Letting go of the Past
The Past is a topic that comes up often, simply because it can exert a powerful influence on our present life – in fact much misery, many counselling sessions and a number of mental health issues are caused by the things that have happened in the past. But to be more precise it isn’t always what has happened in the past that causes the problem, though what happened may have caused distress, injury and trauma but what mostly causes problems in the present is our thoughts about those past events, the way we frame them and of course the feelings we have about them. Although it might not always feel like it our thoughts and feelings about those events are in fact something we can control or at least learn to control.
We are all individuals with individual histories that are unique to us, but there are also a few general trends that run through the past issues that cause us problems in the present.
So let’s take a look at a few of the common issues that arise when working with people who struggle with aspects of the past.
The first is regret and in many ways this is one of the simplest things to deal with. The past is just that – it is past and no matter how hard we might wish for things to be different or give ourselves a hard time for acting in a particular way, or even NOT doing something. The fact does remain that we cannot go back in time. The first step then is to accept what happened. As humans we will often spend ages going over events in our head thinking of the different moments when we could have said or done something differently. In all honesty sometimes we can even wallow in it a bit – almost punish ourselves by rehearsing how different life could be if we had done or said something different or been in a particular place at a particular time or whatever.
The second is anger about what happened. We can all acknowledge at times that life is not fair, things happen, sometimes people behave badly, cruelly or criminally and sometimes life just slaps us in the face with illness, disappointment or rejection. It is understandable to feel angry but again re-living the moment nurturing the anger and bitterness will actually prolong the pain. The frustration or sense of injustice may be understandable but it isn’t usually helpful.
And then there is guilt. That is something we all know about and I am sure many people reading this will have spent hours feeling guilty about things they really shouldn’t feel guilty about at all. As humans we like to find reasons for things and somehow it is easy to turn what happened, which may have been no fault of or own but something that was entirely down to others, in on ourselves and beating ourselves up becomes a habit and we end up stuck once again in a negative thought cycle. Of course sometimes we might be ‘guilty’ of hurting others, intentionally or otherwise or of making ill-advised choices but ……….well that would be because we are human.
The important question is what do we do about this?
Well whatever the scenario the answer is usually similar.
Accept that whatever happened indeed happened and that it probably can’t be changed now – If it happened in the past. The clue is in the statement – it is in the past.
But that can be sometimes be very tough -if the belief is that what happened has had negative consequences then it is hard sometimes to accept that. But there isn’t really an alternative – it did happen and no amount of regret anger or guilt will change that. The notion of accepting something doesn’t mean it is ok or even that your happy with it but to accept that it happened can be a powerful way of releasing the emotions that are no doubt bound up with it and which are probably stopping you moving forward in particular areas of life – being reluctant to trust people after feeling let down or betrayed for example.
Sometimes the reason we can’t accept what has happened is because there is a part of us that doesn’t want to accept it and somehow by hanging on to the emotions of it repeatedly experiencing the hurt, we mistakenly feel may make us feel better but generally it doesn’t.
It actually keeps the hurt alive. So to accept it is a powerful release. Sometime part of that means we need to forgive the people who have hurt not because what they did was acceptable but because to NOT do this actually hurts us – whereas releasing the emotions, the anger and pain and getting to a place where we can forgive means that we are able to move forward. By not forgiving sometimes we sort of give power to the person or event that hurt us and allow it to keep on hurting us.
When we have accepted that it happened in the past – and given ourselves the chance to both acknowledge and express the emotions it generated, and forgiven ourselves and others then we are in a position to let go of the past and move forward.
But that involves us making a decision to create new ways of thinking about the event – and deciding to behave differently – that might mean when we it comes up in our minds we need to push away the negative thoughts around it and make a conscious choice to adopt more positive thought patterns.