By Leanne Hoffman / 04.08.2017
As we move through life, one of the things we can all count on is the experience of pain. Whether a small disappointment or a long, drawn-out catastrophe, each negative experience has a hand in shaping our perspectives on life.
For many of us, the ability to let go of past painful experiences seems impossible and the burden can become too much. Unfortunately, the reality of pain is unavoidable and the facts of our past can’t be changed.
How can we heal ourselves from something that can’t be erased? How can we live peacefully in the present when our minds are in the past?
Accepting your past, forgiving yourself
The first and most difficult step to letting go of our past is to accept it. This sounds cliché, but is crucial for any sort of change in our patterns of thinking.
Rejecting or avoiding pain only causes suffering, and continuing to do so keeps us stuck in the same dark place. This is the place where harmful habits can take over and we find ourselves consistently doing the same destructive things. And with the same outcome every time, we further confirm our impaired perspectives on life.
The only way to start the healing process is to look our past in the eye and recognize it for what it is. You’ll need to find some strategy that’ll help you fully and wholeheartedly accept your past. Writing each experience down and reading it out loud can be therapeutic. Hearing the words and noticing how they affect you (or don’t affect you) can help bring the past to light. Don’t let it hide in the shadows, threatening your present life!
Checking the facts
It’s one thing to know, in your wise state of mind, that your past is your past and not your present. It’s a much harder task to apply what we know in times of high stress or emotional turbulence.
Saying to ourselves, “Hey, remember that time we decided to let go of our past?” isn’t going to stop us from returning to our old ways of thinking. If all of your past partners have cheated on you, it’s difficult to just “believe” that your current partner isn’t going to do the same.
If you’ve experienced any form of trauma, it can be extremely difficult to let go of those experiences. That’s where facts come in!
Being able to separate current facts from past memories can be a helpful skill in learning to let go of what has been. Our minds can create amazingly complex fictional scenarios using only our memories. This can be a beautiful thing and is often the source of exceptional creativity. But when applied to our relationships, mental health, etc., it can produce unwanted behaviour.
In the “cheating partner” scenario, it would be helpful to ask ourselves what we know to be true and what we’re only assuming. Another way to look at it would be to ask ourselves, “What aspects of this situation are only at play due to my past experiences?”
Assumptions are created from our history and our emotions. Facts can be interpreted using our assumptions, but at the core, facts don’t change. Training our brains to separate fact from fiction is a challenging yet valuable skill.
Seeing the black and the white
A very common way of thinking when it comes to struggling with our past is the “black and white” approach. We believe that things can be one way or another, but never both. We think things like, “My past has been a struggle; therefore, my whole life will be the same. My past partners have cheated; therefore, all of my future relationships will end in the same way. I’m living with a mental health issue; therefore, I’m not worthy of love.”
All of these statements, while untrue, can be very hard to refute when our past confirms them. A tool often used in dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) is to encourage seeing the black and white in all situations, instead of just one or the other. For instance, “I’m living with a mental health issue and I’m worthy of love. My past has been a struggle and my present and future are still worth living.” This can be hard at first, but practicing on everyday thoughts is a good place to start.
The past has come and gone, and we can’t alter what’s no longer under our control. What we can do is make a conscious effort to learn from the past and experience the present for all that it is.
Adopting new ways of viewing ourselves and all we’ve been through is never an easy journey. However, with patience and small steps, we can place ourselves on the path towards healing.