It was a time of mixed emotions, dominated by grief, frustration, embarrassment, and resentment. Months after turning in my badge and laptop at a job that demanded more than I could offer, I still felt angry. I knew I needed to learn how to let go of the past so I could move forward, yet every time I thought about my experience, I felt my jaw clench and my heart race.
I revisited my sacrifices to succeed in the role – the long hours, late-night meetings, and wear and tear on my body from the unbearable commute, stressful communications, and constant typing. I ignored the pain and told myself it would be worthwhile when I received recognition for my loyalty and effort. But, ironically, recognition never came. As it turned out, I was expendable.
Well-meaning friends and family members would say, “It’s time to move on.” or “Just get over it.” which only created more stress because I agreed with them. Yet I wasn’t “Over it.” So, I began exploring ways to let go of the past and begin healing, which led to some vital insights I still carry with me today. Below I will share the learnings I use to inform my work as a transformational coach, guiding people through similar experiences.
Why Do We Find It Difficult to Let Go?
After working through my process, I realized that my feelings were more complex than I initially thought. In addition to negative emotions like fear, anger, and resentment, I also felt periods of relief, contentment, and happiness, which sometimes led to guilt. I also learned that letting go of the past is not a linear experience. Indeed, the theory of a step-by-step progression of feelings starting with denial and ending with acceptance, as presented in the 1969 book On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Küber-Ross, has been largely debunked.
Instead, learning how to let go of the past is experiential. First, we undergo a swirl of emotions that stir up two powerful human needs – the need to feel in control and the need to feel rooted in our identity. Then we observe our reactions and aim to become more effective at navigating the feelings when they return. Finally, every time those feelings return, we have a choice. We can either live with them, ignore them, or confront them.
It’s exhausting, so it’s no wonder we find letting go difficult. However, once we realize that learning to let go of the past is not neat and easy, we can forgive ourselves for our sluggish progress and start moving forward.
Why Is Letting Go of the Past Important?
The past can be like a shroud. It can develop into an emotional restraint that clouds how we see ourselves and certain situations, affecting our choices, behaviors, and, ultimately, our quest for personal growth. Therefore, learning how to let go of the past is crucial to our daily lives because it impacts our present and future happiness, not to mention our mental health. When you learn how to let the past go, be it trauma, a toxic relationship, or simply a perspective that no longer serves you, you gain strength, courage, and the ability to embrace the future.
The Role of Forgiveness
Conventional wisdom (and plenty of memes shared on social media) often conflates the concept of letting go of the past with forgiveness, suggesting that the emotional release and healing process cannot proceed without forgiving those responsible for the harm. While I agree that forgiveness matters, this suggestion can sometimes shift the focus, challenging my clients in two ways.
First, I see my clients holding onto extreme guilt and shame because while they might forgive others, they have yet to forgive themselves. People are typically their own worst critics, so I must constantly remind them to be gentle to themselves as they let go.
The other nuance is cultural. Different social systems view forgiveness differently, so clarifying what forgiveness means to you is essential. For example, is the goal to heal yourself, or do you feel it is more important to heal the community or system? Your answer makes a huge difference in your healing experience.
The Roles of Control and Identity
Another point I would like to return to is how emotional pain triggers our underlying human needs. Painful experiences and the associated emotions can go well beyond the present moment, stirring up deep and sometimes primal feelings in our subconscious.
In my work with clients, I’ve noticed that when something beyond our control happens, such as being laid off from a job or ending a long-term relationship on the other person’s terms, it exposes an additional layer of anger and frustration. The sense of helplessness it creates can be excruciating because it forces us to face the fear we feel over our unpredictable lives and the worry that (despite our best efforts) we could fail.
In my case, I remember thinking that I could control the situation by working harder. At times, I hear clients saying something similar – suggesting that they can correct the problem by “doubling down.” And it’s heartbreaking because I see them desperately trying to regain control over what may ultimately be a situation that is (and always was) beyond their control.
The forced change that results from these situations is also triggering because when we experience a change, we must confront our sense of identity.
When the event results in a job loss, many feel a sense of grief over losing their professional identity, especially if the situation makes them realize that their romanticized vision of their work is vastly different from what their employer expected. For others, however, the loss is more related to their cultural identity because they feel they must suppress what makes them unique to gain a sense of belonging.
Who we are and how we view the world is fundamental to how we view our past and design our future. So, the only way to make peace with the past so you can live your life to its fullest is to embrace letting go as an experiential learning exercise.
3 Steps for Discovering How to Let Go of the Past
As I mentioned earlier, letting go is not a linear process whereby you reach the end of the steps and are “cured.” Instead, they represent a cycle in that you will repeat these steps as often as necessary, learning something new about yourself every time.
I would also like to point out that I hesitated to use the word “cured” at all. If excessive levels of pain or suffering affect your daily life, please seek medical advice from your doctor or mental health professional. With that in mind, I encourage you to commit this phrase to memory: experience, observe, and learn.
You are faced with a choice when letting go of the past. You can confront your thoughts and feelings or suppress them. Most believe that working through negative thoughts and emotions is a normal and expected part of this process. But it can certainly be unpleasant and create additional stress if you pressure yourself to be over it by a specific time.
So, surrender to the fact that your thoughts and emotions may come in waves. Then make a point to notice them and start to recognize their triggers. The goal isn’t to eliminate the waves but to learn to float upon them, so they don’t pull you into the undertow.
When ready, take a step back and critically examine the event. As you work through your emotions, ask yourself what is happening to you physically. It might be helpful to work with a professional trained in mindfulness or somatic techniques to guide you through it.
Some of my clients say it helps to engage in restorative activities, such as exercise, gardening, artwork, and cooking, while intentionally releasing judgment about how they feel about the situation. In my own experience, long walks around my neighborhood allowed me to release stress and gain a new perspective.
To let go of the past, most people gather additional information to learn about what happened. Conducting such research might be how you found this post. And that is healthy because it can help you create language and frameworks around what happened while serving as a reminder that you are not alone.
I also suggest spending time learning about yourself. Knowing how your identity influenced your perspective on this event and how the event might affect you going forward can provide clarity about what you want for the future.
The Bottom Line
Although it will be different for everyone, in my experience, the process of letting go tends to happen in waves, like thoughts and emotions. Time helped, of course. But the conscious act of experiencing, observing, and learning allowed me to shift my perspective and design a fascinating new future. By letting go of what was, I could step into a fulfilling life I would never have imagined if I had stayed in the role.
If you would like to design your own exceptional future, consider reading my book, which provides additional insight and helpful exercises.