Après coup

Many people who are considering a talking therapy worry – quite understandably – about having to talk about the past.  Our histories are often painful and, as the saying goes, “what’s done is done”.  We can’t change the past, so perhaps it would be better to leave it be, and look to the future. 

It’s a persuasive argument – but I think it is based on a misconception about how time, along with cause and effect, operates.

The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, once wrote that “the noble game of chess” has three main stages – the beginning (with its various standard openings), the final stage (with its standard, decisive endgames), and the middle stage, which comprises “an infinite variety of moves”.  It is in the middle stage where the spontaneous and surprising moves really happen – and Freud suggested that this was the case in therapy too. 


But Freud also suggested something very strange and surprising about how time works in therapy: while it always has a beginning, a middle, and an end, they don’t necessarily happen in that order.  One of his most startling contributions to how we live our lives is that we cannot change the present or the future, but we can change the past.  And I think this one thing that therapy tries to do. 

Take two everyday situations:

It is evening and you have returned home from work, where earlier a colleague spoke to you a little harshly.  You are angry, furious – so furious, in fact, that you wonder how such a trivial affront could produce such powerful rage.

A friend has been suffering terribly for months.  Having been in a brief and apparently casual relationship, he has been depressed and inconsolable since the break-up.  Again, how can this minor event have crushed your friend in such a devastating way.

How can the cause and effect in these situations be so disproportionate?

Freud pondered this question when he saw patients who were also suffering so terribly from apparently trifling life events.  He wondered if we might want to think differently about suffering, to look beyond the immediate event and beyond our usual understanding of time.

His idea was that a particular event in the here-and-now often revives a memory of a much earlier event which has since been repressed.  This idea of revival is critical: for Freud there is a period of dormancy between one event and another and the trauma that follows.  When something truly awful happens, at first we cannot react adequately or appropriately (especially if we are very young when it happens); we can only react when this original event is brought to life by a subsequent event. 

There is a strange paradox here: the power of the second event (let’s say, our friend’s relationship break-up) is drawn from the original event (the divorce of one’s parents when one was a toddler, perhaps); but the parental divorce is only made traumatic through the experience of the relationship break-up 30 years later.  It’s not that the latter event evokes an old wound. The old wound does not exist until the later, apparently trivial event brings it to life.

We can think of this another way: when our friend appears to be mourning a relationship with someone he didn’t seem to care for very much, he might be suffering from the break-up of two people he cared for very much indeed.  For him, the break-up and the divorce of his parents are both happening now, simultaneously.

I think there is a surprisingly hopeful conclusion to be drawn from Freud’s theory, for it allows us to re-visit our starting point: what’s done is most certainly not done.

Our distant histories may not have registered consciously – it may seem that there is nothing important to remember, or that whatever happened is too awful to recall.  But their effects play out in our lives – these histories reverberate around the offices, social lives, friendships and romances of today.

Every day, something happens to us which triggers that history.  If we can shine a light on it, discover what it means to us and find a way of bearing what was once unbearable, we can create our history anew – not entirely, of course, but enough to defuse its unseen but keenly felt charge.