“Letting Go” Of The Past Is Bad For You

“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.

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A Mindful Approach To Emotional Pain

Every one of us nurses some sort of emotional trauma. It could be disappointment related failure, grief at the loss of a loved one, perhaps the agony of a broken relationship or even the numbing melancholy of loneliness. Such pain takes long to disappear, if ever, and often comes right back, triggered by the faintest memory.

Mindfulness, derived from Buddhist meditation practices, is a system that teaches practitioners to focus on sensations and emotions as they occur in the present moment, purely as what they are, by suspending judgment and self-criticism. In the book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide To Finding Peace In A Frantic World, Mark Williams suggests that emotions and sensations are like seasons that pass, and that enduring sorrow and unease is a result of self-criticism and a preoccupation with what is long gone.

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to meet a European psychiatrist who claimed to have worked widely with PTSD sufferers. Drawn in by the prospect of obtaining free medical advice, I began to talk to him about some of the unpleasant incidents that I had experienced in my past – that I felt controlled my life, even at that point. Moving our conversation to a more private location, he asked me to get specific, to recall events and emotions.

The exercise was extremely painful, and left me in tears. While I was composing myself, he called for a dozen notepads. When these arrived, he told me to write down my account in as much detail as possible. When I was done, he laid it face-down on a coffee table and asked me to do so again. I did this perhaps ten times while he proceeded to drain the hotel room’s rather varied mini-bar. This took around six hours.

When the coffee table was covered with notepads (or more likely, the bar was empty), he asked me to pick up and read aloud the first account that I had written. When I was done, he asked me to pick up the last one and read it aloud too. It was incredible. In the course of that one evening my recollection of the emotions surrounding those events had changed substantially. I realized that perhaps my mind superimposed emotion on those memories each time I recalled them.

Williams discusses this in his book. He talks about how we exist on two planes – thinking, and doing – and how, while these are states that are essential to human existence and individual growth, their overuse or unnecessary application yields negative results. Williams goes on to describe a third state – being – when one exists in a state of acute awareness of sensations and emotions that one is experiencing at that present moment. This is the state that Mindfulness meditation strives for.

Nowadays, whenever a negative emotion strikes, I look at it objectively, and try to establish if the pain is just because I am being judgmental of myself. While it is normal to experience sadness, anger, and despair in the course of life, a vicious cycle of self-loathing is perhaps at the root of chronic unhappiness and myriad addictions.

Mindfulness has been a useful tool for me to find balance. Never being a meditating person myself, I found it extremely hard when I first began. Now, I long for those fifteen minutes of quiet each day. It has changed the way I think and react.

References: Mindfulness: A Practical Guide To Finding Peace In A Frantic World

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