Past hurts can influence your behaviors and relationships. Exploring your past can help how you react and behave in the future.
Some people don’t believe that rehashing past hurts help. You can’t change them, right?
How could reliving how your parents might have hurt you or how that ex might have treated you benefit you today? All it does is bring up painful memories.
But the way you react or choose to do certain things might be connected to your past.
Neuroscientists have researched what they call memory reconsolidation. It’s where you revise an emotion tied to an old experience with a new emotion. As you update this memory, you actually create a neurological change in your brain.
Therapists call this process a corrective emotional experience.
Corrective experiences challenge the way you relate to others, how you view yourself, and how you view past emotional hurts.
By exploring our past, we may better understand our now and make more positive decisions for our future.
In 1946, psychoanalysts Franz Gabriel Alexander and Thomas Morton French coined the term “corrective emotional experience.”
Corrective experiences look at past events and explore how they have shaped your reactions and behaviors. The theory is that taking an honest look at the past helps individuals understand who they are and why they behave and react the ways they do.
This method is often led by a skilled therapist in a safe environment.
“The idea is that once you’re in a therapeutic relationship with a kind, loving, and supportive therapist, you’ll have a different experience from what you had in your traumatic past,” explains Frank Anderson, M.D., psychiatrist and therapist in Concord, Massachusetts, who specializes in treating the effects of psychic pain and trauma. “This gives you an opportunity to feel, experience, and know something different.”
During therapy, as you explore the past, the therapist responds in a kind and loving way, which corrects the emotional experience you had in the past.
“You can then internalize this and take it with you in the relationships you have out in the world,” Anderson adds.
“Let’s say that your partner responds defensively whenever you bring up something they did,” says Colleen Cira, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and executive director of Cira Center for Behavioral Health in Chicago. “Their response immediately makes your heart start racing and your anger or rage takes over. It feels like they’re gaslighting you.”
This reaction could be a response to something that happened to you in your childhood. It might be that whenever you cried or had a problem, your parent told you that you were being too sensitive or too dramatic.
So now, when your partner denies that your perspective is true, you go right back to being that 9-year-old child.
Because you’ve never healed from this experience, you continue to react in a negative way each time something similar happens.
If your therapist is helping you correct that emotional experience, they’ll help you explore what happened during your childhood. Once you know what happened that causes you to react the way you do, you can begin to change how you respond.
“Then, when your spouse denies what you said,” Cira says, “you can walk away, take a breath, then respond in a calm, rational manner.”
There are several ways a therapist can help you explore and correct your past, including:
- eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
- narrative therapy
- exposure therapy
Anderson uses and teaches a method called Internal Family Systems (IFS). The theory behind this method is that an individual might block out their pain with substance use, eating when they aren’t hungry, exercising for long periods of time, or other similar activities.
To stop the behavior, Anderson says you have to treat the reason behind the behavior.
With IFS, as you correct the experience that causes the behavior, you no longer need to turn to that behavior to hide your feelings.
“If my client was bullied as a child, I will slowly and carefully help her get into a relationship with that little girl [her younger self],” Anderson says. “As she revisits the playground and describes what happens, she explains all of the pain, feelings, and physical sensations she felt as a child.”
While this is happening, Anderson says he’ll ask the individual what they want to share with their younger self. “She’ll begin to comfort that little girl,” he says, “letting her know that she sees her and knows how awful she feels.”
Anderson notes that as the little girl on the playground begins to feel heard, seen, and validated, the healing then begins.
“Now that somebody understands what she went through,” he says, “she doesn’t have to hide her feelings or experience anymore.”
This process happens slowly, over time, so as not to overwhelm the person with emotions.
Each experience is unique to that individual. No one person’s experience is the same.
According to Cira, a lot of it depends on what you’ve uncovered on your own. “Some people come in with a general idea of what’s going on,” she says. “They’ll tell me that their dad treated them poorly, and they think that’s why they’re having issues.”
For those people, corrective emotional experiences often feel like a relief, Cira says.
“Once they have a reason and an answer for why they react a certain way, they can move forward,” she says.
But Cira notes that it’s harder for those who haven’t done that work. In this case, she takes a more gentle approach.
“It might feel really overwhelming to view your parents or your childhood in a way that you never have before,” she says.
In those cases, you may cry. You may get angry. You may have lots of feelings and emotions. But don’t worry. Your therapist is there to help you through this process.
Once you’ve corrected your experience, you’ll be able to change your behaviors and reactions going forward, Anderson says.
For example, if you used to eat ice cream to suppress your feelings, you might check in with yourself before you grab that ice cream carton the next time, he says.
Now that you’ve explored your past to find out why you did this behavior, you might say, “I don’t really need to eat that.”
“You no longer need to eat to suppress those feelings,” Anderson says.
Over time, that internal dialogue begins to fade. Eventually, you won’t need to remind yourself to not say or do those things. You’ll just notice that change.
“You need to be pretty honest with yourself,” says Cira.
Take a look at your past behaviors, Cira notes, and ask yourself, “Is your reaction bigger than what the situation probably calls for? If so, that’s probably an indication that something more is going on.”
Or, it could be the opposite. If you have no reaction to things that most people view as upsetting, then you might want to discover what’s causing you not to react.
“Also, a good rule of thumb,” Cira adds, “is that if it’s negatively impacting your life and the way that you’d like to function, then you might need some assistance getting through whatever is going on.”
Though these are good indications that this type of therapy could work for you, it could also simply be a sign that something else is going on and not necessarily some deep-rooted trauma that you need to work through.
If your reactions to other people or events seem over- or undramatic, it might be an indication that you should explore your past experiences.
Exploring these experiences can be difficult, but the benefits can be life-changing. Understanding what happened in the past can lead to new outcomes in the future.