How To Let Go Of The Past (While Still Learning From It)

I’ve always viewed the past as being the enemy of growth and progress.

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I’ve always viewed the past as being the enemy of growth and progress. After all, what good could it possibly do to fixate on past failures and traumas, obsessively checking the rear view mirror like some paranoid fugitive trying to shake a “tail” in a suspense thriller?

I’ve since come to realise, however, that this is a particularly myopic perspective, and our past experiences are only restrictive if we refuse to learn from them. Furthermore, it would be grossly naïve to think that we are not shaped, at least to some extent, by events from our past, especially those that had a significant impact on our lives.

Indeed, one can’t be expected to simply “get over” an automobile accident, or abuse, or a mugging. In fact, recent studies have shown that significant childhood trauma can alter the very physiology of the brain, which, in turn, can lead to a plethora of mental health and cognitive problems later in life.

And yet, modern psychology emphasises mindfulness and “being present in the moment” as a means of grounding the runaway emotions that result from giving too much attention to either the past or the future.

The past becomes problematic when it hinders our ability to move forward and live a fulfilling life.

This can happen in a variety of ways, for example being afraid to pursue a certain dream because we failed in the past, or holding back in a romantic relationship because we’ve been hurt too many times.

The problem with this is that we become mired in past narratives, staying on the same chapter while a potentially great story remains tragically unwritten.

So, the question remains, how does one let go of the past while still learning from it?

Acknowledge your feelings

Suppressing or ignoring feelings won’t do you any favours if your ultimate goal is personal growth. Allow yourself time to think about what or who hurt you, and acknowledge the emotions associated with this event or person, whether anger, guilt, regret or shame.

Break the past’s hold on you

The truth is that the past is only as powerful as we allow it to be. By making the decision to move forward and thrive we are, in effect, taking back power and control over our lives. It may help you to verbalise this by saying, for example, “I will no longer allow so and so to hurt me. I am taking back my life”. You’d be surprised at how empowering it is to assert your dominion and establish an internal locus of control. After all, life doesn’t just “happen to you”. You have a great deal of influence over how things play out, even if certain things are beyond your control.

Take responsibility

There is no well-established directly proportional relationship between the past and the present. In other words, what happened yesterday does not have to dictate how today unfolds, as long as we make the conscious decision to take steps towards improving our current situation. We are often tempted into assuming the victim role and blaming the past for where we are now and, in doing so, we are giving the past undue power.

Again, my intention is not to disregard or diminish the impact of traumatic events in any way. I am simply saying that every one of us has the power and the agency to write the next chapter in our story. So pick up that pen and start writing!

Take stock

Back in the early days of media and communications science, a theory emerged known as the “hypodermic needle” or “magic bullet” theory. Basically, this theory posited that audiences are passive recipients of media messages, mindlessly devouring whatever the content producers served up.

Nowadays, we know that media consumers are very much active participants who select what messages they are exposed to, as well as what they do with those messages. We acknowledge the role of personal agency in media consumption.

Similarly, we are able to select relevant lessons from virtually every life event, however painful. Sometimes, it’s necessary for us to fail to enable us to plot a coherent map for the road ahead and emerge stronger, and wiser, on the other side.

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