How to free yourself from the past

Anita Chaudhuri explores the concept of leaving behind old beliefs and grievances and choosing a new path, without the burden of what’s gone before on your shoulders


How to free yourself from the past

8 minute read

When you hear the word forgiveness, what is the first image that pops into your head? For me, it is a mother who has lost a child and is being interviewed on the news. The circumstances of her tragedy will vary – it may have been a terrorist attack, or that her child was a victim of the UK’s knife-crime epidemic – but the content is the same. The mother, as mothers often do under such circumstances, will speak about her need to forgive the perpetrators in order to foster greater compassion and understanding in the world.

I’m always humbled by these strong, brave-hearted women who have the courage to release their anger and resentment in times of great suffering. Humbled but also, if I’m honest, a bit ashamed. If they can make such a leap, why am I still harbouring a grudge against someone I worked for 22 years ago? The person in question behaved in a less-than-kind way towards me and nearly cost me my job. The only reason they didn’t was that I had already decided to resign. My life has moved on since then, obviously – so why do I still find myself thinking about that person, gnawing on an old bone to try and extract some juice from it?

And that’s not the only long-term grudge I’ve been holding onto for dear life. There’s the girl who lived across the street who used to call me names and excluded me from crucial Barbie beauty pageants in her back garden. To be fair, my mother wouldn’t allow us to own Barbies on the grounds of feminism and aesthetics, so I couldn’t have gone anyway – but I think of that girl often, and not in a kind way. It’s a similar story with a neighbour I fell out with for reasons now lost in the mists of time.

When it comes down to it, I don’t want to forgive and forget. Who wants to be a pushover? I prefer to hold onto my carefully cultivated persona; my mordant, cynical, take-no-prisoners attitude. Every time I see a guru post about ‘the power of letting go’, a voice pipes up: What for? To be duped again? So I will forget the warning signs? Why should the other person be allowed to ‘get away with it’? Even if I could move past all that, my other suspicion is that I don’t like the sound of becoming a person with no scores to settle. Who wants to be a Pollyanna chirping on about how glad they are about every misfortune that’s ever befallen them?

Petty is my middle name 

In truth, I’ve been writing about psychology and interviewing experts for long enough to understand that, when it comes to the really big stuff, of course we need to let go in order to move on. The ache of family misunderstandings, betrayal or actions that caused the breakdown of long-term relationships – I have made great efforts to rise above these; it’s the small stuff that is still alive in me.

In search of answers, I seek out American author Gabrielle Bernstein. For years, she has been in the 12-step recovery programme for drug and alcohol addiction and is the author of Judgement Detox: Release The Beliefs That Hold You Back From Living A Better Life. Bernstein has written a new book, Super Attractor: Methods For Manifesting A Life Beyond Your Wildest Dreams (both Hay House, £12.99 and £19.99 respectively), which speaks more directly to my failure to grasp the benefits of letting go. Its message is that if you want to attract all your most cherished desires, you have to fully let go of all the old stories you tell yourself and past grievances, large and small. It’s a point of view I’d never considered – that resentment might be blocking me from the things I really want.

Law of attraction 

‘Everyone knows we feel better when we stop holding onto what happened in the past; life flows more easily,’ says Bernstein. ‘When you are in a positive mental state, you start attracting positives into your life – people want to hire you, people want to date you, that’s when you get that passion project under way… That mindset doesn’t come from a place of force or control.’

But what is a ‘super attractor’? ‘A super attractor is someone who recognises the power of their energy and their belief systems, and works to release the truth of who they are, and the presence of love and joy within them. A super attractor uses their internal force for good; to be a light in the world and effortlessly attract what they want in life.’

Bernstein speaks at the breakneck pace of a typical New Yorker and there’s a lot that resonates in her definition. Her words ‘the truth of who they are’ rattle around my brain. What if I’m not meant to be a cynical curmudgeon? I quite like the sound of being ‘a light’ – that doesn’t sound boring, it sounds powerful!

Much of what we must learn to let go of boils down to the stories we tell ourselves, adds Bernstein. Hmm, and we’re not always aware of those, are we? ‘No, we are not!’ she laughs. ‘Many people believe they are their stories. The only way to change a story is to witness, acknowledge and honour it. Recognise the rage and trauma; the fear of the past and future that comes from that pain. Read the books and do the therapy to heal the wounds that live beneath the stories if need be. Whatever has to be done, recognise that letting go is the path to freedom. If we have the willingness to heal the old stories, we will be able to choose a new story and start to believe it.’

Surrender and evolve 

This is great advice, but Bernstein’s thinking is rooted in the principles of the 12-step programme and the self-study programme ‘A course in miracles’. What if we want to let go of past hurt but we don’t subscribe to any religion or consider ourselves to be spiritual in any way? ‘My work is about helping people establish a spiritual relationship of their own understanding, in whatever way they feel comfortable,’ she explains. ‘We don’t have to call it God or spirit, we can call it energy – anything! What matters is that we practise calling upon a power that is greater than our own and that we offer up our grievances and fears to that higher power.’

But what if we are struggling to make a connection with a higher power? Is it still possible to release the past and move on? Coach Julie Hickton suggests that we might start by reframing the way we view suffering. ‘It can be helpful to remind ourselves that the times in life in which we grow the most are when we go through adversity, challenge or difficulty. Ask yourself: what is the opportunity for growth from this? We can emerge stronger having learned a lot about ourselves.’

But what if we’re so consumed with anger and self-righteousness that we can’t forgive? Full disclosure: I’ve allowed myself to get mired in this state for years. ‘Instead of focusing on the other person, as an experiment, explore visualising what it would be like to not be holding onto that resentment any more,’ advises Hickton. ‘I’m not asking you to forgive that person, all I’m asking you to do is imagine what it would feel like.’

Override the programme 

I try this exercise on my long-resented former boss. What might it be like, in my body and mind, if I choose to never again revisit all the tired details of what happened? Strangely, almost immediately, I feel lighter and I start to laugh. Could it really be as simple as this? Yes and no.

It’s worth pointing out that clinging onto negative stuff from the past is not conscious or rational. ‘There’s neuroscience behind it,’ says psychotherapist and author Julia Bueno. ‘Basically, it originates in our prefrontal cortex; that bit of our brain is trying to work out something on an emotional level that doesn’t feel resolved. It’s a form of worrying really. The reason we can’t work it out is because a great deal of what happens to us in life is beyond our control – a partner leaves us or we lose our job. At that juncture of losing control, somebody took away our power. Often, we had no time to prepare and we weren’t ready. The default brain reaction is to fill that gap in our understanding with rumination: “Maybe if I had done X or Y, it would not have happened. Why did it happen?” You especially hook into the “why?” question if the reasons given by the other person to justify their behaviour don’t make sense to you.’

Bueno observes that, at this stage, we will often resort to self-blame. ‘Self-blame in the face of a void is common. You tell yourself: it must have been my fault. It’s particularly true when, for example, a loved one dies and especially if the cause of death is unknown. You might find yourself ruminating about how you could have acted differently – as if you had any power in that situation! The thing to bear in mind is that we are always up against our own brains. We’re wired to search for meaning, and that feeds our tendency to ruminate, rather than forgive and forget.’

Like a circle in a circle… 

While a degree of reflection is healthy, there are warning signs when it’s time to let go for our wellbeing. ‘The tipping point is when, to use a nontechnical term, a thought pattern is doing your head in,’ says Bueno. ‘When you can’t switch it off, that’s the tipping point. You might want to talk about the situation all the time, long after it’s appropriate, or you might obsessively look at someone’s Facebook page, or reread old messages or even obsess over presents that they gave you. These are all signs that you should try to set yourself free.’

So, how might we start to release the past? Bueno offers a useful metaphor. ‘Imagine you are cycling and you’re gripping onto the handlebars so tightly it hurts. When you let go of them, you realise that you can cycle without holding on. Often, we would rather experience the discomfort of gripping onto those handlebars because we don’t trust that the other way is easier. It’s not a rational response, it’s an emotional one. Letting go of the past can feel risky. It means facing up to grief, fear or sadness. It means running the risk of having a new relationship or creating a new future. We hold onto discomfort because it’s “safe” – it’s what we know.’

What will feel as good? 

Sometimes, the damaging thing we should let go of isn’t connected to hurt or a perceived wrongdoing by another party, it’s letting go of a dream or an idealised situation that has failed to materialise in our life. ‘In those cases, it’s important to explore what we are really seeking from that outcome,’ says Hickton. ‘Usually, there’s an emotional attachment to it. Say someone has the dream of owning a coffee shop but that hasn’t come to fruition. I would try and identify what it is they hope to experience from that dream and then ask how else might they be able to achieve it. Maybe they really want to work for themselves or be in control of their own professional future. Sometimes, however, we also have unhealthy reasons for wanting things – say dreaming of being famous in order to receive attention and adoration. Of course, that’s one to let go!’

‘Whatever it is that you are wishing to release, the first step is to remember that doing so is a process, not an overnight decision,’ says Bueno. ‘You have to go through a journey of understanding, acceptance and facing up to difficult feelings of sadness and hurt. An integral part of this process is self-compassion; learning to be kind to yourself. By kindness, I don’t mean booking a massage on a Saturday afternoon and having a healthy dinner. This is about deep work and recalibration. If you’ve spent decades beating yourself up or being tougher on yourself than other people, that’s a big rewiring job.’

And this, ultimately, is what resonates most for me in this exploration of letting go of harboured anger. The person I need to forgive in order to move on isn’t the scheming boss or the childhood nemesis – the person I need to forgive is myself; for wasting so much time and energy on past events that really don’t matter, and for not having the courage to hope for something brighter, something different, something better. I’m finally ready to let go of the handlebars.

Image: Getty

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