Letting go of the past is not always an easy thing to do. Unfortunately, we all face difficult challenges and situations in life that can make it hard to let go and move forward with our lives. Some common examples are, letting go of a past relationship, difficulty accepting how we were raised and learning how to forgive others. Difficulty letting-go is an issue that I see frequently in my practice and for which our clients seek help. So I thought that it would be useful to write and share with you how I help clients to let go of the past.
Why Can’t I Let Go Of My Past
If you have searched the internet for ways to let go of the past, chances are that you have come across general suggestions like: accept you can’t control everything, meditate daily, take responsibility for your actions, focus on the present and exercise regularly. Although these are good suggestions, they are quite general and will likely be of limited help. The reason that we can have difficulty letting go of the past is that there are some unresolved emotions that need to be addressed. These emotions need to be resolved before we can move forward.
Letting Go Of The Past: The Process
1. Identify the core emotion(s).
The first step of letting go involves identifying the core emotion(s) you are feeling and understanding what that emotion is communicating to you. Emotions are fundamental sources of information about ourselves and our environment. If you would like a complete understanding of emotions, you can read our toolkit on Why Do We Have Emotions?
A difficulty with letting go of the past will likely be related to one or more of the following key emotions: guilt, regret or sadness/anger. Guilt is an emotion that tells us we have violated some rule or norm. For example, “I should have done this” or “Why did I do that”. Regret communicates that we wish that something from the past could have been different. Lastly, anger is an emotion that tells us that we feel something was unjust or unfair. Anger can also be the result of feeling hurt, so it can also be related to sadness. Leaving these emotions unresolved will make it hard to move forward and live in the present.
2. Slowly resolve each emotion.
Guilt. If guilt is what you are feeling, then learn from the past to not repeat it. This is the reason that we feel guilty. Second, make reparations if you can. For example, if you have had a falling out with a family member because of various arguments, then learn to validate people and communicate more effectively and not take things personally by letting go. Then make the first step and give the family member a call to repair the relationship. If they do not respond favorably, you have done all you can and have nothing to feel guilty about anymore. Our toolkit on How To Develop Effective Communication Skills might be helpful to you if you need to reconnect with someone.
Also, watch out for unhelpful thinking. If you feel like you are a “bad, rotten, inadequate or inferior” person as a result of a past situation, look at the evidence for and against the way you see yourself. Are there really any facts backing up how you see yourself besides that event? To help change the unhelpful thinking that could be maintaining your feelings of guilt, make sure to read our toolkit How To Change Your Negative Thinking. Do not make one unfortunate event define who you are as a person.
Regret. If you feel regret, identify what it is. Now go out and do it! If you have been feeling regret for numerous years, then you will feel some years later if you do not go out and act! Here are some examples:
- If you have unfinished business, then get to it. Look at what is unfinished and continue where you left off and even start from the beginning if you need to.
- If there are things you wanted to do, go out and do them. If your parents never let you dance, then go out and take some dance lessons and go out dancing with friends.
- If you have been passive and unassertive in your life and did not express your needs and opinions, learn to be assertive. Our toolkit on Assertiveness Training: How To Become More Assertive will be of help to get you started.
- If you regret not telling a loved one that you loved them and they have passed on, write them a letter about how you feel and read it to them at their grave.
- Identify how you want to be different and slowly make those changes.
- If you feel you have not treated people well and have hurt them, then change how you are acting. You might find the section on resolving guilt to also be of help.
If you are having trouble with regrets because you feel you did not make the right decision, ask yourself the following questions (these might also be of help if you are feeling guilty as well):
- Did I make the best decision that I could in the moment?
- Am I discounting any positives that did come out of the decision or event from the past? Am I just focusing only on the negative points today?
- Did I know ‘then’ what I know ‘now’? Chances are you may have thought over and over about a past situation or decision and as a result, may have new insights. However, is it fair to blame yourself today when you did not have these insights in the past?
- Did I really have much control over the event or situation?
Anger and hurt/sadness. Here are the ways to let go of feelings of anger and sadness related to past hurts and wrongdoings. If anger is the prominent emotion you are feeling, you will find our blog on Anger Management In Montreal to be helpful as well.
- What is the Cost/Benefit of holding on to your anger? Are you still hurting? Is the other person? If you feel the cost is too great, let go of it and use some visualization if you need to help you. If you need some direction on using visualization, read our Blog on How To Stop Worrying.
- You have the power to decide to let go. Sometimes people have a hard time letting go as they feel that doing so means that how they were hurt or wronged was unimportant or that it invalidates what they experienced. This view is completely untrue. For example, if someone was abused and neglected growing up, it does not mean it was unimportant and that the people who did these things were right if the person were to let go of the past. Abuse and neglect are never fine. However, holding on to the feelings will not change things but make the person suffer longer. Although difficult, learn to let go slowly. The best revenge is a life well lived!
- Focus on the present and if you can, do what was taken from you. For example, if your parents did not let you paint then go out and take some classes and learn to paint.
- Trying to understand why someone hurt you can be helpful. Was there a real intent on their part? Are there are other circumstances that played a role? Depending on what happened, gaining insight into the motivation behind someone’s action can help resolve the feelings of hurt and anger.
- If the event or person is long gone, then write a letter about how you feel. Find a way to have closure with it. For example, burn the letter, rip it up or find some other meaningful action or ritual that could help you find closure with the past.
Once you have used our suggestions above to help you let go of the past, chances are that you will have started to resolve your feelings related to the past. You can also then use the more general suggestions that we mentioned at the beginning of this Blog.
We trust that you will find these tips valuable in helping you to move forward and let go of the past. If you feel that you need additional support, do not hesitate to Contact Me to book an appointment for more in-depth help. If you appreciate and use these suggestions, please join with us and help us to fulfill our mission to promote the use of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) in the Montreal area. If you use Twitter, please “Tweet” our suggestions and ‘Like’ both this Blog as well as the Montreal Therapy & Psychological Wellness Centre on Facebook.