Have you ever struggled to let go of something in your past? Do you find yourself revisiting old hurts? Try this practical advice to move beyond the past and step into a brighter future.
- Posted on Aug 3, 2016
Do you find yourself thinking of the past—a difficult time you’ve lived through or a wrong you’ve suffered because of someone else’s actions? Even if you’ve heard people extol the virtues of "letting go of the past," or “appreciating the present,” we all know it’s often easier said than done.
It's not like we enjoy holding on to past hurts, regrets, and losses—they do everything from sap our energy to taint our relationships to dim our perspective on life. Studies on forgiveness—which can be a big part of letting go—show that it decreases stress hormones, improves heart health, improves sleep, and enhances your relationships (a key factor in a healthy, happy life).
But how can we let go, in a practical sense? Here are six ways to start letting go of heaviness from the past to move toward a lighter, brighter future.
1. Set Letting Go As a Priority
The writer Anne Lamott says, "Every single thing I've let go of has claw marks on it." See? You're not the only one! Letting go of old hurts and pains can be tough business. It's also the kind of thing that's easy to put on the back burner of your life. But the first step to healing is often setting the intention to do so.
Make a note in a journal—or a sticky note on your fridge—"I am ready and willing to release the past." And see what kind of support you can get for doing so. Maybe talk to a therapist or a trusted friend or grab a helpful book like Hugh Prather's The Little Book of Letting Go. Once you focus on the goal, move toward anything that gears your mind toward the project at hand.
2. Exercise the Forgiveness Muscle
Nothing frees us from anger and blame like forgiveness. There's that old saying about holding a grudge being like a poison we feed ourselves. It can also make us heavier! One recent study on forgiveness found that study participants could literally jump significantly higher when asked to recall a time they forgave—and lower when thinking of a time they held onto a grudge. It may demonstrate that letting go can make you feel lighter.
Of course, there are not just physical or psychological benefits to forgiveness. There’s the spiritual side, too. The Lord’s Prayer includes the line, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
See what you can do to start forgiving anyone you've been quietly seething against. Even if you don’t feel forgiving, practice. "I forgive Anne." Say that several times a day. Write it out, talk it out. You don't ever have to be friends with her again, but you can let go of the poison of the past—because it's your life and you don't need it.
3. Practice Being Here, Now
The main thing that keeps us stuck in the past is our thoughts about the past. Ruminating on old scenarios, thinking about what could have gone differently—basically wishing for a different reality. The main way to address this is to start to take control of your thoughts.
Studies show that practicing mindfulness by meditating can improve memory, increase mental focus, reduce stress, and lower emotional reactivity. Find 10 minutes a day to sit and breathe and simply watch all those thoughts tumble by.
You’ll realize those thoughts about the past are just thoughts—like the thought that you need to buy bread. You can direct your thoughts. Just like you don’t think about your shopping list all day, you don’t have to think about the past either.
4. Express Yourself
The past does not just miraculously evaporate from our minds. (Unless you're talking about what that person said her name was five minutes ago!) Studies show that emotionally charged memories set down actual grooves in our brains, cementing them.
If you're noticing that some of those grooves are making you miserable, tell someone your story. Talk therapy with a trained professional has been shown to do everything from ease depression to reduce back pain to heal insomnia.
We need to tell our stories before we can release them. And it helps greatly if those who hear our stories are compassionate and objective. You don’t want to tell your story to people who were involved originally. If there's no one you can talk to, at least write it down. It can help to have a pretend listener to write it all out to in a letter you'll never send.
5. Own Your Story
The good news is, all that crazy stuff that happened in your past? It's YOURS! No one else has that story, for better or worse. You can shake off any shame, regret, or anger by simply seeing all that happened as a wild tale that would make a great Hollywood movie with good writing and special effects. I bet it's a good one.
Imagine you're reading a novel with all those ups and downs. People would be riveted. Everyone has a story. Accept yours. You can't change it, but you can own it, even embrace it for all its quirks, hurts, joys, and wondrous twists and turns. Then, you can move on to the next chapter.
6. Plan Ahead
Though living in the present is a worthy and noble goal, humans need to move forward. Having a sense of purpose that reaches beyond you can help you get unstuck from your past. Make that bucket list and start ticking things off—and making plans to do some of the bigger things on it. That way, your soon-to-be past will be of your own design, to be both let go and cherished.