Far too many people go through life weighed down by the past. Indeed, some never seem fully present. But living in the past is a terrible habit, one that frustrates growth, undermines relationships, and drains the present of life and color.
People dwell on the past for all sorts of reasons. For some, the present is so dull, or so painful, that they need an escape. The past then becomes a kind of lost paradise, though one that is often exaggerated and distorted. Imagine a middle-aged man ground down by work and debt. Every day is the same: the rush hour, the stress of the office, the arguments with his teenage daughter. Soon he finds himself dreaming of his childhood, a childhood that begins to seem like one long, hot, carefree summer.
Others live in the past even when it was dreadful – like a man with a bad tooth who cannot stop poking it. Sometimes this sort of fantasising is relatively benign. People imagine how life might have turned out had they taken that job in Paris or London, for example, or had they won a place at that ivy league college.
In many cases, however, such fantasising takes a darker, more sinister turn. Someone whose husband cheated on her may go over every little detail of their marriage, blaming herself for his infidelity and trying to work out what she did wrong. People who felt unwanted and unloved as children also tend to replay hurtful scenes, imagining how life might have been had their father not abused alcohol or had their mother been more maternal. The bullied and abused, on the other hand, will often indulge in revenge fantasies, imagining the terrible things they would do if their old tormentor were now at their mercy.
It may seem obvious, but you must first decide that you no longer wish to live in the past. And you must drive this deep into your subconscious. If you do not, you will merely sabotage any efforts you make. And remember, deciding to let something go is not the same as trying not to think about it. Trying not to think about the past is impossible. Let's say that you were a drug addict during your teens and twenties. You hurt many people and missed out on a great deal. You cannot force yourself not to think about this. Not only would that be extremely difficult, it would also be unhealthy. Instead, you must look at your past honestly and accept that it was what it was and that this cannot be altered. Then you can let it go.
It is strange the way human beings cling to the very things that cause them pain. Imagine walking through the Grand Canyon with a friend. Mile after mile you trudge, weighed down by the heavy bag on your back. Your friend carries nothing and strolls along in front, humming away to himself and enjoying the scenery. One day, as you sweat and grunt, he asks you why you don't just put it on the ground and leave it there – after all, there is nothing useful or valuable inside. You pause, say "yes, but" and then realize he is right.
For many people, their life is something that happens to them rather than something they create. And the same is true of their relationship with the past: they just accept the torment it causes them, never challenging it or letting it go. Indeed, many base their whole identity on the pain and misery they have suffered and resent any suggestion that they free themselves from it. Look at these dreadful things that happened to me! Isn't it awful? It wasn't fair, was it?! No, it probably wasn't fair. Who ever said life is fair? You are no longer a child. You now have a choice before you: to continue being a passive victim at the center of your miserable story, or to take control and forge a different kind of life here and now.
One very effective way of releasing yourself from the past is through writing letters. You could try writing a letter to the father who walked out on you or the mother who never loved you. Do not pretend to feel something you do not. But do try to understand.
So, for example, let's say your mother was a cold, spiteful woman who left your father when you were 12-years-old and ran away with another man. Each Christmas and birthday you waited for a card or phone call – sometimes it came, sometimes not. When you were 22 you were told she had died of alcoholism.
Take a sheet of paper and begin with the date, then "Dear Mum". Now let it out. Tell her how she made you feel when she left, how hurt you were, how you blamed yourself and tried to understand what you had done wrong. Next, you could explain how her actions continue to affect you even now – how you still feel unloveable and how you sabotage every relationship because you are so afraid of rejection.
Finally, you could try to understand and forgive. You might close with the following: "I no longer want my life to be shaped by my relationship with you, mum. I don't blame you, you simply weren't the maternal type. I suppose it must have been hard for you to cope with a screaming baby when you didn't really want it. I know you dreamed of being an actress when you were young; instead, you found yourself pregnant, poor, and married to the wrong man. I suppose life was a bitter disappointment. Clearly you found no happiness after you left; if you had, you would not have drunk yourself to death. I accept you for what you were mum – goodbye." Once you have finished, you could burn the letter in a little ceremony.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you must forgive yourself. Or, to be more specific, you must forgive your younger self. People often make the mistake of projecting their adult self into the past and castigating their teenage self for behaving as it did. But they are two different people.
For example, imagine a 38-year-old woman who runs her own company, lives in London or New York, and has a busy social life. She often looks back to her college years with bitterness and anger. Why didn't she realise how smart she was! If only she'd had more confidence and self-belief she might have got into a top college – maybe even Harvard or Oxford. And she should have had more fun, instead of sitting in her room convinced she was ugly and boring.
But these are the thoughts of a mature 38-year-old woman, someone who has gained confidence from good relationships, new friends, and her move to the big city. She is not the same person, and it is unfair of her to judge that frightened, bewildered child by the same standards. The poor girl really believed she was ugly, boring, and unloveable. Forgive her and let her go – she no longer exists.
Remember, you have a relationship with the past. And like any relationship it can be healthy or unhealthy, happy or unhappy. The key is knowing when to bring the relationship to an end and let it go.