Updated: Sep 21, 2022
One of the elements I appreciate about Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) is that it “does not focus on the past.” After all, life takes place in the present and the past cannot be undone.
Still, as one source clarifies, “REBT can engage a ‘historical understanding’ of the present problems (e.g., how irrational beliefs were developed in the clients’ life history) and/or even a ‘here and now’ approach (e.g., how irrational beliefs are expressed during the therapy process, in relation to the therapist).”
When participating in advanced practicum training for the principles and practice of REBT with the Albert Ellis Institute, I was taught that although REBT practitioners do not dwell on past events, we also do not completely disregard them. This makes sense to me, because the past may inform the present.
However, all too often, I’ve experienced situations in my personal and professional life during which people remain fixated on the past. The illusion of control to change that which has already occurred seemingly haunts people—or, at least that’s what they tell themselves.
Not to be confused with Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow—“the self’s emotional blind spot, projected”—I think of the past as a shadow projected from the present moment. Standing in the here-and-now during the figurative daytime of life, we may be aware of the long-reaching past extending behind us.
Per one source, “In REBT we show you how your present attitudes and beliefs about your past largely keep the pain of the past alive and well.” Often, these attitudes occur in the form of should, must, or ought narratives.
Imagine telling yourself that your shadow shouldn’t exist as it is and that somehow you must change it. The clever reader may say, “I’d just hold up a large object and change the shape of my shadow, Deric.”
Nonetheless, you would project a darkened representation of yourself. Alter its appearance as you may, it still exists. When you tire of distracting yourself with perceptual tricks, your shadow still remains.
What then may be done about the extended past behind us? Who says anything ought to be done at all? Not everyone embraces the wise words of Rafiki, who said, “It doesn’t matter, it’s in the past,” and, “Oh yes, the past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.”
One caveat I would add to Rafiki’s binary option is that from an REBT perspective, I dismiss the connection between past events and present agony. This is because REBT operates on Epictetus’ notion, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
Therefore, the past doesn’t have to hurt.
Consider a quote from the founder of REBT, Albert Ellis, who stated, “There are three musts that hold us back: I must do well. You must treat me well. And the world must be easy.” When we tell ourselves that we must remember misery, our minds will obey the command.
Telling oneself that unpleasant events of the past must be remembered is one way self-disturbance occurs. When you demand that you must stare at your shadow, fixating on harm experienced in the past, how does this serve you?
When contemplating this matter, I’m reminded of two hip hop songs from separate artists. On his 2011 album Love & Rockets Vol. 1: The Transformation, lyricist Murs featured a song entitled “Remember 2 Forget.” Lyrics of the chorus are as follows:
I keep forgetting to remember to forget all the lies, and all the bullshit; all the reasons that we had to call it quits, pieces to our puzzle that never seem to fit. Started out fast, and ended so quick. For weeks on end, I was so sick. So the next time I start to reminisce, remind me to remember to forget.
Aside from his skillful wordplay, I appreciate how Murs reminds himself not to dwell on past events. Remembrance in this regard can serve a meaningful purpose rather than demanding how things ought to be different.
On the 2019 album Remember, Professor P & DJ Akilles released their song entitled “Remember.” Similar to Murs’ hook, the chorus states:
When the hope fades through cold days and stormy weather, remember to forgot but don’t forget to remember. Gotta’ have patience, in time, it gon’ get better. Remember to forget but don’t forget to remember. ‘Cuase the real lesson is nothin’ lasts forever. Remember to forget but don’t forget to remember. Ahh yeah, every year from December to December, remember to forget but don’t forget to remember.
Here, the duo uses remembrance as a matter of perspective. I’m particularly fond of the existential lesson of nothing lasting forever. Can you imagine gazing at your shadow, drowning in a pool of tears, as life passes you by?
While I appreciate certain aspects of psychoanalytic, psychodynamic, and other psychotherapeutic modalities which focus on the past, I find that REBT techniques benefit me and the clients whom I serve more than staring into the void of yesteryear.
I think the past is important if we can learn from it, though demanding it should have been different is “meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” What do you think?
For more information about my approach to REBT, I invite you to read a separate blog post I wrote entitled Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). If you have any questions, concerns, or comments about this form of therapy, I encourage you to reach out using the contact widget on my website.
As a psychotherapist, and hip hop head from the old school, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.
At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!
Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW
Photo credit, photo credit, fair use
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