When I read or hear instructions to ‘let go of the past’, I get irritated. As if the past is like some heavy bag of groceries that you can just set on the table. Like you’re making some sort of conscious choice to carry it around to make yourself miserable.
This post is fourth in a series on depression, and gives some suggestions for how to deal with the past in healthy ways.
There’s a whole lot to unpack in that phrase, ‘Let go of the past.” There are some reasons why we don’t want to be in too much hurry to dismiss the past as irrelevant to now.
The Problem with Memory Gaps
Here’s the thing – our brains are wired for meaning and for wholeness. When bad things happen to us, we might forget them as a way to cope, but part of us will keep looking for the missing piece till we find it. Our mind needs to discover what happened in any memory gaps, to make sense of our own story. In that sense, we can’t let go of our pasts till we’ve got a finished picture.
A good current example of this takes place in the Neflix limited series, Maid.All through earlier episodes, we see the lead character, Alex, having a cold and fearful reaction to one of the other characters, who seems to be a fairly nice person. Not until a cleaning job in a creepy house triggers a very early suppressed memory do we find out what happened to plant that fear in Alex’s mind. Once she remembers, she has energy for a confrontation that brings her more peace. She’s released from having the emotions of a terrified victim without knowing why.
Getting to the Truth
Another reason we need to take a second look at our pasts through adult eyes is because bad experiences can warp our thinking. There’s no way out of that but coming to understand how we’ve been damaged, what lies we believe from those experiences, and what truth we want to replace the lies with. (See what I wrote in the first post about how we talk to ourselves.)
For instance, when a parent leaves a child, the child tends to blame himself for that. A child might think, “Dad left because I wasn’t nice enough.” He makes a vow to become the nicest person in the world. He may not even be conscious of the vow, but it becomes like a vice, holding him to niceness even when it keeps him from defending himself.
That’s a hard way to live. Not until the adult realizes how his compulsive niceness was shaped will he see that it’s been a trap based on a lie. At that point, he’s free to change his belief to something true, like, “I’m nice, but I can also be tough when I need to be.”
Making Choices That Heal
Another other benefit of looking back at the past and reprocessing it is that you can choose some new experiences for yourself that will help you heal and grow stronger. Take the super nice person above – maybe he’ll decide to enroll in a martial arts class to rewire his brain to be able to fight when he needs to.
Maybe he’ll decide that he’s got a friend who’s taking advantage of his kindness, and he’ll work with his therapist to set some new boundaries. Maybe he’ll start praying for wisdom to know when his compulsive niceness is serving him more than anyone else. Once we’re clear on what the problem is, we can address it.
It’s not self indulgent to take some time to look back and see how we may still be reacting to past trauma that we’re not fully aware of. It’s only after we’ve done that that we’re truly free to let go of our pasts and be ready for what’s next.