From the moment we are born, time is a great challenge for us. We learn to read the clock around the age of 6 or 7 and we build our life around the time, but we never have a good understanding of time. Although we all have the same amount of time, we treat it differently.
The movie In Time is a wonderful masterpiece about our relationship with time. The movie Tuck Everlasting is another wonderful attempt, examining life without the limitation of time. The concept of time is so interesting for me that I have dedicated a whole book to our existence in this puzzle of past, present and future. In this book, I do not claim to understand time, just to explore it. I think that time can be a servant or a master and that we can be trapped in time or freed by it.
One of the biggest miseries of life is to be trapped in a time we no longer have control over – the past. Many of my clients come to coaching to understand this and to free themselves from the pain of the past. If you have had a chance to read the previous chapter about blame and justification, you probably understand the limitations of living in the past and allowing the past to limit. Whenever we have a bad experience and we use the past to justify it, we keep ourselves stuck.
Losers live in the past. Winners learn from the past and enjoy working in the present toward the future
– Denis Waitley
One way of discovering whether people are trapped in the past is to listen to their stories. We all have stories that we have developed to explain the problems of our life to ourselves (even when we tell the stories to others, we are actually explaining them to ourselves). The problem is that we tell ourselves those stories so many times, we start believing that they are true and that is the reason we are experiencing life in such a miserable way.
Do not get me wrong, stories are not bad. Only bad stories are. If you have stories that explain why you are happy, successful, healthy, wealthy, friendly, fun and loving, then by all means, keep telling yourself those stories as often as you like.
The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly
People who are struggling think the past has a power to determine their future. This is why many people spend millions of dollars to lie on the psychologist’s sofa and share the most boring stories of all time, “It’s all because of my mom/dad/parents”. In coaching, we do not allow such stories to come to the surface. We all have parents who have done things we did not like and some parents have done bad, even unspeakable things, but all of us, without exception, can make the best of our lives and use those experiences as stepping-stones rather than see them as obstacles.
Being trapped in time can happen in two ways:
- When you blame the past for your present
- When you idolize the past to justify a bad experience in the present
Both mindsets originate from fear of the unknown, potentially scary future and limit your change, growth and development.
How to let go of the past
If you want to examine how trapped you are in the past, try this exercise (you can use items you have used in the previous chapter):
- Write 100 things in your life that you are unhappy, frustrated or disappointed with
- Write the reasons why you are in this situation and feeling that way
- Count how many of your reasons are due to something that happened in the past, to a comparison with something you idolize in the past or to some limitation of time. The more you blame things in the past, blame the present for not being as good as the past and feel you do not have enough time, the more trapped you are in time, the more you are serving time, rather than time serving you
- The solution is always to look forward and to move forward. Now write down next to each item 3-4 things that you can do in order to change the situation or how you feel about it. Keep thinking until you have enough actions
- Take your list of actions and carry it out. Every time you move forward, you let go of the past and do not allow it to determine your future. Action is very empowering
We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility of our future
– George Bernard Shaw
I have a rule that if I hear myself telling the same story over and over again and it is a bad or sad story of why I cannot do things, I am living in the past and I need to snap out of it quickly.
Letting go of the past requires courage. Some people think that if they let go of the past, they will let their guard down and the past will repeats itself. In fact, the past can never repeat itself if we have learned from it, because we are not the same as we were back then when the unpleasant experience happened to us. In life, we get what we expect, so being afraid of something bad actually makes it more likely to happen to us. Letting go of the past means letting go of our bad stories and learning to be a happy, positive and powerful storytellers. Regardless of who we were in the past, we can be better in the future.
If someone had told me that one day I would stand on stage and talk to hundreds and thousands of people, I would have laughed. As a child, I had a problem in my vocal cords since I was 5 or 6 years old. I could hardly speak and did not control my voice very well. It was a real effort for me to speak and sometimes my voice did not come out. I was so shamed of it that I would rather say I had not done my homework than read it out loud in class. I thought it would be my destiny never to speak in front of others. Writing was a great refuge, because it required no voice. When I was 16, I realized I had allowed it to control my life and said, “No more”. I asked my parents to go through surgery to remove the polyp from my vocal cord and my mom refused. She was so scared of surgeries that she did not agree and was very emotional about it.
When I was 18 and could make the choice myself, I went through the surgery and it was the most courageous choice I have made in my life. My voice became clear, speaking became easier, but I was still afraid of speaking out loud. Over time, I allowed the past to stay where it was supposed to be and move forward. I did not have any attachment to that story of fear of speaking and I welcomed the new me until I managed to stand on a stage and speak.
If you are wondering how long it took, it took a while. Two years later, I already had to face the test of standing in front of a class and using my voice to control a bunch of teenagers. It was not easy and it did not happen in a flash. I did not wake up in the morning and turn into a singer. It did not happen overnight, but as the days went by, the fear remained behind me, because I used it as a good story, a story of recovery, a story of growth, a story of victory, rather than a story of blame and excuses.
You can do it too.
Letting go of the past and focusing on the present with a clear vision of a positive and happy future is extremely powerful and, much like happiness, it is a choice.
Join me next time for the next chapter of The Art of Letting Go about letting go of negative self-talk.
This post is part of the series The Art of Letting Go:
- The Art of Letting Go: Attachments
- The Art of Letting Go: Fear
- The Art of Letting Go: Trapped by Labels
- The Art of Letting Go: Be Right or Be Kind
- The Art of Letting Go: Living up to Others’ Expectations
- The Art of Letting Go: Control
- The Art of Letting Go: Blame and Excuses
- The Art of Letting Go: Painful Past
- The Art of Letting Go: Negative Self-Talk
- The Art of Letting Go: Resistance to Change