It’s like snatching a security blanket from a kid.
Or ripping a band-aid off of an open wound.
You can’t quite do it.
Ditto with letting go of the past.
That’s the dilemma, isn’t it?
It happened 10 years, 6 months or 2 weeks ago.
You experienced something horrible.
You play the scene over and over in your mind. It’s anguishing.
You try to let go of the past and do everything you can. But you’re stuck. And it hurts like hell.
Why do we hold on if it hurts so darn much? How to let go of the past and move on? Keep reading to see which reasons speak to you and how to let go.
1. You’re afraid of the unknown.
You’re used to the pain. It’s what you’ve known your whole life (or a good part of it). Maybe your parents and their parents have had similar experiences. When you function a certain way for a while, it can feel like that’s just how things are.
People tend to stick to what they know, even though it causes suffering. Letting go is scary. Since life is unpredictable, knowing what to expect is reassuring. At least with the current pain, you know what to expect.
Your inner critic uses your fear of the unknown to protect you: Better not take any risks… you don’t know what’s out there! You’re hurting so much already. What if you get hurt again?
Thanks, inner critic, for trying to keep us safe.
Yet abiding your fear reinforces your pain and keeps you from moving on.
Unconsciously, you’ve confused who you are with your past. How to let go when it feels like you’re cutting your arm off? But you don’t have to define yourself by your experience or pain.
You are not your past.
2. You believe your pain protects you.
It’s a simple idea:
If I hold on to the painful experience, I can keep it from happening again.
You’re barely functioning with the horrific experience burned into your mind. It’d be unbearable to do it all over again. So you put immense pressure on your shoulders to be extra-vigilant: I could never forgive myself if it happened again.
Watching for signs of a potentially painful experience gives you the sense that you’re in control. However, it’s a false sense of control. Your inner critic believes that you’re not competent enough to handle the situation if it arises. As a result, your inner critic uses your pain to kick you in the butt… to avoid more pain.
It’s like an authoritative parent who’s obsessed about protecting you: Remember the pain! Don’t forget how it happened! Feel how awful it is? Do anything to avoid feeling like this again.
Even though good intentions motivate this way of thinking, you’re unconsciously doing more harm. You’re living in the present through the past, which sets you up for more unhappiness.
No one can blossom while holding on to pain.
3. You want to punish the perpetrator.
They hurt you so much. Forgiving them is unthinkable. You want them to understand how excruciating it feels: If they felt just as hurt, I’d feel better.
Unfortunately, the person or people who harmed you don’t seem to care how you feel. They might even refuse to admit what they did or blame you instead. Their arrogance makes your head explode.
So you try to harm them back. You do exactly what they did to you. Or you’re rude to them, complain or ignore them altogether. Your inner critic thinks punishing the other will remedy the problem.
Punishing the perpetrator might feel good in the moment, but reinforces your pain in the long run. An eye for an eye makes the world go blind. You end up giving your power away and keeping yourself chained.
4. It makes you feel special.
What…? Why would someone want to feel special because of their painful past?
I don’t think anyone does it on purpose. We’ve unconsciously learned to base who we are on past experiences (among other things). When you let the past dictate how you value yourself, you sabotage your potential.
As a result, you lock yourself into your own prison. With time, some people get used to the prison. Knowing what to expect, even if that means suffering, can give you a sense of security (as I’d explained in #1 above).
Because not everyone has gone through what you have, it makes you stick out of the crowd. Which means people may treat you nicer or pay extra attention to you. If you don’t get special treatment, you might get angry and demand it of others.
I prefer saying it like it is because the truth can set us free, if we’re willing to listen.
If you feel ashamed because you’ve used your past to get special treatment, forgive yourself. We do what we can to feel loved (see #5 below).
5. You want to feel loved, safe and cared for.
Let this seep in:
You deserve to feel loved, safe and cared for.
In a perfect world, your family and friends gave you all the love you needed as a child. Even if it’s not the case, you can do something about it. As a child, we counted on our caretakers, but as adults, we can learn how to take care of ourselves. Waiting for other people to give you love creates dependence; you don’t want that.
However, it’s frightening to take 100% responsibility for our well-being. We all want someone to hold our hand, especially during tough times. Sometimes it seems easier to continue blaming others. But blaming never gets you far. The pain of your past experience catches up with you sooner or later.
Free yourself. Give yourself the love you’re seeking. Try these tips below.
How to Let Go of the Past
“We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice.”
—Pema Chödrön from The Places That Scare You
Choose to let go.
It’s a given, but don’t underestimate its importance. Deliberately choosing to let go tells your subconscious mind that you’re ready to heal and move on. Your identification with the painful past experience begins to diminish.
Your inner critic will flip out, You’re vulnerable. Danger, danger! But in reality, you’re becoming stronger and taking the reins back.
Observe the pain.
Instead of getting overwhelmed each time you replay the painful scene, try observing how you feel and being more present. How?
Imagine you’re a ship rocking on tumultuous waters. The dark waters bashing you from all sides are the scenes from your memory and the emotions that they bring up in you. Feel the torment of your past experience?
Luckily, an anchor keeps you steady. Let yourself glide over the angry waters. Before you know it, the storm calms down and peace returns.
Emotions seem to have their own fluid energy. If you repress, try to control or identify with your emotions, they spring right back one way or another. But if you observe them by remaining present, emotions disperse on their own in general.
You could be innocently brushing your teeth and all of sudden the painful memory attacks. As soon as you realize what’s happening, take 2 minutes to visualize yourself as a ship braving the waters until you feel calmer. It’ll get easier with practice.
Learn from the experience (without overdoing it).
I’ve noticed in my own life that sometimes staying present with the pain isn’t enough. If the painful memory keeps haunting you, see what you can learn from it.
You can do a 180° by saying to yourself, I’ve got nothing to lose. What can this experience teach me about myself? Do you need to set better boundaries, for example? The gleaned info clarifies what you need and want. Most importantly, put the info to use right away in your daily life (e.g. say no to one more meeting).
On the other hand, be careful about ruminating. It can be incredibly useful to learn from our past, but analyzing too much isn’t helpful either. If you feel tense or stuck, breathe deeply and take a break. Bring your attention back to the present by visualizing yourself as a steady ship (see above).
Take care of yourself.
When a painful memory paralyzes you, breathe deeply and accept the fact. Then be kind to yourself. Take out your favorite body cream and lightly massage your feet. Volunteer. Try a new sport or hobby. Cuddle up with a book on the sofa.
Taking care of yourself is a way to give yourself the love, safety and closure that you’re looking for.
Celebrate the good in your life.
Train your mind to see that the glass is also half full by noting all that’s well in your life. Everyone takes things for granted without realizing it.
Even if you feel like you’re living in hell, muster up the courage to see at least one good thing in your life right now. At first, practicing gratitude can be painful, but as with any new habit, it gets easier with time.
Which tips work for you to let go of the past? Share in the comments!
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About the author
Annie Moussu is a mindfulness coach on a mission to help perfectionists let go of self-doubt, fear of failure and people-pleasing. Sign up for her newsletter and get access to free resources.
Further reading on how to let go of the past: