Three Ways to Begin Exploring Your Past in Therapy

By Claycie Gerlt, MSW, LCSW

Our life experiences shape how we see the world. Pleasurable, warm experiences where we feel cherished provide us with a sense of belonging and a knowing that we are accepted and cared for. The challenges we face may provide learning experiences that build important parts of our character. Sometimes in the same environments in which we feel these positive feelings or have felt resilient in the midst of challenges, we also may carry the burden of hurtful messages and unresolved emotions related to traumatic events, stressful situations, and grief and loss. 

Many of us are apprehensive to begin the process of exploring these things, and for good reason! The painful parts of our stories can feel really uncomfortable and overwhelming. Our brains do an excellent job of protecting us during and after our traumas, and often, revisiting these events feels understandably threatening.

Why then should we explore these parts of us, when often they feel much safer tucked away and in the past? Often in the therapy room, we start work together with identifying patterns that show up in the present. What is often discovered is that these patterns of thought or behavior have been present for a while, which can lead to feelings of hopelessness and frustration – but what is underneath that? What is the belief we’ve held in regard to our recurring issues and ourselves? What past events have shaped how we see the world around us?

There are many ways to start exploring these moments from the pasy within the safety of the therapy session:

  1. Exploring family relationships and patterns through genograms: Imagine a family tree with all of the complicated stuff! Genograms can help provide a visual of family relationship dynamics and generational trauma. Understanding these patterns can help us learn more about patterns that may be at play in our lives, as well as awareness of what generational patterns we would like to break.
  1. Attachment styles in relationships with caregivers: What did our relationships with our parents and primary caregivers look like growing up? Learning about these relationship dynamics can help us understand how we interact in our current relationships.
  1. Identifying core beliefs: Our experiences, messages we receive, attachment styles, and relationships with others shape our beliefs about ourselves. Commonly, beliefs like “my needs don’t matter,” “I’m responsible for everything,” or “I’m inadequate” lie beneath our day to day anxieties and the way we relate to others. Identifying these can be the first step in exploring where these beliefs come from and how we can move toward more adaptive beliefs about ourselves.

Once we connect the dots of how our past experiences affect the present, we can begin to offer self compassion and understanding to ourselves in meaningful ways and make lasting change possible for our present and future selves.

Claycie is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Missouri – Columbia. Claycie believes in the power of sharing one’s story and is committed to creating a space where this can be done safely, without judgment, and at the pace of the client. She specializes in working with anxiety and depression, grief and loss, trauma, religious trauma, and supporting those in the adoption community. She utilizes CBT, ACT, EMDR, and IFS in session with clients. To learn more about Claycie or to inquire about working with her, click here.