You don’t have to go back into painful memories to feel better. This is one of the ways my approach steps out of the mainstream. Therapy should not be an ordeal.
Yet when I explain this, people often express doubt.
“But what about trauma?” they ask. “Surely you have to go back and heal it?”
Many of the people who say this are other therapists. I often wonder what they mean by the phrase “go back and heal it.”
It would be lovely if that could happen – if we could go back in time and avoid the traumatic event. But of course we can’t.
Whatever we lived through has happened.
We are now dealing with the effects of that.
When therapists talk about healing trauma, what they mean is that our lives will get better in the now.
It has become a core myth of therapy that the way to do this is to relive it all. In the reliving, it is claimed, we heal and life changes for the better.
It leaves people in an unenviable position. Those who are living lives touched by trauma often can’t face the therapy that might help them.
The ordeal of therapy is too big a price to pay. So they opt to stick with the suffering they know.
Who can blame them?
Who wants to relive traumatic events? I certainly don’t. It was shitty enough the first time.
Why would I pay to go all the way back there?
The radical therapists Bob and Mary Goulding, who developed Redecision Therapy, had a clear view on it. They argued that to have someone relive a trauma without there being a redecision, a change in the client’s life, was an abuse.
I’d go further. To have someone relive a trauma at all, redecision or not, is worth questioning.
Why? Because the reliving is itself traumatic. And because it is not necessary.
Let me be clear. There is no evidence that going back into the traumatic situation is any more effective than not.
So why do it?
Time after time, one therapy approach is compared to another therapy approach in studies. The results keep coming back the same, and have been doing so for decades.
There is no difference. They all work as well as each other. The ones that take you back into trauma add nothing over other methods that do not.
But what they do add is a potential ordeal for you, the client.
Perhaps this would be worth it if it were more effective than other approaches. But given that it is not, it is an unnecessary and harmful side effect.
If there are many ways of getting the same good result for you, why choose one that hurts you and adds to your pain? Why choose one that even risks re-traumatising you?
In the therapy profession, one of the common issues therapists face is “secondary trauma.” This is where a therapist becomes traumatised by hearing the traumatic stories of their clients.
I am sympathetic to the suffering of colleagues who encounter this. Yet I am always left with a bigger question:
“If it is traumatising you just to hear it – what on earth is it doing to your client who actually lived through it?”
We can’t go back and heal trauma, because the past cannot be changed.
Trauma lives in the now. What we can do is explore how life would be different if the past was no longer touching your present.
We can look for where that new future is already here, to at least some extent. Because it will be, even if only now and then. Even if only a little bit.
Then we can find out how you managed to create that, and do more of it so it starts to grow.
We can find the heroism that got you this far, and put it into action in the creation of your new life.
We can use all this information from the now to build that life you desire. So we reach the point where what happened then no longer shapes what happens next.
None of it needs you to go back there. You have the capacity to build the future you want, whether you relive the past or not.
But reliving the past will likely be traumatic and upsetting and, as the research shows, utterly without benefit.
So that’s why I do it another way. One that is full of hope, joy, excitement and possibility. And gets you the change you really need.Alun Parry is Director of The Liverpool Psychotherapy Practice