One of the most common struggles that people come in to see me for is learning the art of letting go of the past. Many are stuck thinking about the wrongs that have been done to them and they are angry, frustrated, hurt, and sad. The unfortunate part about hanging on to those feelings is they continue to hurt and harm those that we love. That could mean hurting others that weren’t involved in the past misfortunes.
So let’s take a look at those past feelings. Those feelings aren’t really the past, they are the present. You are presently feeling angry, frustrated, hurt and/or sad. And it’s those feelings that are keeping the past alive.
What I first like to do with clients is to fester out all that the person is feeling, such as, anger, frustration, hurt, sadness – or any other feelings that they are experiencing.
Client: “I am angry that my parents worked all day and I was left alone to fend for myself”. Therapist: “You are angry that you were left alone?” Client: “Yes!” Therapist: “Tell me more about that anger.” Client: “They should have been there for me!” Therapist: “Tell me what it was like to be alone.” Client: “I had no one to talk to, I was bored, at times I got scared.” Therapist: “So you were scared to?” Client: “Of course I was scared, I was just a kid!” Therapist: “Let’s talk about you feeling scared.” Client: “I was scared because what if someone tried to come into my home when I was alone?” What if I got injured and no one was there?” “Why didn’t they care enough about me to be home with me?” Therapist: “What I heard you say in the beginning was you were angry because you were left alone but I’m also hearing you were frightened and you felt your parents didn’t care about you.” Client: “Yes, I guess, I feel they must have not cared about me so they left me alone at home.”
So we move from just being angry to actually carrying around a feeling that the client’s parents’ “didn’t care”. The above is just a short snippet of working through feelings and there’s more involved. It’s a process of several sessions to fester everything out. It’s like peeling an onion and working through all the layers by identifying all the feelings that were experiences. As we identify all that had happened, it’s validated.
I hope this gives you an idea of how to pull out all the feelings. I don’t want anything ignored or left out. I want to hear about the experiences that are causing so much pain. But what do we do about them now?
Experiences of the past need to be validated and never brushed off. Events happened and the feelings of the past are real. I spend time with clients letting them “feel” all that they have identified. That could mean they sit in sadness, anger or grief – but just for a limited time. We then move on.
Now we get to the part where we let it all go! Memories are just thoughts and thoughts have no power – unless the person chooses to give it power. Some thoughts stick with us, we react to them, and we keep thinking about them. Ugh! To keep thinking about them serves no purpose.
Some things you shouldn’t do:
• Make yourself forget about the past (you can not forget it)
• Stuff or ignore your feelings
• Wait for an apology or acknowledgment (if you never get an apology you will always sit in pain)
• Wait for time to heal all wounds
• Change the past (you can’t change what happened but you absolutely can change your reaction to what happened)
As a Cognitive Behavior Therapist I talk to my clients about how our feelings control our behavior. If you stay with anger, hurt and sadness, then they will become your reality. As an alternative, be open to moving forward. Prepare yourself to feel differently. Contemplate not defining yourself by thoughts about the past. Keep in mind, what you focus on, will become your present.
Many have been telling themselves their unfortunate life circumstances so many times that they aren’t allowing positive thoughts to come in. These negative thoughts keep you distracted from moving forward.
Some stuck thoughts that people hold on to:
• “I want to stay stuck because I was wronged.”
• “It is someone else’s responsibility to make this better for me.”
• “If I let go, I’m somehow approving another person’s bad behavior.”
• “I need an apology.”
• “Life is unfair.”
Holding on to those thoughts, the constant reminder, will only keep your unfortunate experiences in the present. How you feel is your responsibility, no one else’s. Once you realize all the power that you have, you can begin the process of letting go.
Holding on to the past is like wearing a pair of shoes that are a bit too small for you. You can get your feet into them but they hurt like heck. It’s time to take them off and begin to enjoy comfort again.
Remember, you are in control of how you feel. Begin by thinking more positively. But it might not be so easy at first. You have to reinforce those positive thoughts and behaviors so they will stick. As with any sort of training, the more you practice, the better you get—and, yes, you can practice being positive.
Live for today. Live for and look for the positive in others. Embrace the positive aspects of your parents, spouse, children and friends.
When you start feeling like the idea of being a positive person is daunting, remind yourself that all it takes is one small step in the right direction to move yourself toward a more positive attitude.
Believe in yourself and remember the most important lesson of all: A positive outlook is a choice that you can always make.
Liz Birch is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist who provides services in her office in Tustin, CA. Her areas of expertise are in communications, relationships, marriage strengthening, stress reduction, depression, trauma, anxiety, anger, personal growth, and ptsd (civilian and military). She can be reached via LizBirchTherapist.com, email at LizBirchMFT@gmail.com, or by calling 714-614-0612.
I'm a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, Psychotherapist, who works with individuals, couples and families. I'm also a thinker, doer, caregiver and idealist. I hope I inspire you to take risks and step out of your comfort zone. You might be surprised what you discover.