Counselling in Cheshire - providing a service for Knutsford, Northwich, Tarpoley and Crewe

The past isn't fixed or frozen in place. Instead it's meaning changes as life unfolds.Parker J. Palmer.

Published: Nov 1, 07:19 pm

I recently read an article in the Sunday Times Magazine about a controversial American historian (Michael Livingston) who has specialized in re-writing the narrative of famous battles in British history. In the article he claims ‘History by definition is not sacred or written in stone. It’s a story that’s always being retold.’ (Page 50).

Common sense would tell us that you can’t change the past, what’s happened has happened. That’s only true of course if the account of the past is accurate. Professor Livingston challenges some of the most cherished theories, exploding them by moving famous battlegrounds – ‘sometimes by a few hundred yards, sometimes by dozens of miles.’

But what if the record of an historical event was accurate, is it still possible to ‘retell’ it without actually changing the concrete facts? That is, if we were able to change its meaning, to give it a different cognitive spin, by doing that, would one then be able to retell the story in a different (perhaps truer) way?
In Counselling and Psychotherapy, we come with the story of our lives and recount our personal histories to professional listeners and helpers. The narratives we are burdened with often contain relational and non-relational traumas stamped into the wet cement of our experience, and like wet cement eventually become hardened and solid, ‘written in stone’ as the phrase goes.

But are these cemented memories as solid and unchangeable as we think? Can we say along with Professor Livingston, that these ‘battles’ in our lives can be moved and seen from a different perspective, a different location, are they histories that can be ‘retold’ in a more positive way?

As a psychotherapist having worked with many people presenting with traumatized lives I have found that by helping people to transform the way they interpret personal traumatic experiences (some a long time ago, others more recent), without denying the actuality of the events, transforms the way they think about them, and the way they see themselves and others, resulting in positive change, growth, and recovery.

This transformation of memories can happen in a number of ways.

• Verbal Updating of meanings: In the case of ‘Gaslighting’, (a seductive tactic in which a person, to gain power and control of another individual, plants seeds of uncertainty in another person’s mind) I have worked with individuals where this uncertainty has taken the form of self-blame. In couples, where this often happens, working with the victim, this can involve highlighting behaviours of the ‘gas-lighter’ to the victim which clearly indicate manipulation and misattribution of blame. To heighten the emotional engagement, I may encourage the client to ‘re-live’ the experience in the first person, and then focus on a ‘hot spot’ of the enacted event and its distorted meaning (linked to the misattribution of blame), asking the question ‘and what do you know about it now?’ In effect, this is bringing new information into the reliving exercise to update the ‘hotspot’, and combined with the therapist’s validation of the new version of events can help the client change the story and relinquish the self-blame.

• Imagining the scene from another perspective: A soldier serving in Northern Ireland during the ‘troubles’ was tasked with the job of evacuating an area in response to a tip off that some IED’s (Improvised Explosive Devices) had been planted, although there was no information as to their exact location. A search ensued and two devices were found and deactivated. The soldier (a sergeant), not convinced that the area was still safe, carried out another search, and although no further IED’s were found, he cordoned the area off advising that the possibility of another undetected device was still high. Shortly afterwards an officer decided to override the sergeant’s warning and sanctioned the patrol of a number of soldiers across the area resulting in the tragic death of two soldiers after an IED was triggered. In therapy (as a veteran diagnosed with PTSD), art therapy was used to help this ex-sergeant deal with his feelings of guilt years afterwards, convinced that he had not done enough to secure the safety of the place. The approach was relatively simple. By graphically mapping out the evacuation and search event from an aerial perspective both the veteran and art therapist could clearly see what the picture revealed – that everything that could have been done in terms of emergency measures had been done. There was a shift in the veteran’s belief ratings. The event had been placed in a broader, less toxic context; the meaning had been changed. His subjective view of the event had been re-written helping the veteran to realize that culpability for the tragic event was not his.

• Running the memory on from the worst point: Another simple but effective intervention is to run the memory on beyond it’s worst point. This particularly works well with trauma that was sudden and life-threatening. With the experience of life-threatening events (accidents, natural disasters, crime), memories may be stored in a fragmented way, with the narrative thread broken up and scrambled so that only climactic moments return in an intrusive way without either a beginning or ending. Such a ‘moment’ may be associated with feelings of impending death and becomes stuck, unprocessed, and recurring. A distorted view of the event is all that remains. By assisting the client in re-living the event, the incident is taken beyond the hotspot (where the thought of death was imminent) to the safety point where the person clearly survived. This allows the person to acknowledge at an emotional level that although they anticipated the worst, it did not actually happen.

It is interesting that academia’s response to Professor Livingston’s reinterpretation of famous battles has, from certain quarters, been hostile, even including a death threat. This kind of resistance is perhaps a defensive strategy – disrupting ingrained belief systems can be very threatening. Similarly, changing the meaning of disturbing memories in order to reconstruct the past in a more positive light, can paradoxically meet with a lot of internal resistance. For example, one’s internal critic may be up in arms if the suggestion is made that one’s parent was responsible after all for the abuse inflicted on you. Viewing one’s parent as bad and destructive goes against the grain of things, it may be easier to cast oneself as the perpetrator.

But with gentle persistence, the transformation of how one remembers one’s personal history (those life damaging memories), can result in beliefs changing to more realistic, accurate appraisals than those made at the time, with a substantial decrease in negative feelings. When disturbing memories are connected with, reflected upon, and put in a wider context, the attendant imagery no longer has toxic implications for the present.

References: -
Livingston, M., 2023., ‘Have we had Agincourt in the wrong place all along?’ (Pages 50 – 54), in The Sunday Times Magazine, 22/10/23.