Your past plays a much bigger role in your present than you may even realize. I know a lot of therapists have different opinions. Some think we should dig and explore every nook and cranny of our past, and some don’t believe we should spend too much time wandering around what’s over and done. My therapist is the latter, so I’ve spent a lot of time over the past couple of years not dwelling on the past, but learning from it and making peace with it.
You don’t have to come from a dramatic, lifelong “Grey’s Anatomy”-style sordid history. Everyone has things in the past they’d rather forget or change. Our past plays a huge role in who we are and what we want. We all go through learning experiences that help us become happier humans, but we can also be left traumatized by losses, injustices and regrets. The truth is, if you are unable to let go of your past, you’ll struggle to give the future the attention it deserves, and you’ll miss out on the joy of living in the present.
We all have these unintended reminders of past failures: The times we thought we had something wonderful and it fell apart, the times we tried our best and it didn’t measure up or the times something unexpected foiled our plans completely. But making peace with your past will help you move forward and not only learn from those experiences but utilize that knowledge to help you live your best life.
Here’s why you have to make peace with your past instead of trying to fix it: Your unconscious mind protects traumatic memories and even protects them from being healed. This probably sounds counterproductive, but the number-one job of the unconscious mind is to keep you alive. So, as hard as you try, you can’t fix these painful memories because the unconscious mind is filing them whether you want them to or not.
So you’re probably thinking, “OK, cool, Sam, but how?” First, you have to figure out what is it from your past that still weighs on you.
Do you feel guilty about something? OK, let’s fix that. Think about what you think you did wrong and consider this: What could you have done differently? You have to learn from the process so you can resolve to try that better approach the next time. And, if you’ve wronged someone, please make amends. Even if they don’t accept, you’ll be amazed at the weight that lifts off your shoulders.
Do you feel ashamed of something?
Believe it or not, shame can be healed, even when it thrives in the dark, hidden places of your heart. Never forget, you are as sick as your secrets, so the only way you heal shame is to tell on yourself. Therapy is great for confronting shame, but you can also lean on your most trusted friend or confidant and say this: “I feel ashamed about . . . .” You don’t need to be absolved of anything, all you truly need is to be rid of the secret from you subconscious.
Do you feel heartbreak or sorrow about something?
I heard someone say once that when you experience loss, you’ll get through it, but you’ll never get over it. So if you’re waiting for your heart to “forget it,” you’ll never be able to fully make peace with your past. Going through the grieving process gives you the chance to process and to move forward. Inevitably, the grieving process takes time. Healing happens gradually; it can’t be forced or hurried—and there is no “normal” timetable for grieving. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months. For others, the grieving process is measured in years. Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to naturally unfold.
Do you feel lingering trauma?
Every professional therapist will tell you that you have to name your trauma in order to move forward from it. Seeking help won’t do you any good unless you’re ready to be fully honest and vulnerable about everything. You could go to 20 therapists, but none will really ever help you recover if you don’t tell them the whole story. We can’t keep the darkest parts of our past to ourselves, worried about how we would be perceived. Sharing your story, whether it be with an audience or only your therapist, is liberating and helps you make peace with everything behind you.
You can learn from the past, but don’t dwell there. It’s an easy way to distract from the present. Refusing to dwell on the past isn’t about ignoring the things that happened. Instead, recognize the emotional toll that dwelling on something is taking on you, and then give yourself permission to move forward.
Your vision of the future should be about who you want to become—not who you used to be. So while you can reflect on the past enough to learn from it, make sure to take the time to do the work so you’re able to let go of whatever guilt, shame, heartbreak or trauma is holding you back from moving forward.
main + featured image via our home tour with Jessalynn Forde.