This article is part of our introductory series on cognitive-behaviour therapy.
There is unfortunately this misconception, held mainly by misinformed critics of the approach, that CBT denies the relevance of the past. CBT certainly recognises that we are strongly influenced by experiences throughout our life and of course our childhood. How we think about ourselves, the world, and the future is strongly influenced by early experience where we learn (often in a biased and context-specific way) about who we are, how others will treat us, how to deal with interpersonal situations and how the world works.
CBT suggests that the influence of the past is only problematic because the influence of past experience operates in the present in the form of beliefs that we carry with us in today's world, and which we may well have rehearsed and internalised over many years.
In CBT, what happened a second ago with regards to our thinking, is just as important as what happened to us 30 years ago. The past is thus seen as exerting its influence in the "here and now" by the way in which our current day thinking is affected by it. We cannot change the past, but we can change the way we let the past influence us in today's world, by addressing our thinking in the "here and now".
CBT therapists would often be interested in relevant early experience during the assessment phase, but would typically not spend a great deal of time in discussing such experience during active treatment unless there are specific beliefs that would require a specific focus on past events in order for such beliefs to be restructured.
Written by Bradley Drake and Jaco Rossouw, Centre for Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy, Cape Town, South-Africa. For further details visit: www.cognitive-behaviour-therapy.co.za. (September 2011)
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