“Letting Go” has been a catchphrase for the personal development industry for ages. Coaches and motivational gurus speak of the power of letting go – with the past being termed “baggage” that you’re not supposed to carry into your present. This idea of distancing yourself from your personal history is so pervasive, that people with a beautiful and fulfilling present find themselves locked in an emotional battle to purge their past – that often taints their experience of the moment.
I say, Don’t Let Go. Us humans are experiential creatures. Everything that we are in the moment is a sum total of our history. For those consciously aiming for self-actualization, introspection and analysis of these experiences are a key part of the journey. Framing past adversity as “baggage” that needs to be discarded is a denial of a massive part of the emotional self and is a rejection of the context in which we view the present. Sometimes when we get too involved with “the present” or “the moment”, the past begins to seem like a fog – the memories are dim at best. We need the mementos – we need to remember that there were moments of joy, of contentment, of anguish, of achievement, because in our hyperstimulative today, it’s very easy to lose touch with the self. Now I’m not saying that we should dwell in the past – that is unhealthy – but I think we do need to appreciate the anguish that we’ve endured and perhaps be a little smug about our triumphs.
A view of the past is crucial to self-improvement. All organisms behave in patterns. Feeding and mating for instance, have established protocols in every species. Humans, however, have public and private lives that are substantially more complex than the average cheetah or dung beetle. The tendency to act in patterns and protocols detracts from our opportunities to appreciate and experience the infinite possibilities that life offers. This is why we should remember our past – there are patterns for joy and happiness that we should preserve, there are also adverse patterns that lead to failure, unhealthy relationships, addiction, and poor health that we need to observe and break. In fact, the “emotional avoidance” advocated by the Letting Go clique is a key hurdle to therapeutic approaches to emotional and psychological trauma.
So, don’t let go, but don’t dwell in the Past. A difficult balance to achieve. Lots of the pain that the Past causes is due to a toxic game of “what if”, where people speculate about possible outcomes if they (or others) had acted differently. Mindfulness, in its radical acceptance of the present, is a powerful tool to deal with such negative tendencies. Denying or ignoring the emotional burdens of the past in the name of “letting go” is the worst possible way of dealing with trauma. Instead, catharsis – through a journal or talk therapy – is a good way to go. Anger, sadness, guilt, and other such emotions must run their course, and contribute to one’s emotional and psychological fortitude.