Can We Ever Leave The Past Behind?

To answer the question, we need to look at the origin of human behaviour, ideas, and feelings? – are they innate or learned? (from past experiences) – nature or nurture? Nature is inherited abilities and genes present at birth, and Nurture is behaviours acquired after birth from the influence of experience. Many modern theories suggest that experience, environment and genetics all play a role in influencing our present behaviour, but they don’t all agree on the degree of these influences.

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It has long been understood that certain physical characteristics are biologically determined by genetic inheritance e.g. colour of hair, eyes and skin, physical characteristics such as the shape of our nose etc, and even certain diseases are a function of the genes we inherit e.g. Parkinson’s. These facts drive research to discover if psychological characteristics such as behavioral tendencies, personality attributes and mental abilities are also wired in before we are born. Mcleod (2007) writes that on the extreme nature side of the debate there are the biological theorists who focuses on genetic, hormonal and neurochemical explanations for our behaviour and characteristics that are not observed at birth, but develop later in life as a product of maturation. And at the other end of, pro the nurture debate, are the behaviorists who believe all behaviour is learned from the environment through conditioning; it is how we are brought up that governs the psychologically significant aspects of development and behaviour we exhibit in our present.

Examples of the nature position include Bowlby’s theory of attachment, which views the bond between mother and child as being an innate process that ensures survival, and also Freud’s theory of aggression as an innate drive (called Thanatos). These contrasts with the behaviorists, eg Skinner, who believed that language, is learnt from other people via behavior shaping techniques and Bandura’s social learning theory that states aggression is learnt from the environment through observation and imitation eg BoBo doll experiment (NCHP 2011).

Other psychological theories suggest that there is a middle ground to these extremes that explain present day behaviours; a middle ground to include some biology and some acquired through experience. How much of each is open to debate especially in the light of advances in genetics. McLeod (2007) quotes the Human Genome Project as an example stimulating interest in tracing types of behavior to particular strands of DNA located on specific chromosomes, with scientists on the verge of discovering (or have already discovered) the gene for criminality, alcoholism or the “gay gene”.

Freud maintained a balanced view between nature and nurture, all-be-it a shifting one. His concept of the dynamic unconscious was an important contribution to the psychology of human behaviour in that the human mind played an important role in determining how a person behaved – but the existence of external events could not be disregarded. Many approaches in the field of psychology suggest that behaviour is directed by an individual’s goal but the idea of the goal directed unconscious is an original Freudian concept. Underlying this theory is the belief that any individual’s behaviour is the direct result of the influences of all prior experience and that no individual aspect of human behaviour is accidental. Freud believed that early childhood experiences formed solid foundations on which the developing child would structure the rest of their life i.e. the adult personality was formed in childhood according to their experiences. If the experience was happy and balanced then the child would develop into a well balanced and adjusted adult. Psychotherapy utilises the psychodynamic approach which places importance on the childhood years and how conflicts were resolved.

Jung disagreed with aspects of Freud’s theories, especially his psychosexual stages; he developed his own theories which became known as Analytical Psychology. He did agree with Freud that man is driven by libido, but felt it was more a ‘life force’ which was responsible for development. His concept of the unconscious was different to Freud’s Ego, Id and super-ego structure, and suggested that the psyche was composed of three components: the ego, the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious: the ego represents the conscious mind while the personal unconscious contains memories, including those that have been suppressed. The collective unconscious is a unique component in that Jung believed that this part of the psyche served as a form of psychological inheritance. It contains all of the knowledge and experiences we share as a species and is where his archetypes exist as innate models. The five archetypes Jung was most interested were the anima, animus, persona, shadow and self. (Snowden 2010)

Jung argued that whereas the first part of a person’s life involves a coming to terms with the outer environment and its challenges – through work, friendships and relationships – the emphasis on the second part, from middle age onwards, is to come to terms with one’s own personality. Faced with declining opportunities, energies and possibly health, the individual must find new purpose and meaning in life through components. Snowden (2010) writes that although ultimately beneficial, this can be difficult, because it involves accepting parts of one’s personality which one may prefer to leave undiscovered e.g. The shadow.

Jung believed that a whole race could relate back to its origins e.g. aborigines, Eskimos, Negros. He based this theory on research which showed uniformity of ideas and customs in a particular group. He answered his critics by suggesting that these themes showed as fantasies in psychotic people who, he said, would never have known that material, and also in his later dream analysis work. Criticism came, not just from supporters of Freud, but scientists who wanted empirical evidence. The criticism was centred upon four main areas:

Jung’s methodology.

The theory of archetypes

Jung’s concept of religious experience

The role of religion within individuation.

Roheim (1945) felt that since all humans share broadly the same experiences, it is hardly surprising that they develop myths along similar lines. Research documented by Geza Roheim (1929-1953) showed that although he was primarily a theoretician, his theory was always based on rigorous observation and study e.g. Australian Aborigines. He was one of the first anthropologists to successfully apply Freudian theories to the analysis of cultures. Robinson (1969) writes:

“Roheim’s “ontogenetic theory of culture” is considered a major contribution to this field”. (p129)

Roheim believed that cultural differences were largely the result of an individual’s childhood traumas and that the childhood experiences of the individual was ultimately reflected in adult personality and in the collective institutions of a given culture. (Robinson 1969).

The Object Relations Theory places less emphasis on Freud’s biological drives of aggression and sexuality as motivational forces and more emphasis on early relationships, primarily mother and child. Object Relations theorists believe that we are relationship seeking rather than pleasure seeking. Melanie Klein was a main contributor to the Object Relations Theory. Klein, Fairbairn and Winnicott, have moved, in varying degrees, toward a model in which an ‘object’ is the target of relational needs in human development. The infant’s first object is a part object, e.g. the mother’s breast, a supplier of needs. The ego is strengthened by the finding of ‘good’ objects.

Segal (1992) writes about Klein, how she developed the model of ‘good objects’ and ‘bad objects’ as a different type of conflict to that between Freud’s Id and super-ego. Seeing the breast relationship as significant; as the child feeds, it feels gratified and satiated when the breast produces sufficient milk, and so feels loved and cherished. But if prematurely withdrawn or the breast does not provide sufficient food, the child is frustrated and the breast is hated and receives hostile thoughts (Good breast: bad breast). Klein suggests this conflict is essential for normal personality/ego growth. I.e. conflict and the ability to overcome it. Splitting occurs to allow the infant to deal with the conflict i.e. good and bad in the same object. This has similarities to Jung’s coincidence of opposite’s concept. Objects can be people (mother, father, others), parts of people or objects/symbols with which we form attachments eg infants can form relationships with toys and pets (transitional objects) even blankets and items of clothes. These objects and the developing child’s relationship with them are how humans form and preserve a sense of self, as well as relationships with others; if disrupted then there begins the development of an affected child or adult later on.

Bowlby and Winnicott put emphasis for human behaviour on environmental factors, including relationships with others. Winnicott’s theory rests easily alongside Bowlby’s (1988) theory of attachment which proposed that attachment bonding between individuals develops only to have certain biological drives met. A securely attached child is able to explore and move away from mother to engage with a wider world, not only physically but internally i.e. self contained, having internalised the love of their caretaker and so comfortable with self ie attachment actually fosters independence rather than dependence. Abuse by a primary caregiver damages the most fundamental relationship as a child-that you will safely, reliably get your physical and emotional needs met by the person who is responsible for your care. Without this base, it is very difficult to learn to trust people or know who is trustworthy. This can lead to difficulty maintaining relationships due to fear of being controlled or abused. It can also lead to unhealthy relationships because the adult doesn’t know what a good relationship is.

Bowlby (1988) was also critical of Klein’s emphasis on the internal process at the expense of the relationships with real objects. He also argued that Winnicott’s theory of ‘a good enough mother’ puts expectation on the mother that she must shoulder the responsibility for the outcome of her child.

Pines (2005) however felt:

“Winnicott did a great favour to concerned mothers by assuring them that in order to raise an emotionally healthy baby you do not need to be a perfect mother, only a “good enough mother” ” (P.118).

Carl Rogers (1951) proposed that the sense of self which emerges from childhood, be it healthy or psychologically problematic, is dependent on these relationships:

“As a result of interaction with the environment, and particularly as a result of evaluational interaction with others, the structure of self is formed…” (p498)


“Psychological maladjustment exists when the organism denies to awareness significant sensory and visceral experiences…” (p510)

Jacobs (2007) raises concern that these theories can lead us to put people ‘in boxes’, labelling them normal or abnormal depending on whether or not they have successfully negotiated a particular stage or phase in their life. Klein tried to address this by building on Freud’s psychosexual stages theory using positions not stages. Freud suggested we move through the stages, oral to anal then genital , whereas Klein believed we are never free of issues; adults and children move back and forth between positions all the time (e.g. paranoid-schizoid position and depressive position). Klein ‘depressive position’ has been used to describe a child’s growing perception that early good and bad experiences come from the same source.

Referring to Lewins Field Theory Neumann (2011) writes:

“Lewin highlighted the importance of characterising the atmosphere (e.g. emotional tone or climate) and the amount of freedom existing in the situation. This overall perspective counteracts the pull to repeat the same unsuccessful attempts at change and development. Concluding that such a pull to repetition comes from forces within the field.”

Erikson accepted most of Freud’s work, but proposed that there were not five stages of development as Freud psychosexual stages proposed, but eight. Erikson believed that every human being goes through a predetermined unfolding of personality in his ‘Eight Ages of Man’ theory to reach full development. Jacobs (2007) summarises:

‘Erikson’s theory frames the issues of each age as being much more than erotic pleasure or frustration, and much more than the satisfaction of bodily desires’.(p11)

Alongside Erikson’s stages are tasks that he felt were key issues in each age e.g. Trust v Mistrust during the oral age progressing to the emergence of an identity crisis during the teenage years in which people struggle between feelings of identity versus role confusion. James Marcia (1966) expanded upon Erikson’s theory

proposing the Identity Status Theory, as not stages, but rather processes that adolescents go through, in varying sequence, sometimes in two states at any one time. Marcia felt that stages meant people have to progress from one to the next in a fixed sequence, which his theory rejected. He felt the balance between identity and confusion lies in making a commitment to an identity with each state determined by two factors:

1. Is the adolescent committed to an identity, and

2. Is the individual searching for their true identity?

The Identity States are:

Identity achievement occurs when an individual has gone through an exploration of different identities and made a commitment to one.

Moratorium is the status of a person who is actively involved in exploring different identities, but has not made a commitment.

Foreclosure status is when a person has made a commitment without attempting identity exploration.

Identity diffusion occurs when there is neither an identity crisis or commitment.

Those who have made a strong commitment to an identity tend to be happier and healthier than those who have not. Those with a status of identity diffusion tend to feel out of place in the world and don’t pursue a sense of identity.

All these theories relate to a development where different parts or objects need to relate together – integration. This appears as us being able to relate socially, to work, ourselves and the environment we live in. With Erikson this is a continuous process of finding identity but there is no doubt that experiences of childhood are vital in our ability to adapt to life. Whatever we call it, we need a secure sense of self, ego, individuality, to meet and work with the changes that growing up and older brings. Freud would say this is living by the principal of reality i.e. ego is balancing the demands of the Id, super ego and environment. Erikson elaborated on this with different strengths at each age stage, finishing at the eighth age of ego integrity knowing ones identity. Jung suggested individuation.

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Jacobs (2004) Triangle of Insight suggests client do not present themselves to the counselling relationship in isolation. Psychodynamic Theory uses the Triangle of Insight in which past and present, relationships inside and outside therapy and in the external and internal world can be linked, and can be very insightful to the clients picture and their presenting issue:


In here.


Past. Present

Back Then. Out There

‘Parent’-Child Client-Others

Not only is our present being influenced by our past, our memory of our past is influenced by our present; perceptions and interpretations differ depending on current circumstances, our mood even, so the presenting position may well bias the way we tell our story – perception and reality are both important aspects. Rogers (1951) proposed:

“We react to the field as it is experienced and perceived. This perpetual field for the individual is ‘reality'”. P484

Family history, parents and the generations above them, might play itself out in a family. Family therapy has recognised the importance of this influence on a family and individual; it is not just the individual’s history that is relevant here.

Fritz Perls first introduced what would become the Cycle of Awareness in Gestalt Therapy. He believed that there exists an instinctive cycle which reflected the “cycle of the interdependency of organism and environment.” (Perls 1969).











Clarkson (2004) describes how this cycle (fig.1) demonstrates how past negative events/instruction is detrimental to psychological health and that to process any emotion fully and healthily, we need to pass round the cycle of experience to maintain us and provide for actualisation. She says:

“Interruption of the Awareness Cycle limits ‘aliveness’; the point in the cycle the interruption occurs is dictated by the type of toxic introject.”

Two categories interfere with this cycle:

Absence in the environment of the person or thing necessary to satisfy need.

Stopping oneself in the cycle :

This requires us to be aware of our wants. To not be aware is to stay in withdrawal even after want has arisen – or to keep it out of awareness. I.e. the decision to self-interrupt this natural process is to leave a need or preference unmet, which accumulates as ‘unfinished’ business. It is in effect avoidance.

It is during early development, particularly the first five years, a child is given messages of how to express themselves, verbal and non verbal. Smith (2000) suggests that these are introjected, swallowed whole, and if toxic e.g. ‘big boys don’t cry….mummy won’t love you’: “…can produce a lifelong conflict against ‘aliveness’. The greater number or severity of toxic introjects the less alive the person and inner conflict reigns.

To communicate our story or experience we need to understand language and imagery; it lies at the centre of many therapeutic models, particularly so in the psychodynamic approach. In our present we use words, stories and even symbols to illustrate our own story and this can hold so much information as to what we are trying to convey eg how we see the world, a particular problem, a relationship or even what our personality, thoughts or emotions are; our past forms this. Each person has their own language and imagery when speaking, as each has their own personal life experience e.g. ‘I drift along’ as opposed to ‘I was dragged up’. The way we convey our story may give a quite different meaning to the listener. Freud proposed language was linked with our experiences during the psychosexual phases whilst more modern psychologists feel that meanings should be allowed to have a more individual interpretation, with the possibility of common elements, eg different cultures, single parenting and gay relationships will produce a different set of norms and values.

The significance of difficult past experience, fact and perception, applies as much to the earliest weeks in a person’s life including antenatal influences. In their article Davis, E., Sandman, C ( 2006) write:

“Stress has significant consequences throughout the lifetime. However, when it occurs early in life, the implications may be particularly profound and long lasting”.

Ainsworth et al’s (1979) ‘Strange Situation Test’, concluded that there were three major styles of attachment: Secure, Ambivalent-insecure, and Avoidant-insecure. Numerous studies have supported Ainsworth’s conclusions that these early attachment styles can help predict behaviours later in life and have an important impact on later relationships. Hazen and Shaver (1990) for example found that securely attached adults tend to believe that romantic love is enduring, ambivalently attached adults fall in love often, while those with avoidant attachment styles describe love as rare and temporary and tend to have difficulty with intimacy and close relationships. Researching different attachment styles and gender Feeney et al (1993) suggested that attachment style and gender role expectations jointly influence relationship development.

The overall view from these theories is that unresolved issues from the past often have a powerful effect on living in the present. Linking past to present can be enlightening, although identifying it with a client can be quite challenging and is why the therapeutic relationship is so important. We come into the world with a genetic encoding that sets the stage for who we will become. However, it is also our interactions with significant others, from birth onward, that shapes how our genetic predispositions will be expressed. Early in life, we have little sense of ourselves, or our identity. It is through our relationships with significant people around us that slowly build a self-structure, which we eventually call a personality.

Taking all this evidence into account, my view is no, we can never leave our past behind, it stays with us; it has formed who we are. It explains so much about how we are, good and bad. By understanding the origin of our present day behaviours, biologically and acquired through experience, we can gain a deeper understanding, or a different perspective, which can facilitate the process of further integration with self. It may simply explain why we do what we do. Our maladaptive behaviours, the defence strategies we use to suppress past trauma, once useful and effective, soon become destructive in our lives and those we form relationships with. By uncovering the history surrounding childhood and adolescence we may often be able to locate a point(s) at which trauma occurred and the start of our defensive behaviour.

I agree with Jacob (2007) who says:

“Past, present and future are linked inseparably in the way we think and act” (p1).

It is quite clear that awareness of our past, and the perceptions formed from it, informs the present, the way we may think, be or behave. It is also clear that not only can memories of the past influence the present, but memories of the past may be influenced by present experience. Although psychotherapy is about the present, it works on the premise that understanding the past and its influence on the present, the path towards change becomes clearer.

We can never directly observe our clients past, but Jacobson, P. And Steele R (1979) wrote that Freud delved into his clients past attempting to reconstruct it from their present behaviours because he believed that our past does determine our present situation. Of the therapeutic setting they quoted Freud:

“What we are in search of is a picture of the clients forgotten years…”.



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