Until You Let Go Of the Past You’ll Never Be Free

Written by on December 11, 2017 in Emotional Mastery, Own It

Let Go of the Past~

Teachers can get pretty creative sometimes in order to illustrate a point. I recall one evening in a psychology class the conversation turned to the issue of hanging onto past hurts and grievances and how easy it is for this old baggage to gradually modify our behavior – and rarely for the better.

As an experiment, the teacher paired us up and proceeded to tie one of each of our wrists together and then sent us out onto the campus grounds to walk around for half an hour.

His intention was for us to experience in real time the feeling of having to modify our behavior in order to accommodate the baggage (in this case, played by our respective partner) from our past.

Sure enough, as my partner and I chatted during our walk with little thought or effort we quickly moved through the initial awkwardness of our inability to move freely and adapted to the restrictions of having to accommodate for the extra “baggage”.

Of course, most of the time these adjustments are so subtle that we aren’t really aware of them.

One of the most familiar examples is when someone goes through a painful break-up and then becomes hyper-vigilant about avoiding anyone who exhibits similar traits of their former partner for fear of being hurt again.

There is a luggage limit to every passenger on a flight. The same rules apply to your life. You must eliminate some baggage before you can fly. ~Rosalind Johnson

Why You Need to Let Go

It’s hard to imagine anyone alive who hasn’t experienced some kind of emotional pain along the way to adulthood.

  • Mistakes you’ve made, failures you regret.
  • You’ve been humiliated or treated unfairly.
  • A loved one or trusted friend betrayed you.
  • An argument that you can’t let go of.
  • The trauma of physical or emotional abuse.
  • A parent wasn’t there for you when you needed them most.

When it comes to coping with our hurts it’s common to begin by focusing the blame on others, and to be fair there will surely be occasions where that may be fully justified.

The problem is that putting all your energy into the blame game gets you nowhere but stuck.

You may even tell yourself that you should just let it go and move on, but we humans have an irrepressible urge to right wrongs. So we brood and keep replaying events and conversations as though coming up with a better response, a story that somehow eases the pain, will result in a different outcome.

Over time these stories begin to define you, and the worst part is that eventually, you don’t even know who are without them, which makes it even harder to find the strength to free yourself.

In order to begin the process of eliminating the baggage, you need to understand that your response to the hurt is actually more important than the hurt itself.

5 Steps to Releasing Past Hurts

Choose to Heal

The first step in letting go of your past hurts is accepting you have a choice, and the power, to let them go. It’s time to rewrite your story, stop reliving the past pain, stop playing mental reruns in your head every time you think of the event or another person.

In order to do this you must accept responsibility, and I mean go ALL IN, commit to stop being a victim and do the work to heal.

Identify the Source

To heal you have to identify the source, but that isn’t always as clear-cut as you might think.

You may have replayed an event hundreds of times in your mind, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re focusing on the real issue or source of the pain.

Let’s say for example that you had an argument with someone over some stupid or hurtful thing they did that just really got to you. It may seem obvious that this person is the source of your frustration or anger, but if you take a step back you might discover this event was actually a response triggered by something or someone completely different.

Maybe your mother made a cruel comment that cut you to the quick, or your partner belittled you in some way.

These are actions that deeply hurt us, but we don’t always feel safe responding to the perpetrator so we defer our pain and anger to a target that feels safer for our venting.

So to make sure you’re focusing on the real source of your pain take some time to write an honest accounting of the event that has weighed you down.

Exactly what is it about the person or circumstance that bothers you the most, and this is important, why you believe you haven’t been able to let it go.

Express Your Pain

Once you have a clear picture of the source and why it’s become such a burden for you it’s time to acknowledge your pain.

If you can communicate your feelings directly to the person do so, but if you can’t then express your pain to a close trusted friend, or write it down in a journal or even in a letter to the person that you never actually mail.

The important thing is to validate your feelings and get it all out of your system.

Loving Yourself

Forgive and Reclaim Your Power

For most people, this is the toughest part of the process of letting go.

But forgiveness is not about condoning someone’s bad or harmful behavior and it doesn’t mean the person shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions, particularly when it comes to abuse of power.

Neither does forgiveness mean you have to make amends with them. Even if it is an important relationship you still want to make it clear that they will have to earn your trust back. Or, you may decide that they no longer have a place in your life.

And keep in mind that you may need to extend some mercy to yourself in this process as well because it’s not uncommon to blame ourselves for not recognizing the bad behavior soon enough or for being too vulnerable and that can result in as much damage as the event itself.

Ultimately, forgiveness is a declaration of acceptance of what happened and that it can’t be changed and it is now a part of who you are. It is up to you to choose to learn from the experience and move on, or cling to the hurt and anger for all your worth for the rest of your life.

Try to remember that forgiveness doesn’t mean that you are giving up your power, it means you’re finally ready to take it back.

Take Responsibility

Life is rarely simply good or bad, and more often than we like to admit we are active participants in the events that cause us pain.

If I had to name the number one source of these incidents it would be a lack of healthy boundaries.

We expect people to read our minds and treat us the way we want and deserve, but we rarely take responsibility for defining what is or is not acceptable behavior or the consequences for failing to do so because there is discomfort involved in having these conversations and holding people accountable for their actions.

So as part of your healing process, do a little soul searching and ask yourself if you have been the driver in your own life journey, or have you chosen to live by default and simply respond to whatever happens to come your way?

As long as you make an identity for yourself out of pain, you cannot be free of it. ~Eckhart Tolle

The Bottom Line

Look, I know this stuff is hard, but nobody’s life should be defined by their pain. It adds to your stress, hurts your ability to function, and it impacts every relationship you have (even the ones not directly affected by the hurt).

Every day you choose (and make no mistake about it, it is a choice) to hold on to the baggage from your past is another day you rob yourself of all the happiness and inner peace you deserve.

And here’s something to consider. Once you get this stuff, it becomes easier and easier to set healthy limits and draw the line on unhealthy situations and people before they become a problem for you.

So do yourself – and those who love you – a big favor: Let go and free yourself from the baggage of your past once and for all.

One final note. While I am a passionate believer in our ability to affect the quality and course of our own lives, there are times when we need a little extra help.

If you find that despite your best efforts you continue to struggle with past hurts, then the best gift you can give to yourself would be to seek professional help. You don’t have to do this alone.

Related reading:
Will you be the passenger or the driver in your life journey?
About Marquita A. Herald

Marquita Herald

Marquita is an author, resilience coach and the chief evangelist at Emotionally Resilient Living. She’s also an unapologetic workaholic who loves red wine, rock n’ roll, road trips (and car dancing!), peanut butter cookies and (especially) a dog named Lucy.

She’s saddened and frustrated by excuses and cruelty and believes authentic compassion is the most powerful force in the world.

To learn more about Marquita and the mission of Emotionally Resilient Living click here.

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46 Reader Comments

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  1. Teresa Salhi

    So many great tips and suggestions on living without pain….and the bottom line says it all. It’s gotta go. I so agree with you. Life must move forward and give you the chance to live into your highest potential.

  2. Taiwo

    Hi Marquita,
    This post is thought-provoking. I couldn’t agree more with all the valid points you made in this post.

    To be free, we have to forgive others. A wise man compared unforgiveness to eating a poison, and expecting the other person to die.

    Forgiveness is not really what we do to others, it a responsibility we owe ourselves if we really want to experience inner peace.

    I like your suggestion about setting boundary to avoid unnecessary drama from people.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Taiwo recently posted…The Single Thing that Will Make a Difference in Your Life in 2018My Profile

  3. Joyce Hansen

    We do seem to hang on to a lot of baggage where we continuously unpack the contents. I think I’ll adopt my travel light policy for flying. One soft carry-on that fits neatly under the seat. It contains only what I need to enjoy life.

  4. So glad you enjoyed the post, Suzie! I know you do a lot of internal and self-awareness work so I’m not at all surprised that you have previous training in this area.

  5. Welcome Aprille, and thank you so much for sharing your story with us. The important thing is that you did find your way to making peace with your past and that’s all that matters. 🙂

  6. While I don’t know your son, Nathalie, as someone who suffered from prolonged bullying in school, that is an area worth exploring. I’m so glad you found value in the post and I hope all is well with your son. 🙂

  7. Wonderful point Vatsala! It’s easy to get caught up in “what if” scenarios when we consider releasing someone from our life, but what we need to remember is in the process of raising our standards we, in turn, attract better people. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  8. Well said Sonal. 🙂 Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us and especially for letting me know you found value in the post.

  9. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with us Ravi, always appreciated.

  10. Suzie Cheel

    A truer word was never spoken, yet we so often do hold onto the past for fear of what can be so much better on the other side. Your article takes me back to the Journey work with Brandon Bays where you go through a forgiveness exercise where you forgive the person’s behaviour in the circumstance, doesn’t mean you approve of their behaviour. This I know is so freeing xxx
    Suzie Cheel recently posted…When I Am Fully AlignedMy Profile

  11. Aprille Janes

    Hi Marquita. Wonderful, wise post. I love the exercise about luggage because while it may be invisible to ourselves, it’s often glaringly obvious to the people around us. I grew up with a dysfunctional mother and was almost 40 before I realized I wasn’t as okay about it as I told everyone. As I read your post I nodded in recognition at the steps because, yes, I went through each one. I might have gotten to the best part of my life a lot faster if I’d had someone to show the way, as you have here. Thank you for sharing your expertise.
    Aprille Janes recently posted…Water: The Magic ElementMy Profile

  12. Awesome article Marty, I recently noticed that my son is a lot less social with people of his age and younger. he can hold a conversation with an older adult without any hesitation. He has a fabulous vocabulary and loves public speaking. I’ve wondering for a while if he had some kind of past hurt. Your article really shed lights on why I think he is that way and I think it is due to “You’ve been humiliated or treated unfairly” by younger kids. I will try to talk with his to identify the issue and help him resolve it. Thank you, such a helpful read!
    Nathalie Villeneuve recently posted…Christmas Gift for Beginner Artist – US Art Supply DemonstrationMy Profile

  13. Vatsala Shukla

    There have been times when people, whether relatives or friends have let me down when their honoring their word was important for me.

    It hurt Marquita, and the feeling of helplessness is one that I have yet to forget but forgiveness was part of my process for moving forward.

    We don’t exist in a vacuum and for all those who were removed from my life, better people appeared who have the same values and outlook on life and I am grateful for them.
    Vatsala Shukla recently posted…5 Success Secrets to Win the 7 Day Positivity Challenge – and it all starts with the mindMy Profile

  14. Sonal Talwar

    Hi Marquita

    Wonderful post!

    Past is something from which we must learn a lesson and move on in life. Holding on to the past leads to disappointment only. We will never be able to move ahead in life if our past constantly clings onto us.

    thanks for sharing!
    Sonal Talwar recently posted…Online Therapy Advantages and DisadvantagesMy Profile

  15. Ravi Chahar

    Hey Marquita,

    When I was pursuing my graduation, I had encountered with many incidents and they all became a part of me.

    The past strikes the mind many times. But I started to gain the confidence once I started working.

    I am glad that everything went smoothly.


  16. I’m so glad you found value in the post Jessica, and you are so right about it being a work in progress. Thanks!

  17. What a great post. It’s so important to learn to let go of past hurts. I love all your suggestions here. In my own life I feel I’ve let go of a lot of past baggage, though it’s always a work in progress!
    Jessica – A Modern Mom’s Life recently posted…7 Things I Love About Christmas TimeMy Profile

  18. Thank you for taking the time to let me know you found value in the post Erika! You are so right about the forgiveness issue. Every time I write about it the conversation heats up and sadly there will always be a few people who dig their heels in and absolutely refuse to bend. One thing I learned as a coach and survivor of a family riddled with substance abuse issues is that you can show people the way but they will only take that first step when they are ready and not a minute before.

  19. I’m glad you enjoyed the post RoseMary. A little heavy for the holiday seasons, but this was actually a special request from one of a member of our ERL community and after I thought about it, what better time to decide to clear the (mental) clutter than as we head into a New Year. Thanks for taking the time to contribute to the conversation. 🙂

  20. Thank you so much for sharing Jeannette, beautifully said! I can actually pinpoint the exact moment I got this stuff. Very long ago I attended a group meeting of ACOA – Adult Children of Alcoholics. I was easily the youngest in the room of maybe a dozen people, and listened to them one after another cry and go on and on, telling stories that they’d obviously told their entire lives about their childhood. I thought, screw this! I refuse to be sitting here when I’m 40 whining about something that happened when I was 10 years old, that is not how we are meant to live! I walked out of there at the break and, like you, I was able to move on and today I am happy and probably one of the most optimistic people you’ll ever meet. It IS worth the effort!

  21. Hi Marquita,
    like always a great post which may help many to have a different view of letting go of the past. I am grateful that I learned this early in life because I had often to let go. I know many people have trouble with this and forgiveness always is very important and often misunderstood, good to have somebody to talk about in situations like this.Being able to talk to somebody unrelated to the situation is a big help.
    Erika Mohssen-Beyk recently posted…Best Online Resources To Learn Search Engine Optimization in 2018My Profile

  22. Marquita, quite a powerful post. I fully believe in the need for us to forgive people and either keep them in our lives or move on without them. Either way can be what we need and be okay.

    I like the visual of limiting the baggage I’m carrying through life. That really resounds with me. I feel lighter already!
    RoseMary Griffith recently posted…I Want to Wear Out Like a Pair of Levi JeansMy Profile

  23. Excellent post, Marquita. I didn’t have the greatest childhood. Lot of pain to get over. And you’re quite right. Forgiveness is not giving someone a pass for their bad behavior. It’s letting go of your anger, accepting what happened to you, and moving on. It took me a while (and therapy) to be able to let go of the past and when I did I became a happier and more fulfilled person. I was able to build a life around my needs and wants and not let negative thoughts about my past interfere with my life. In my twilight years, I’m a happy person.

  24. Debra Yearwood

    That’s the only reason I think about karma, it allows me to let go. 😉

  25. Thanks for sharing with us Debra. I’ll be honest, I don’t believe in karma or luck (good or bad), but if believing that someone’s bad behavior will eventually catch up to them allows you to be able to let go and move on, that’s all that matters. 🙂

  26. The domino effect analogy is a good one Donna, and I couldn’t agree more. I know this stuff isn’t easy, but what I’ve found is that this doesn’t just apply to our past. Once you GET it, then it becomes easier to find your line in the sand and let go of things (and people) who do not belong in your life. Thanks so much for sharing!

  27. Well said and thank you Brenda, I’m so glad you enjoyed the post.

  28. Yes, that quote is one of my favorites as well. Thanks for taking the time to let me know you found value in the post, always appreciated. 🙂

  29. Thanks for sharing Christina! I’m not familiar with Jill Bolte Taylor’s Ted Talk but I will absolutely look for it. 🙂

  30. Could not agree with you more Elise, and it would be wonderful if life was that simple. 🙂

  31. The truth of life is that sometimes bad things happen to good people for no reason, it’s not fair or unfair, it just is. As far as forgiving others, what most people do (and I’m not saying you did this, but it’s something to think about) is they forgive someone without firmly establishing either the rules of behavior that are acceptable going forward or the consequences for not changing. We simply expect the other person to shape up and know better the next time and when they don’t we may or may not forgive them again, and again, and again.

    But regardless of the circumstances, if you can feel that “uncharitable sense of satisfaction” and move on without dragging that baggage with you, then more power to you. Catherine is obviously NOT moving on and that is the difference.

  32. The truth is that self-forgiveness is often much harder than forgiving others, but as much as I know about your past experiences Phoenicia leads me to believe that you serve as a wonderful example to so many others that one can be sensitive and caring, yet strong and resilient woman.

  33. Joy Healey

    Hi Marquita,

    I had a similar experience a while ago with a once-trusted friend. I had “forgiven” her before for previous “fall-outs” but on the final occasion it was a relief to let go, and walk away, never to return.

    I can see Catherine’s point of view because I didn’t feel I had done anything wrong to this friend! Quite the reverse, I did a lot of free work for her, and now I know she is paying someone for the work I used to do free, I feel a very uncharitable sense of satisfaction 🙂

    Joy Healey – Blogging After Dark
    Joy Healey recently posted…Snow In Harrow: So Counting My BlessingsMy Profile

  34. Elise Cohen Ho

    I feel that the best thing to do with the past is to learn the lesson that it was meant to teach and then move forward. If we do not move forward it is ourselves that we hurt the most.
    Elise Cohen Ho recently posted…Happy Link Party 33. Blog Sharing Time Is Here.My Profile

  35. Very cool post, Marquita! As someone who works with clients on relationship issues, I know how hard it is to detach present situations from past painful ones. Have you ever watched Jill Bolte Taylor’s popular Ted talk, “My Stroke of Insight?” In it, she explains that our left hemisphere picks up on things from our present, maps them onto painful experiences in our past, and then makes predictions for our future based on that past. That is how the left hemisphere operates: it is very past and future-oriented. The more I understand that, the more I can bring healthy awareness to myself whenever I try to use the past to make sense of my present. The exciting thing is when she talks about the right hemisphere, which is always in the present and has no baggage from the past. Meditation can help us move from the left to the right hemisphere!

  36. Mark

    Excellent advice Marty!

    And I too love the quote by Rosalind Johnson! But your overall advice, is totally spot on.

    Basically what it all really comes down to, as you so masterfully pointed out.

    We definitely need to be as pro-active as possible, with regards to, how we allow certain people, things and or situations affect us.

    Especially long term. And decide what and who, will be allowed to have influence of any kind over us.

    This is really sound and extremely practical advice! Thanks so much for sharing it!

  37. Brenda Lee

    Very well said, Marquita. Holding on to the past and resentments can be toxic for us. We need to find a way to heal and move on. Fabulous tips!
    Brenda Lee recently posted…3 Signs that Prove He’s a Man-ChildMy Profile

  38. Donna Merrill

    Hi Marquita,

    Holding on to the past hurts or disappointments can ruin your life. It can lead to a domino effect that will affect every decision in one’s life.

    Letting go is a wonderful joyful experience but sometimes it is easier said than done. This is when a person needs help in this matter. I have done so in the past and was determined to let go of a past trauma. It took a while to do but once it was gone and the power of forgiveness entered my heart, I felt free. My mind, body and spirit became alive again.

    This is such an important topic, for all to pay attention to. I thank you,

    Donna Merrill recently posted…Microblogging Promises Massive Results To Smart BloggersMy Profile

  39. Debra Yearwood

    When I’ve had to deal with difficult situations and people that I can’t control, I tend to do two things, actively work to replace thoughts of the unpleasant event and think about karma. By purposely replacing thoughts of the person with more proactive and positive things over time thoughts of them or the event just cease to have power over me. The other thing I do (which admittedly is not very forgiving) is thinking, “Karma’s a bitch”. What that means for me is that if someone is unpleasant, negative etc. then sooner or later it catches up with them and generally in an even more unpleasant way than anything they did to me. Sometimes it takes weeks or years, but sooner or later I’ll hear a story about the person that tells me that karma has done the job. It sounds silly, but it removes the burden of thinking about the injustice of the situation and lets me focus on more important things.

  40. Phoenicia

    What a deep post Marquita. It has conjured up all kinds of past experiences in my mind.

    I like your statement that we are scared to let go as we do not know how to be without that baggage. This resonates with me. I saw myself as the victim of bullying and lived underneath this title for years. I felt others saw it in me and thus treated me accordingly.

    My main struggle was forgiving myself. I blamed (and still blame) myself for tolerating the bullying and ridicule. I ask myself why I did not push back/fight back/answer back with a level of power. I am learning to live with this but my goodness it is a struggle to accept I was the class joke and the one my peers pushed until I broke down in tears.

    I am trying to move forward and look at how far I have come. We do need to shake off what we once were in order to be who we need to be today.

    Thank you!
    Phoenicia recently posted…Has society gone consumer mad?My Profile

  41. You are welcome and thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us Doreen. 🙂

  42. As always, beautifully said Dr. Erica. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and wisdom with us on this sensitive topic.

  43. I’m so sorry for your awful experience, but forgiveness will never be “old news” for the very reason you are still carrying around so much anger. I think the problem many people have is they hold a vision of forgiveness as giving the person who caused their pain a pass on their behavior and it isn’t that at all as I pointed out in the article. I sincerely wish you all the best in finding a way to heal, but that’s going to be tough to do until you are willing to do the work to reclaim your power so that you can move on.

  44. Hi Marty, It is so important to let go of past hurts, even when these hurts are rather recent. If your partner has betrayed you in some way, you need to confront your partner, do what you can to heal the relationship, insist that your partner make amends, get counseling or do whatever is needed. You may not fully trust that your partner will follow through and you may fear that they will hurt you again.
    However, if you keep holding on to the hurt and betrayal, you may destroy whatever is truly good about your relationship. If your partner’s lies were exposed and he or she is being held accountable now, then the best you can do is to take one day at a time, live in the present, enjoy what you can enjoy now, and let the future unfold and reveal to you your next steps.

    Warmly, Dr. Erica

  45. Catherine says:

    Hm. I cannot agree with this, this obsession with forgiveness. I think it’s overdone and not useful. I’ve been really spinning since #MeToo hit about a professional situation when I was young that really damaged my prospects. I don’t need to forgive that board member, nor the staff who enabled him. I only need to release the story and move forward. Seriously, why forgive the man? I know of one other woman whose career he irreparably harmed, and we can’t be the only two. I know someone will say, “It’s not for him, it’s for you.” I don’t need forgiveness. I didn’t do anything wrong. I don’t carry any guilt from the incident. I got put in a no-win situation because I’m female. I thought I *had* let it go but it all came flooding back recently. Releasing the anger and the deep sadness that my prospects got blighted that way is hard, but I don’t buy this method. It’s old news.

  46. Hi Marty. I love this quote from Rosalind Johnson: “There is a luggage limit to every passenger on a flight. The same rules apply to your life. You must eliminate some baggage before you can fly.”
    I love the sentiment behind this. My life is weighed down by excess baggage at this moment in time, but I am hopeful I will soon be able to check that baggage. Thx for the encouragement to do so.
    Doreen Pendgracs recently posted…your guide to reading chocolate labelsMy Profile