How do you leave the past behind?
We all lose sleep and #worry about negative events that happened in the past. They continue to influence our expectations and drag at our #selfconfidence. This might be something minor such as a bad first impression, more serious such as losing a business, or even an abusive relationship. The question is how do you get past the experience and move on with a positive attitude?
We usually think of ourselves as a continuum. We begin with our past, pass a brief moment in our present and move into our future. Much of our identity is shaped by our past and we find it difficult to discount or leave behind negative things that are unhelpful in the present and future.
Remember that your past is no longer here in your current physical reality. Don’t permit it to dominate your mind; while painful, it's no more than a thought/feeling that you are carting about with you. Below are some techniques that could help. While you may benefit from support from a trusted person such as a therapist to get the most out of these, I firmly believe a lot can be achieved by the individual to make gains on their own.
1. Extract the learning from the experience
Negative events can bring shame, embarrassment and pain, but they always also teach us things about ourselves and others. The first step is to face the experience and break it down to discover not just what happened, but how your perception of the event is affecting you today and could be changed.
Some questions you might ask are:
What are the facts? What exactly happened, step by step?
How do I know this to be true? (evidence for and against)
What does this mean about me?
Is this assumption accurate? (Evidence for and against)
How might someone else's opinion differ?
What did I feel then and how has that changed?
What if I didn't care about it as much as I do?
What would make this event less significant?
Who else has experienced this and come out ok?
What did they say/do?
If I were faced with the situation today what would I do differently?
That means I have learned….
It is important to answer these sorts of questions in detail and expand on them as you like. The idea is to challenge your ideas and beliefs around the event and to seek alternative perspectives. Set aside time each day for this task and when that time is up, put it aside and do something else.
2. Verbalize your feelings
Talk to a trusted friend and write down in detail how you feel including a measure/rating for each feeling. Articulating your emotion is a crucial step in the process. Not doing so can bring on anxiety, depression and other physical symptoms such as high blood pressure, insomnia and digestive problems. Some people struggle to find the right words and turn to creating art or listening to music to connect with their feelings. This is where talking can help. Friends who won't judge you, or even support groups online or in person can unlock your feelings as you hear others with similar experiences express themselves, or even just their frustrations with being stuck and unable to express themselves.
3. Don't play the blame game - it shuts you down
Being a victim is painful but straightforward, and sometimes feels easy/inescapable. You may have been the target of someone else's machinations or simple misfortune, but occupying the role of victim immediately removes all power from your hands.
Fix the problem, not the blame.
To be able to change anything, including your feelings, you must have some power/ autonomy. By blaming others, you forfeit your control of your emotions, thoughts and thereby, your behaviour. In the final analysis, you get to elect what to believe and feel about a situation. Getting to a place where you choose an empowering position is the challenge. Fortunately, this can be achieved when we change our fundamental understanding about something. Adopting a fresh perspective will transform your feelings instantly and this is done by allowing in alternative views; either created by you, or suggested by others.
4. Live in the moment to break the worry cycle
Mindfulness has undergone a monumental boost in popularity in the past decade, but what is it? It might be described as a moment-to-moment awareness of your experience
(like your own emotions, thoughts, and sensations) without judgment. It is a state of mind that can be developed by certain practices and activities, but most attention has fallen on mindfulness meditation. This involves self-regulation practices that train attention and awareness to improve voluntary control over mental processes. This, in turn, enhances overall well-being and specific capacities such as calmness, clarity and concentration. Among its benefits are greater emotional control, objectivity, composure, concentration, mental clarity, emotional intelligence and treating others and yourself with kindness and compassion.
Mindfulness meditation can involve basic relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, visualisation, awareness of body and mind, and progressive muscle relaxation. But mindfulness can also mean just bringing what you are experiencing to the front of your awareness. If you are eating, exercising, chatting to friends or in the office, try to closely observe what your senses are experiencing; the tastes, smells, sounds. This close consideration of the moment slows you down and unexpectedly widens your perspective about what's happening by placing you in 'observer' mode, usually calming you and hopefully moves you away from ruminating about the past.
5. Forgiveness wins out
For most of us, feeling deficient or defective is scary. We’re programmed to survive, and making too many mistakes feels like a threat to our very existence. Our educational system reinforces the message that “wrong” is “bad”. We try to prevent errors at all costs, and when we do slip up, it's instinctive to cover it up. Step one to forgiving ourselves is admitting our mistake and taking responsibility for our role in what has happened.
Of course, some things are simply not our fault, and we must acknowledge if a 'bad' thing was out of our control. Some people find it hard not to take responsibility, and shoulder the blame for 'bad' events, having the expectation that they 'should' have been able to prevent it, if only they'd been strong/clever/quick enough.
"God may forgive your sins, but your nervous system won't."
When we experience something 'bad', it gets imprinted in our nervous system. This memory is then associated with emotions such as guilt, grief, sadness, shame etc. This, in turn, shapes our thinking not just about the event, but what is means about ourselves in general, "I am stupid/weak/greedy".
It is this underlying belief that hinders our ability to move forward. If we try to forgive ourselves without addressing the underlying emotion or belief we’ve attached to it, it won't work. To break the deadlock you must identify the negative belief and challenge it. Only then can you begin to forgive yourself or others, freeing yourself.
Moving on from the past is never easy and it takes practice and support from others. Changing how you interpret the past means stepping outside of your current perspective and that it always doable. I'd love to hear any ideas and strategies you have had work well for you.