“How do I let go of the past?”

Updated: Aug 27

I think we all carry around a hurt or loss from the past that stays with us, haunts us, clings to us, like a piece of rotten fruit that we throw away only to discover that, the next day, there it is, sitting in our fridge again. We want to let the bad memory go, but it doesn’t.


What can we do about that?


For some people, this is a huge issue, because the pain and memory they carry around seems, paradoxically, too big to put down. Like, for instance, a baby who was stillborn. A terrible loss, and not only that but perhaps there’s also feeling guilty that it was their fault. How do you let go of that?


Well, what we always do here at The Chestnut Hill Institute is look at what people have done who are successful at dealing with any issue. Let’s do the same here.

And what we find is that what works is to tackle this “letting go” business on a number of different levels.


First of all, we need to let go of the idea of “letting go.” No one actually experiences letting go successfully. You can’t “let go” of a crab who’s got you by the claw! But—good news!—they do experience the bad memory shrinking, fading, and becoming less charged, as if it had happened all by itself. It’s as if after years of their trying to “let go,” the haunting memory just decided to go away all by itself.

But this does NOT mean there’s nothing you can do. On the contrary. There are a lot of things you can do that work, and do so faster than you imagined.


Mostly what you can do is identify the unfinished business lurking in whatever is haunting you. When you get to work at finishing that business—even if you can never actually totally finish it—that enables the memory to let go of you.


So, for example, let’s say the thing that haunts you about what happened is guilt. You feel you did something bad. You need to be cleansed.


So, okay. This is unfinished business. You can’t just tell yourself, don’t feel guilty. On the contrary, since in fact, you’re charging yourself with a crime, take that seriously and put yourself on trial.


The first step, here, would be to determine if there are even the elements of a crime. Did you actually know what you were doing? Were you acting on the best information at the moment? Were you doing your best? Were you being as responsible as you could be? Were all your intentions positive?

If all of these things are true, then maybe your case shouldn’t even come to trial. You’re calling yourself guilty for something that in fact you couldn’t have helped. Yes, maybe now that you know better you’d have done things differently, but that doesn’t make you guilty based on the way things were back then.

The next step is, okay, suppose you were guilty. You screwed up. Maybe you had bad intentions. Maybe you were careless. But having some responsibility for a bad outcome doesn’t make you a bad person unless...well, are you a bad person? No, I didn’t think so. You’re just judging yourself by the worst thing you did on the worst day of your life. Which weighs against so many good things on so many good days of your life.


But anyway, you were guilty, let’s say. So now what? What happens to guilty people? They discharge their guilt by paying a price. By doing something that somehow adds weight on the other side of the equation. Notice I didn’t say “balance things out.” Too often that’s impossible.


It’s also unnecessary. Let’s say you hurt someone badly, and they’re no longer around for you to make amends. A punishment would accomplish nothing. But there’s this. You could do something to help someone else. Put in some time making a difference in other people’s lives.


This wouldn’t be a legal way to wash you clean. But remember what we’re talking about. Finding a way to make it possible for your past to let go of you. And when people do something that counterbalances the harm they did, it takes your focus off the harm and puts it on the good you’re capable of, and that’s what enables your past to let go.


So far we’ve just talked about guilt. There are many, many other losses or costs that may be making your past cling to you. And for each of them, you can help rescue yourself by asking what you can do now to make things better.

Suppose, for example, like some people I know, you feel you wasted your youth. You just flushed fifteen of your best years down the drain. And now you can’t forgive yourself or let go of all the might-have-beens. But although you can’t change the past, you can have a huge effect on your future. Maybe you can’t be the great person you fantasized about becoming way back—though you never know!—but come on, how many of us become great people anyway. Besides, you can be a worthy person, leading a satisfying life, respected by others, respecting yourself. And you can take a step in that direction today, and another step next week, and so on.


It works. The more you focus on making your life NOT like your past, the more your memories of the past will get the sense that their job is done and they will move on.


There’s one more thing, and it works too. Too often we collapse like a cheap suitcase in the face of our memories of the past, as if they held a deep and telling truth about ourselves, something we need to take to heart. But most of the time they’re really just old news. Worse than that. They’re a lie, based on a picture of you at your worst, like one of those photos that happen to catch you in the moment of making a weird expression. We just delete those pix. There’s no truth in them.

In the same way, many people find that it works to say to your bad thoughts and memories of the past: “Go away. You’re not my friend. You have nothing to teach. All you’re doing is trying to make me feel badly about myself, and just the way I would never drink poison, I’m not going to listen to your poison anymore. Hey, all you thoughts—you’re nothing to me anymore.”

This doesn’t work overnight. But if you do it consistently, if you consistently make those thoughts unwelcome by doing this, they will shrivel up until they are a shadow of their former selves and they’ll have little power over you.


These are things that work to release people just like you from the hold of the past.

If you have any questions, if you feel I didn’t cover some aspect of this that applies to you, comment on this post and I’ll be happy to write about your concerns.

In the end, though, we weren’t born to suffer. We were born to learn and grow and move on. Now it’s your time for that.

You will find more help with this in our award-winning international bestseller Everything Happens for a Reason.

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