Let go of the past in 4 simple (and really hard) ways

Let things go. Release them. Detach yourself from them. Nobody plays this life with marked cards, so sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. Do not expect anything in return, do not expect your efforts to be appreciated, your genius to be discovered, your love to be understood. Stop turning on your emotional television to watch the same program over and over again, the one that shows how much you suffered from a certain loss: that is only poisoning you, nothing else.

-Paulo Coelho

Why the fuck is it so hard for us to let things go? We fixate, ruminate, replay situations over and over again believing that just one more replay would change what happened. It doesn’t. It never will. And we continue to feel like shit because we know what’s happened has happened and no matter how many times we wish this thing turned out differently, it won’t. 

Why is it so hard to let go of past mistakes and negative experiences?

Here’s a psychology term for ya, “negativity bias.” This essentially means that we’re prone to fixate on the negative, even if there’s an equal amount (or more) of positive or neutral events occurring. 

So, even if you had a stellar day, hit all the green lights, got your coffee paid for, found a sweet parking spot, and won an Instagram contest, the moment your boss criticizes you on a small project will outweigh anything else in your day. 

We’re prone to fixate on the negative, even if there’s an equal amount (or more) of positive or neutral events occurring.

This negativity bias is inherited from our cave-dwelling ancestors. It’s how they protected themselves from perceived danger. If there was a lion behind the bush, you needed to be ready. 

So their brains were always looking for danger. In this day and age, that potential lion behind the bush could be getting called into your boss’s office out-of-the-blue, having a date go poorly, and hell, even trolls commenting on social media posts.

Here’s some more science for you:

“Our amygdala is the ‘alarm part of your brain,’” according to Dr. Rick Hanson. “It’s primed to go negative in most people. Once it sounds the alarm, negative events and experiences get quickly stored in memory — in contrast to positive events and experiences, which are not prioritized in the same way.”

This is probably why we continually play back shitty things that we’ve done or had done to us. 

Our brain is trying to learn from the experience so it knows how to avoid it in the future. This isn’t always healthy for obvious reasons. Ruminating on why you were fired, why your friend was shitty to you, or why you ate that piece of cake doesn’t actually help you in the future. 

Looking at something objectively, figuring out why it happened, and how you can avoid doing that again is what will help make those changes.

But our brains fucking latch on to the negative like velcro. 

So your amygdala is over here saying, “That was really shitty what happened. Let’s keep going back over it to make sure it NEVER happens again. Let’s do it one more time, just in case. Okay, still think we should rehearse how you’re going to avoid this in the future.”

Your brain doesn’t automatically realize that you can just make new friends and ditch the shitty one. All it gets is that this was perceived danger and it wants to help you avoid it in the future. So we have to train our mind to let go of shit that’s not causing us harm. 

Letting go of the past means realizing there isn’t something to fear in the future.

Realize you can’t change the past and accept that

Accept that you can only control the present. You can’t manipulate the past or future. Think about both all you want but thoughts aren’t going to do shit other than make you depressed or give you anxiety.

Journal about it

  • What happened that’s still bothering you?
  • What about this is so upsetting? What are the assumptions you’re holding on to?
  • Where’s the sadness/anger/hate/etc coming from?
  • What are your wounds? Get specific.
  • Ask yourself why you want to let go of the past situation. If you don’t have a reason maybe it’s not time yet. 

Analyze your actions, their actions, the situation. Write it all out. Writing slows down your thoughts and allows you to dig deep instead of thoughts zooming by. When you ask yourself why you want to let this particular thing, person, or situation go, you’ll know you’re ready to let go when it’s about you and not because someone else told you to let it go. 

Talk to yourself like you would a friend who made the same mistake or experienced the same issue.

  • Write them a letter as if they just told you what they did.
  • How would you respond if a friend went through the same thing and came to you for guidance and support?

If it helps to write out their name at the beginning to step outside of your personal experience, do it. Then change it to yours at the end. Read it to yourself.

Stop rehearsing your mistakes or past situations

  • Stop telling yourself stories because that’s all they are now.
  • Write it out objectively, let go of emotional attachments to it. Only stick to the facts.
  • Write out what you learned. Let it be just that. A lesson.
  • Write out what you learned. Let it be just that. A lesson.

If someone else wronged you, let them hold on to it. Not you. Take some time to analyze what you did wrong (if anything) but it’s on the other person to be accountable for what they did. By letting go of the past, what they did, that kind of forgiveness, will give you more peace of mind than holding on to it. 

And it’s not saying that what they did was okay, it likely wasn’t. It’s allowing you to heal. You’re no longer attached to this thing or person when you let go of them. 

It’s like the purpose of a hot air balloon. As the large balloon inflates and raises the basket upright, it’s tethered to the ground. Only when the driver releases that anchor does the balloon float away. Holding on to someone else’s wrongdoings keeps you tethered to the ground, going nowhere. Holding on to your own mistakes keep you locked to something you don’t want to be stuck to. 

Remember it’s a choice

  • You can choose to hold on to your thoughts. You can also choose to let those thoughts pass through.
  • You can choose to play the same station over and over, like how we rewatch The Office over and over again. We can pick something else on Netflix. It’s our choice.

It’s hard as hell to let go of the past, especially shit that’s rocked us to our core. Traumatic experiences are different for everyone and we all deal with them differently. Most of us don’t even realize how many negative memories our amygdalas have stored to wreak havoc on our everyday lives. 

I know I harbor bad things in my mind. I know I struggle to let them go, to forgive, and to move on. It’s a comfortable story when you have villains outside of you who you can always rely on to fight against. When you no longer have figures to fight in your mind, all that’s left is you.

And sometimes, that’s the scariest thing to confront.

What'd you think?