Arguably no other notable figure in history was so fantastically wrong about nearly every important thing he had to say. – Todd Dufresne on Sigmund Freud in a 2004 LA Times Article
Freud was strange. On one hand, he’s the most famous therapist in history, and I have to admit I was excited to visit his former clinic on vacation in Vienna last year:
On the other hand, his theories are at best unsupported by evidence, sometimes completely ridiculous (I’m looking at you, penis envy), and at worst harmful.
Freud invented a form of psychological treatment called psychoanalysis. One of the cornerstones of psychoanalysis is that our personalities are strongly dependent on events in our early childhood. Obviously, this is true to some degree. We are all shaped by both our genetics and personal history, and childhood experiences can be influential. However, Freud and modern evidence-based psychology differ on how we should go about dealing with our past.
Dealing with the past is a controversial and complex topic. To begin with, there are different types of negative past events. For example, being bullied as a child is quite distinct from a difficult breakup. Therefore, the specific treatment will depend on the individual and their circumstances. I will not attempt a full literature review of this active research area, but I will make two general comments.
1. We can’t change the past, but we can change the way we think about the past.
It is important to acknowledge the negative events of our past, but unlike psychoanalysis, we must realise that they do not determine “who we are”. We are capable of living happy lives if we learn to think in a more rational, positive way. How can we accomplish this? If you’re a regular reader of my blog you will know what I’m about to say: cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). CBT does NOT adhere to “just get over it” attitude. Rather, the goal of CBT treatment is to identify and target the unhelpful thinking patterns in the present that are maintaining the problem. Ultimately, the aim is to get to the point where these memories no longer upset us. In a sense, CBT therapy really isn’t about the past at all.
2. Dwelling too much on the past is not good for our mental health. However, if not the past, what should we be thinking about? When are we happiest?
“Live in the moment” is common advice, and in this case, it seems to be right! There is some interesting research that shows we are happiest when we are absorbed in what we’re doing, not letting our minds wander. CBT also has strategies to help people accomplish this! I try to do this as much as possible, while taking the occasional break to plan my future using my nerdy excel method.
These two points have something in common: the present. Since Freud’s time, it seems we’ve learned that living in the present is the key to dealing with the past.
Fjola Helgadottir, PhD, MClinPsych, is a clinical psychologist, a senior research clinician at the University of Oxford, and is a co-creator of AI-Therapy.com, an online CBT treatment program for overcoming social anxiety