6 Powerful Ways to Become Free From Your Past
I went through huge amounts of suffering trying to let go of my past (I go through it my article 'To Live as a Person'); there were so many things that I felt shame, heartbreak, jadedness, fear, and self-loathing over, from drug addiction, to manipulative behaviours in relationships, to embarrassing business failures, and more. In order to become the person I knew I had the potential to be, I had to fully allow myself to let go of who I was, and accept/integrate the less conscious shadowy parts of who I am.
While that's simple enough to say, the actual process I went through to reach the level of ease, self-acceptance, and emotional freedom that I feel today was extremely arduous and painful. I'm going to share some insights with you today that hopefully make it easier and more seamless for you on your own journey.
Last week, I posted an article on how to deal with being ghosted, and used it as a vehicle to teach people about Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to process and express the emotions related to that challenging situation.
While I got a lot of really great feedback on that piece saying it was helpful, I also got a lot of challenging questions. One of them was "How do you recommend dealing with these emotions in situations that are no longer recent, rather lingering from the past?"
When it comes to the emotions of our past coming up over and over, it can be frustrating. Either we feel consumed and distracted by them, like an anchor weighing us down from moving forward, or we suppress them into the subconscious where they covertly influence our beliefs and behaviours without us even realizing it.
If we want to move on, we have to confront, process, and transmute the emotions that keep coming up over and over again. This can look very different depending on context; here are a few ways that I've helped myself unburden the emotional load of the past without suppression, spiritual bypassing, or other forms of denial/avoidance.
1- Gratitude for the Learning Experience
Approach with caution here - this can very easily turn into a form of denial of the actual feelings and pain that you experienced, and will take away the potency of what the situation had to teach you.
The reality is, we learn what our boundaries are by having them broken, we understand what our needs are by not having them met, we know what our values are when we experience situations that are out of alignment with them. Without the contrast of pain and discomfort, we couldn't define who we are.
By diving into the reality of the situation - and not denying the full depth of how it affected you/caused you to suffer - you can more deeply investigate your needs, comprehend what's most important to you, clearly define how you want to treat people and how you expect to be treated, and start living your life more in accordance with that.
You would never know these things about yourself if they were never defined through this painful experience. Having gratitude for the situation doesn't mean that you have to appreciate your own suffering - it means that you recognize and fully utilize the gifts and lessons that the suffering revealed to you, and become grateful for your newfound self awareness and integrity.
This can make it much easier to forgive and move forward in your own life when you feel appreciation for how a situation made you stronger and more mature - but you need to know how it made your stronger and more mature, first. You can't do that if you deny the reality of how it made you feel by pasting fake gratitude onto it.
2- Solo NVC to Process/Understand Your Needs and Boundaries
Immediately knowing what the lesson behind your suffering is can be really difficult when you are in the thick of the pain and lingering frustration.
When someone in your past hurt you deeply, but you are no longer in communication with, it can feel hard to reconcile or get closure from the situation. You may feel echoes of resentment and frustration from unexpressed emotions and unmet needs, both of which stew and ferment from not being bottled up.
But just because you aren't in contact with the person doesn't mean you can't express your emotions and needs. You can go through the NVC process in a journaling exercise that helps you understand the situation deeper, and informs you how to move forward and set deeper boundaries.
Make a non-judgemental observation about what happened in the situation; this should be done without blame, judgment, or self-criticism; aim to be as objective and fact-based as possible.
Express the feelings you felt in clear, emotional terms. Avoid words like "violated", or "attacked", as they are not emotions as much as they are accusations. If you're having a hard time, refer the NVC feelings inventory to help you find the words
Express the needs/values that are the source of the emotions. What unmet need, or misaligned value brought up the emotion for you? What is important to you, and why did you feel those feelings? Again, don't make it about antagonizing the other person - take time to identify what you need and value, and how those needs and values brought up the emotions for you in the situation.
Make a clear request for something that would enrich your life. While you can't directly ask this person for this thing now, what would you have asked them for in this situation? How can you communicate that need to other people in the future? How can you give this to yourself?
Going through this process will help you identify what your needs and boundaries are, and how you can clearly communicate them in the future. Once you've experienced that clarity, take a moment to feel gratitude for that enhanced self awareness. From that energy of gratitude, appreciation, and self-awareness, internally thank, and forgive the other person. Let yourself sit in the feeling of freedom and lightness that comes from that forgiveness for a moment.
3- Freedom in Responsibility
Responsibility is the ultimate freedom; the word 'karma' is thought of as meaning "what goes around, comes around", but the original meaning of the word illustrated that fruits of our actions are always ours to take responsibility for. If we can take radical responsibility for the good and bad situations in our life, then it takes away the power of any victim narrative, and reclaims the authority over our well-being that we gave away to others.
Approach this one with caution, because for some people, "taking responsibility" means "blaming, criticizing, and beating yourself up".
If you catch yourself being an asshole to yourself, pump the brakes and remind yourself that this is an exercise of freedom, not tightening the shackles.
Ask yourself how you contributed to the outcome of the situation that caused you suffering. Did you not communicate effectively? Did you make the wrong decision because you didn't know better? How can/did you learn from it, and adjust accordingly for future behaviours?
When answering the last question, be aware of the temptation to have emotional overcompensation answers like "I can just never trust anyone and will only rely on myself from here on out". That's a false narrative that will hinder more than help you; it's becoming jaded instead of growing, and it isn't truly taking responsibility - it still implies that you are a victim to the circumstance/other people.
Take your time with this process until you feel empowered by the possibilities of your responsibility, not ashamed or disappointed by it.
4- Talking to Your Past Self
Sometimes, emotions that linger are not from suffering caused by other people, but from the shame that we feel from our previous mistakes. This is an exercise that my friend and coach Ricky Goodall showed me, and that he used with me several times to heal shame that I felt over decisions I'd make in the past.
Shame is one of the most binding emotions, something that can subconsciously punish us with feelings of unworthiness and self-sabotaging loathing for years. If we don't release it, we will always feel like we don't deserve to move on or embody higher expressions of self that we're capable of.
When confronting feelings of past shame, I find it useful to ask the following questions:
What was the overall context of my life at the time this happened?
Did I know any better at the time? If I knew better, what was my incentive/belief that made me act otherwise?
What did I learn about life from this mistake? How did it inform who I am now?
What did I need back then that I wasn't getting to help me prevent making that mistake?
After investigating those questions, you look at the situation that you feel shame over with total compassion and acceptance. Ask yourself, "who is the person that I needed in my life back then? What would that person have told me in that situation?"
When you have the answer, view the situation from the eyes of that supportive person you didn't have back then. You let go of the judgement, and you use discernment to understand the unmet needs of your past self that motivated those shameful events.
When you feel you are adequately embodying the perspective of that supportive version of self, you will close your eyes, and visualize being face to face with your past self in the situation that you feel shame about.
Out loud, tell that past version of yourself exactly what you needed to hear at the time, offer them what they needed that they never got from their support system, and help them understand the situation from the perspective of someone older, wiser, and who has learned the life lessons that they need to learn.
There's something profoundly healing about changing the story of the situation in our subconscious, and for giving our past selves the support that we were never offered.
I did this exercise with someone holding space and witnessing me in the process, but have also done it alone, and have found it equally powerful. It is important that you do it out loud and not just mentally, so that your nervous system can really register the message and experience as real.
5- The Compassion Mirror and Forgiveness
This is an exercise I use to take responsibility for my own actions, and help myself forgive others. When there is a situation where I felt indignation from being treated poorly, I'll ask myself how I've treated others like that in the past or exhibited the same type of behaviour.
This isn't an excuse to say I deserve being treated like shit because I treated other people like shit in the past. One 'New Age Spirituality' teaching that I've seen interpreted in a wildly toxic way is that everything in the universe is a reflection of your energy and actions- it becomes a weird solipsistic negative spiral of piss-poor self-perception, taking the blame for every horrible thing that happens in the world and to yourself.
Again, taking responsibility can be empowering if done dispassionately and without judgement or harsh self criticism.
When I recognize that I've treated other people just as poorly in the past, but I learned from my mistakes and did work to improve, I can have compassion for where the person was on their own journey to self awareness in their own human experience. I can recognize that until those behaviours are brought into the light of awareness, those behaviours are unconscious, and is a place where that person (or I) needs to grow.
I can recognize that they have their own complex history, their own traumas and triggers, their own moments of very human emotional irrationality, and forgive them for their self-protection/coping strategies that they developed through surviving their own difficult lives.
By giving myself grace and forgiving myself for my own past discretions, knowing that I'm learning and growing through them, I can give others grace and forgiveness by recognizing that's part of their own path.
This doesn't invalidate the pain that they caused me, but it offers enough compassion and understanding that opens the door for forgiveness and moving on.
6- Take Notice of Your Triggers
Even after doing all this work on self-awareness and forgiveness, you'll still get hit with moments where you're emotionally reactive, trying to defend yourself from reliving past suffering. In those moments, there are a few different ways to handle it:
In an ideal world, you would have a pause before the reaction, and communicate the emotions, fears, and source of the trigger. You can use NVC to communicate or process these feelings in the moment, and ask for a need to be met. If you have done work on self-awareness around this trigger already, you can also communicate what past experience is the root of your reaction, and create deeper understanding/empathy.
Sometimes we can't respond with that pause, and the trigger gets the better of us. When our fight-or-flight response kicks in, the conscious parts of our brains shut down, and we act out of fear, saying things that we might not mean or regret later on. Instead of blaming yourself for the triggered emotional reaction, have compassion for yourself, and retroactively express your emotions and needs, as well as asking for forgiveness for your unconscious reaction.
After you've been triggered, it's important to go back and understand why you were triggered, what story and assumptions you're operating under, and their root past experiences. From there you can apply any of the previously discussed techniques to process the emotions, forgive and release, and start communicating your needs and boundaries in a more clear, defined way.
Understand too that this is an ongoing process; it might look messier and messier as you go on, and your triggers are going to trigger others. Be patient and compassionate, be discerning and disciplined but don't beat yourself up.
While I currently experience a lot of emotional freedom in my life, and can deal with challenging emotions in a smooth, quickly resolved way, it took me nearly a decade of clearing out the gutters of my own heart and mind. It was nasty, I made a lot of mistake, hurt a lot of people and myself along the way, and shed a tremendous amount of tears.
I'm not done yet, either. I recognize that there is no end to learning, I don't know what I don't know, and there will always be more to understand and integrate. That's what growth is.
On the other side of this heroic journey of accepting, learning from, and owning your past is a state of being that's hard to understand if you haven't tasted it. It's an ease within your own skin, a natural momentum and motivation to express yourself authentically, to be honest and real with those around you, not needing to protect yourself from potentially being hurt all the time.
It's a feeling of real freedom, and a confidence in being able to handle real challenging interpersonal situations, because you've already taken the journey and learned the lessons along the way.
Wherever you are on your journey, I have faith in you, I have compassion for you, and I have a tremendous amount of love for you. I hope you discover and feel the same for yourself.
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Thanks for reading - let me know if you have any questions that I can help with in the comments.