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History and Therapy

“History… is not merely something to be read.  And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do… it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations." — James Baldwin

Childhood summers for me were spent at the family farm in northern Minnesota.  Between painting barns, canning green beans, and feeding the animals, I’d listen as my grandmother would tell stories about our family’s history.  Fascinated by the saga of migration from far away places with strange names like Westmark in Sweden and Vaero in Norway, I could imagine my great great grandparents sitting in the room I was in, speaking Swedish, worrying about crop prices, and raising their large group of children, some of whom would die in childhood, others who would move to different states and make lives of their own, and still others who would stay in the same small town. 

Later, studying history in college, I learned that my family’s story was part of a wider whole: the mass immigration of Scandinavians fleeing famine and political instability at home, the settling of native lands, and the maneuvering of self-serving American politicians around agriculture. The study of, as Baldwin put it, “the great force of history” helped me to understand the frames of reference, identities, and aspirations that built my own life as a student at a small midwestern liberal arts college.

Fast forward about twenty years, and I am still captivated by how the wider force of history—global but also individual—impacts our daily lives. Working with clients in psychotherapy, we often find ourselves seeking to understand how a relationship from childhood—traumatic, perhaps—is carried over into adulthood, forming the basis of how my client will interact with their spouse, boss, or even their therapist. Sometimes these ways of relating cause problems in a client’s day to day life: one client may have had an overbearing father and so unconsciously expects many men in authority (like a manager) to be domineering or critical. Another may have experienced early and unresolved grief, and, unconsciously, expect others to leave them, leading, perhaps, to unconscious clinginess or a generalized anxiety that nothing good can last. 

The past is always with us, as Baldwin said, but it does not have to control us. In depth therapy, as we understand our reference points, how we view ourselves, and our motivations—and the historical precedents that formed them—we can make decisions based on the reality of the present moment rather than the trauma of the past. 

But this work isn’t always an exercise in understanding the darkest parts of our past that cause us problems in our current life such as loss or traumatic parenting.  It can also be a chance to understand how we honor our past relationships—like that of my history-loving grandmother—by continuing their passion in our own lives and careers.


Logan Johnson

Logan Johnson, LPCC-S, is a depth therapist with supervision designation. He has a masters in counseling from John Carroll University and additionally studied history and theology. Previously he worked at the Cleveland Clinic as an interfaith chaplain and counselor. He is currently doing additional training at the Cleveland Psychoanalytic Center.