopping is one of the primary goals of mindfulness / meditation. Giving someone an understanding of why what they have been doing is causing them pain is a helpful start. Showing them things they can do that lessen their pain is humane. But skipping the part of understanding what caused them to take the ill-advised actions that led to their pain is cruel. I am for doing both which is the essence of “interbeing” and the Buddhist principles that are at the core of both psychodynamic oriented therapies and dialectical behavior therapy. As is usually the case, an effort to achieve purity and absoluteness gives rise to a blinding effort to be right (or at least not wrong) that obscures the fact that there are many paths to healing and we are trying to help our patients find theirs

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