Why is it so hard to let go of the past?
The problem with holding on to the past is that it doesn’t exist. However, you let the past hurt you anyway. Past relationships, past trauma, and past negative experiences don’t help in the present moment.
This doesn’t mean that things didn’t happen before, but there is no way for you to interact with things that have transpired even just a moment ago. This means no how severe the wrongdoings were or how heavy your feelings of guilt are, there is nothing you can do about what caused it—for better or worse.
When you’re unable to let go of your past
- You’re held captive by a ghost who uses chains of your own making to enslave you.
- You’re directing negative energy into a void. Your physical, emotional, and mental health all suffer because you’re shackled to past experiences.
- You lose your ability to be active in the present and shape a future for yourself.
When there are problems in the present, you can do something about them. When you sense a potential problem in the future, you do something in the present to prepare for it in the future. But if you’re constantly ruminating over the past, there is nothing you can do about it.
It is done, and now it exists in no other place but your mind.
In this post, I give you a 6 part, step-by-step process to help you let go of the past that will allow you to leave trauma behind and move on. This will be life-changing if your personal growth has stalled because you can’t forgive yourself for past mistakes.
1) Understand that the past isn’t real
Some people wonder why anyone would want to let go of the past if it’s full of good memories.
Understand that it’s impossible to have a positive relationship with anything that keeps you from taking action and making progress in the present. It doesn’t matter whether you’re holding a grudge or you’re reliving a victory. In either case, you are chained to something that is no longer a factor in the real world.
There is effectively no difference between someone who rests on their laurels and someone who can’t let something go. In both cases, they believe that what happened in the past is real enough to attach a significant amount of their present energy.
But if you can’t reach out and touch it or influence it in some way, does it exist?
This is not a brain teaser or a profound philosophical question. It’s merely the first step to letting go and one that is so crucial that before I give you the rest of the list, it needs to be established as a rule zero for letting go of the past.
The past does not exist. It is not real. There is nothing you can do to disprove this because of what it means to exist and to be real.
Now, this doesn’t say that the past never existed and that what was done doesn’t currently have any influence. Only that what happened even one moment ago is no longer in existence, nor is it real in the sense that other people objectively interact with it. It’s only real in your memory.
This rule is like gravity. It doesn’t matter if you agree with it or like it. If you try to break it, you’ll be unsuccessful, and if you behave in a way that suggests that it doesn’t exist, you’ll be unhappy with the result. Anyone who’s ever convinced themselves they could fly was immediately reminded of this limitation upon jumping.
Everything that follows tells you exactly how to let go of the past. It doesn’t matter why you’re holding on to it or why you won’t let go. This post will give you everything that you need to stop being enslaved by memories of your past.
Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists
-A Course In Miracles
2) Today make the decision to let go
You have to make a decision.
You have to decide whether you want to be happy and productive or correct and vindicated. If you’re holding on to the past, it’s impossible to be both.
If you want to be right, hold on to the past and all of the emotional pain that comes with it. If you do this, it’s because you believe that if you hold on long enough and tight enough, you’ll eventually exert so much pressure that it will change it to suit your desire.
However, remember rule zero: the past does not exist. What’s done is done and can’t be undone.
If you want to be happy, you have no choice but to decide to leave the past behind. This doesn’t mean that you’ll be successful on your first attempt. It just means that you no longer want to be a slave to the past.
It may seem like no one in their right mind wants to be stuck in the past, but I assure you that this is not true.
For many people, living in the past is preferable to living in the now because the past is familiar and repetitive. When you live in the past, you don’t have to confront a changing dynamic and reality. You don’t have to adapt to the world and grow along with it to keep up.
While your peers and environment have matured, you remain a child.
While children are shielded from responsibility, they’re also shielded from personal growth. However, personal growth is the only thing that can actually make you happy because personal growth is the only thing that can give you control over your focus.
3) Focus on this present moment in time
When you’ve been trapped in the past, living in the moment is a challenge. However, it’s necessary that you attempt to do so.
See, it’s not enough for me to tell you to stop focusing on the past. You also need something new in your daily life to put your mind on. If you can do that, then it becomes difficult to focus on the past, since the past and the present do not simultaneously exist for the same observer.
The easiest way to focus on the present is to stay mindful of what’s going on right in front of you. Focus on what you can control and the challenges you currently face. Become mindful of how you feel and be engaged in the act of building your future.
Take note of how you breathe because breathing is the key to mindfulness.
When you get into the habit of focusing on your breath, you’re training yourself to be focused on the present moment. Focusing on how you breathe is something that everyone can easily do that immediately grounds you in the now. Whenever you find yourself reaching back into the past, quickly pay attention to how you’re breathing in the moment.
If you did nothing else but focus on building a better tomorrow, you’d have neither the energy nor attention to hold on to what happened to you in the past. All of your negative thoughts and negative emotions that are tied to the past–-something that doesn’t exist–-lose strength if you focus on the now.
If you focused on strengthening your current relationships and building a hopeful future, you’d have neither the interest nor motivation in holding on to a painful past. When you focus on creating positive experiences, you take your mind off of negative feelings.
If you pay attention to the now, past events lose their grip on you. This means that you will lose your grip over them.
“Realize deeply that the present moment is all you have. Make the NOW the primary focus of your life.”
― Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment
4) Question your feelings
Two of the most powerful questions you can ask yourself are “What am I feeling?” and “Why am I feeling this?” Even if the answer seems obvious, you will often surprise yourself.
A lot of times we stay stuck in the past because we think we’re feeling something new. The reality is that we’re simply reliving old feelings through new reactions.
You think that you’re upset because you’re late, but the reality is that you feel like you’ve let yourself down again. You think that the emotion you feel is anger at the world, but it’s really just disappointment in yourself.
The examples of this could go on ad infinitum, but the idea is to get into the habit of discovering what’s really bothering you. When you start to develop this mindfulness, it’s going to force you to take one of two actions:
You’ll either realize that what’s bugging you is related to something happening now that you can deal with it or you’ll see that you still have unresolved issues about something in the past.
If it’s the former, then focusing your energies on dealing with those issues will not only provide clarity and a solution to your actual problem, it will draw you back into the present moment. If it’s the latter, then you’re one step closer to being able to let go of the past.
5) Learn how to forgive
Human beings have a hard time accepting the idea of forgiveness, but that’s because they misunderstand its purpose and how to apply it.
First, let me tell you what forgiveness isn’t. Forgiveness isn’t:
- Forgetting what happened
- Getting over it
- Being cool with your offender/assailant
- A replacement for punishment, justice, or appropriate retribution
Forgiveness is about healing emotional wounds. Unlike physical wounds, they don’t heal on their own. If the wounds never heal, they’ll bind you to the past so that you keep reliving it.
Forgiveness is a complicated process that I’ve written about and linked to below. If you want a shortcut to quickly start to forgive, learn to accept that there’s nothing you can do about the past. Whatever has been done is done and can’t be undone.
- How to forgive someone
- How to forgive your parents
- How to forgive yourself
- How to say “I forgive you”
- Quotes about forgiveness
You must also accept that no one set out to harm you specifically. They are merely acting in their own self-interest and you are collateral damage. It’s not a personal attack. It just appears that way because of your perspective.
When you internalize those two ideas, then you’re in a better position to let go of anger about the past and live in the future.
“Real forgiveness in healthy relationships is never easy. It can’t be rushed or engineered.”
― Sharon Salzberg, Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection
6) Choose your own story
Few things in the world are objectively true or false. There are merely perspectives and interpretations. Even your memory of what you think happened is subject to manipulation, alteration, and influence.
The good news is that you can use this fact to your advantage. If you accept that the past isn’t real (the first premise), you can consciously decide how you see it and deal with it.
You can see anything you’ve done as too much, not enough, or a small step in a never-ending journey of self-development. You get to choose the story you tell yourself about what you’ve done and what’s been done to you.
A big reason why people can’t let things go is that they believe that their version of reality is correct and immutable. While the factual account of what happened can’t be changed, you can change why you believe a person acted the way they acted. You tell yourself why you believe you responded the way you did.
This isn’t delusion in the sense that it’s keeping you front confronting reality and dealing with it appropriately. This is delusion in the sense that you are deciding how you see something to choose an interpretation that is less painful, traumatic, and binding to the past.
This is one of the components of forgiveness.
You learn to see people’s actions through a certain perspective. Choosing the “correct” perspective allows you to see yourself as a victim no longer. Selecting the “incorrect” view keeps you in the victim mindset, leading to anger and outrage.
What’s the correct perspective?
The correct perspective is the one that allows you to see people acting in their self-interest and not out of malice for you. If you can understand that people don’t care about you—and this is a feature of all humans rather than a bug—you can forgive their actions.
Letting go of the past and forgiveness are not religious ideas, but the bible has an excellent insight into this process.
Jesus says in Luke 23:24 during the crucifixion, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Most don’t know what they’re doing. You just happened to be in the way.
A recap of the 6 steps to letting go of the past
- Understand that the past isn’t real
- Make the decision to let go of the past
- Focus on the present moment
- Question your feelings
- Learn how to forgive
- Choose your own story
If you follow these steps, you’ll leave your bad feelings about the bad things you’ve experienced in the past where they belong.