The Myth of “Letting Go of the Past”

Published on February 28, 2013 by

How often have you heard a therapist, coach or friend give someone the advice, "You  need to let go of the past." It sounds good, doesn't it? The only problem is it doesn't work. Huh? No, really, it doesn't work. How many times have you tried to "let go" of the past and found yourself thinking about it even more?

Here's what happens: You start with something from the past (even if it was a day ago) that was bothering you--you try to let it go--then you end up with not only what was bothering you from the past, but also your frustration of failing  to"let it go!"

See why "letting go of the past" is a myth and bad advice? Here are two reasons you can't "let go" of the past:

  • It's like trying to not think of a "white bear." The very act of trying not to think about brings it back--again and again and again.
  • The brain and subconscious mind doesn't know how to let go of something--it only know how to take hold of something else.

Think of it this way: We cannot not focus on something--we can only switch our focus to something else.

Imagine a trapeze artist. They don't actually let go of the trapeze bar they are on--they reach out and grab a different bar. In a technical sense, sure, they let go of the bar they are on--but it's the act of reaching for the bar they want that allows them to do that.

If you want to resolve something in the past, you have to identify something that is important to you and focus on that. You have to take action on something you can actually impact. You can't impact the past--it's in the past and cannot be changed. But you can change the present (how you feel or what you do) by changing your thinking and your behaviors.

Bottom line! Quit doing what doesn't work--trying to "let go of the past." And how do you do that? By starting something else--focusing on what you can do now to get more of what you want.

Let me know what you think.

9 Comments

  1. Steve

    Alan - This is both brilliant and perfect timing. I literally just got done journaling a page of notes on some not-so-good things that have happened over the past several years. I think it's probably good to have identified those things, but only so I know what NOT to focus on going forward! I have to reach for that next bar. Thanks!

    • Alan Allard

      Steve, thanks for your comments. It's good to identify things that we need to resolve and to allow ourselves to have whatever emotions we have. And you are right, at some point, we have a choice to make about what to focus on and how to move forward.

  2. Laurie

    You are so right. Trying to let go does make me focus more on the past, and then I end up wallowing in all of that pain that I want to let go of! It's counterproductive. Thanks for letting me know that the problem isn't that I'm not trying hard enough, or inept, or not doing it right. It's great to have a better strategy. Thanks!

  3. Alan Allard

    Laurie, you mentioned something very important: it's not that we aren't working hard enough or that we are inept when we try to "let go" of the past. It's just that we haven't found what works yet and we are doing what we know to do. Thanks for stopping by and for your comments!

  4. Frank Cole

    In my life, focusing on the past became a crutch for not reaching for my dreams. It was always easier to blame someone, somewhen, something,somewhere for my failure to look within at sum (not misspelled) me. My inability to look at mistakes as simply learning experiences instead of failure drove me further and further towards escape. Over the years this escape led to drug abuse, self abuse, and life abuse and ultimately to an inability on my part to accept the blame for any of my decisions long after outside(past) influences had ended. Moving forward to what I can do instead of what I can't do based on what I didn't do; is liberating and exhilarating. Thanks Alan!

    • Alan Allard

      Frank, thanks for your comments and for sharing from your distant past. You have transformed your life, from the inside out and continue to do so--you an inspiration to many!

  5. Dan Black

    Great post Alan! No matter our past the key is to keep moving forward. I think our past can also motivate us to keep going.

    • Alan Allard

      Dan,

      I agree, our past can motivate us to keep going, great point! Thanks for stopping by--it's always great to see you here.

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