The Buddha says that instead of dwelling on the past, we should concentrate on the present moment. Sounds sensible, but for those of us who haven’t reached enlightenment… HOW exactly?
What if you grew up surrounded by people who were in pain and passed that pain on to you?
What if the person who was supposed to be your biggest supporter became your abuser?
What if, no matter how hard you tried to fit in, you’ve felt perpetually out of place and alone?
How do you just shake that off and happily skip into the future? Is it even possible to get over our past?
These were my questions when I was sleeping in dumpsters, and when I ate marshmallow fluff for dinner because I couldn’t afford groceries.
These were my questions when I was curled in the fetal position, being beaten by someone I thought was supposed to love and protect me.
These were my questions when I ran away from home at 14, and again when I became a single mom at 19.
So what answers have I found?
All that questioning and seeking has led me to believe that no, we can’t burn away our past. We can’t chug a magical smoothie and voila, every painful memory will vanish from our psyche.
And actually, I don’t think that’s what we truly want.
Because no matter how much hurt we experienced, our past is part of who we are. It’s an important part of our unique life story. It’s grown us, educated us, and instilled many positive and useful qualities. There’s value in everything we’ve experienced, and minimizing or ignoring any of it would be a form of minimizing and ignoring ourselves.
So we don’t actually want to “get over” and flat out reject our past. We want something else.
Instead of labelling our past purely as a reservoir of victimhood and negativity (and then struggling under the resulting weight of viewing our past as a predictor of our future), what we actually want is to relate to our past in a way that empowers us – not disempowers us.
We don’t want to “get over” ourselves. We want to OWN the fullness of who we are, so we can move forward in strength and clarity.
Owning our past (aka: owning ourselves) requires 3 things:
1. Tell the truth, but tell it POWERFULLY.
There’s no need to deny or falsify the details of our past, but how exactly are you telling the story of what’s happened?
How do you describe the events, and their impact? In your current version of the story, are you a victim or a survivor? Were you a helpless bystander, or did you contribute to the outcome in some way? Did you use the difficult experience to fuel your next moves? Is there even one tiny aspect of the experience that was positive somehow?
Making peace with our past requires replacing victim stories with empowering ones.
For example, instead of “My dad was an abusive monster…” Try telling a new story that begins with, “My dad was a flawed man who suffered tremendously as a child, leading to…” and go from there.
Even if someone did something horrendous to you, you still get to choose how you respond.
To be clear: I’m not saying abuse is “okay,” or that injustice is a reality we should calmly accept. I’m saying that, in my experience, once we move beyond “right/wrong” and “victim/villain”, we get back into the driver’s seat of our lives.
The less we identify as victims, the more powerful we will feel. We get to choose what we’ll say, what we’ll do, and where our story goes from here.
We reclaim our power. We refuse to see ourselves as helpless.
Despite whatever social, cultural, economic, and historical factors might be stacked against you, despite the current political climate, despite everything that has happened to you in the past, you must claim ownership of your life – and that starts with being radically discerning about how you talk about your past (and how you don’t).
2. Forgive – them and yourself.
Because when we don’t forgive, what happens instead?
We keep holding onto anger, blame and resentment. And that’s like carrying around a backpack filled with bricks. It’s exhausting, distracting, and it blocks courageous action and inspiring ideas.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean applauding what happened to you. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you’re agreeing to tolerate abuse, disrespect, or bad behavior again—other people’s bad behavior, or your own.
Forgiveness simply means that you’re dropping those bricks. It’s you saying, “That happened. It’s over. I’m not carrying the weight of that experience with me any longer.” It’s a gift from yourself to yourself—a gift for your mental and physical health, for your stress levels, for your spirit.
And forgiveness isn’t always directed at what someone else said or did. A lot of the time, the most important piece of this is forgiving ourselves. We have to forgive ourselves for ignoring the red flags, for making rash decisions, or for projecting our pain onto other people.
Try to hold that “past you” with tenderness and compassion. You were doing the best you could. Forgive yourself for your role in what happened, lighten your emotional load, and now, with this new awareness, build a completely different future for yourself.
3. Take the next step with… jealousy?? (Yes, jealousy!)
This may seem a little off base, but stick with me…
When you’re spending your time rehashing a long list of all the ways that your life has sucked, and then you see someone whose life seems to be a lot more joyful, healthy, and successful than yours, jealousy tends to rear its head.
The contrast between your experience and what you’re observing in this other person is so sharp that it triggers a wave of jealous feelings. “I’m over here feeling sad and hopeless, while Happy Pants is living her best life over there? WTF??”
Generally, we’ve been taught that if we experience the tiniest bit of jealousy, we should immediately suppress it, brush it aside, be ashamed of it, and certainly not talk about it publicly.
But I disagree.
I’ve come to recognize that jealousy or envy can be a spotlight, highlighting something you want. These emotions reflect your ambitions and your deepest values. It’s illuminating what your next action step, career move, or health goal could be. Jealousy isn’t a curse—it’s a gift.
Whenever I feel jealous, at first, I get a bit grouchy—hey, it’s only natural. Then I pay close attention to whatever has triggered that feeling. Whether it’s someone with incredible style, a woman who’s running for political office, or a mogul who’s dominating her industry, if I feel jealous, I say to myself myself, “Cool. Cearly I want something she’s got—or something similar. How can I make that happen?”
The things that make us envious are useful information.
A big part of healing our relationship to the past, is recognizing that our power to create change is HERE, in the present moment. But there are a lot of options to choose from, so how do we know what’s the next best move?
Look at what you’re jealous of. Your jealousy is a compass to the things you really want.
In the past, I often blamed others for my own unhappiness. But when we assign blame to other people or institutions (or even the weather!), we’re essentially saying, “I’m a helpless victim. I was (and still am) powerless.”
And that is simply not true. You are not powerless.
When I look back on my past, I no longer think of myself as a victim at the mercy of other people’s bad behavior. I think of myself as a flawed human being who made some mistakes, who eventually recognized those mistakes, who escaped a few crappy situations, who learned a ton, and grew tremendously, and who is (thank god) doing much better now.
True power is owning our mistakes, just as much as our victories and successes.
It’s in choosing to focus on our resilience, our courage, and our capacity to be the narrators of our own story, instead of letting someone else’s interpretations or our own disempowering self-talk, shape our reality.
We can’t cherry-pick the parts of our past that we want to acknowledge – we’ve got to own it all.