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How can the past help people in the present and the future?

The timeline teaches us that if people have overcome adversity in the past then there may be lessons that can be learned from that

Looking closely at the timeline it is apparent that Jennifer has overcome a number of difficult circumstances.

How can the timeline help Jennifer cope with her depression and her generalized anxiety disorder (worry) symptoms? Take a few moments to record your own reflections on the above.

The timeline teaches us that if people have overcome adversity in the past then there may be lessons that can be learned from that. This is the way that timelines are linked to wisdom in a personal sense. It is not the presence of challenging life events or even having overcome adversity that makes us wise and gives us lifeskills, it is the way that we use that experience. World renowned Psychologist, Robert Sternberg says experience does not develop wisdom, “Rather, one’s ability to profit from and utilize one’s experience in a reflective and directed way is what determines how wisdom develops.”

This is an important idea for how the timeline enables us to help people use their past to help themselves cope better in the here and now.

Timelines facilitate a process of reflection and self-discovery that enables wisdom to develop. It is much more effective for an individual to discover that when they look back on their life a surprising new narrative of strength and resilience develops. If the therapist were to say to Jennifer, “I think you are strong and have overcome much adversity”, “I am inspired by how you manage”, Jennifer is likely to discount this as the therapist being ‘nice’ and being a ‘paid helper’ whose job it is to say such things.

In the case of the timeline, Jennifer did reach a new understanding and develop a new relationship with herself as she looked at life events from a fresh perspective. On leaving therapy, Jennifer had this to say, “I could use the problems which I have experienced through my life to help me deal with stressful periods which may occur in the present or future.”

How has this happened? This has happened as we utilize cognitive restructuring as part of the timeline exploration of challenging life events.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

The following questions can be asked when exploring a person’s timeline:

  • When examining a life event on a timeline: looking back on that now, what does that tell you about yourself?
  • Events from the timeline can be used to help people with difficult decisions: Have you been in a similar position in the past? If so how did that turn out? How does this help you?
  • Enhancing sense of resilience: If you could somehow go back in time, as you are now and talk to your younger self, what would you say to yourself about how you coped?
  • Encouraging Self-acceptance/compassion: In the past, in times of crisis how, and in what way, has being self-critical been helpful to you.
  • Realist appraisal of coping: Looking back at this timeline, what do you learn from dealing with crises? What does that tell you?

Timelines can powerfully challenge a way a person thinks about themselves based on a factual recall of difficult life circumstances. For example, lets return to Jennifer’s case example. She lost her husband suddenly and without warning. Yet she coped by carrying on each day and caring for her children. She survived and although her view is that she was weak and poorly functioning at the time, evidence contradicts this view.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

In this provocative clip you can see that the therapist is using the person’s past to challenge the individual’s present view of themselves as weak. Asking the person to think about what prediction they would have made in advance of a traumatic event often makes the person stop and reflect. In this event, Jennifer would have predicted she would not have coped at all. With the benefit of time passing, it is possible to observe what actually happened and what the person actually did in the aftermath of this difficult life event. It helps the person come to a new appraisal.

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CBT with Older People

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