4 Ways to Free Yourself from Your Past
I meet all sorts of interesting characters on the road. Last week, I met a man who was obviously haunted by his past. He was a talented artist who eventually gave up his work in order to pursue a more “secure” career. Shaking his head sadly and sipping on a cup of tea, he lamented “I’m 36 years old. It’s too late for me.”
Being trapped by the past is a horrible feeling. Your narrative about who you are becomes like a cage, restricting your ability to choose the direction of your future. Even if we haven’t experienced major trauma in our lives, holding on to things like negative emotions and memories can greatly impact our overall life satisfaction.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. You can free yourself from your past by taking control of the story you tell yourself. This can be done by releasing negative emotions, reinforcing positive memories, reframing the past and living deliberately in the present.
1) Don’t just let it out. Let it go.
I had a really crappy coworker once. I mean, she was just terrible. It was like she didn’t have a filter. She would say the most inappropriate things during meetings, calling me out for being too much or too little this or that. In her eyes, everything I did was just wrong. I would come home from work and vent to my mom, my friends, my boyfriend– anyone who would listen. The negative emotion built and built. Then one day, I let it out and told how I really felt about her.
You know what happened? It made me feel even worse. And of course, it made the situation with my coworker even worse. For months after I quit that job, even the thought of seeing this coworker again would send me into a rage.
Somehow in modern culture we’ve accepted this theory that emotions need to be aired and expressed in order to dissipate. If you don’t express your emotions, we’re told, they will express themselves in some sort of undesirable way. While this may be somewhat true, studies have found that people who express their anger actually suffer from more health problems than those who allow it to fade over time. Once we express our negative emotions they actually multiply and increase in intensity, not decrease.
Negative emotions and reactions tend to build on one another and can spiral, sucking us into a quagmire of darkness. Eastern religions have known this for a long time. Falling into the same patterns of uncontrolled reactivity means strengthening those patterns, or samskaras (Pali: sankhara). Buddhists say this cycle of habit is the cause of suffering. To put it more simply: whatever emotions you feed are the emotions that grow.
Instead of airing your emotions, take time to process them and then consciously choose a course of action devoid of the negative emotion. Emotions dissipate on their own if left unprovoked and not reacted upon. While it’s uncomfortable in the short run, they will disappear faster and the physical effects of the emotion will feel less extreme on the body.
2) Practice Gratitude to Strengthen Positive Memories.
Just as recounting negative emotions strengthens and multiplies negativity, the same is true for positive emotions. Taking time to dwell, or savor, positive emotions actually strengthens them in our memory. This is especially true when dealing with feelings of gratitude. Gratitude in particular strengthens past positive emotions because it amplifies positive memories .
Unfortunately, our minds seem to be wired to notice and remember the negative things in our lives. While there is an evolutionary purpose for the negativity bias, it can obstruct our ability to recall and feel grateful for the good things in life. Even though we more easily notice the negative, the vast majority of situations in our life tend to be positive. Luckily, we can train our minds to dwell on the positive emotions, allowing them to grow and flourish, by intentionally inducing and expressing gratitude about our past.
We all have people in our lives who have inspired us or somehow changed the course of our life. These are the people who you think about and uncontrollably burst into a smile. But we very rarely take the time to sit and recall those memories. By creating space to not only think about these people, but also actively let them know about your gratitude, you create new positive memories and allow past positive emotions to grow.
The best part? Your brain adapts to this process, making it easier every time you do it!
3) Forgive. Even when its difficult.
But what do you do when you have a negative emotion towards someone that is just eating away at you? What if you were really, truly, seriously wronged? While you might be able to recognize that your past doesnt dictate your future, you still feel haunted by something you didnt deserve.
Possibly one of the most difficult but effective ways of freeing ourselves from our past is through a process of forgiveness. Now, I’m not talking about fluffy, on the surface “forgive and forget” sort of forgiveness. I’m talking about a deep and difficult process of remembering the situation, accepting your feelings, and at the same time moving forward. It involves feeling empathy for the person who trespassed against you, a strange way of planting a positive seed into a very negative situation. Forgiveness allows us to regain control of our personal history, no longer allowing it to be hijacked by a negative event.
I recognize that this is really, really hard. This isn’t something that happens overnight. It takes time– months or even years of processing the emotions and coming to terms with the situation.
For more practical information on how to do this, I recommend checking out Dr. Worthington’s research and theory on forgiveness.
4) Your past does not determine your future.
So much of what we’re taught, from Freud to the Protestant Reformation, tells us that things are predestined. We tend to that believe things that have happened to us in the past impact our future selves. People blame their parents’ divorce for their fear of commitment. Certain psychotherapists will spend years analyzing the developmental stages of a client’s childhood, looking for one trauma or another that causes some sort of personality defect. However, there is little evidence to back this theory. It turns out that humans are incredibly resilient creatures, and that many personality traits are heritable rather than learned.
Now it’s true, our past choices do lead us to the situations we are in right now. Concepts like karma and physics still make sense, but I don’t think they are as restrictive as we in the West tend to believe. In the Zen tradition (as far as I understand), Karma comes from intentional action, a deed consciously done through mind or body. Even if our past choices and actions put us in situations, it is our ability to choose how to react in the present situations that determines our future.
Our past doesn’t necessarily dictate our ability to choose a better future for ourselves. Rich Roll, took a look at his life at age 40 and realized he was overweight, unhealthy and miserable. Within 2 years, he ended up competing in the Ultraman World Championships (involving 6.2 miles of swimming, 260 miles of cycling and culminates with a 52.4-mile double marathon run). You can check out his story and tips for getting started.
You may not be able to change your past, but you can change your relationship to it. Your past does not dictate your future; your choices in the present do. Every moment is another chance to begin again.