Letting go of the past hurts because it often means letting go of our hopes for the future.
After a breakup or a divorce, we leave the person with whom we’ve been building our life.
We leave the dear companion with whom we’ve been pursuing our hopes and dreams. Such loss aches.
Usually, you’re letting go of a person, place, or thing from your past because it doesn’t fit with your hopes or expectations for the future.
In the case of a relationship, you might learn your partner is cheating on you. They’re not who you thought they were. Their behavior is unexpected and challenges your beliefs about them.
As a result, you might question your judgment. You might wonder how you could have missed it, or made the mistake of falling for someone who tricked you.
Or, perhaps your child is diagnosed with bipolar disorder or fallen into drug addiction despite all you’ve done to create the best possible life for them.
You might lose confidence and call into question your ability as a parent. You might wonder, “How did that happen?”, “How could I have failed my child?”, “What else am I not seeing?”
Maybe there is more you could have done. But maybe not. It’s extremely difficult to know. And how you look at the problem matters.
Either way, letting go of an idea or expectation about how things are, were, or ought to be, usually means that we’re also letting go of a mindset, a view, or a way of seeing a person, place, or thing—including ourselves.
Letting go of our concept of reality is difficult because such change makes us reconsider who we are and what the world is.
Who am I?
The best way forward is to understand the nature of the mind and its relation to the self.
Although modern psychology, science, and philosophy don’t know what the self is, some scholars use the Self Memory System (SMS). model for understanding the self and how it functions.
According to the SMS, the self has two parts: the autobiographical self and the working self.
The autobiographical self is the self that has a sense of itself as continuous over time—its identity from youth to middle age, to old age, and to death.
Its main function is to maintain a sense of a coherent autobiographical identity so that when you look at a picture of yourself as a child you can say, “that’s me!”
The working self is a goal-oriented self, conceived as “a complex set of active goals and associated self-images.”
In short, the working self defines its projects in relation to the autobiographical self. So, if the autobiographical self sees itself as a painter, the working self feels happy when it paints.
Goals like having a show, finishing a masterpiece, or selling a painting, will energize the self, and strengthen its identity.
Two selves in one
Understanding the relationship between the conceptual self and the active self helps explain why the success or failure of your projects can strongly impact you emotionally. Goals touch our core identity, our purpose, and our ultimate reason for being.
Sometimes the self will fabricate memories in order to maintain a coherent sense of identity.
In the case of a woman who witnessed airplanes crash into the World Trade Center, her memory was of herself in the air, watching the planes crash from above.
Even though she knew this was impossible, she experienced this as a memory until she was able to re-experience the emotions of anger, sadness, and fear that she actually felt at the time.
In this woman’s case, her conceptual self could not sustain a coherent picture of herself as someone capable of feeling the intensely negative emotions she did, so she fabricated a memory to mask the feelings and maintain a coherent picture of self-identity.
By understanding that the primary self is the autobiographical self, you understand that the most difficult aspect of letting go of the past has to do with the fact that such letting go can challenge your identity—the very ground upon which you stake your claim to life.
Therefore, understanding what identity is, how it’s created, and how it can be restored after a shock is a good way to understand how to let go and move on from emotional pain into a new, stronger self.
One of the best ways to let go of the past is to work mindfully towards a bright future.
To start, reconstruct your conceptual self—your sense of identity—by listing 3-5 core values. Then, re-establish coherence with yourself by reviewing and refining your life purpose. Finally, use your working self to restore meaning, purpose, and direction in your life. Envision a clear, ambitious goal aligned with your values and purpose.
The Book of Changes, an ancient Chinese classic, describes this process as “making energetic progress toward the good.”
How Dwelling on the Past Can Negatively Affect Your Life
To know what we want, it’s always good to start with our direct experience of life.
The present moment is an excellent place to get a sense of who we are, what we want out of life, and what we enjoy.
When we eat a delicious meal and have a fun conversation with a friend, our mind and body are working together in real-time to savor every flavor, word, and emotion.
By taking an inventory of activities in which you feel energized and excited as well as bored or oppressed, you’ll get a better sense of the kinds of things you like to do with your life.
Dwelling on past events takes you away from your direct experience of life. Ruminating steals time that could be spent learning who you are by observing what energizes you.
Guiding Developmental Growth
There are three broad phases of life in which we form concepts about who and what we are:
- Old age
The conceptual self strives for coherence. Therefore, the three phases of life build on each other.
Because the self creates coherence, a healthy childhood increases the likelihood of mature, healthy adulthood. And satisfying adulthood makes it easier to be at peace during old age.
A self will utilize the mental material, the experiences, and the memories of health and wellness in its formative years to maintain a coherent picture of itself through life.
This tendency has enormous implications for the struggles of upward mobility and sometimes explains why people who suddenly become famous commit suicide.
According to the theory of coherence, for someone who has come from poor circumstances, fame and fortune may be more of a shock to self-identity than the self can handle.
And without an understanding of self and how the self uses memory and identity to function, it’s difficult to help someone navigate dramatic changes in life—whether the changes are for better or for worse.
When people don’t fully experience childhood, they often act out as adults because overlooked parts of themselves hidden by fabricated memories cry out for attention and emerge unexpectedly.
This is why someone who’s worked hard all of their life to take care of others might one day leave his family in a so-called midlife crisis to buy a red convertible sports car and drive away, blasting music from his youth with his convertible’s top-down hoping to attract a new, young lover.
Such a person might feel they have discovered their true self, which they now decide to live, having freed themselves from chains of false memory.
The extent to which they abandon their responsibility to others will likely be determined by the extent to which their behavior challenges their sense of a coherent identity.
Living in the moment isn’t only a method for increasing pleasure; it’s preventative medicine for letting go of the past and moving forward in life.
If you help your children savor their childhood and fully experience a robust sense of self-guided by sound values and principles, perhaps they won’t feel like they missed out on life. It will be easier to embrace adulthood, and eventually retirement, old age, and death.
7 Steps for Letting Go of the Past
When letting go of the past doesn’t happen naturally, you’ll need to address the issues keeping you there. These steps should help you become anchored in the present and turned toward the future.
1. Think About What You’re Living for Now
Certain parts of life can change quickly and dramatically. If we don’t seize the present moment, an opportunity could be lost forever.
When we raise children, for instance, there are only a few years where our child exists as a baby. That window is the only time in which the child will have that form. And studies show that quality time devoted to the early stages of a child’s development has greater effects than the same quality of time invested later in development.
There are movements, cultural moments, career opportunities, and events that can only happen once. Some people in our lives are elderly or ill, so we have limited time with them.
Which aspects of your life are wonderful and unique right now? What excites you? Do your activities energize you? How engaged are you in what you’re doing? How often do you do what you like doing? Are they carrying you forward? How are you planning to build on them? And what is your plan for removing obstacles that keep you from doing them in the future?
2. Consider a Spiritual Path
Spiritual practices have long aided people in letting go of the past by finding meaning.
In Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the past can be viewed as part of God’s plan, rather than something random and nonsensical.
Hinduism and Buddhism encourage a holistic perception of existence that accepts both positive and negative emotions.
Becoming more spiritual can’t hurt, and there are many spiritual paths and communities that will facilitate the healing process.
3. Create Physical Distance
Our minds are only so powerful.
If you’re in an environment full of stimuli that remind you of past events or past experiences, letting go can feel impossible.
Following a breakup, for example, it might not be a good idea to constantly revisit a cafe where your ex hangs out.
Try to modify routines so you can focus on moving on in a safe space.
It’s not the same as running away – it’s self-care.
Once you’re ready, you can revisit those familiar environments as a new person starting a new chapter in their life.
4. Understand What Happened
A memory may haunt you, but you understand why.
To achieve closure, you’ll need to search for meaning.
Consider connecting with a psychotherapist, mental health professional, or support group that can illuminate the answer and helps you to restore a coherent sense of identity.
5. Practice Mindfulness
As we touched on earlier, only the present can be fully experienced with our five senses.
Practicing mindfulness means focusing all your mental energy on the present, including recesses of our minds that tend to wander into the past or worry about the future.
If you’re interested, try the Mindfulness Meditation Institute’s exercise on letting go of the past. Also, the Loving-Kindness Meditation is always a wonderful activity.
For those in a state of transition, we recommend William Bridges’ work, including his book, Transitions.
6. Become a New You
We may not be reptiles, but with the help of core values and a sense of our life purpose, we can shed our old skin and rebuild a new self.
There are a few ways to become the new you, and we already have some advice on that topic:
- How to Find Your Purpose in Life
- How to Find Yourself Again if You’re Feeling Lost
- 7 Tips to Help You Embark on a Journey of Self-Discovery
7. Try to Forgive Yourself and Others
Blame, anger, guilt, regret — these negative emotions bind us to our past mistakes.
By practicing self-compassion and learning to forgive ourselves and those who wronged us, we can let go and begin to focus on the positive experiences in our lives.
If you struggle, consider working with a life coach or similar wellness professionals.
There Are Positive Ways to Harness the Past
It’s possible to let go of the painful parts of the past while nurturing the positive aspects alive in the present.
Contemplate past events or past relationships for which you’re grateful and that continue to bring you joy. When you catch up with friends, it’s healthy to occasionally reminisce on fun memories. Other constructive methods of processing the past include journaling or writing a memoir.
Remember that these activities should be different than living in the past. Even the glory days can hold you back from the present if you overindulge.
Letting Go of the Past is Inevitable
Whether it’s by choice, senility, or mortality, letting go of the past is inevitable. Even if we want to, it’s impossible to hold on to negative thoughts forever.
The irony is that our minds and bodies are also programmed to retain pain. The Body Keeps the Score perfectly articulates this conundrum. Somehow, we retain pain that’s better for us to let go.
Fortunately, you can choose which instincts to nurture. You can polish and refine who and what you are.
By actively reflecting on who you are and who you want to be, you can embrace the healthy, natural process of personal growth, cultivation, and spiritual development—the purpose of human life.