If somebody is working on themselves and changing for the better, it’s unnecessary to keep bringing up their past. People can change and grow. You know that’s true. But have you given yourself a fair chance to change and grow, too?
Have you consciously loosened your grip on what’s behind you, so you can step forward again with grace?
If you’re shaking your head, you aren’t alone. At times we all fall victim to our attachments. We simply don’t realize how often we block our own present blessings by holding on to the past.
Thus, it’s time for a quick true story about life and letting go…
When Our Old Stories Hold Us Back
She rarely makes eye contact. Instead, she looks down at the ground. Because the ground is safer. Because unlike people, it expects nothing in return. She doesn’t have to feel ashamed about her past. The ground just accepts her for who she is right now.
As she sits at the bar next to me, she stares down at her vodka tonic, and then the ground, and then her vodka tonic. “Most people don’t get me,” she says. “They ask me questions like, ‘What’s your problem?’ or ‘Were you beaten as a child?’ But I never respond. Because I don’t feel like explaining myself. And I don’t think they really care anyway.”
Just then, a young man sits down at the bar on the opposite side of her. He’s a little drunk and says, “You’re pretty. May I buy you a drink?” She stays silent and looks back down at the ground. After an awkward moment, he accepts the rejection, gets up, and walks away.
“Would you prefer that I leave too?” I ask. “No,” she says without glancing upward. “But I could use some fresh air. You don’t have to come, but you can if you want to.” I follow her outside and we sit on a street curb in front of the bar.
“Brrr… it’s a really chilly night!”
“Tell me about it,” she says while maintaining her usual downward gaze. The warm vapor from her breath cuts through the cold air and bounces off of the ground in front of her. “So why are you out here with me? I mean, wouldn’t you rather be inside in the warmth, talking to normal people about normal things?”
“I’m out here because I want to be. Because I’m not normal. And look, I can see my breath, and we’re in San Diego. That’s not normal either. Oh, and you’re wearing old Airwalk sneakers, and so am I — which may have been normal in 1994, but not anymore.”
She glances up at me and smirks, this time exhaling her breath upward into the moonlight. “I see you’re wearing a ring. You’re married, right?”
“Yeah,” I reply. “My wife, Angel, is just getting off work now and heading here to meet me for dinner.”
She nods her head and then looks back at the ground. “Well, you’re off the market… and safe, I guess. So can I tell you a story?”
As she speaks, her emotional gaze shifts from the ground, to my eyes, to the moonlit sky, to the ground, and back to my eyes again. This rotation continues in a loop for the duration of her story. And every time her eyes meet mine she holds them there for a few seconds longer than she did on the previous rotation.
I don’t interject once. I listen to every word. And I assimilate the raw emotion present in the tone of her voice and in the depth of her eyes.
When she finishes, she says, “Well, now you know my story. You think I’m a freak, don’t you?”
“Place your right hand on your chest,” I tell her. She does. “Do you feel something?” I ask.
“Yeah, I feel my heartbeat.”
“Now close your eyes, place both your hands on your face, and move them around slowly.” She does. “What do you feel now?” I ask.
“Well, I feel my eyes, my nose, my mouth… I feel my face.”
“That’s right,” I reply. “But unlike you, stories don’t have heartbeats, and they don’t have faces. Because stories are not alive — they’re not people. They’re just stories.”
She stares into my eyes for a prolonged moment, smiles sincerely and says, “Just stories we live through.”
“Yeah… And stories we learn from.”
Lessons We Learn as We Let Go
The woman from the story above became one of our very first students when Angel and I opened the doors to the original version of the Getting Back to Happy Course nearly a decade ago, and she’s now a friend of ours too. She has learned and applied many remarkable lessons over the years that ultimately allowed her to let go of her difficult past — her story — and move forward with her life. And last night I sat down with her over a glass of wine and had an in-depth, soul-centered conversation about what she has learned over the years. I’m sharing her story and lessons with you today, with full permission, because I know we all struggle in similar ways.
Here are four actionable lessons we discussed:
1. You can have a heartbreaking story from the past, without letting it rule your present.
In the present moment we all have some kind of pain: anger, sadness, frustration, disappointment, regret, etc.
Notice this pain within yourself, watch it closely, and see that it’s caused by whatever story you have in your head about what happened in the past (either in the recent past or in the distant past). Your mind might insist that the pain you feel is caused by what happened (not by the story in your head about it), but what happened in the past is NOT happening right now. It’s over. It has passed. But the pain is still happening right now because of the story you’ve been subconsciously telling yourself about that past incident.
Note that “story” does not mean “fake story.” It also does not mean “true story.” The word “story” in the context of your self-evaluation doesn’t have to imply true or false, positive or negative, or any other kind of forceful judgment call. It’s simply a process that’s happening inside your head:
- You are remembering something that happened.
- You subconsciously perceive yourself as a victim of this incident.
- Your memory of what happened causes a strong emotion in you.
So just notice what story you have, without judging it, and without judging yourself. It’s natural to have a story; we all have stories. See yours for what it is. And see that it’s causing you pain. Then take a deep breath, and another…
Inner peace begins the moment you take these deep breaths and choose not to allow the past to rule your present thoughts and emotions. (Note: Angel and I discuss this process in more detail in the “Happiness” chapter of our “1,000 Little Things” book and throughout our new guided journal, “The Good Morning Journal: Powerful Prompts & Reflections to Start Every Day”.)
2. A big part of letting go is simply realizing there’s nothing to hold on to in the first place.
All of the things from our past that we desperately try to hold on to, as if they’re real, solid, everlasting fixtures in our lives, aren’t really there. Or if they are there in some form, they’re changing, fluid, impermanent, or simply imagined storylines in our minds.
Life gets a lot easier to deal with the moment we understand this.
Imagine you’re blindfolded and treading water in the center of a large swimming pool, and you’re struggling desperately to grab the edge of the pool that you think is nearby, but really it’s not—it’s far away. Trying to grab that imaginary edge is stressing you out, and tiring you out, as you splash around aimlessly trying to holding on to something that isn’t there.
Now imagine you pause, take a deep breath, and realize that there’s nothing nearby to hold on to. Just water around you. You can continue to struggle with grabbing at something that doesn’t exist… or you can accept that there’s only water around you, and relax, and float.
Today I challenge you to ask yourself:
- What’s something from the past that you are still desperately trying to hold on to?
- How is it affecting you in the present?
Then imagine the thing you’re trying to hold on to doesn’t really exist. Envision yourself letting go… and just floating.
How might that change your life from this moment forward?
(Note: Angel and I build small daily rituals for letting go of the past with our students in the “Pain & Hardship” module of the Getting Back to Happy Course.)
3. The subtle pain you continue to feel can be healed through compassion for those suffering alongside you.
When we’re still working through a painful experience from the past, it’s easy to feel like we’re going through it alone — like no one else could possibly understand how we feel. In a way, we subconsciously place ourselves at the center of the universe, and see everything that happened exclusively from the viewpoint of how it affects us personally, without regard for anyone else. But as we grow through our pain and gradually broaden our horizons, we begin to see that our self-centered thinking is only fueling our misery. And we realize that shifting our focus onto others for a while can help.
It’s one of life’s great paradoxes: when we serve others, we end up benefiting as much if not more than those we serve. So whenever you feel pain from the past trying to suck you back in, shift your focus from your circumstances to the circumstances of those near and far.
The simplest way of doing this at any given moment?
Practice letting your breath be an anchor for global healing. Breathe in whatever painful feeling you’re feeling, and breathe out relief from that pain for everyone in the world who is suffering alongside you. For example:
- If you’re feeling grief, breathe in all the grief of the world… then breathe out peace.
- If you’re feeling anger, breathe in all the anger of the world… then breathe out forgiveness.
- If you’re feeling regretful, breathe in all the regret of the world… then breathe out gratitude for the good times.
Do this for a minute or two as often as you need to, imagining all the pain of those near and far coming in with each breath, and then a feeling of compassion and reconciliation radiating out to all of those who are in pain as you breathe out. Instead of running from your past and the pain it caused you, you’re embracing it… you’re letting yourself absorb it. And you’re thinking of others as well, which gets you out of that miserable, self-centered mindset trap.
4. There is always, always, always something to be grateful for in the present.
Even when your past — your story — tries to pull you back in, you can consciously do your best to focus on your present blessings. What do you see in your life right now? Be thankful for the good parts. For your health, your family, your friends, or your home. Many people don’t have these things.
Remind yourself that the richest human is rarely the one who has the most, but the one who needs less. Wealth is a daily mindset. Want less and appreciate more today. Easier said than done of course, but with practice gratitude does get easier. And as you practice, you transform your past struggles into present moments of freedom.
Ultimately, on the average day, happiness is letting go of what you assume your life is supposed to be like right now and sincerely appreciating it for everything that it is. So at the end of this day, before you close your eyes, be at peace with where you’ve been and grateful for what you have right now. Life has goodness.
Now, it’s your turn…
Again, the lessons above take practice to fully grasp in real time. So just do your best to bring awareness to this gradually — to practice — so you can let go one day at a time. Keep reminding yourself…
- You are not your bad days
- You are not your mistakes
- You are not your scars
- You are not your past
Be here now and breathe.
And before you go, please leave Angel and me a comment below and let us know what you think of this essay. Your feedback is important to us. 🙂
Also, if you haven’t done so already, be sure to sign-up for our free newsletter to receive new articles like this in your inbox each week.
Marc and Angel, I’m truly enjoying your teachings in your course and here on the blog. And this says a lot about your work, because I’ve honestly been a bit of a cynic when it comes to self-improvement for most of my adult life. But I’ve truly grown to appreciate your insights, which is why I’m a student in your course, and why I’m writing this now. Thank you.
As it relates to your questions above, I have lots to let go of.
As my 45th b-day approaches soon, I’m struggling with the family life I expected to have—the marriage I expected to have—vs. the way my life is today. The two are not close. It’s difficult to accept that past circumstances in my marriage have cut into my present confidence, but I’m starting to see now that I need to let go more than I have. I know I have more opportunities in front of me. My professional life has been a success, so now I need to focus on my personal side too. It was healing to read your thoughts on this. As I journal about them and ritualize them (part of a helpful strategy I picked up from your course) and try to apply them to my life circumstances, I know your words will gradually help me reframe what my life is, and design a wiser vision for my present and future.
Your words, easy to do breathing & thinking, are SO EASY & IT HELPS. I was virtually on my knees with anxiety (like most mornings) but your “can do” in this article are TRULY worth practicing. Thank you for a better way.
Thank you as always, M&A. I continue to love how your wisdom arrives in my email inbox when I need it.
These lessons on letting go of the past have been insightful to me today. I have recently come to know and accept that I’ve been holding on to a lot of past baggage, and letting go doesn’t come as naturally to me as I might expect. This is especially true in my failed marriage. While letting go for good makes sense, my emotional heart still desperately tries to hold on to the idea of my marriage and family life was supposed to be, and it is painful. But even just reading your words reminds me that others too are struggling in various similar ways, and that makes me feel a little less alone and gives me the strength to admit my flats and believe that I can adjust my mindset and make better sense of things going forward.
Beth W. says
Love this post, Marc (and Angel). Thank you! Lot’s of healthy food for thought.
I’ve been holding on to a career choice I made over a decade ago when I was only 21, and I’m finally building up the courage to let it go and rebuild my professional career in a field that deeply connects with who I am today as a human being.
Also, I’m going through your Think Better, Live Better 2022 recording from Orlando. Such a great event! Looking forward to meeting some likeminded people at the next one you host.
I still hold onto grief. I have realized that I am still, eighteen months later, holding onto the memories of my husband, who was my high school sweetheart, and our 46 year marriage. I thought I had moved on well… I am dating and have sold my house and moved. The hard part is to know what to hold on to and what to let go of. In fairness to any future relationship, I need to make room for new memories and allow them to take forefront. But it is something I still struggle with. I am grateful for this website and have just bought your book that hopefully will help me in this difficult transition.
Grief has been difficult for me as well. I year ago sudden death of my spouse of 38 years. Nearly everything in current daily living changes. In my opinion the past shared experiences and shared routines made me who I am and accepting I am not my past will take some more thought.
Thank you for such an eye-opening article. It definitely has me thinking! One thing I am holding onto is a past relationship that didn’t end the way I wanted it to. And now, after reading this, I am wondering if my replaying the break-up in mind, is coming from a self-centered place. And me replaying it in my mind, is disrupting my peace. I have to let it go because it no longer exists…it’s in the past..
mary kortisses says
I have just started following your writings after seeing that my Daughter followed your writings. She was an amazing writer too, which I never really knew while she was still with us, We lost her in October 2021 to drugs. I needed to read what you posted today and I feel like she sent me to you guys. As I was reading I could hear her saying those exact words to me. I never understood the power of grief, I need to keep it from hurting me for the rest of my life, my beautiful Ashley would not want that. Thank you again for your words.
Sorry for your loss
Tim Rwabuhemba says
Very insightful article. It helps. Thank you.
Maja Faeldonia Lila says
First of all, I want to thank God for you both Marc and Angel for your gift of words to put your thoughts,ideas and experiences into writing. It is indeed very helpful for all your readers. I hope and pray that more people will come to know your writings.So then.it will lead us readers as our guide on how to live life to the fullest.
I really really appreciate your words of wisdom of every topic that you shared for us readers.
Again,Thank you and more power.
God bless your family.
jack k says
Sometimes closing the door to our painful experiences of the past can be blocked by the fear of opening a new door, because we fear a new painful experience will reoccur again. At least that’s how I feel sometimes. Makes wonder why there is such high percentage of people out there that have opted to remain single.
Anyway, excellent article, thank you.
You are right Jack . I can easily relate to your comment.
Aruni De Silva says
Thank you for this gem of an article.
More than anything for seeing the woman who walk with her eyes on the ground. Yes, it is safe so no one will read my eyes. Your writing made me feel I’m not alone and I appreciate those who shared their ‘story’ in the comments as I can identify with some and know I feel the same.
Thank you for sharing your insights and help me understand that I need to go past and let go even its just two years back which is hardest of all. Thank you for encouraging and pushing me to see there’s hope and a way out.
Sarah Congress says
Mary, I am so sorry for your unimaginable loss. Losing a child is the deepest pain a parent can indure. I have a good friend who lost her 26yr old daughter 3 years ago. Even though she is very strong in her faith and has other children, she lives everyday in grief. I read a quote that said, “grief is like carrying a heavy suitcase. It doesn’t get lighter, you just learn how to carry it better”. While you will not be the same person you were when you had your precious Ashley, I’m praying for you to have more peace and better days. And I believe these lessons from Marc & Angel can most definitely help. Take care. ??
So uplifting. Exactly what I needed on my journey to self-awareness and love.
My problem I guess is that I don’t want to let go of my mama that has passed. But I don’t want to hold on to the pain but I miss her so much. I don’t know how to get thru this because I am so sad without her
I am grieving a different kind of grief. We sold our house three years ago and and with it left our memories in it, our old neighbors, our old community and our nearby amenities. I don’t like where we live now and it’s been a struggle not forgiving myself for selling our old place. I still think about our old house and all the nice views it had and how sunny it always was… that, we now lack. I think about the nice people we met and had as neighbors and all the good times we had there. I find myself hating our new place and, to this day, I can’t bring myself to feeling at home. After reading this essay, I realized I’ve been holding on to resentment. I am punishing myself for a decision made years ago and it can’t be changed. I need to let go to be able to count my current blessings. I am a believer that everything happens for a reason and although I may not know what that reason is right now, I need to trust the process. Thank you for helping me see that letting go will allow me to grab onto my present and live it to the fullest by being there in the first place.
This was a very helpful article. I intend to apply it to my life. I too am having trouble letting go of the past. This story sounded just like me. Thank you so much.
Peggy Erickson says
Marc & Angel. Thx for uplifting words! Amen.
Sandya Ragoowansi says
I always seek out your words. For they aren’t just words but medicine to deep wounds. Thankyou for sharing and caring enough to reach out with your powerful words to those who need to read this.
Marcia Ager says
So RIGHT and SO TRUE! LIVE and LEARN is my motto and I AM GRATEFUL for ALL my life’s lesson. I must say that I have GAINED THE MOST by my biggest challenges and BELIEVE they happened FOR A REASON and WILL continue to do so! I always call to mind a frequent greeting the people of New Orleans give each other–my home for 15 Year’s AND, having been all over the world, I can confidently say that New Orleans is THE GREATEST CITY in the world–in EVERY way!:. “Laissez Les Bon Temps Roleaux”!
Very encouraging message where I can see truth to help me stop living in my past and holding on to trauma that needs to be released. I can see realistic exercises to keep me focused on that goal. I can see hope for a brighter future. Thank you.
James Bamaiyi says
Thank you so much for this piece, I am presently hurting and all I have read this evening will truly help.