It is the stereotypical image of therapy: a client reclined on a couch, woefully lamenting his or her youth while a therapist silently takes notes in the background. This cliché dates back to psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and is rarely how therapy is done today. (Most modern therapists prefer chairs facing each other.) Yet while the furniture layout has changed, talking about our childhood is still an important part of the therapeutic process. Why? What is it about revisiting the past that matters so much in the present and future?

The strings of memory

Memory is a combination of event and experience. Let’s define these:

1. An event is a circumstance that exists within a period of time. It is the thing we tick off on our timelines. Going to the store, meeting a friend, having a work review, etc.

2. An experience is the thoughts and emotions that result from an event. Feeling excited, thinking “I wish I’d done that differently,” or hating a bad movie are examples of an experience.

When our brain makes a memory, it connects the event and experience. Think of it as a string between two points. When we recall the event, our brain plucks the string. The vibration runs along it, and we remember the experience. For example, you go to the grocery store and the checkout line is long, frustrating you. The next time you think of the grocery store, your brain plucks the string and you remember the frustration of waiting in line. Perhaps you decide to go at a different time or to a different store.

We can also remember the experience first, which links us to the event. For example, you decide you want to feel happy. You think about happiness and the memory string is plucked. You recall the time last week when you went to the dog park. Perhaps you go again, intending on recreating the event in order to reexperience the emotion.

However, a single event can connect to multiple emotions. We experience overlapping emotions all the time – the same trip to the grocery store may be connected to the excitement of finding a sought-after food, the stress of finding a parking place, etc. Contrarily, a single emotion can have strings to countless events. When we think of frustration, we recall the store, but we also recall a difficult conversation with our boss, our newly-scratched furniture courtesy of the cat, etc.

Unfortunately, it gets even more complicated. Sometimes our brain creates thicker strings. This occurs when one of two things happen.

1. A particularly strong event or experience impacts us dramatically.

2. The same event and experience occur repeatedly, attaching string after string to the same two points and eventually braiding together into one thick string.

A thick string resonates stronger than a thin one. This can be a good thing, if the events/experiences are positive. For example, if you start dating someone and develop a thick string between seeing him or her and feeling positive, you may ask to be a couple.

However, thick strings also connect difficult or painful things. For example, someone who experiences repeated abuse can come to associate people with pain. A person who experiences abandonment may adopt the belief that relationships are damaging.

So, let’s go back to the childhood memories where we began. Many of our thickest strings form as children. This is when we are still developing our self-identity and belief system. This is also when we are under the care of adults – we will discuss in the next section.

When you talk about your childhood in therapy, you are exploring your strings. You hunt for origin points, discovering how you came to associate the events and experiences that shape your choices, opinions, and actions – the things you go therapy to explore. In time, you come to understand why you believe what you believe, why you are the way you are.

Once you see how strings were formed, you can choose which ones you want to nurture and which ones you want to minimize. Unwanted strings may never entirely disappear, but, hopefully, you learn to calm their vibrations.

Grownups matter

As infants, we survive because of our caregivers. For the first several years of our lives we need their provision, protection, and affection. Ideally, as we age and become more self-dependent, our caregivers continue to influence and guide.

But to quote Voltaire (or your friendly neighborhood Spiderman, if you prefer), “With great power comes great responsibility.” Simply put, negative caregiving is one of the most damaging things that can happen to us. Children who experience abuse and abandonment are at high risk for growing up believing they are not worthy of love. In the mind of a child, if the people who created them do not think they are loveable, why would anyone else?

Add to this that most children adopt the beliefs of their surroundings. Children learn by modeling – they observe the words and behaviors of those around them and replicate them. (This is why racism often occurs in geographic clusters.)

While some of us recognize our caregiver’s impact, many of us carry it subconsciously. This is where talking about our childhood can help. Describing our caregivers helps us recognize the pieces of our identity created by others. While some of these parts may serve us well, we can learn to release the ones that negatively impact us and create an identity of our choosing.

The physical connection

Our pasts are not only stored in our brains – they are also stored in our bodies. These are called somatic responses. Our bodies make connections between the mental and the physical, often without our realization. Perhaps when we feel angry, we clench the muscles in our shoulders. Anxiety could manifest as pain in our stomach. A certain song comes on the radio and we start to cry, not knowing why.

These reactions come from different places. Some are biological responses, programed from birth. For example, clenching our shoulders when we are angry makes evolutionary sense if we predict an impending fight. Others develop throughout our lives. In particular, if as children we are never shown how to manage our feelings (or told we cannot have feelings at all), our bodies learn to come to the aid of our minds.

Because somatization is seldom taught, you may not know when it is occurring. For example, fear could cause you to clench your jaw, resulting in a headache. Most of us don’t realize when our jaw clenches–it’s not something we are taught to notice. If it happens once or twice, it may not be a problem. But what happens if you find yourself in a situation where you are frequently afraid? You find yourself with multiple headaches, and no medical explanation why.

By talking about childhood in therapy, we can trace somatic origin points. For some people, this occurs by tracing back the physical manifestation and exploring when it began. For others, it may be that talking about something from the past creates a somatic response in the middle of a therapy session. Don’t worry if this happens–your therapist has seen it all. (Many are trained in common somatic responses and can make suggestions for how to approach yours.)

As we come to understand our somatizations, they become signals. Perhaps the clenched shoulder becomes an indicator you need to prioritize alleviating stress, or the headache prompts you to use a fear-management exercise. Similar to memory strings, they may not entirely disappear, but their existence becomes familiar and manageable.

Moving on

Though our specifics for coming to therapy may be different, we all share the same desire. We all want to move forward. For many of us, this is hard to do when weighed down by pieces of our past. This is the value of therapy–when we talk about something, we can develop a new relationship with it. We may always carry it with us, but the more we understand it, the less heavily it weighs us down. We learn to say, “yes, this is where I came from, this is where I have been, but that doesn’t mean it’s where I’m going to go.”