Letting Go Of The Past. The Skill You Really Need
I believe that letting go is actually a skill. Some people know when the time is right to leave a person or situation, while others hang on way too long. Are you a good leaver, or do you tend to stick around long after it’s in your best interest? When I talk about staying around, remember it’s how you stay around emotionally that affects your attitudes more than anything else.
Sometimes regrets are healthy signs that something we may not have been ready to do at one time in our lives is ripe for exploration now. For example, do you tell yourself that if you had it to do all over again, you would do things differently? Maybe that’s a question that’s worth contemplating. Try this, make a list of all the things that you would do or look at differently if you could have a do-over. Chances are, that list you make will contain some great insight, if you take the time to be comprehensive.
It may include some things that you took way too seriously then but you wouldn’t take so seriously now; you also may come up with an item or two whose time has come. For example, many people go back to college, change careers, rekindle old relationships, or make other positive changes in their lives, that were motivated by a nagging but insightful thought. In that case, an inability or an unwillingness to letting go is simply a healthy sign that you don’t want letting go.
Many people merely experience these thoughts as calls to do something differently. In a sense, these are dreams, and one of your highest responsibilities to yourself is to listen to those dreams and to act on them when appropriate. For many, this could be the wake-up call that prompts a career change or other major life change.
When you’re plagued by things from the past, such as relationships that you know in your heart of hearts could never serve you, or when there’s some loss that you’re unwilling to move beyond, then what’s called for is clearly the skill of letting go.
Love relationships are one area where many people have the most difficulty letting go. They could include a relationship that you decided to end or one that was ended by the other person and in which you had little choice. Let’s look at some of the attitudes that can prevent you from letting go of an ended love. Let’s also explore alternative attitudes that will allow you to move on to a more appropriate relationship.
If you were telling yourself, “I need that person back in my life, or another ideal relationship right now,” or even “I need a partner in order to feel happy,” these attitudes could be behind your feelings of panic, loneliness, depression, desperation, craving, or anxiety. A positive attitude would be, “I prefer a suitable relationship, as opposed to a poor relationship or no relationship at all, but I do not need a relationship in order to be whole.”
Furthermore, do ideal relationships really exist anyway? I’ve never met someone who truly wanted their ex back, but I have met countless people who wanted their ex back without the flaws they believe made the relationship fall apart in the first place. Obviously that’s totally unrealistic.
Another negative attitude results from telling yourself, “Taking charge of my life without a partner is too hard, and furthermore, I shouldn’t have to put up with these extreme hassles.” The result is discomfort anxiety, low frustration tolerance, and a lot of anger.
The positive counterpart to this attitude would be to say, “While this is a much more difficult time in my life than other times have been, too hard implies impossible, which it isn’t, rather than difficult, which it is.” If you’re telling yourself it’s impossible to litting go through this period without feeling extremely depressed, angry, lonely, or jealous (since everyone says it’s perfectly normal to feel this way), then helplessness, depression, anger, loneliness, and jealousy are likely to result.
A more positive attitude would say, “While it’s perfectly normal for me to feel somewhat depressed, angry, lonely, or jealous, it’s unhealthy, and I do have other choices. I’m perpetuating these extreme feelings through my own negative attitudes, and I can choose not to feel so upset by keeping levelheaded and not blowing things out of proportion.” If you’re telling yourself, “After all I did for my expartner all these years, I’m owed a lifetime of happiness,” or “I deserve better,” then you’re sure to have self-righteous anger.
A more positive attitude would say, “While it is true that I gave a great deal in the relationship, and would have preferred that it last longer, I realize that giving does not guarantee the reward of reciprocity.” Another angry attitude would be one where you’re telling yourself, “I deserve much better treatment for my acts than I’m getting. At the very least, I deserve fairness.” A more positive attitude would be, “It’s unlikely that my former mate will change his or her behavior toward me merely because that’s what I want.
Changes that a person makes for another person generally prove to be not only temporary but packed with ulterior motives. True change comes because of one’s own desire to change. By working on my own anger, it’s possible that my ex’s attitude will change, but it’s certainly not a given. Therefore these demands are in my best interest to give up. Then I can get on with my own life much more easily.”
If you’re feeling shame, guilt, and depression, it could be because you’re telling yourself, “I have failed,” or, worse yet, “I am a failure.” A positive attitude would say, “Perhaps the relationship failed to continue, but that hardly makes me a failure. In reality, relationships end merely because they have run their course. The moment that I accept that, I will be free to begin a more appropriate involvement.”
You could be feeling hopeless about a new involvement, as well as generalized anger at all potential partners, if you’re telling yourself things like, “All men or all women are alike, so I’m sure to be hurt again.” A positive attitude would be to understand that by generalizing about all members of a given sex because of the way one person behaved, you’ll only build a wall that’ll prevent further relationships. Hopefully, you’ve learned enough not to make the same mistake. Don’t blow it now by taking other and future potentially fulfilling partners off the table.
Another negative attitude is to tell yourself, “There will never be another as good as my ex; I can never replace that person,” whereas the positive attitude here is to realize that there are many other fish in the sea.I’ve seen scores of divorcing people with children torment themselves by saying, “I’ve ruined everyone else’s life by leaving, and I’m a horrible person for doing so and for having acted so selfishly.”
The alternative attitude here is to acknowledge that although it will be hard for others, if you made the choice to leave, you did for reasons that were highly valid for you at the time. Don’t forget to acknowledge the unhappiness that brought you here in the first place. Demanding no regrets at any time is an awfully tall order to put on yourself.
Of course, if you continue to second-guess yourself, you could be saying, “I’ve made the wrong choice. Now I’ve really ruined my life.” That attitude could also be behind your depression, hopelessness, or jealousy, especially if you’re the one who has left the relationship and find that your ex has become involved with someone else and/or merely moved on.
The positive attitude here is to acknowledge that you’re thinking with hindsight. At the time you made the decision, you were acting on the facts and desires you had then. Now it’s time to stop self-doubting. When you do, you are free to get on with your life.
Another source of panic is doubt about how you will survive in the future without that relationship, but the reality is that no one knows what will become of them from moment to moment. Life is full of situations where we feel like fish out of water. You adjusted to them before, and you’ll adjust to this too, as long as you don’t convince yourself that it’s not within your power to do so.
Finally, when ending a love relationship, you may fear the rejection of others who have even stronger feelings about your relationship ending than you do. Some people may judge you harshly, but hopefully those who really matter will accept the situation, as long as you do.
Any loss can trigger a grief reaction. Sometimes the pain is so great that your only relief is to deny that it’s there, but denial only provides, at best, temporary relief, because underneath it are the angry feelings, perhaps of betrayal and disappointment. These can be directed at an institution that has discharged you from your job, or at anyone for any reason—even at a person in your life who has died. Then, of course, there are feelings of sadness, due to missing whatever it is that you’ve lost, even if it’s something that you would never want back.
Next come feelings of fear, terror, panic, and abandonment. What do I do now? How do I get my life together?The next natural stage in the grieving process is to begin to problem-solve and to look for new solutions. If you’re replacing a job, you’ll need to begin making up résumés. If it’s a love relationship, you’ll begin thinking about your future and when you’ll be ready to become available again. This is the beginning of your healing process.
Then comes the acceptance of what has happened and the realization that you can’t go backwards. At that point, you’re free to make new attachments and to begin permanently healing by forgiving (if forgiving is in order). Then as soon as you’re ready, it’s time to declare yourself renewed or even reborn as your life takes new shape. Some people have a great deal of difficulty forgiving. Indeed forgiving has many different connotations. Many find it difficult because they believe that forgiving means excusing what the other person might have done.
Instead, think of forgiving as something you do for your own benefit. Forgiving helps you to accept a situation you can’t change, letting go, and move on. It simply means that you stop blaming so that you can letting go of negative feelings. Revenge might feel freeing, but holding out for revenge only keeps you hooked.
You can certainly even forgive someone without even telling them you’ve forgiven them. Remember that throughout life, there will be many people who will not meet your expectations, and there will be many disappointments. Although there is no particular reason why you may have lost out on some things, there’s also no particular reason why certain things may have worked out for you. That’s the reality of life!
Strategies That Will Help You With Letting Go
Here are some additional things to keep in mind for developing attitudes that will enable you to let go. Watch your tendency to paint a past experience as either all black or all white. For example, with an ended love relationship, when you can remember both the good times and the bad times, then you’re moving toward letting go.
If you’re thinking in purely negative terms, realize that you’re probably making that overgeneralizing error again. After all, if the individual from whom you were separating were that bad, you’d be so glad to have him or her out of your life that there would be no ambivalence at all. The anger is often associated with a part of the relationship that you’re unwilling to acknowledge, that speaks to the good times you miss, no matter how bad the rest of it might have been! Here’s one final exercise in letting go.
It will help put you in touch with some of the unresolved feelings you may have toward people in your life, past or present. Close your eyes and imagine in your mind’s eye the people in your life right now who are important to you. Just let them go through your mind’s eye, almost as though they were appearing on a movie screen. Be aware of any feelings that come up for you.
Next, go back a year, and picture in your mind’s eye the people who meant the most to you then. In many cases, it’ll be some of the same people you visualized before. In other cases, it may be someone or even many with whom you presently have no contact at all but who were still quite important to you a year ago.
Again, become aware of the feelings you experience, and for a second reconnect with some of those people who were most important to you then. Be aware of anything that may be unfinished with them, anything you might want to ask or say to them.
Now pick another time in your life, sometime between five years ago and childhood. Picture in your mind’s eye the people who were most important to you at that time. Be aware of any feelings that may come up. Be aware of anything that may be unfinished with them, anything you may want to say to them, or anything you may want to ask.
Finally, go back to your childhood or to as early a time in your life as you can remember. Again recall the faces in your mind’s eye of the people who were most important to you at that time. Be aware of the feelings that they bring up for you and what you would like to say to those people as you remember them. Be aware of anything that may be unfinished, anything you may want to say to them, or anything you may want to ask.
Open your eyes now and take some notes. What have you have discovered about some of the people in your life that may be unfinished? What would you like to talk to them about, tell them, ask them? What feelings would you like to let go of? Take note of any regrets as well as any moments that you cherish.
Now ask yourself, “What do I need to do within myself to let go of any of the negative feelings I still have?” Focus on any attitudes that still give you a difficult time letting go of. Ask yourself, “To what advantage is it for me to hold on to these negative feelings?”
As I said earlier, letting go may involve working something through in the present with the person involved, if that person is available. These are all choices open to you. Regardless of when the event in question took place, remember that nothing can be as exhilarating as letting go of excess baggage, and there is no better definition of excess baggage than a negative attitude that continues to defeat you.
Positive Attitude Training
How to Be an Unshakable Optimist
Michael S. Broder, Ph.D.
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