The Past is Not Past


A month ago, I had the privilege of attending a two-day workshop in Denver led by Laurel Parnell, PhD. Dr. Parnell is a renowned clinical psychologist and EMDR specialist. (For more information about Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing therapy [aka EMDR], consult the “Services” and “Resources” links on my website.) In her book, A Therapist’s Guide to EMDR (2007), Dr. Parnell gives a good example of how current symptoms are often linked to past situations – which is why therapists, like me, often want to “dig around” the possible etiology [causes] of problem behaviors.

Pretend you’re a therapist. A woman comes in to see you because she is having “problems at work.” She tells you that whenever her boss walks up to her desk to ask her a question, she “chokes up, feels stupid, and can’t think straight.” Instead of her usual bright and articulate self, she becomes mute and deeply embarrassed. She wonders how much longer she can tolerate such stress. She considers quitting the job she loves (or worse yet, getting fired for incompetence). She also tells you that she doesn’t understand why this is happening since her boss “is a nice guy.” He’s done nothing to cause her to feel this way.

As you begin gathering information about her history, you eventually discover some interesting details that–linked together–might be influencing the current difficulty with her boss. You learn that in childhood her father was “overbearing and critical.” He continually scrutinized her homework and always found fault with it.  She remembers feeling powerless and stupid when he would criticize her. Her heart would begin to beat faster, and her stomach would tighten. She felt small and ashamed.

As you continue information-gathering about her past, you discover that her early paternal memories seem to link up with other negative experiences with dominant and critical teachers, boyfriends, and employers. You learn that she had a mean teacher in the sixth grade who intimidated her, a high school basketball coach who demeaned her, and more recently a boyfriend who verbally abused her. Her strange and confusing reactions to her current boss seem to take on new meaning.

You consider the strong possibility that it’s not her current boss per se who she’s reacting to, but earlier memory networks that are strangely and painfully coalescing in the person of her boss. You think that what’s needed is to address and reprocess some of those past memories with her father, teachers, and partners. You share your thoughts with your client, and suggest a future course of therapy. She agrees – and in time, her symptoms improve. Her boss is no longer the feared person he once was to her.

Dr. Parnell observes, “Sometimes reprocessing the earliest, most charged memory (in this case, her father) can have such a strong generalization effect that it clears the rest of the memories up the chain alleviating the present problem and symptoms.” I would like to say that this is “always” the outcome, but the generalization potential of targeting “root experiences” cannot be overlooked. To do so, says Parnell, is like “taking off the top of a weed without getting the roots. The weed will just grow back.”

William Faulkner was surely right: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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