Six common reasons we stay stuck the past and what to do about them
by Jacquie Wise
Read my next statement with clenched teeth: It’s time for me to let go and embrace changes in my life. Can you feel my resistance? What better time and topic to write about than letting go, closures and new directions.
Letting go of the past can be made easier if we select the right approach for the right reason.
1 You’re afraid of the unknown:
I’ve known for years I needed to move on to e-seminars, blogs, e-books, social-media… hmph. My avoidance has allowed my original allergy to technology to turn into a major trauma. Now, after much useless agonising, I have been forced to acknowledge it’s way past time to stop writing articles and start a blog. I can only shut my eyes, hold my nose and leap. And delegate the technical side to someone else, just to make sure I slow down my learning and do more avoiding.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is often how one has to let go of the past. (No, there is a better way: read on for my pointers, gained with the wisdom of hindsight.)
There’s comfort in clinging to familiarity. Even painful circumstances can be comfortingly familiar and therefore easier to deal with than having to face the unknown. We even stay in bad relationships because we’re afraid of what the future might bring. We convince ourselves the frying pan is better than the fire, so it doesn’t occur to us to find a way to douse the fire.
We complicate things because we fail to make the unknown known. We think doing research means starting the process and we don’t feel ready. Well, you’re not making any changes just by doing research. You can always change your mind and stay stuck. But at least find out. You may find that the change isn’t as bad as you once thought. (Is she talking to herself, do you think?)
Those of us who have overcome fears know there are many ways to approach change that diminish its threat. There are processes that will minimise the risks involved, and strategies that can protect us. All we have to do is be willing to seek them out and develop the best plans possible, encompassing the best strategies we’ve found or the best people to advise, and equip ourselves with techniques that give us confidence.
2 You have no direction:
Letting go of the past can simply mean focusing on what you want in the future instead of focusing on what’s gone. You can’t drive a car by looking in the rear-view mirror all the time. Nothing wrong with looking back now and then, but the focus has to be looking where you’re going.
Sometimes we stay stuck in the past because we don’t know which way to go. We stay in the wrong place because we don’t know which one is right; we avoid making decisions because we haven’t figured out what we want.
One way to approach that one is to speculate. Imagine different options—visualise what each option might look like and feel like, in detail. Visualise the steps you might take to get there. Allow your imagination to run free. That’s the value of daydreaming. It’s not reality yet, but it can lead you to a direction you might never have otherwise considered. Some daydreams will feel energising and some will feel oppressive. Explore those feelings. If there’s any self-talk present, they’re not intuitive.
If you’ve never allowed yourself to daydream, it’s time to try it. In the meantime, talk with objective friends or trusted experts about possible options. Be willing to explore. A number of options will emerge. The one that most realistically and closely matches your physical, emotional and mental needs is the new direction. Voila.
3 It feels like quitting:
You may have been taught never to give up halfway. To see things through to the end, no matter what. You grew up with maxims about persistence and dedication. But where’s the logic in persisting with an activity that’s no longer necessary, or which has lost its charm?
You end up living your life like wearing shoes that don’t fit. You might still like the shoes, but they hurt. You’ve tried changing their shape to force them to fit your feet. But they hurt. They were such an expensive pair of shoes…BUT THEY HURT. For heaven’s sake get rid of them and get some new ones. And while you’re at it, let go of the guilt of wasted money. Hanging on to things you don’t use, including ways of life, won’t bring the money back.
Give away or sell that equipment you’ve never used, let go of all your intentions to learn a new language or take up that hobby. Don’t ask how long it took me to acknowledge I was never really going to go to that gym to which I’d kept my membership for… (I said don’t ask!)
4 You don’t like admitting you were wrong:
You made your choice, now you have to live with it. Oh really? Why?
Just because a decision you made in the past is no longer appropriate for today, it doesn’t mean you were wrong, then. It just means circumstances—or your needs—have changed. Perhaps in the light of new information, it’s time to make a new decision to fit with current circumstances.
We agonise for ages trying to make the right decision for all time. It doesn’t exist. It can’t—things change. Just learn ways to deal with that person who insists on gloating ‘I told you so’… Well, maybe that’s another thing to let go of: destructive arguments. Just say ‘Yes dear’ and move on.
5 You can’t let go of your memories:
David was finding his situation confusing and exhausting. Everyone was telling him to let go of the past so that he could move on. His inability to let go was weighing heavily on him because he believed he couldn’t move on until he let go.
Who says you have to let go of memories, painful or joyful ones? Or even baggage? That can take six lifetimes! Solution: take it with you. Pack it in a bag and move on with it. Your memories, your past, your baggage are all part of your life. They contribute to who you’ve become today. Trying to let go of your history is like trying to chop off half your body—it’s not necessary, and it doesn’t work anyway. By all means peak into your bag to take an occasional trip down memory lane, but don’t dwell—that’s getting stuck in the story. Dwelling is like reading the same book over and over and over again. It’s time to read a different book, but like all book lovers, you can keep your favourites around.
Kylie was distressed because she kept having memories of her first husband, who’d hurt her badly. She couldn’t understand why he kept popping into her head; she believed it must mean she was still emotionally attached to him. She’d now met a wonderful man whom she wanted to marry, but believed she couldn’t, until she removed her ’emotional attachment’ to her first husband. I explained to her there was no way she would ‘forget’ her marriage of 20 years and the father of her children. Of course he would occasionally pop into her head; he was part of her life. He was just a ghost. She was so relieved to know it was ok to start her new life, taking her ghost with her.
If grief is involved in letting go, you have to let it run its course. It can’t be rushed.
Grief is a biological, emotional and spiritual process. Expressing emotions in many ways; crying, talking…release chemicals that allow the body and mind to repair and restore.
Any emotion we suppress will not release us into the present, much less into the future. Unless we’ve been fully present to the loss and pain imposed on us, and the resulting period of nothingness, there will be no transformation into who we really are.
6 Your wound is the only excuse you have:
It’s too late, I’m too young, I’m too old, it’s not worth the effort, it won’t work…There are all kinds of excuses to help us avoid change.
What better excuse than an old emotional injury that you wear like a Purple Heart?
It gives us a terrific excuse to limp through life: ‘Hey, I’ve been wounded, you can’t expect more of me’! OK. So don’t expect more of life. Your choice. Limp away.
Some physical or mental illnesses can certainly be debilitating, especially if they involve medication and side-effects. Allow yourself to be motivated by inspiring stories of people who have lived a full life not only in spite of their problems, but because of them.
Do the negative things you hang on to serve you any purpose? What’s the payoff for hanging on to them? A long as there’s a benefit, you won’t see the point of letting go.
If you can teach yourself to experience the loss as a gain for the longer term, you’ll be eager to let go and move on to bigger and better things.
I’m not yet what I want to be,
but I’m glad I’m not what I used to be
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