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Can we leave our past behind?

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Firstly, on the face of it, I wanted to comment on how strange this question is. Then I “Googled it”, and the search engine came back with 147,000,000 results! Whilst, at the top of the list were examples of essays (it seems that every psychology/psychotherapy/counselling course has this question on the curriculum), it also seems that this question has been on the lips of people (in many cultures) for a very long time. Right up there are quotes from the King James Bible, with one website quoting 70 versus from the New Testament (Bible, 2013). Interestingly, the Old Testament seemed to be less concerned about foregiveness, and more about holding grudges, and the justification of mass genocide.

There are literally hundreds of songs questioning whether the first person can “leave the past behind” due to some emotional trauma they have experienced at the hands of a significant other, and then others seeking forgiveness and urging the injured party to “put the past behind them”, with either talk of “moving on” or seeking forgiveness for their transgressions.

So it seems that, on the surface at least, experience (both good and bad) and then how we relate to those experiences, is fundamental to the human condition. It could be argued that, without our past, we would not know how to experience the present. If we were to “leave the past behind”, a person would have no point of reference for how to deal with not only their everyday routine happenings but to also have strategies to cope with any unique, significant or threatening experiences.

From purely biological point of view, even the simplest of organisms have evolved the “hardware” to be able to “learn” from experience. Our own biology “knows” how to operate in a particular way depending on circumstance, i.e. recognising danger, and the feeling fear resulting in freeze, fight or flight response, chewing, swallowing or spitting out food when it enters the mouth. We seem to possess the urge to perform more complex behaviours like forming social groups.

Evolution has acted so that genes and environment act to complement each other in yielding behavioural solutions to the survival challenges faced by all animals. Innate, or instinctive, responses allow animals to benefit from generations of natural selection on behaviour. The ability to “learn” gives animals tools to respond to local conditions and changing environments. Understanding the relative roles of genes and the environment in determining human behaviour continues to create controversy. Behaviour is best seen as the result of evolutionary processes that sometimes create, through genetic coding, behavioural instructions for animals and at other times create flexible mechanisms to allow animals to solve problems specific to their environment (Breed & Sanchez, 2012).

These characteristics seem to be “hard wired” into our genetic code, so at least this is a part of our past we most definitely cannot leave, as it is at the very core of us. Various studies have concluded that approximately 50% of our behaviours, even our ability to be happy comes from our genetic make-up (Lyubomirsky et al, 2005). Saying that, genetic scientists have already developed therapies to “cure” unwanted genetic mutations, so perhaps scientists will soon be able to amend how we react to stimuli. Small genetic mutations may in essence change the very core of who we are.

Once the controversial subject of genetic influence on behaviour has been put to one side, we then might want to start considering how our environmental and social influences, in particular the events and people in our early lives, have shaped the way we react or make decisions in the present. Although various psychological theories may dispute how, or to what extent, childhood experiences shape our existence, nearly all of them at least acknowledge genetic predisposition and, in particular the relationship with the primary caregiver or “significant other” in the developmental process.

This relationship is core to most psychodynamic theories although it is typically from an unconscious urge to fulfil some innate drive; whether that be Sigmund Freud’s Psychosexual Stages of Development, Object Relations theory (honed by Melanie Klein), Bowlby’s (and Ainsworth’s) attachment theory or Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages of Development. The other key element of those theories is the notion that a human being must go through a series of stages to “progress”, and failure to do so will have some form of negative consequence.

Melanie Klein and Erik Erikson were both heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud but like Jung, disagreed with his emphasis on libido (Psychosexual Stage theory) being the primary force in the development of the human psyche.

Erikson’s theory proposed that a person develops an “Ego Identity” throughout their life and this conscious sense of self is developed through social interactions. This identity is constantly changing subject to the new experiences and daily interactions with others. He also believed that it is a sense of competence that motivates our behaviours and actions (Erikson, 1980).

Each stage in Erikson’s Psychosocial theory is concerned with becoming competent in an area of life. If the development through a particular stage is handled well, the person will feel a sense of ego strength or ego quality. If the stage is managed poorly, the person will emerge with a sense of inadequacy. He suggested that healthy personality development may be based on reaching a reasonable balance between two opposing forces at each stage of development; what he termed the ‘syntonic’ and ‘dystonic’ (roughly translated as the positive and negative) of a series of ‘contrary dispositions’.

In each stage (see figure 1), people experience a conflict that serves as a turning point in development, and it is these conflicts that are key to either developing a psychological quality or failing to develop that quality. During these times, the potential for personal growth is high, but so is the potential for failure. Failure to successfully complete a stage can result in a reduced ability to complete further stages and therefore a more unhealthy personality and sense of self. These stages, however, can be resolved successfully at a later time.

Figure 1 – Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Stages
StagePsychosocial Crisis Stage Life Stage age range, other descriptions Oral-Sensory 1. Trust v MistrustInfancy 0-1½ yrs, baby, birth to walking
Muscular-Anal 2. Autonomy v Shame & Doubt Early Childhood 1-3 yrs, toddler, toilet training Locomotor 3. Initiative v GuiltPlay Age 3-6 yrs, pre-school, nursery Latency 4. Industry v InferioritySchool Age 5-12 yrs, early school Adolescence 5. Identity v Role Confusion Adolescence 9-18 yrs, puberty, teens Young Adult 6. Intimacy v IsolationYoung Adult 18-40, courting, early parenthood Middle Adult 7. Generativity v StagnationAdulthood 30-65, middle age, parenting Maturity 8. Integrity v DespairMature Age 50+, old age, grandparents

For example, at the Muscular Anal state, the child is developing physically and becoming more mobile. Between the ages of 18 months and three, children begin to assert their independence, by walking away from their mother, picking which toy to play with, and making choices about what they like to wear, to eat, etc. The child is discovering that he or she has many skills and abilities, such as putting on clothes and shoes, playing with toys etc. Such skills illustrate the child’s growing sense of independence and autonomy. Erikson states it is critical that parents allow their children to explore the limits of their abilities within an encouraging environment which is tolerant of failure. For example, rather than put on a child’s clothes, a supportive parent should have the patience to allow the child to try until they succeed or ask for assistance.

A delicate balance is required from the parent …. they must try not to do everything for the child but if the child fails at a particular task they must not criticise the child for failures and accidents (especially whilst toilet training). The aim has to be “self control without a loss of self-esteem”. Success in this stage will lead to the virtue of will. If children in this stage are encouraged and supported in their increased independence, they become more confident and secure in their own ability to survive in the world. If children are criticized, overly controlled, or not given the opportunity to assert themselves, they begin to feel inadequate in their ability to survive, and may then become overly dependent upon others, lack self-esteem, and feel a sense of shame or doubt in their own abilities (McLeod, 2008). Erikson, E. H. (1964).

Insight and Responsibility. New York: Norton. Although support for Erikson’s stages of personality development exists (McAdams, 2001), critics of his theory provide evidence suggesting a lack of discrete stages of personality development (McCrae & Costa Jr, 1997). Erikson is rather vague about the causes of development. What kinds of experiences must people have in order to successfully resolve various psychosocial conflicts and move from one stage to another? The theory does not have a universal mechanism for crisis resolution. Erikson (1964) himself, acknowledged that his theory is more of a descriptive overview of human social and emotional development and that it does not adequately how or why this development occurs. For example, Erikson does not explicitly explain how the outcome of one psychosocial stages influence personality at a later stage.

Klein, like Erikson, wanted to move focus away from libidinal or hedonistic “drives” in development to the formation of relationships but not necessarily with people. Her Object Relations theory suggested that during the formation of early relationships, the infant psyche identifies part objects by the function they serve. For example, a breast that produces milk is seen as a good breast. A hand that touches and caresses is seen as a good hand. But a mouth that yells and hurts is seen as a bad mouth. These object identities develop through years of receiving care and the events that occur during that time. Although these representations are skewed and do not accurately depict the tangible object, they eventually grow to represent them. This causes extreme ambivalence within a client who has seen good and bad parts of the same person (Simonowitz & Pearce, 2003).

Whereas Freud had theorised about object relations, but believed that the subject relates to the object with the aim of satisfying his drives, Klein maintained a position that the subject’s aim is fulfilment of the inherent desire to relate to the objects in his environment.

Klein theorised that infants’ minds begin to develop by testing preconceptions against reality. Preconceptions can be thought of as instincts, such as a newborn’s search for his mother’s nipple. According to this theory, as the infant gains experience with his environment, he forms concepts which he can fantasise about.

In this early stage, which Klein calls the paranoid-schizoid position, the infant’s environment is filled with part-objects, such as his mother’s breast, or his father’s hand. The infant learns to focus energy on these objects, and creates internal objects, which are mental representations of the external objects, about which he fantasises. Objects which satisfy the infant’s drives are seen as “good” objects, and objects which frustrate his drives are seen as “bad” objects.

It is important to note that in the paranoid-schizoid position, the infant subject cannot reconcile good and bad feelings toward the same object, and so sees them as separate objects. The “good” breast that satisfies the infant’s desire to be fed is not the same breast as the “bad” one that lets him go hungry. The inability to tolerate conflicting feelings toward the same object is known as “splitting,” and is a common psychic defense mechanism for subjects in the paranoid-schizoid position.

At this stage of development, the infant subject also makes use of other defence mechanisms. Introjection is a mechanism whereby the infant uses a fantasy to internalize comforting aspects of the objects in his environment, such as feeling safe in the refuge of his mother’s breast. Projection is a mechanism whereby an infant migh psychologically transfer feelings to an object in his environment, and can thus be rid of destructive or threatening feelings. The infant also uses projective identification, which is a mechanism whereby he or she transfers part of their self to an object in order to feel a sense of control over that object.

As an infant matures psychologically, he or she enters what Klein calls the depressive position. This should occur when the infant is three to four months old. At this stage, the infant learns to reconcile conflicting feelings, and realises that the same object can have both positive and negative, or drive-satisfying and drive-frustrating, aspects. The environment that was dominated by part-objects in the paranoid-schizoid position is now populated with whole-objects; with the infant relating to the mother rather than just the mother’s breast. In the depressive position, the infant begins to integrate the ego, and whole-objects are recognized as separate, autonomous beings.

Less healthy personalities are based on persistently polarised, and not-yet-integrated object relations. They cannot represent something that is both good and bad at the same time. Instead, good and bad representations are “split-off” from one another. The best such a personality organisation can manage is to switch back and forth from one polarised “all good” or “all bad” object representation to another. In so doing, they rapidly switch from strongly negative feelings, to strongly positive ones, and then back again. This disintegrated personality organisation, based on persistently polarised object relations, is characteristic of individuals who are diagnosed with severe personality disorders.

Having fragmented, extreme, and split-off, self-other representations interferes with a person’s ability to develop a consistent sense of self, and a consistent sense of other people. Frequently, people with these split-off representations of themselves do not feel like they are the same person across time and situations. They may feel very differently about themselves and their lives from one day to the next. Similarly, they perceive their relationship partners as having very different qualities at different times. It is perhaps not at all surprising that such individuals would act in ways that reflect their changeable perceptions of self and others. For instance, an inconsistent sense of self may mean frequently changing careers, relationship partners, living arrangements, and even life goals and values. Under such circumstances, genuine intimacy becomes elusive.

It may be difficult to imagine what a disintegrated personality organisation would feel like if you yourself are in possession of an integrated personality organisation. This could be illustrated by a person you know who might like to “give it to you straight”, or “not beat about the bush” when letting you know how they feel about something they do. A person who might have what Klein would label as a healthy personality would be able to appreciate the honesty but still not like the bluntness of delivery.

However, someone who has a disintegrated personality would switch from absolute love of the “honesty” to hatred of the person for their insensitivity. This is because people with disintegrated personalities simply cannot experience both the good and bad qualities of a person simultaneously. At this point, it is fairly easy to imagine that such rapidly shifting experiences of self-and-others causes some very intense feelings. These intense feelings may lead to extreme behaviours that often result in conflict and disillusionment. It is also possible to imagine the hurt, anger, and confusion that are felt by the other people in relationships with these disintegrated personalities (Segal, 1973).

Mixtures of contradictory feelings (e.g., like and dislike) occurring at the same time are experienced as intensely disorienting and anxiety provoking. This anxiety and discomfort prompts the person to keep such feelings “split-off” from each other, and separate. While temporarily reducing anxiety, this splitting prevents the person from experiencing affectionate feelings and aggressive feelings at the same time. Because the person cannot experience conflicting feelings simultaneously, it prevents them from integrating representations into a cohesive whole. This, then, leads to intense feelings and behaviours that interfere with their functioning.

The anxiety that an infant experiences when its primitive ego is split, leads it to defend itself by means of projection, expelling the bad, and introjections, absorbing the good. The breast which it sees as a primary object is experienced as a “good object” and as a “bad object” in turn.

As a child develops it may now see the mother as a whole person and it can take up the “depressive” position, feeling guilt and regret that it fears it may have caused the mother injury. In Object Relations Theory, the depressive position plays a crucial part in the creation of a fantasy that the breast is keeping the gratification for itself, leading to primary envy and the defence of “projective identification” – the locating in another body of an aspect of the self felt to be particularly critical or threatening, often resulting in external persecution. The Kleinian view is that of a constant struggle between the schizoid-paranoid position and the depressive position, based on a fantasy that the object may be fatally damaged (Wright, 1998).

Klein used the term “position” rather than “phase” as she wished to emphasise that the infant can move from one to the other, and back again. This possibility remains throughout a person’s life. It is suggested that the self that is formed in these early experiences is not set in stone, and that it can be modified with effort and assistance, but we will have a basic tendency to seek out others who will reaffirm these self-object relationships (Chrysalis, 2013).

There are well documented criticisms of psychodynamic approaches as being based on observation with conclusions that are untestable. When I first start to read them, they seem to make perfect sense but as I progress through the text, I start to scratch my head as the explanations of the observations become more and more obtuse and then verge on ludicrous. That aside, if one were to utilise the psychodynamic theories like Klein and Eriksons, then one must by default accept that the past, especially events in childhood, being key to where the client is in the present. There is a belief that psychopathology develops from these early experiences and follows us through life influencing the behaviours we display and the choices that we make. It is the core principle of psychodynamic psychotherapy is to prompt these issues to re-emerge in the context of the client-therapist relationship as transference and counter-transference and that any deficiencies from developmental stages are “worked through” and resolved.

I am personally not sure how healthy it actually is for the client to be constantly digging up the past, and it seems that psychodynamic therapists certainly do that with their clients on a regular basis and over long periods. Evolution has provided us with a very useful trick of suppressing unpleasant or unneeded memories in everyday life, and then finding them (or their associated feelings) at a moment of need. It could be that the “modern” social human being does not need or desire this survival trick for the most part due to society’s dim view of running away for fighting. It seems that is in our nature to want to leave the past behind but it seems that all we can actually do is find places to hide.

Bible, O. (2013). 70 bible verses about putting the past behind. Retrieved February 22, 2014, from Open Bible Info: http://www.openbible.info/topics/putting_the_past_behind Breed, M. D., & Sanchez, L. (2012). Both Environment and Genetic Makeup Influence Behaviour. Nature Education . Chrysalis. (2013). The Past and its Power. Advanced Dipoloma in Counselling and Psychotherapy . Chrsalis. Erikson, E. H. (1980). Identity and the life cycle. New York: Norton. Erikson, E. H. (1964). Insight and Responsibility. New York: Norton. Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology , 9, 111-131. McAdams, D. P. (2001). The psychology of life stories. Review of general psychology , 5(2), 100. McCrae, R. R., & Costa Jr, P. T. (1997). Personality trait structure as a human universal. American Psychologist , 52(5), 509. McLeod, S. A. (2008). Erik Erikson. Retrieved February 10, 2014, from Simply Psychology: http://www.simplypsychology.org/Erik-Erikson.html Segal, H. (1973). Introduction to the work of Melanie Klein. London: Karnac. Simonowitz, V., & Pearce, P. (2003). Personality Development. Maidenhead: Open University Press. Wright, E. E. (1998). Psychoanalytic Criticism: A Reappraisal. New York: Routledge.

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