Your Past is Never the Reason

I’m a huge fan of the Internal Family Systems therapy method. This method involves (among other things) digging into your past to find emotions you never finished processing and sorting them out. I’ve seen this method work very well to shift repetitive thoughts and behaviors relatively effortlessly. Doing the work is often fun and rewarding. While fake memories can come into play (it’s happened to me), my experience tells me that most of the memories people access when doing IFS relate to actual incidents.

Once those incidents are revisited and consciously processed, it’s easy to change the related story and then your behavior.

Everything I said above may seem to suggest that it would be accurate to say that your past is why you do or feel something. In some sense, I think it is accurate, but I don’t recommend talking that way.

Saying that you do something because of your childhood, or anything along those lines, isn’t useful. It’s disempowering, and it leads your mind in the wrong directions. Since the past is gone, speaking as though it controls you will make your brain think that you can’t act differently.

Don’t say, to yourself or others, that “I’m scared of spending money because we didn’t have very much when I was growing up.” Don’t say that “I’m scared that women will hurt me because of what happened with my last girlfriend.” Don’t say it even if it’s kind of true.

Even though it’s verbose, I recommend explicitly mentioning the intermediate causal step, which is the thoughts you’re having or the story you’re currently telling yourself.

“I notice I’m thinking that I’m scared of spending money because we didn’t have very much when I was growing up.”

“I have a story about how my last girlfriend hurt me and now all women will.”

If it sounds a bit silly to say that, all the better. Because it’s a bit silly to live as though the past controls us, even if it’s the normal human thing to do.

  • Romeo Stevens

    I do X because of Y is a way of obviating responsibility. We see this most acutely in the paradigm of mental illness treatment. We are always quick to rob people of agency if it makes for a more pleasant story. It is harder to notice doing it to oneself.

    Another way to put it is to classify removing agency as an avoidance behavior, i.e. an ugh field. Taking responsibility is hard and it sucks.

  • glennonymous

    One problem I have with the “I do this because of X incident that happened in the past” is that it I think it understates the role of biological determinism. You might say “my mother was an angry person, therefore I learned to be angry”, when in reality you inherited the “get angry noticeably more than the average person” gene from your mother. What are the implications of biological semi-determinism for self-help? I’m not sure, but I can think of areas where a similar kind of understanding MIGHT be helpful. Understanding that my parenting style has a very low probability of affecting how my daughter turns out (as per Judith Rich Harris), for instance, has probably not affected my parenting style at all, EXCEPT AND IMPORTANTLY that I think it has helped me to be a calmer, happier and “looser” parent, which I think is (subtly) probably a good thing for both me and my daughter.

    • Good point about the biological determinism. I agree with the point I think you sort of made about how deterministic explanations of behavior are counter to a growth mindset, which usually I’m looking for in conversation. But if I were talking to Will about what future kids of ours were likely to be like when deciding how many to have, for example, the biological determinism would be a big part of what we discussed. The Judith Rich Harris (and Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids) stuff interests me a lot, and I also think if the goal is becoming calmer, happier, and “looser”, that can probably be optimized for separately.

      • glennonymous

        Thanks Divia! I don’t know that I made that point, but I think bringing up the idea of a Growth Mindset in this context is good. The issue of determinism is obviously EXTREMELY philosophically knotty, but I think whether awareness of biological determinism is counter to a Growth Mindset depends greatly upon how it’s framed. It is after all uber-difficult to tease out biological from environmental influences on behavior, and one might as well focus as much as possible on the things that ARE under our influence, which, in the cognitive-emotional realm, are almost certainly lot more than we usually assume. At the same time, I follow e.g. Steven Pinker in thinking there are problems with the recent sometime academic fad of assuming a human brain is a Tabula Rasa and that Nurture is Everything. (Not that you guys are doing that, obviously.)

        • WilliamEden

          I think there are failure modes of going to either extreme of the nurture-nature debate. At this point I actually see the nature side as being vastly more dominant over the nurture side, at least within our little piece of the world, so I am very wary of the nature argument becoming too entrenched in our group epistemology.

          The big point that genetic determinism misses about genetics is gene expression. We have a basic blueprint, which contains many many possible phenotypes, and we shift between them based on environmental cues. This blueprint also has biases towards exercising particular phenotypes. I do think that our option set is constrained by genetics, early environmental insults, accumulation over the course of a lifetime, etc, but constrained is a lot less severe than determined. Humans are much more adaptable to environmental conditions than (to use the classic example) Sphex wasps.

          Basically the danger lies in black and white thinking. We don’t have complete control. We don’t have zero control. It’s useful to focus on the control we do have, and as a general heuristic, it’s useful to overestimate rather than underestimate our agency.

          • glennonymous

            Well said!