John Suler's Teaching Clinical Psychology

The Personal Timeline Exercise

life history timeline

For this exercise, I tell students to take out a piece of paper, place it in the horizontal position, draw a line across its entire length, and then create a timeline of their lives, similar to how we all worked with timelines in history classes that we've taken.

In discussing the results, I encourage students to think about psychotherapy as a process of filling out, enriching, and reinterpreting one's life story that is captured in the timeline. I ask them what they WISH they could change or add to their timeline, and how that would have affected the remainder of their lives. I also encourage them to look at some of the features of their timeline that may reveal interesting aspects of their lives, such as:

- where is the timeline busy or crowded, versus simple or blank?

- what stages is the timeline divided into?

- what are the milestone or marker events associated with these stages?

- what rests at the "center" of your timeline and life?

- do marker events involve people, events, accomplishments, etc?

- who are the important people in your life?

- is anything left out?.... events.... people?

- did you create the timeline from past to present, present to past, more "randomly"?

- how might significant others draw your timeline?

- how might the timeline be different if drawn at a different time in your life?

In some ways the personal timeline is a kind of projective test. What is important is not just the items they place into it, but also HOW they drew it - for example, the order in which items were placed in it, how close items are to each other, changes in the sizes and darkness of their writing, when they paused to think and when they wrote, etc.

I also ask students to draw their "future" timeline - i.e., what they expect will happen in the rest of their lives. Some students often find it difficult to foresee the future. What are their plans, expectations, hopes? Do they anticipate "bad" as well as good events, such as the death of loved ones and their own demise? This exercise emphasizes existential ideas about how our lives are not just driven by the force of past events ("push" theories), but also pulled forward by our expectations and plans for the future ("pull" theories).

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