“Last night I lost the world, and gained the universe.”
— C. JoyBell C.
Even after you let go, the past is still part of who you are. Every one of us lives in the present and makes choices based on some part of the past. This fact is simply unavoidable. You are only able to read these words right now because of your past. Your brain relates past experiences (or learned knowledge) to these words.
All forms of learning rely on your ability to continually reference the past. If you think about it, many wise decisions you have made leading to this very moment were created through recalling what did or did not work in the past. You are only able to do what you can now because of what you learned. For instance, you only recognize a friend when she walks into the room because you reference a past connection with her. In this way, you are using the past effectively.
But when you start behaving ineffectively because you think, “this is the way it has always been,” problems arise. Old traditions may be useful, or they may stifle your progress and growth. It all depends on how relevant they are to the present. It’s your job to make this determination.
We talk about letting go of the past and moving on, but what do we really need to leave behind? Since the past helps us at least as much as it hurts us, how do we know which pieces to discard?
Here are some things I have learned that have helped me:
1. You are subconsciously matching patterns from the past with the present.
When an experience in your life has emotional significance, it gets tagged in your brain as being important. When the emotional experience is tragic, it triggers your brain’s fear mechanism, which tells your brain to remain on the lookout for any future conditions that vaguely remind you of this tragic experience (it does this to protect you from future harm). Your brain then tries to match new experiences with the original one. But depending on how emotionally attached you are to the original experience, it can lead to ‘false pattern matches’ which will inevitably lead you astray.
- A muscular man assaulted you, so now you find it hard to trust all muscular men.
- An old boss verbally harassed you, so now you have trouble respecting a totally new boss or different authoritative figure.
Again, these false pattern matches occur whenever you respond negatively and over-emotionally to a particular experience. And it all happens subconsciously too. Logically, you know that all muscular men are completely different human beings, but emotionally you respond as if they are one.
If you feel that you are stuck because you can’t move beyond a past experience, then your brain is relating to it as if it’s still happening right now, which means it’s matching patterns improperly in the present. Here’s a two-step solution that might help:
- Ask yourself: “What specific past experience and associated feelings do my current feelings remind me of?” Dig deep and be honest with yourself.
- Once you have determined the origin of your current feelings, list all the ways your current circumstances differs from the past (the original experience) – this should include the places, people, and details that caused you pain and discomfort. Review the differences over and over again until you have them completely memorized. This should help you realize and remember that circumstances have indeed changed. (Read Thinking, Fast and Slow.)
2. Your subconscious mind forgets that your capabilities have grown.
Zookeepers typically strap a thin metal chain to a grown elephant’s leg, and then attach the other end to a small wooden peg that’s hammered into the ground. The 10-foot tall, 10,000-pound elephant could easily snap the chain and uproot the wooden peg, and escape to freedom with minimal effort. But it doesn’t. In fact the elephant never even tries. The world’s most powerful land animal, which can uproot a tree as easily as you could break a toothpick, remains defeated by a small wooden peg and a flimsy chain.
Because when the elephant was a baby, its trainers used the exact same methods to domesticate it. A thin chain was strapped around its leg and the other end of the chain was tied to a wooden peg in the ground. At the time, the chain and peg were strong enough to restrain the baby elephant. When it tried to break away, the metal chain would pull it back. Sometimes, tempted by the world it could see in the distance, the elephant would pull harder. But the chain would not budge, and soon the baby elephant realized trying to escape was not possible. So it stopped trying.
And now that the elephant is all grown up, it sees the chain and the peg and it remembers what it learned as a baby – the chain and peg are impossible to escape. Of course, this is no longer true, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that the 200-pound baby is now a 10,000 pound powerhouse. The elephant’s self-limiting beliefs prevail.
If you think about it, we are all like elephants. We all have incredible power inside us. And of course, we have our own chains and pegs – the self-limiting beliefs that hold us back. Sometimes it’s a childhood experience or an early failure. Sometimes it’s something we were told when we were younger. We need to learn from the past, but be ready to update what we learned based on how our circumstances have changed (as they constantly do).
Here are two things to consider:
- If you suspect you are currently living your life (or parts of it) through the conditioning of self-limiting beliefs you developed in the past, remind yourself of what is different now in terms of circumstances and your own capabilities. What has changed?
- Examine what you have learned from past adversity that can actually help you now. Rather than just regretting stuff, question specifically how it has helped you grow. Has your past equipped you to be determined, self-reliant, perceptive, tough, aware, compassionate, etc.? Focus on what you have gained rather than lost from adverse past experiences.
3. Progress of any kind feels uncomfortable at first.
Nothing starts easy; everything begins at some level of difficulty. Even waking up in the morning sometimes requires notable effort. But one beautiful thing about life is the fact that the most difficult challenges are often the most rewarding and satisfying in the long run.
The really tough job interviews that lead to huge career advancements. The first few awkward words exchanged on first dates that lead to successful relationships. The excruciating training that leads hopeful Olympians to gold medal placements. None of these successful outcomes started from a place of comfort and ease.
Far too many people are fearful of the unknown, comfy with putting in the least amount of effort, and not willing to put up with short-term pain for long-term gain. Don’t be one of them – you know better than that. You know that growth and progress require discomfort. Every time you stretch your emotional, intellectual, and physical muscle groups, discomfort arises just before progress is made.
In all walks of life, by committing to continuous, small uncomfortable steps forward, you are able to sidestep the biggest barrier to positive change: Fear.
Also, remember that growth begins at the end of your comfort zone. Not only is it important to accept the discomfort of taking steps forward, it is also necessary to let go of comfortable routines and situations from the past. Holding on to the way things were, prevents you from growing into who you are now, and who you are capable of being. (Angel and I discuss in more detail in the “Goals and Success” chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
4. The past did not provide your only opportunity for happiness.
Reminiscing about great past times is always a pleasure, so long as reviewing these past times is not used as a way of emphasizing how terrible the present is by contrast. If you start living in the past to such a great extent that the opportunities in the present are ignored, you have a problem. For instance, if you don’t even give a potential new partner a chance simply because you “know” they could never live up to your perfect lover from the past… this is a huge warning sign.
Feeling that the past was a golden age of seamless perfection – a time of infinite happiness – is not an accurate assessment of reality. Comparing this idealized retrospection with the present can lead you to believe the present can never be a happy place, thus preventing you from enjoying the moment and looking forward to the next.
Here are two practices that might be helpful:
- To help you feel better about specific situations in the present, you might close your eyes, relax, and focus on a wonderful past time, and then imagine yourself drifting into the present with all those good feelings from the past. These things did happen and they are worth celebrating. This can help you actually use the positive points from the past rather than bemoan their passing.
- Look for any ways that the present might actually be better than the past, however slight. Even if it’s simply that you have learned from the past and are now in a better place to make future decisions.
The bottom line is that life needs to continue right up until the moment you die. If at a certain point all you do is look back, you have, in effect, stopped living. You need to resist the trap of believing the past was so perfect that the present cannot be appreciated at all. (Read Authentic Happiness.)
5. Nothing can be expected, and nothing is indefinitely certain.
You need to understand that none of us are playing with marked cards; sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. Life always finds its balance. Don’t expect to get back everything you give. Don’t expect recognition for every effort you make. And don’t expect your genius to be instantly recognized or your love to be understood by everyone you encounter.
There are things you don’t want to happen, but have to accept, things you don’t want to know, but have to learn, and people and circumstances you can’t live without but have to let go. Some things come into your life just to strengthen you, so you can move on without them.
As you live and experience things, you must recognize what belongs and what doesn’t, what works and what doesn’t, and then let things go when you know you should. Not out of pride, inability, or arrogance, but simply because not everything is supposed to fit into your life. So close the door on the past, change the tune, clean your inner space, and get rid of the dust. Stop being who you once were so you can become who you are today.
It’s time to open the next chapter of your life.
Oftentimes letting go has nothing to do with weakness, and everything to do with strength. We let go and move on with our lives not because we want the friends, family, and the universe to realize our worth, but because we finally realize our own worth.
So stop focusing on the negatives and everything that could go wrong, and start thinking of what could go right. Better yet, think of everything that already is right. Be thankful for nights that turned into mornings, friends that turned into family, and past dreams and goals that turned into realities. And use this mindset of positivity to fuel an even brighter today and tomorrow.
What would you add to the list? What have you had to let go of, and what did it teach you? Please share your insights with the community by leaving a comment below.
Photo by: Bourne Bedweey