For years I’ve been practicing, teaching and coaching the acceptance of the painful past. The retelling of our stories about the hurt, disappointment, and betrayal, and seeing the past as an opportunity to learn and grow. Even feeling grateful for the lessons.
The past is long gone, yet we tend to keep it alive in our minds. How often do we allow our minds to go to the past – reviewing, rethinking, and reanalyzing a conversation we had or a painful experience and then feeling the range of emotions arise – guilt, regret, shame – berating ourselves for how we could have handled it differently or said something more? When there's still emotion tied to a memory, letting go of the past becomes increasingly difficult.
What I hadn’t considered is that I would be hit squarely in the chest with the happiness of the past and how I needed to also let go of that.
Could it be that happiness, felt deeply is also hard to move on from?
Brilliant solutions often come when we least expect them and not in the easiest delivery format.
We moved from California to Oregon when my daughter was six and starting first grade. It was a hard move, just days before 9-11, the first of many challenges that marked the rocky launch of our new life.
Research has shown that our level of life satisfaction is impacted by four factors: life chances, course of events, the flow of experience and evaluation of life.
As the multiple challenges arose during that first year after our move, my appraisal of the four interactive factors had me comparing our new life with the life we had left behind.
There’s this tricky way the mind tries to keep us safe from harm. My mind’s version of this protective mechanism has been to look for all the ways this new place isn’t good and will never be good enough to be my happy place. For years, and without my full awareness, my mind has been telling me that to be happy I must hold on to the past, and to get back to what felt safe and certain.
Most important lessons are hard learned. On a recent trip, back to the town in California where we moved from, an exploratory journey in which I was considering a relocation, I was faced head-on with all the ways I’ve been using the past as a safety net. In the flash of a single moment, I was hit with the recognition that nostalgia can impede us from living life in the now just as effectively as past pain can hinder our happiness. In the slow motion where life and pain collide, I saw how I’ve been allowing my mind to thwart me.
While I appreciate my mind’s ability to keep me safe, it is limited in its bigger picture wisdom.
It should be self-evident, however, the felt sensation in that moment, that the past is over, was so unexpected. Clearly, there’s a reason they’re called blind spots.
Why DO we hold on so dearly to the past? Because it’s the easy, more comfortable strategy. It’s familiar. It’s certain.
Martin Seligman, one of the “founding fathers” of positive psychology developed a model of life satisfaction based on the idea that there are five main factors that contribute to well-being: Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishments.
This nostalgic period of mine was an idyllic time of life, in which Seligman’s five factors were in full expression. Every major contributor to happiness – home, career, family and friends, personal development, health and wellness, growth and learning, fun, spirituality – were at an all-time high.
We are happy when we judge that our life fulfills our ideal plan.
Here’s the rub. I have continued to hold that period as my ideal. Granted, it was a time in which I felt immense satisfaction with life. But it’s in the past. None of the factors that existed then will converge in exactly that same way ever again. Continuing to hold a reflection of the past as the standard by which I measure life, can only lead to dissatisfaction.
Releasing my hold on it was one of the hardest and at the same time, most freeing experiences.
What does it cost us to hold on to the past? How is the inability to let go impacting our relationships, our lives, and our happiness? And how do we learn to loosen our grip so we can move forward in a healthier, happier way?
We are constantly ending chapters to start new chapters. Our tendency can be to focus on "what used to be" and idealistically hold on to the past as if it had everything we ever wanted. The problem is that this tendency ultimately causes more suffering. It doesn't encourage growth and it doesn't allow us to experience everything this moment offers. Any energy and attention we put on the past, is holding us back from our fullest potential now.
You can learn to let go and with fresh eyes start living a life full of more joy and freedom.
Here are five ways to help you master the art of letting go:
1) Notice when your thoughts are dwelling on the past. Bring your awareness back to the present moment by following your breath or noticing your surroundings through your five senses. What’s right here, right now? Is there something in front of you that you can feel grateful for?
2) If you have unresolved emotion linked to the past – grief, shame, grief, disappointment, anger, resentment – accept and allow these feelings. Don’t push them away or argue with them. Give them permission to be there. When there’s nothing to push against, the power of emotion dissolves.
3) Create a letting go ritual to free yourself from mistakes, past relationships, lost opportunities, old regrets. Write about them. Move them out of your mind and on to paper. Write a letter of forgiveness to your younger self. You might believe that the pain you’re feeling is caused by what happened, however, it isn’t happening now. It’s over. The pain is still happening only because you are continuing to relive it in your mind.
4) Notice the sensation of the emotion in your body. It might feel like tightness in your chest, a hollow feeling, an ache in your heart, or many other options. This is your personal experience. Place your attention on the sensation in your body and stay with it. This takes courage because we tend to avoid this kind of discomfort. Try to stay curious about it. Notice if it changes as you stay with it, being gentle and loving with yourself. Allowing your body to process the emotion is an important step in letting go.
5) Envision what you want your life to look like now. Whatever we give our attention to—wanted or unwanted—grows. Shift your focus to what you most desire. Imagine, visualize and invite in what you want. Open to what is possible.
My commitment this year is to confront and break free of self-restrictions that may be holding me back. I earnestly surrender to this current lesson. As painful as it is, I am grateful for the growth.
Attachment is the reason we suffer. May we all break free of inhibitions that no longer serve us, and be free of structures, responsibilities, and fears that are holding us back from being our most authentic and powerful selves.
“The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Change is the only constant in life. Because of this, we are continuously in the process of letting go. We move into each moment, letting go of the last one. Our level of acceptance of this is what either binds us or frees us.
We are the creators of our own lives. Every day is a new opportunity to innovate the life we want. A life that fulfills who we want to be now, in this place and in this time. We get to create the experiences we want to have and determine how we want to feel. We were given the gift of free will.
I believe in you,
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I would love to hear from you.What are you ready to let go of? Is the past holding you back from living into your full expression of happiness?
Please share your comments below or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org