The other day I was having a discussion with colleague Michael Reddy. The following question came up. When it comes to understanding true change and healing, which is more effective: creating powerful positive intentions and visualization about the future, or clearing the negative effects of past traumatic events that hold us back? There is evidence for both camps. But I would like to suggest a far more nuanced answer, rather than choosing one side or the other. In order to do this well, I need to take several passes.
Pass 1: Imagine the following metaphor. You are a space ship, floating in space. Behind you is star (called Trauma star) with its own gravitational field. This star represents past traumas. The strength of its gravitational field represents the amount of unprocessed trauma and stress that you have, and its pull on you and your life. In front of you is another star with its own gravitational field. This star represents a positive future – let’s call it Happy star. The strength of its gravitational field represents the clarity and intensity of this future and its pull on you or your life. In this first pass, we can say that at any given moment these two gravitational wells influence you. Therapies and coaching practices that focus on clarifying goals and creating positive, compelling futures increase the pull of Happy star. Therapy and coaching that work on removing the effects of trauma weaken the gravitational force of Trauma star so that you are less likely to be influenced by its gravity and pulled into its gravity well.
On this first pass we can see that both approaches could be successful. As far as I know, there is no research that measures the relative effectiveness of these two approaches (and for many reasons there is not likely to be). I have discussed this imagery with a number of people and they have all found it to be helpful and evocative of many questions. This is only a broad concept; there is much more we could explore.
Pass 2: It should become immediately apparent that this physical/Newtonian metaphor is only useful if you know things about your client at a specific point in time. Perhaps the most important question is, how close is the person/spaceship to Trauma star at the time they come to see you? In other words, is their presenting complaint and life circumstance such that the gravitational effects of Trauma star so great that it must be worked on first or is the person fairly far away from Trauma star, so its effects are relatively small? If so, it may make more sense to work on goals and the future.
Pass 3: You may have noted that, in the discussion so far, I have said nothing about the direction of the spaceship or the power of its drive system. It might be more accurate to describe the process of focusing on goals and intentions as working with the power train and navigational settings of the spacecraft moving through life. It is very important to know where you are going. Helping clients improve their ability to direct their spaceship through the fabric of life is a powerful tool. If we are staying with our original metaphor, we can now update it by saying that there are many potential happy stars on various headings. Your clients need to decide which happy star they want to head towards and start moving in that direction. As they do that, the degree to which they are being held back by one or many trauma stars will become apparent. In this manner, we realize that working with both issues can actually make therapy or coaching more effective.
In my opinion there is not a single answer to the original question. Nevertheless, it is a great question to ask. I hope this has provoked some helpful thinking for you.