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Questioning Therapy's Perpetual Present

The rhythm of therapy can tie people to their presents. But how to orient oneself in time is a deeply philosophical matter.

Pamela J. Hobart
Pamela J. Hobart
2 min read
Questioning Therapy's Perpetual Present

I've heard repeatedly that "therapy is about the past while coaching is about the future." But this isn't quite right.

Coaching necessarily incorporates relevant elements of the present and even past. Plus, therapy doesn't just pick apart the past, black couch & Freudian style.

Therapy also tends to construct a perpetual present for the patient. Sometimes slowing down to focus on the present helps patients' mental health. Other times, though, over-focusing on the present does more harm than good.

The perpetual present pattern

Here's what my clients describe from their time in therapy:

Client enters therapist's office. Therapist asks them how they're doing. Client describes various issues from the past 1-2 weeks, many of which are recurring (e.g. procrastination, indecision, etc).

Therapist validates client's feelings, asks probing questions to explore them, supports where the client is right now. Client has plenty to say about these things, speaks their mind.

This easily absorbs the therapy hour. Client leaves, not exactly dissatisfied but not exactly satisfied, either.

Even if the two discussed possible courses of action for the client, the therapist (being a therapist and not some kind of "accountability coach") is not expected to hold the client to these in any important way. Instead, the client can crop up afresh each time with feelings new or old, accomplishments and failures of any kind, and be accepted all the same.

This is therapy's perpetual present.

Costs vs. benefits

Now, therapy's perpetual present is not necessarily bad. Some patients have withstood past experiences so traumatic that they are now meaningfully held back from their own futures until the past has been resolved, healed, or at least acknowledged and analyzed. For these patients, the therapeutic womb and its perpetual present can be a blessed gift, an investment that makes extension into the future possible again... a bit later.

But most of us are not so tightly past-bound. Instead, our past tethers us with loose reins, or we hold the past lightly in one hand as we reach towards the future with the other. Future-oriented clients may not be best-served by even friendly and warm invitations to wallow in the present.

Some people clearly need therapy, perhaps a few people clearly do notneed therapy. In the intersection, there is a large overlapping set of prospective client-patients: they have things to talk about and work through, therapists would welcome them, but they're not so unwell that starting with coaching (philosophical or otherwise) would be unwise.

Time orientation is one dimension along which these patient-clients could consider their needs and whose help to seek.

Do they (you) want to forage in the past? To dwell in the present? To stride into the future?

Time orientation is a philosophical question

This question about orienting one's life in time is not a matter of simple personal preference. Instead, time orientation itself raises deeply philosophical issues:

  • How do the ways we think and speak about the past, present, and future affect personal identity?
  • How can we develop and exercise virtue as we attempt to learn from some elements of our past while setting others aside?
  • What are the costs and benefits, individually and socially, of existing more in the "here and now" vs. in the near or even far future?

If you need help thinking through the possibilities for your future (and how to pursue them) more than you need an opportunity to air (i.e. belabor) the present, then coaching may be just the ticket.

And if the meta questions about the timeline of life interest you, then it may be philosophical coaching that you're after (send me a message).

Pamela J. Hobart Twitter

Philosophical Life Coaching in Austin, TX. Also mother of 3, Miata driver, and DIY manicure aficionado.