Watching Yesterday: How to Let Go of the Past

Wednesday, November 01, 2017 by Meg   •   Filed under General

The tendency to live in the past is an evolutionary imperative. Without some focus on what mistakes were made and who hurt us, we would have been less likely to survive as individuals over the long term. 

But if focusing on the past is sucking the fun out of your current life, it might be time to let it go like an orphaned Disney character with a rare medical condition. Except as opposed to freezing your emotions (or your damn house) you have to figure out how to not give a fuck. 

But how to not give a fuck without swallowing feelings and inadvertently messing yourself up more?

As you might imagine, this takes practice. Leaders like the Dalai Lama are pretty great about not giving a fuck about the wrong things as a rule, so check out The Art of Happiness. The gist? Some things just are. Part of the human experience is imperfection and suffering. We can be okay with that or we can dig ourselves into a pit.

And the past? Eh. It’s a moot point even if it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorn farts. It’s about being okay in the present. About loving yourself now. About knowing you’re fucking awesome. Humility is for suckers. 

So how to get there? [BUMP]

1. Figure Out Why It’s Helping You

If you are stuck in a past event, you might have an adaptive reason. For many, hanging onto the past makes it easier to accept our future or to make excuses about not doing what we need to do to move on. Ask yourself if there is any conceivable reason that holding onto the past benefits you (see more in CBT and the Cost Benefit Analysis) This will help you make a conscious decision about whether or not to let it go.

Let’s do a few examples: 

  • Does recalling your husband’s affair — and throwing it in his face — allow you to have the upper hand in all things in your relationship (which gives you less reason to leave him and inadvertently makes your life easier)? 
  • Does thinking about the time you got bitten by a dog give you a logical reason for feeling anxious and make it easier for you to avoid exposure therapy or getting a puppy? 
  • Does remembering how your first boyfriend hit you make it easier to avoid relationships by calling it “self protection” instead of facing treatment for a social anxiety disorder?  

Not all cases are so simple, particularly in cases of trauma. If it’s related to PTSD, you can identify that, “Thinking about the past lets me avoid all man because they are raping assholes,” but it won’t necessarily help you “get over it”. Rumination about the event is part of a condition   that can be treated (more here in The Evolution of PTSD). You need help dealing with the trauma and with the symptoms before you will be able to move on. Try journaling to combat PTSD, seek out a professional and check out other treatments here in PTSD and Treatment Alternatives.  

Once you’ve figured out why you’re doing it, decide if it’s something that’s worth keeping. If not…

2. Change What You Can (And Accept the Rest)

In addition to figuring out why our past is benefitting us, we also need to identify exactly what bothers us about it. That’s so simple, Rush Limbaugh could do it, right?

Ask yourself if the past is relevant to your life now. Not in an emotional way, but in a concrete, this-still-affects-my-daily-life way. If then answer is, “Yes, this alters my current life, because after that fight my kids won’t talk to me,” figure out if there is anything you can do about it. Letter writing? Slow and steady reintegration into the family? If it’s a current and ongoing problem, get creative with solutions. 

If the answer is, “No, this is not affecting my life in a concrete way,” then decide whether something there simply needs closure.

If you’re mad at your estranged brother for beating you up when you were younger, talk to him about it in a safe space or write him a letter that tells him how hurt and angry you still are. Decide if you want to continue contact with him or if you want to set up boundaries and move on with your life without him.

But not everything is conducive to closure. Sometimes there is no closure, as in the case of  death of a loved one, or losing a limb in a car crash. In these cases, it might be time to try radical acceptance, a practice of acknowledging the issue and and pain, but accepting it for what it is in an effort to move on (more here in DBT and Radical Acceptance).

3. Stop Blaming, Start Forgiving

I know, IT WAS HIS FAULT, THAT BASTARD! But does that even matter? If you want to move on, blaming is unlikely to help, especially if all you do is blame. Instead, use blame as a starting point. Acknowledge what happened, identify who is at fault, acknowledge any part you played and refocus on forgiveness. 

This is easier said that done, because some things are simply unforgivable. Most of us would have a hard time saying, “Yeah, well, he raped me for six years but, you know, I forgive him.” 

Forgiveness doesn’t mean you make excuses for past behaviors or feel good about them. It doesn’t mean calling someone and saying, “I forgive you,” (unless it feels right to do so). 

Forgiveness benefits us, not them. Which makes it worth it.  

Sometimes forgiveness is more a conscious decision to accept that it happened, accept your anger for what it is, and forgive yourself. Even in cases where things weren’t our fault, we (as children especially) have a tendency to see things as within our control. We need to acknowledge the guilt and the pain, know it wasn’t our fault and find a way to forgive ourselves for those feelings and anything we did in response to those feelings later in life. And if we really did do something in the past to hurt someone else, we can acknowledge that we did it, forgive ourselves for it and consider making amends. 

4. Work on Self Esteem

Part of this whole not giving a fuck thing is being aware that you’re fabulous enough in the present. I don’t care about what people think about me because I’m clear about my particular level of awesome. Their thoughts don’t diminish me. My past doesn’t diminish me. Because the past made me what I am, I embrace it as opposed to ruminating about it. Everyone can get there but it takes work. 

This self esteem thing seems a sticking point for many with a firm hold on past events. How can you believe you’re good enough when these things keep happening to you? 

“The universe must hate me, because I’m bad, bad bad!” 

Then there are those who think if they just find a way to get over this one last thing from their past they will magically feel immensely better. 

Newsflash, people: getting over your past isn’t a matter of focusing on it or working through it. While you might need to look at it and process it, particularly in cases of trauma, that’s not what ultimately drives you forward. It’s your ability to see the past as a necessary part of your experience, accepting it for what it was and being confident enough in who you are to say, “This happened to me but it’s okay because I’m here and I’m fucking amazing.” For the record that should be everyone’s new mantra. 

Say it with me, people: “I’m fucking awesome. I accept me for me.”

And you are awesome. You just might have to convince yourself. So practice self compassion. Use humor too because perfection is bullshit. If you discover that you walked around all day with a “kick me” sign on your back, go with laughter as opposed to outrage. Life can be one big practical fucking joke if you look at it right. Surround yourself with people who love you for who you are, those who bring you up, instead of tear you down. If you can accept yourself, it’s easier to accept what made you that way. And if you still have negative thoughts, try some of the techniques in the next section. 

5. Affirmations, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Acceptance

Letting go of the past involves changing your brain. If you find yourself constantly thinking about your divorce and can’t seem to get past the fact that you might have done something to cause it, stop that shit right now.

Okay that was harsh. But this part is absolutely critical to moving on.  

Identify the thoughts that pull you back to the past and your ex-husband. Then replace them with something more positive, such as, “I am worth loving and there is someone else out there for me,” or “My first marriage was a learning experience and I will do better next time.” If you replace the negative thoughts every single time they come up, they will decrease until you can’t even remember your ex-husband’s name. Well, maybe not that far, but still. (More here in CBT and Thought Replacement.)

Because a focus on the past leads most to think about all the things done to them or mistakes they’ve made, we also need to shift the words we use. If you were attacked, stop thinking,“Victim,” and start thinking, “Survivor.” Sometimes it’s the little things that make a big difference in how we see ourselves and allow us to move on.

Mindfulness also works well for changing thoughts because it teaches us to observe the thoughts but see ourselves as disconnected from them. If you can see your thoughts and your emotions as normal but not necessarily connected to you, it is easier to acknowledge them without getting sucked back into old patterns or ruminating about old events. (More here in Mindfulness Training.)

6. Break Unhealthy Patterns and Focus on the Future

If you’re trying to let go of the past, don’t try to do it while doing the same shit you’ve always done. If you keep thinking about an old boyfriend, stop looking at his Facebook profile and for fuck’s sake don’t message him. If you’re trying to let go of addictive behaviors, change your group of friends and get to a meeting. If you’re trying to get over your history of being a misogynistic idiot to your girlfriends, take a women’s studies class and for god’s sake don’t listen to Rush Limbaugh. 

The ultimate goal here is to change your focus from living in the past to embracing the future. Look at the bigger picture, at things bigger than yourself. Focus on family, health, longevity. Set goals that move you in that direction. Ask yourself, “What do I want to be? Where do I want to be? How do I want to feel when I get there?” By answering these questions, you should have a better grasp on where you want to end up. This will help you to identify whether holding onto the past will help you get there. And if the answer is, “No,” you at least have something to aim for while you switch your focus from “Then” to “Now”.

It’s a long process towards officially not giving a fuck anymore. But if you want to let go of the past, you will get there. In the meantime, a Post-it on your bathroom mirror with “I’m fucking amazing” never hurt anyone.

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Topic-Relevant Resources

The Art of Choosing
Research on personal choice and its implications for mental health

Boundary Issues
Everything you ever wanted to know about boundaries.

Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers
Primatologist/biologist Robert Sapolsky on stress and your brain. Good stuff.