If you want to learn how to let go of the past, you first have to understand what the past is.
There’s the obvious answer: the past is a collection of moments that happened prior to the present moment.
Here’s the real answer: The past is a biased, cherry-picked, and emotionally driven distortion of the things that happened in the past. It’s not some matter-of-fact reflection of facts and events. It’s a narrative of past events you create to serve a purpose.
If I could boil down the entirety of self-improvement to a few bullet points, I’d have this point on the list:
Your narrative dictates the way your life turns out.
Humans are story-driven creatures. Stories are the reason we’ve been able to create civilizations. They bind us together. But they can also tear us apart. You can tear yourself apart if you use the wrong stories to describe your life.
Once you realize how much stories matter, you can learn how to let go of the past, mostly by changing your story about what it means to you. Let’s take a look at some techniques you can use to figure out how to let go of the past.
I love a good re-frame. When you re-frame something you don’t change what happened, you change what it means to you. There’s the event itself that’s unchangeable, but there are a million different directions you can go when it comes to the story you tell yourself about what happened.
If you want to learn how to let go of the past, re-framing what happened is an excellent first step. We’ll touch on a few in this post, but for this point, I wanted to focus on a powerful re-frame I learned from the book Letting Go by Dr. David Hawkins.
You can re-frame anything bad that happened to you in the past as:
Something unfortunate that happened
It’s hard to pretend bad things didn’t happen, so accepting that they happened without tying a bunch of meaning to what happened is the next best framework you can use.
Someone breaks your heart. It’s not an indictment on every member of that sex that you have to use as a mental map for the rest of your relationships. It’s just something unfortunate that happened.
You were traumatized in some way. This doesn’t mean that you’re unworthy of happy and healthy relationships, or that you caused the trauma through some trait you can’t change. It’s just something unfortunate that happened.
The point isn’t to reduce every event in your life down to a level where it has no meaning to you anymore. It’s to give yourself room to move forward in the future.
A lot of experts and therapists will tell you to amplify the past, incessantly talk about what has happened, but I argue that you should do what you can to minimize it.
Most people have trouble figuring out how to let go of the past because they can’t accept the present moment. You don’t like your current situation. You built your current situation through actions in the past.
Instead of coming to grips with your mistakes and accepting your life as it is right now, you’d rather dream about what your life would be like if you could go back in time and fix things.
You know this doesn’t help or solve anything, but you do it anyway because re-imagining the past is another coping technique we use to avoid having to confront the reality of our lives in an objective way.
There’s a bunch of admissions you don’t want to make. The longer you’ve spent making the mistake the less likely you are to want to cop to it, cut bait, and start over.
Your ability to imagine is one of your greatest tools and it’s one of your biggest weaknesses. It becomes a weakness when you use it as a tool to ignore reality.
If you want to learn how to let go of the past, understand that it’s done and that no amount of imagination will fix things and make your current reality better. Only you can do that.
If you want to get your life in gear, accept where you’re at right now without sugarcoating it. The more the present moment scares you the better because it means you’re even more sure you have work to do.
Stop wondering what your life would be like had you done things differently. You didn’t. And because of that, you are where you are right now. Deal with it.
If you want to let go of the past, extract valuable lessons from it so you can move forward.
Most people get stuck in the past because they think it predicts the future. They feel destined to repeat the same mistakes so they wallow in the past instead of extracting value.
This quote spells it out well
My characterization of a loser is someone who, after making a mistake, doesn’t introspect, doesn’t exploit it, feels embarrassed and defensive rather than enriched with a new piece of information, and tries to explain why he made the mistake rather than moving on.
Look at the choice of words he uses ‘exploit’ ‘introspect’ ‘enriched with a new piece of information.’
Your behavior is trying to tell you something. What is it? You do certain things for certain reasons. What are they? Do you understand your behavior patterns?
Do you know what triggers you to perform certain actions? Can you articulate your thought process at the time so you can correct it in the future?
Most people repeat mistakes because, again, they tie way too much meaning to what has happened and what it means about them.
Analyze your behavior without turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
All of these points focus on the central theme that runs through your mind when you’re trying to learn how to let go of the past. You look at your life through the lens of your identity.
Identity preservation is your number one goal. You crave the feeling of being consistent with who you think you are, even if the definition of who you are makes your life suck.
I personally had to let go of the identity that I was some absent-minded kid with potential who always started things but never finished them. I’ve developed a level of discipline and motivation my past self couldn’t fathom.
I changed my behaviors, sure, but I changed my identity which is the central piece to everything. It’s kind of a catch 22 though — you need to change your behaviors to change your identity and you need to change your identity to change your behaviors, so which comes first?
It starts with a small identity shift that gives you enough motivation to change your behaviors in a way that makes the new you seem real. In my second book, You 2.0., I told the reader to simply change their definition of who they are to someone who is working on him or herself.
That’s a definition that’s both believable and powerful enough to help you change even if you don’t have the desired traits and outcomes you want yet.
You’re not shy and timid. You’re working on becoming more confident, bold, and assertive. Instead of saying you’re someone who always screws up, you’re working on becoming more disciplined and organized so you can follow through with your projects and goals.
Letting go of the past is as simple as transitioning from dwelling to doing. You don’t need to solve all your problems, but the minute you see yourself as the type of person who works on their problems, good things start to happen in the present and the future, which continues to help you let go of the past.
“An idle mind is the devil’s playground.”
Here’s a strategy you can use right now to let go of the past, at least for a few moments. Go outside. Start running. When you reach the point where you feel like your body is going to collapse, run a bit more. Run until you physically have to stop to keep your heart from exploding.
At this point, you have no choice but to stay in the present moment because all you’re doing is trying to breathe.
Most people suffer from stagnation because they’re not in motion. They stay stuck in the past because their life isn’t in motion. They’re not doing anything aside from going through the motions they go through every day. This idleness keeps them stuck, keeps them ruminating, and keeps them from doing anything to change.
Stop putting yourself in positions where you have too much time to think. Trust me, you’d be less worried about the past if you had a calendar full of tasks you need to do to build your business, worked out five times a week, and stayed on top of your self-taught education.
Wake up and be in ‘go mode’ from the beginning of your day until the end. Do things that force you to stay present — exercise, challenging tasks, and working in distraction-free environments. Massive action is the only cure to overthinking.
If you’re having trouble learning how to let go of the past, look at your activity in the present moment. How much time do you spend moving in a day? Moving your body, moving the needle on important projects, doing things that make you feel like you’re moving toward a better future.
Motion is your best friend. Thinking is your worst enemy.
Putting yourself in motion and stacking up small wins quickly helps you let go of the past and re-invent yourself. When I look back at my former self, it doesn’t seem real. I can’t identify with that person anymore because my behavior is so different.
I used to binge-watch T.V. five to six hours per day. Now, I can’t watch tons of T.V. because I wired my brain in such a way that watching tons of T.V. causes me pain. I only watch 5 plus hours of T.V. when I’m sick and looking to pass time.
There are a ton of behaviors I used to exhibit that I couldn’t bring myself to do now like stealing, selling drugs, wasting massive loads of time getting drunk and high. I evolved into the type of person who doesn’t do those things.
I have a bunch of positive habits I’ve developed over time that I now identify with. I’m now the type of person who works on his craft, learns new things, and keeps his mind and body sharp.
You build a new identity and let go of the past by stacking up W’s. You have a lot of L’s on the other side of the column. Instead of dwelling, stack so many W’s that column reaches the level of the L’s.
Every moment you do something that helps your future self is a W, no matter how small. In the beginning, focus on stacking W’s instead of measuring how large the Ws are.
Writing for fifteen minutes is just as much of a W as doing it for three hours. Better to write for 12 days straight at fifteen minutes a session than having one three-hour writing session in the span of 12 days.
Frequent, small, and consecutive Ws give you the momentum you need to achieve bigger ones in the future. I love Jordan Peterson’s notion of cleaning your room or William H McRaven’s concept of cleaning your bed.
Getting one simple W over and over again can be the tiny domino that knocks all of the future ones down to the point you don’t even care about the past because you’re doing so much winning right now.
This speaks to the main mantra to figure out how to let go of their past.
Say it with me:
Your past doesn’t have to predict your future.
You don’t have to have to keep staying the same because you’ve spent so much time being this version of yourself. Prior to my life now, I started and failed at more projects than I can even remember from selling knives to joining MLM pyramid companies.
It could’ve been easy to tell myself that I was destined for failure at age 25. I had no degree, a felony record, and I worked at a crappy job for $10/hr. Most of the people who were in similar situations around me just gave in. The longer they stayed in the position, the more they dug in.
I told myself there was no way I’d let the end of my story look anything like the beginning. I accepted the present moment and told myself another mantra I’ve come to teach others over the years:
This is where I’m at and I have the power to deal with it.
Then I dealt with it by stacking up small wins. I remember when I first got into some of the core habits I have right now like reading and writing. I still lived in a crappy apartment for $250/month. My material circumstances hadn’t changed at all. I was still broke as hell.
From the outside looking in, nothing had changed. But from my perspective, everything had changed because I was now in ‘work on myself’ mode.
I found something so compelling to work on that the past no longer mattered.
Find something to pull you to the future and work on getting good at it. This will change the way you see yourself. Once you see yourself in a different and better way you can continue to analyze the past, course correct, and move forward without judging yourself too much.
You’re just upgrading your software over and over again.
Eventually, you come to look at the past as a timestamp of your behaviors and the way you saw yourself at the time. You’ll look back fondly on the changes you’ve made and the wins you experience because you can compare them to the past and see how much you’ve grown.
Always get better and never look back with regret. This is how you let go of the past.