“The mental and physical space we create by letting go of things that belong in our past gives us . . . the option to fill the space with something new.” ~Susan Fay West
Have you ever felt “stuck” and had trouble letting go of something in your past that’s blocking you from moving forward in your life? For a lot of people, this happens when a relationship ends before you were ready; but that’s not the only time it can happen. Other types of losses can can cause you to get stuck as well – things like someone dying (especially if they were murdered or killed themselves,) getting diagnosed with a chronic illness, or a financial setback, or the loss of a job – in any situation where all you want is to go back to the way things were “before,” you’re stuck and blocked from moving forward.
Imagine that you’re standing in a long hallway that stretches off forever on both sides of you. To the left is your past, to the right is your future. Now try to go in both directions at once. Can you?
- Look to your right, to your future – can you see what’s out there, or do you just see possibilities and branches you could take? You may think that all you see is more of what you have right now, which is something you don’t want; or you may only see possibilities that lead to something even “worse” than what “is” right now – in that case, you need to remember that there is no way to know for sure what’s around the next curve in the hallway, what’s at the end of that branch you can’t see down . . .What you think you see is only your imagination – the future hasn’t happened yet, there’s nothing out there to see except possibilities and probabilities, and all of those can be changed by what you do right now.
- Now look back to the left, into your past. Look at what it is that you want to go back to. (Now take off those rose-colored glasses that make it look perfect, that hide all the flaws around it and REALLY look at it. Remember all the arguments, or the things your partner did that drove you crazy. Look at that “perfect” time before you got sick and remember some of the frustrations of having too much to do and never enough time to do it. Look at that time when you had plenty of money or that job that paid so well, and remember what you had to do to maintain that.) Still want to go back? You may, and that’s okay. Try it. Try to go back into the past, but don’t move too fast. You don’t want to hurt yourself when you slam into that transparent wall that lets you see what’s back there but prevents you from actually going that way.
You may need to repeat this exercise a few times to convince yourself that you can’t go back. Don’t worry about it if you do, it’s perfectly fine, and perfectly normal. It doesn’t mean you’re screwed up, it means you’re a normal human being.
Okay, so you aren’t happy where you are, and you can’t go back into your past where you were happy. So now what? Well, you have only two choices – you can stay where you are, stuck and miserable, staring at what doesn’t exist any more and wondering what the hell went wrong; or you can turn your back on the past and move forward into the possibility of being happy again.
Staying stuck is fairly easy – you just keep doing the same things you’re doing now. Sure, you aren’t happy with where you are, you aren’t comfortable, but you are used to it. It’s familiar, and familiar feels “safe” (safe as in not scary, not safe as in not bad for you.)
The other choice is harder because you have to change something, and it’s human nature to find the unknown scary and uncomfortable. The first step is simple, and doing the exercise above may have caused that to happen for you – it’s just accepting that you can’t go back to “before” and fix it, and deciding to stop trying. Step one is simple, but it’s not necessarily easy – it takes determination and work to break the habit of “thinking yourself miserable,” but you CAN do it.
Look at it this way: Would you watch a movie you hated over and over? If you did, could you change anything about the movie? Could you MAKE the characters say something different, or do something different? Could you change the ending to something else? Of course not. No matter how many times you watch a movie, you can’t change anything about it, not one single tiny thing, no matter how hard you try. You can’t change the movie, but you CAN stop watching it and do something else.
Your memories are just like a movie that plays in your head, over and over. You can’t change what actually happened, you can’t change the dialog, and you can’t change the outcome. You hate that “movie”, you hate that memory that makes you miserable, so why do you keep torturing yourself by replaying it over and over? You can’t change anything about what happened in the past, but a memory is just a thought that’s happening NOW, and you CAN change what’s happening now, just by choosing to do something different, by choosing to think something different.
You can’t change what happened in the past; but you absolutely can change how you think about it, how you feel about it, and how you react to it; you just have to have faith that you can. You need to have faith in yourself, faith that if other people have found ways to let go of the past (and others have,) you can find ways that work for you as well. Faith that there is something different out there in the future, faith that you can make different choices, faith that you can find your way, and faith that when you slip back (and you will) you can catch yourself and start forward again.
Changing how you think about something, how you feel about something, isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do. There will be times when you slip back towards that stuck place, when those memories start replaying, one more time. Instead of beating yourself up for it, use that replay . . . step back and look at it from a different angle. Instead of focusing on the painful parts, look for things to be grateful for. You won’t find many at first, but the more you look, the more you’ll see . . . At first, you may not be able to find anything except the fact that it’s over to be grateful for, but take a look at the good bits – those taught you something about what you’re looking for, what you want and need in your life. That’s something you can be grateful for – you know more about yourself and what you need, and that’s always a good thing. Now take a look at the bad parts – those taught you about what you don’t want, and that’s good information to have. They also taught you how to recognize the signs, and that’s even better information to have because it will help you avoid the same situation, IF you pay attention. Last, take an honest look at your own behavior and choices in the situation – is there anything you think you could have done differently? Is there anything you blame yourself for? This isn’t about beating yourself up, this is about knowing how you feel about what happened, about seeing how your own choices and behavior affected the outcome.
This is also not about playing the “blame game,” or getting trapped in the “shoulda, coulda, woulda,” cycle. Assigning blame only keeps you stuck, especially if you feel like you’re owed an apology, or some sort of “closure,” and you can’t let go until you get it . . . once again, that gives your power away; and gives someone else control of when, or IF, you can move on. “Shoulda, coulda, woulda,” is sneakier though. When you start thinking “I shoulda done ______,” or “I coulda done ______ instead of ______, and things woulda been different,” you’re missing something very, very important. You’re working from a place where you have an overview of what happened, a place where you have a hell of a lot more information about the situation than you did when you were making those decisions. You’re blaming yourself for not being able to see the future, for not using information that you didn’t have at that time in the decision making process.
And that leads to the last step in the process . . . forgiveness. Stop, don’t run off! I’m not talking about the kind of forgiveness people demand from you, where you not only forgive them for hurting you, but make it OKAY that they hurt you . . . That’s not forgiveness, that’s saying it’s okay for people to abuse you or treat you badly. That’s not even close to what I’m talking about – in fact, I’m not talking about forgiving someone else at all (that may or may not come later) – I’m talking about forgiving yourself. I’m talking about forgiving yourself for the mistakes you made, for not knowing things you couldn’t know until afterward, for all those things that you blame yourself for. You made the best decisions you could with the information you had available at the time, and beating yourself over the head with “I shoulda known better” won’t change that.