A common approach in the field of psychology and therapeutic change work is to encourage a client to draw on past references and experiences to help them make changes and achieve future goals.

This can be a useful way of becoming motivated to change and initially take action. Whilst in theory it should work, in the long term it can be counter productive. Here are two examples of how these problems arise, and how they can be avoided.

Example 1

I work with a weight loss client, who is in their late thirties and struggling with extreme obesity. This client wants to lose weight and be at a similar weight and level of fitness as when they were in their early thirties, when they were fit and healthy.

To most people this would seem reasonable and achievable goal. However, consider the outcome again.

By adopting the mindset of wanting to be how they were in their early thirties, then they would essentially be going back to being the person who later went on to put on weight. It’s a subtle, but important point.

Example 2

I work with a client who has post traumatic stress disorder after a vehicle accident. The client has had difficulties getting over the shock of what happened and has been in emotional turmoil since then. The client wants things to go back to normal, and have life as it was before the accident.

Supposing that was in any way possible, if they were to have things like they were before, then they would still be the person who was later  involved in the accident.

In both examples, the new outcome they want will always be before a negative experience. The mind is very smart, and will put two and two together. It knows what happened next to a remarkable degree of accuracy.

So what can be done about this? Let’s look briefly at example 1.

Instead of targeting how their weight was at an earlier date, a cleaner way of working would be to set their target as not only losing weight and controlling their eating when they are 40, but all the way into their 50s instead.

To summarise –  although referring to the past can be useful for motivation purposes, it’s crucial not to have your personal targets set so you are repeating what happened in the past. Future based targets which present you with new choices will be the ones which are most effective and stand the test of time.

That’s all for now – I’ll be back with more next month.

Category: CBT, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Worthing West Sussex