Psychoanalysis (and some other forms of therapy) has a bad rap for its interest in the past. “They are trying to fix the past,” “They want to blame parents for everything,” “It only makes one feel worse.” Mainstream coaching (as the International Coaching Federation defines it) even distinguishes itself from therapy by exclusive focus on the future. Because that is obviously better!
Although “your mom” jokes are undoubtedly funny, psychoanalysts (and other reasonable practitioners) look at the past for a different reason. They do it to help you see what shaped your current views so that you can recognize that they are not absolute and gain an opportunity to change them. Let’s break it down.
Helping you see what shaped your views
People usually don’t analyze where their beliefs came from. They just view them as truth. “If you don’t read one book a month, you are a piece of shit,” “Money means freedom,” “If people like me, I am safe.” People in therapy and coaching make such statements with absolute confidence - their world just IS this way.
Some of these beliefs are easy to trace back to either something explicitly taught or implicitly communicated by their parents. For, if your parents try to earn all the money in the world, it is easy to make a conclusion that it must mean something - for example, freedom.
Other beliefs are harder to pin down. They are not articulated beliefs; they are raw but strong feelings about the world. For example, a feeling that the world is a cold, hostile place. Or that people are distant and guarded. These “beliefs” (again, not really consciously held or articulated) result from early childhood experience rather than from explicit teaching or modeling. As Louis CK joked, you can tell a baby “Fuck you” to its face every day, and it won’t remember anything but will grow up with general sadness inside (https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x469ka1, starting at 13 minutes). Yes, it is THAT form of “belief.”
Thus, people go through life with a specific lens in front of their eyes and without acknowledging that the lens exists.
Therapists and coaches (the ones who dare not to subscribe to the ICF definition) not only help clients trace the origins of these beliefs; they help clients see how their past continues to show up in the present, including right here and now. E.g., they may help you notice that you are seeing your parents in your coach when you expect the coach to blame you for your lack of progress (like your parents did). In other words, the coach can help you see that the past is not just a story — it is ever-present in all your perceptions.
Recognizing that your beliefs are not absolute
Of course, we all “know” that our beliefs are not absolute. But this knowledge remains theoretical until we start seeing again and again how our past creates this lens in front of our eyes. This experience is akin to explaining how a magic trick works; the explanation sets you free of the magical illusion.
Some coaches and therapists try to debunk “dysfunctional” beliefs with logic, but this process is more challenging: we may logically understand that something is untrue but still hold on to it because it feels so true.
That is especially the case because all such beliefs are adaptations; they serve us in critical ways. Hence, the quotation marks around “dysfunctional” — these views are very much functional, although limiting. Hence, it is hopeless to argue with a client to change their views: you will lose the argument. Because the client’s attachment to ideas that served them and were a part of their identity (!) is stronger than your attachment to logic.
Yet, noticing the lens of the past in front of you again and again helps you recognize your views as relative. Which opens a possibility for alternatives.
Forming new beliefs
Now that the old lens appears more tentative, the client is more free to ask themselves what reality is actually like and form new beliefs. Easier said than done! Sometimes, it requires acting in new ways to elicit a different response from the world (that’s a scary thing to do!). Other times, one needs to consider what other people are saying when they look through their own messed-up lenses.
However, the process of finding reality through coaching or therapy deserves its own post. For now, though, we (hopefully) understand why therapists and coaches look at the past: to help the client unsee it in the present.