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How to Let Go of the Past

  • 11 min read

Who am I?

It’s a surprisingly tough question to answer for most people. Especially considering we live in a culture that’s centered around individuality.

When we came into this world, we had no idea that we were an individual. So once it dawned upon us,that realization must’ve shaken us to our very cores. “Wait a minute?” We must’ve thought (or at least the equivalent of that in baby language), “If I am a person, then which person am I??”

So we started reaching out and looking for things that would let us know who we are. “Oh, those people are my parents. I am their child.”, we thought (Or in other words: “Goo goo ga ga. Drooling noises. Burp.”). And once we learned what good behavior was, we learned that we were the kind of person that did not steal cookies when someone was watching. That we were the kind of person who never lied to anyone. Unless it was about stealing cookies, which of course, is a reasonable exception to make.

As we grow older, the answer to that question (what defines us?) becomes more and more complicated. We do a few things we thought we weren’t capable of here and there. We. have a few sexual encounters we thought we’d never have. We cry during a chick flick our girlfriend coerced us into watching and pretend it’s onions we cut earlier.  These things either threaten our identity (in which case we dismiss them as if they never happened) or make our identity richer.

To keep all those changes from confusing us, we start defining ourselves based on stories we tell ourselves. Interpretations of the past which we attribute a certain meaning to, which can then help define our identity.

  • “I got bullied in 4th grade.  So now I am a security guard.  
  • “I will never become more confident, but it’s not my fault.  It’s because of my past.”
  • “It wasn’t bad of me to blow Beckie’s boyfriend and brother before murdering her cat.  I would normally never do something like that. But it’s okay, because Shelly said she allegedly called me the B-word behind my back.  So she deserved it.  Which means I’m still a good person. Jesus loves me.”

What If Your Stories Suck?

There’s this message board for people struggling with social anxiety which I sometimes visit to help out. Recently while reading it, I noticed something interesting:

There were lots of different posts in there, and most of them could be reduced to the following 2 sentences:

Post type 1: “Why do I feel this way? What is wrong with me? Help me find the root cause?”
Post type 2: “I have social anxiety because event X happened years ago and now I’ll have it forever.  I can’t deal with this shit.”

Now here’s what I found so interesting about it:

Post type 1 does not ask for a solution. It asks for a past event that justifies the ongoing existence of the problem. If you ask this question and find the root cause, you’ll still have to fix the problem. Which you could’ve done already.

Post type 2 is made by people who have already found this root cause. But they somehow forget to ask for a solution. It is not even a question. It’s just a story about how horrible their lives used to be and how that is a valid reason to still feel horrible.

Now, I’m not trying to say these feelings are invalid. I know from first hand experience how your past can really haunt you. And looking online for help is a good step.

But the reason it struck me is because it made me aware that I’m doing the same, with different areas of my life.

When I have a particular bad habit or kind of behavior that I find hard to change, I tell myself it’s because of something in my past. Luckily, I was blessed with a lot of negative events in my life so far. So I always have something convenient to blame it on.  It’s funny.  It creeps up in the most ridiculous situations.  Missed a spot while cleaning?  Must be because of my past.  Forgot to take out the trash?  Probably my past.   Didn’t bury the body and now the police are onto us?  Yep, my past made it so hard for me.

But here’s the thing:

If these stories from our past have so much power over us, clinging on to these shitty stories is not a very smart thing to do.

You know those studies that conclude people become bad students if you repeatedly frame them as the dumb? And how kids that you frame as the smart ones become more intelligent?

That’s the power of stories. Other people tell them stories about who they are. They believe it and repeat it.

So what do you think happens when you continuously tell yourself you have trouble enjoying life in the present because something in the past screwed you over?

That’s right! You’ll feel royally screwed every day.  Even when there is no real reason to feel that way in the present.

Ditching Your Baggage

The expression “emotional baggage” exists for a reason. You literally do store emotional trauma in the body and it weighs you down. Just like a normal back pack would.

There’s a visualization you can do whenever you feel like you’re tired of carrying your past around with you:

Get yourself in a relaxed position. Take a couple of deep breaths and close your eyes

Imagine that last night you put the entire experience of your past in your back pack.

Everything that weighed you down, made you feel bad or worried you. Everything situation that somehow was left unresolved. Every loose end

Any of the good stuff that you identify a bit too much with. (For example, if you see yourself as “a footballer” instead of “a guy who plays football”, you’re probably too identified and it’s restricting you.) Just to make sure you ditch the parts of your story that you hold on to a bit too much.

Now imagine that you go to an amazing party.

And as the night progresses, things get more vague. Until at one point you realize someone stole your back pack.

You look but you can’t find it anywhere. So you go to sleep. Maybe you cry a little, maybe not.

But the next they you wake up and realize you actually don’t care.
Your life is going to be great and you’re starting it with the blankest of blank slates.

This exercise takes you one minute. But you if you do it with conviction and really go into the experience (visual, smell, touch, sound, feel it), you feel a lot lighter and more motivated afterwards.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that letting go of the past like this is lying to yourself.

Think about it… What does “the past” even mean?

It means: Things in your life that are over. They’re done. If even part of it was still going on, you’d call it the present.

Stop hoping your past will chance. It can’t. That opportunity already passed. You know what can change? Your present.

Make Friends With Your Worst Memories

I understand that while you can let go of a lot, some things may be hard to forget. If something happened to you in your childhood, and you’ve piled up years of new memories on top of it which you all connected with that experience, you’d have to let go of your entire life.

It’s hard to let go of a story if the story is your entire life. However. Don’t forget that you get to pick how the story ends.

You can blame your past and hate it every day. Or you can become friends with it.

There are people who abuse children because they themselves were abused as a kid. That’s what happens when you pick option one. It makes you feel powerless. It makes you feel so powerless that you can literally do one of the worst things you can do as a human being and convince yourself that it’s not your fault. (”It’s because of my past.”) But there are lots of people who were abused as little kids that would never do such a thing, because of their past. Including me.

Sure, they may have the same horrible past. But whatever your past is, instead of letting it rule you and hating it for doing so.  Instead of letting it decide how you behave without you having a say in it…how about shaking hands with it and learning to work together?

Yes, you may have been hurt. You were abused. Neglected. Abandoned. Or otherwise treated unfairly. But that’s not happening right now.

From this second forward, you can choose give the story a different direction. If you still believe your past really has to affect you in some way, you can choose a better way now.

You can look at the past part of your life as “life itself” pulling the string of a bow, and you are the arrow. You’ve been pulled deep into darkness, and now the hand of life will the strings go and you can shoot equally far into the light.  Or like one of those beach balls when you push them underwater.  You’ve been pushed under water so far, and you nearly drowned.  But now you are set free.  The hand has stopped pushing, and you will jump right out of that water, much higher than all the other balls who haven’t been pushed so hard.

It’s interesting to see how many of the people doing the greatest things in the world were also equally miserable at some point. As if all that pain and suffering was needed to provide enough tension for their arrow to launch (or the ball to jump).

Or maybe that’s because it’s often in our darkest days that we find ourselves, and our mission in this life. When something breaks your heart, it can inspire you to help other people in that situation, for example.

If you really have to define who you are according to your life story, think of it this way:

The past is already written. But you now have the ability to choose what happens in the current chapter.

Which story would you like to be the main character in most?

The one where you got a horrible start in life and continued to feel that way until you died?

Or the one where in spite of all the shit that happened to you, you still lived an amazing second part of your life, that more than made up for the first one?

What If You Died… Yesterday?

Imagine that every time you went to sleep, you physically died and were born again each morning. How would you act differently, not knowing that you already had a life full of memories behind you?

The idea is not as far-fetched as it my seem. Because in reality, you are under no obligation to be the same person you were yesterday.

In fact, let’s take it one step further: You’re under no obligation to be the same person you were 5 minutes ago.

Failed to walk up to that guy you like 5 minutes ago? Let go of that story, and give the “you” that you are right now permission to go after him.

Obese and too lazy to exercise because “that’s who you are”?

No it isn’t, that’s who you tell yourself you are. You are physically perfectly capable of going for a walk right now. Even if it’s a short one.

If you refuse to confine your personality to the boundaries of the stories you told yourself 5 minutes ago, every new moment is a chance to reinvent yourself.

And you can do that.

In fact, if you think about it: Why would you need any back story at all? If the person that you were yesterday was not getting the results in life that (s)he wanted. Be someone else today.

That’s right. When you go to sleep each night, let the you from that day die.

And every morning when you wake up, ask yourself:

Who do I want to be today?

A prisoner of memories? Or a happy little kid in the big candy store of possible experiences that life really is? 🙂

I know some part of you may want to hold on to everything you think you are now, but that’s just your ego’s fear speaking. And that’s perfectly fine. You are afraid that when you change too much, you’ll lose who you are.

But how can you ever lose yourself?

You’re still here aren’t you?

Ánd as long as you live, you’ll be right here with you 🙂

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