William Glasser, in his Choice Theory, says this -
I disagree with the usual psychiatric thinking that you can learn from past misery. When you focus on the past, all you are doing is revisiting the misery. One trip through the misery is more than enough for most people. The more you stay in the past, the more you avoid facing the present unhappy relationships that are always the problem.
I’m with him on that – “One trip through the misery is more than enough for most people” – what a great quote! Whilst telling the story of the past can be important part of making sense of an experience and of understanding something of another person’s life, the solutions to the present suffering or distress don’t lie in revisiting. It’s not enough to just “get it out”. What matters is what you are choosing to DO today. How are you coping with life NOW as you are living it. That’s an empowering point of view because you can’t change the past, but you sure can change something about what you are doing today. Glasser believes that “present unhappy relationships that are always the problem”. Well, I’m always wary when I see that word “always”! It’s unlikely that there is a single cause, or type of cause, for all problems. He says -
What I will teach him is that he is not satisfied with a present relationship, the problem that always brings people to counselling. His past could have contributed to the problem, but even though most current psychotherapies initially focus on it, the past is never the problem.
I do think he’s onto something here, even if he’s pushing things a bit with his “always” and “never”. There are, of course, a number of psychological approaches which focus on the present as opposed to spending hours digging through the past but not all so explicitly attempt to uncover the present unsatisfying relationship as the thing to focus on. The following three quotes make this very clear -
There is no need to probe at length for the problem. It is always an unsatisfying present relationship.
Since the problem is always in the present, there is no need to make a long intensive investigation of the client’s past. Tell him the truth: The past is over; He cannot change what he or anyone else did. All he can do now is, with my help, build a more effective present.
In traditional counselling, a lot of time is spent both enquiring into and listening to the clients complain about their symptoms [which makes it harder to get to the real problem]……..what the client is choosing to do now.
I remember the first time I realised I was on the wrong path when counselling a patient with postnatal depression who had been sexually abused as a child. On one of the one hour sessions she said to me “Look, I really do appreciate you taking all this time to listen to me, but every time I spend an hour talking to you about the past abuse I feel worse. I think I need a break from this. I think I need to live now.” Well, that woman taught me an important lesson about counselling – that it wasn’t enough to just let someone talk about the past, and that the present is where we live now so we all need better tools to live now, not better tools to remember the last miseries. I also realised at that point that different people had different needs and there was no one model of counselling which would fit everyone.
As I’ve learned from patients and learned from further reading and training, I’ve discovered I’ve a great affinity for focusing on what’s in life NOW and what coping strategies we’re using NOW. But I haven’t had the thought before that the problem ALWAYS lies in a current unsatisfying relationship. Maybe that’s worth exploring a bit more, but, what has made sense for me so far is that there are different areas of focus (and therefore different priorities) for different people. Sure, for many people, the most significant area is relationships, emotions and feelings. But for others the most significant area is something physical, practical, maybe work-oriented. And for yet others, the focus is on something spiritual, their disconnectedness to whatever is greater than themselves, or their search for meaning.
What do you think? Do these theories ring true for you?
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