It’s Time to Let Go of the Past

And start creating your present

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Recently I was talking to some women whose marriages ended unexpectedly because of spousal infidelity. In one case it was the woman who decided to end the relationship, and in other cases, it was the man.

Regardless, the pain they were going through was devastating.

Losing a spouse, whether by infidelity, death, or even choice, is one of the most difficult circumstances a family can go through,

What surprised me while talking with these women is that at least a couple of them had gone through their initial breakup YEARS ago, but the pain they were experiencing was as fresh as if the separation was happening in the present.

My own marriage ended when I lost my husband to multiple sclerosis, eight months before our 25th wedding anniversary.

His death wasn’t exactly unexpected, I knew I would eventually lose him to the disease, but that knowledge didn’t make the ending any easier.

And while losing my husband was hard enough, much like the women I mentioned above, I unknowingly added to my own pain by believing a single thought: “It wasn’t supposed to end like this.”

In my mind, probably like most women who get married, I had the rest of my life planned out. My husband and I were supposed to finish raising our three children, then retire to Oregon and live out our lives in rocking chairs on the porch. That’s just how it was supposed to be.

But there I was, twenty-four years into my marriage, two of our children still teenagers barely out of high school, and I was suddenly no longer married.

No one tells us that there’s no such thing as “supposed to” when it comes to our future, especially when it comes to our marriages. Growing up they only tell us “happily ever after”.

It Was Always Going to Happen That Way

I’m grateful that I found coaching during the hardest time of my husband’s illness.

When I brought up my “supposed to” thoughts to my coach, she gave me the most valuable piece of advice I had ever received: What if things were supposed to turn out that way? What if I was always going to lose my husband to MS 24 years into our marriage, I just didn’t know it?

None of us can see into the future, we have to take for granted that our lives will happen according to our plans.

So when something unexpected does happen, our brains naturally come up with thoughts like “This wasn’t supposed to happen”, or “This shouldn’t have happened”.

But believing that thought causes us to pile unnecessary pain on top of the necessary pain.

I can stay angry that I lost my husband too soon, and we can stay angry at that person who hurt us in the past for as long as we want. We can hold on to it forever even, that’s totally our choice.

But let’s look at that progression:

  1. We hold on to the feelings of anger and resentment towards the person or thing that wronged us.
  2. While we’re in that feeling of anger or resentment, what actions are we taking? Are we eating too much? Drinking too much? Overconsuming TV, or shopping? Are we taking that anger out on the people or things around us, withdrawing from friends, or avoiding other possible relationships because “what if it happens again?” Are we seeking validation from others by re-telling and re-living the past?
  3. And when we’re taking those actions…aren’t we the ones hurting ourselves now?

I would like to offer that it’s causing you unnecessary pain in the present.

Now I’m not suggesting that we should minimize or ignore past trauma. It should be effectively processed, with a professional’s help if necessary, and time needs to be allowed for grieving and processing through that pain. What I am suggesting is that there’s also a time to heal from the past, then let go of it and start living our lives in the present.

And we can start by recognizing the old, painful thought, and choosing a new one.

We don’t need to go straight to the land of rainbows and unicorns, just find a slightly more helpful, but believable thought.

A more helpful one could be: I didn’t choose this, but I do get to choose what I want to do now.

Or: I may have been hurt in the past, but I can be the one who treats myself with love and respect right now.

Being a widow was my new reality, regardless of how or why it happened (which I would never get an answer for anyway). I never wanted it to happen, and I didn’t have to like it, but it was something I would have to learn to live with.

Moving On

So instead of focusing on the past I can focus on my present and ask a more productive question: “Here we are, so how will I choose to handle it?”

That question gives our brain a far more productive problem to solve.

Since change begins with just a thought, you get to consciously decide what you want your next thought to be.

And here’s where our primal brain will get tricky… Living in the past may be causing us pain, but it’s familiar, so our primal brain will try to balk at the idea of changing it because change is scary, and the unknown (future) is even scarier.

Our brain will tell us that staying stuck in the past is somehow safer than venturing out into the uncertainty of “what’s next”.

But that’s a lie.

So, we can thank our primal brain for trying to keep us safe, then disregard it and instead switch to our prefrontal cortex — the thinking, logical side of our brain. And we can ask it a better question: How can I move my focus to the present? How can I start taking care of myself, right now? What would that look like?

That validation we’re looking for from the past, we can give that to ourselves, right now.

  1. We can acknowledge our “factual” reality (a death, or separation)
  2. Allow that we were hurt
  3. Give ourselves the love and grace that we can’t get from anyone, or anything, outside of ourselves.
  4. Decide to no longer allow our past circumstances to define who we are now.

Part of the fear of moving on might be that we think we don’t know who to be without that person, or without that relationship. But each of us is a whole, worthy, unique person. We were a viable human being before that relationship, and we are just as viable afterward.

And we’re also stronger for having gone through it.

So stop focusing on the past. It doesn’t serve you.

Start focusing on who you want to be, now. On what you want to give yourself, now. Don’t miss out on the incredible life you can start building for yourself.

Discover What’s Possible.

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