Looking Backward and Forward: Part 1
The benefits of combining psychoanalysis & positive psychology to arrive in the present
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“When we find the most diverse remedies prescribed in a textbook of pathology for a given disease, we may confidently assume that none of these remedies is particularly efficacious. So, when many different ways of approaching the psyche are recommended, we may rest assured that none of them leads with absolute certainty to the goal, least of all those advocated in a fanatical way.” - Carl Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul
If you talk to someone who fancies Eastern spiritual traditions, they may tell you that the purpose of life is to be in the present. That’s what Eckhart Tolle would say and say again and again. For some people, this is a Truth that guides them toward the life they seek.
I like to visualize the concept of presence as a distribution.
Let’s call it the Thought Distribution Curve.
You don’t want your thoughts to linger in the past. That’s where sadness and depression can come from — a fixation on how things could have been.
Similarly, you don’t want your thoughts to drift repeatedly into the future. That’s where anxiety comes from — a fixation on what might happen.
Instead, the purpose of life (according to Eckhart and others like him) is to be in the present moment. After all, the past and the future are only concepts. They aren’t tangible objects that can be touched and manipulated to suit your desires. The present moment is the only thing that is real.
When the mind is busy, your Thought Distribution Curve turns bimodal, with the mind alternating between the past and future. It’s in this mind space where unnecessary suffering takes place as we dwell sadly on the past or anxiously in the future.
However, if you manage to center your thoughts on the here and now, you experience a lightness and joy that is distinctly different from the hornet’s nest in your mind when you’re smacked with the Sunday Scaries.
I summarize the Thought Distribution Curve in the following way:
Thinking in the past is depression.
Thinking about the future is anxiety.
Being in the present is peace.
Presence is what dogs, children, artists, elite athletes, and monks have. Who wouldn’t want a little bit of the magic that they possess?
The challenge is in figuring out how to arrive at the present moment and stay there.
By now, we’ve heard a lot about the benefits of meditation. It’s the real deal. Plenty of studies have demonstrated the virtues of daily meditation. And thanks to books like Flow, we’re reminded of the benefits of finding tasks that completely capture your awareness.
Yet one thing I haven’t seen discussed enough is how different methods of clinical psychology can help someone find their way toward presence. For some people, prior life experiences and societal conditioning can push the mind toward the polar ends of the Thought Distribution Curve.
For example, a victim of a violent crime may find themselves revisiting the past experience regularly while also frozen by the future fear that it may happen again. It’s difficult to be in the present when your nervous system is switched “on.”
By leaning on psychoanalysis to look backward, you can free yourself from the regressive tug of traumatic memories.
And, by turning to positive psychology, you can create a future plan that is so compelling that the very pursuit of your vision for the future will bring you into the present moment.
For some, we must look backward and forward before we can find ourselves in the present. That’s the subject of this 2-part essay.
What pulls us backward and forward
The short answer is Life.
There are very few of us that sneak through unscathed. We might be neglected, abused, lied to, cheated on, forgotten about, assaulted, harmed, repeatedly disrespected and minimized, bullied, harassed, pressured, made to be fearful, chastised or shamed. Often, it’s a grab bag of several of them. Sometimes, we are simply on the receiving end of a terrible and unfortunate coincidence.
Holding onto psychic pain from difficult life experiences, either consciously or unconsciously, leads to poisoning our thoughts, mood, behaviors and how we connect with others. Releasing the “toxins” through confession is necessary for healing to happen.
As Jung stated,
“The maintenance of secrets acts like a psychic poison which alienates their possessor from the community.”
These psychic burdens are what pull the mind subconsciously or consciously into the past and future.
A traumatized person may find it nearly impossible to feel present because their bodily sensations, flush with the residue of a hyperactive nervous system, overwhelm the body and mind, repeatedly pulling that person out of presence.
“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.”
― Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
It stands to reason that a traumatized person may first need to resolve the root of their trauma to free their mind and body from the toxic distraction of their prior wounds.
That was the case for me. As someone with Complex PTSD, I found it challenging to be present because my nervous system wouldn’t allow it.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Looking backward with psychoanalysis
“It is a fact that the beginning of psychoanalysis were fundamentally nothing else than the scientific rediscovery of an ancient truth; even the name catharsis (or cleansing), which was given to the earliest method of treatment, comes from the Greek initiation rites.” - Carl Jung
As Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, stated, “The only person with whom you have to compare yourself is you in the past.”
For those of us who are dragged down by prior pain, rooting yourself in the past, at least for a while, is essential if you wish to ultimately arrive in the present. Old painful memories and emotions, if repressed, don’t go away. Instead, they fester. And when they fester, you suffer.
The four pillars of psychoanalysis
In Modern Man in Search of a Soul, Carl Jung describes psychoanalysis as having “four heads.”
Confession - involves the client sharing life experiences and telling secrets not typically told to others. This is the realm of psychic repression, where man’s sins are concealed.
Explanation - confession creates a way for unconscious aspects to come to light. This is the stage where an explanation for the origin of the neurosis takes place.
Education - the therapist helps the client translate insights into his or her current life. The education stage then involves moving the patient into the realm of an individual, hopefully as an adapted social being.
Transformation - is described by Jung as similar to self-actualization. Not every person makes it to this stage, nor is it required for everyone to pursue this stage. However, some will find it essential.
From my experience with psychoanalysis, the Catharsis step (i.e., Confession) is the most important step. Not many want to take this step. It can be disturbing to revisit our most painful memories and feelings. But that’s what must be done. The obstacle is the way. Letting go of all of the shit you’ve crammed down for years is the first big step to detaching your mind from the past.
My advice for Catharsis is:
Start by identifying just one person that makes you feel safe and accepted. It can be a therapist, a coach, or even a 12-step sponsor. It only takes one person. You don’t need an audience to fully disclose psychic pain.
Reveal only what you’re capable of handling at that moment. Give yourself the grace of opening up at the pace you’re ready for. That means it is ok to divulge psychic pain in stages. It doesn’t all have to come out at once.
Gradually, work toward fully disclosing the thoughts, experiences, and emotions you’ve suppressed until it feels that you’ve reached the bottom of the barrel.
If you don’t feel safe enough to discuss your suppressed emotions and memories with another person, start by writing them down. Admitting them to yourself can be enough to kickstart the healing process.
My Catharsis playbook
I turned to several tools to help fully disclose my conscious and unconscious emotions and memories. Many fit squarely into the category of psychoanalysis, while others are close cousins. However, in my mind, they all fit into the narrative of looking backward to heal memories and emotions that kept me from being present.
Medication - I began with a low dose of medication early in my work with my therapist. It helped calm my nervous system and stabilize my emotions so I could participate more effectively in therapy. My medication is also helpful in reducing my Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which tends to anchor my mind in the future with unnecessary ruminations.
Exposure Therapy - I also started exposure therapy with guidance from my therapist. The concept was simple. Write down a comprehensive list of the things that triggered my anxiety, depression, or panic attacks. Then, I listed those items in order from least disturbing to most disturbing. With the rank-ordered list in hand, my therapist and I encountered each item repeatedly to slowly retrain my mind to no longer find the list of stimuli triggering. We spent between 3-6 months incorporating exposure therapy alongside regular talk therapy.
EMDR - the long-form name is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. I undertook 3-4 sessions within the first 1-2 years of therapy. About 10 years later, I had 2 more sessions focused on a few lingering memories that were still disturbing, such as the day of my mom’s funeral. With EMDR, I dramatically reduced the distress associated with several of my most traumatic memories, which helped me remain more present daily.
Heroic Dose of Psilocybin - in 2019, I took my first large dose of magic mushrooms, which is known as a heroic dose, along with the help of an expertly trained guide. I compare the experience and the results from my heroic dose to that of EMDR x 10 in terms of impact and intensity. It allowed me to reprocess a day of abuse I experienced, which sat at the center of my negative self-perception and fear of abandonment since I was about 7 years old.
Ayahuasca - I had two Ayahuasca ceremonies. The first was in early 2020 in America, and the second was in the Amazon in early 2022. The first experience opened me up to receiving and giving more love and helped remove emotional blocks I had that prevented me from establishing deeper human connections. The second experience taught me how to surrender to the good and bad days and let life unfold without fighting it, which lessened the amount of time my mind ruminated on the future.
CBT - I’ve also leaned on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy on and off for the last 13 years. With CBT, I’ve gained a handful of cognitive tools that I can utilize to talk myself through anxious episodes. Like meditation, using CBT techniques takes practice. But the more you practice, the better you get at navigating episodes that bring you out of presence.
Writing - writing is one of my most used tools at this point. At least a few days a week, I sit down to write about what’s going on in my head. Sometimes that’s in the form of nightly journaling. However, my primary approach is long-form writing, where I attempt to tackle and unpack complex topics. The end result is I get the ideas out of my head. If left in my head, they will nag at me until I extinguish them by putting pen to paper.
Turn toward the future
Psychoanalysis (looking backward) brought me partway to a more enduring sense of presence. I found myself rooted less in past experiences and more in the present.
However, with the past behind me, I then felt the existential angst of an uncertain future. If I was no longer beholden to my past, then I was free to create a new future. To do so, that’s when I turned to the world of positive psychology, with its forward-looking approach designed to help people find meaning in their lives, either by creating it or discovering it.
This will be the subject of part 2, which will come out shortly… stay tuned!