When developing models of behavior, psychologists focus on one of three life segments: the past, the present, or the future. In the early 20th century, the primary focus was on the past. Freud’s psychoanalysis analyzed how unconscious conflicts from childhood determined adult functioning. Also in the early 1900s, John Watson developed the system of Behaviorism, which stressed how early conditioning/learning experiences could have a permanent effect on later development.
In the mid-20th century, Carl Rogers developed client-centered therapy, which focused on clients’ perception of their present circumstances – especially the congruity between their real and ideal selves in their current lives. Also working in the mid-1900s, Joseph Wolpe developed “systematic desensitization,” a behavior modification approach to treating current anxieties without reference to their origin. Wolpe treated problems like social anxiety and phobias by providing new conditioning experiences in the present, which could override the influence of past events.
In the late 1990s, psychology began to focus on the future. Martin Seligman’s Positive Psychology talks about goals and purposes that can help one adapt better through optimism and hope. The fundamental question is, “How can you deal with current stressors for a better tomorrow?” Autonomous and confident striving toward your goals not only helps with coping in the present, but also inspires the search for opportunities to increase the likelihood of future success. Your past is real and cannot be denied, but it should be accepted as a part of your current reality, and be incorporated into a purposeful coping plan for the future.
Angelina, a college sophomore, found herself on probation for hitting another girl at a party. As part of her probation, she had to meet weekly with a therapist in the college Counseling Center. Beginning around age 13, Angelina – like many teens – became rebellious and confrontational with her parents. Unable to control her, they sent her to a variety of mental-health professionals over the years, several of whom prescribed psychiatric medications. She moved through adolescence in somewhat of a muddled medication-induced fog, and never really learned to deal with her emotional life in a healthy, productive way.
In college, Angelina was determined to get off her current psychiatric medications. One of her professors referred her to a local psychiatrist, and she helped Angelina slowly wean herself off the drugs. It was also apparent, however, that Angelina was filled with anger toward her parents, had poor impulse control, and blamed the parents for all her faults. Once off all her meds, she terminated her meetings with the psychiatrist and took no steps to deal with these concerns. Slowly, her anger issues and obsession with her past overwhelmed her, and she had the outburst at the party.
Her required counseling sessions turned out to be very productive, and she began to accept some realities about herself. First, Angelina admitted she was confrontational and combative in social situations, and alcohol greatly amplified those tendencies. She agreed to forgo parties and drinking, and focus on her academics – which was easy for her to do because she was very intelligent and an A student. Second, Angelina accepted that could not use her past as an excuse for her present behavior; she had to be accountable for her present choices. Yes, events in her past contributed to her current stresses and conflicts, but only she could accept that reality and use the lessons of her past to help her define and clarify her values for the present and the future. Third, she slowly realized that she needed to coordinate her values to purposeful striving toward future goals. Her task became clear to her during one session when she told her counselor, “I don’t like how this college is making me behave.” The counselor chuckled and said, “This college is not making you do anything. It is presenting you with opportunities to express yourself, to see yourself in a variety of situations. And guess what? You don’t like what you see. Well, Angelina, only you can decide to confront those things about yourself that you don’t like.”
Counseling helped Angelina learn about conflict resolution; about humility and seeing things from others’ perspectives; about empathy and the importance of sharing and working with people. She got involved in student organizations, and also began volunteering at a group home for troubled adolescents. She got “outside of herself” and served others. Once she re-evaluated her perception of her current college life, she used that discovery to think about her life in more positive and rational ways. She identified other opportunities at her college to help her move forward toward goals that gave her life some meaning. She graduated on time with honors and secured an entry-level job in social services, planning eventually to continue with studies toward a Masters in social-work administration.