I remember when I first began really diving deep into spirituality one of the first lessons I sat with for a while, and still do is this: the future and the past are just stories. It’s a lot to take in and also a bit confusing, but stay with me here and I’ll break down exactly what it means, why we have a hard time letting go of the past and how to move forward.
Why do we fixate on the past?
Our memories can have a wide range of meanings and emotions for us. The past can be as close as the last breath you took or conversation you had or as far back as your childhood experiences. When we spend time thinking about experiences we’ve had that bring us joy, fulfillment, and a sense of awe we don’t want to stop them from occupying the space in our mind. They feel good and remind us of what life has in store and all its wondrous possibilities. But what happens when we have experiences that bring about feelings of shame, stress, anger, inadequacy, embarrassment or regret? Why would we want to spend time there? It’s not necessarily a bad thing to think about times when things went wrong or you made a mistake. In fact, it’s healthy to understand what happened and why so you can move forward with a lesson learned so history doesn’t repeat itself. The key here is that so we can move forward. Many times we don’t move forward. There are three paths you can take after an event occurs. After you made a regretful decision, you can either move forward and upward, stay exactly where you are now, or get into a place where you are even worse off than you were before.
That one piece of criticism/feedback you received about your work can either lead you to yelling at your kids or thinking that your life is meaningless and therefore you are meaningless. You may even just get paralyzed into inaction. You stop taking risks or engaging in life as an active participant. You’re essentially stuck in these feelings of regret, shame, embarrassment or anger and you don’t move forward. But if these feelings are so terrible, why don’t we just do the thing we know to do and move forward?
What keeps us from moving forward however are learned behaviors of fear and addiction. Fear of the unknown and of uncertainty. An addiction to the rush of feelings and emotions that rumination provides. This is a tricky aspect of any kind of change. The first step of making a change is to make a different decision than you have been making. We humans thrive on the known, on set behaviors, on our habits – regardless of whether or not they are helping us or hurting us. So many times I get the question, “but what if the next thing isn’t really better?” What that tells me is that the desire for certainty may be greater than their desire for the future. Who would we be if we didn’t have regrets? Who would we be if we didn’t think negatively about things that happened in our past? Who would we be if we were more optimistic? Who would be if we weren’t anxious or stressed? It’s a question of identity that many of us are unwilling to answer because we don’t know the answer. And we tell ourselves, if we don’t know the answer, then why bother? It’s safer, it’s more known to be in the familiar. Does this resonate?
Today, my friend, you get to decide if you’re willing to answer those questions. If you’re willing to be vulnerable and go into the unknown, naked from your inner critic and from the rush of adrenaline and dopamine you feel when you go into your past and rehash the stress and anxiety that reliving these emotions provides. Why? Because your life’s about to get a whole lot better.
How to Move Forward
Friends, right here right now – life is pretty good. You’re reading this article or listening to this podcast and you’re alive. You’re willing to feel good and shed the past if you’re this far into our conversation. Guess what? Life’s about to get a whole lot better because you’re going to do 3 things every single day to condition your mind to stay in the present and focus on the future.
1. Identify the trigger and create a new emotional habit
Our lives are a product of our habits. Our karma are the routes we keep running down until the grooves get so worn down that we automatically keep going down the same path over and over again. In order for us to rewire our brain and our neural pathways so that we can have different behaviors, we are going to have to identify the trigger and program a different response to the trigger. What causes you to dive into and get stuck the past? Is it when you’re faced with uncertainty? Is it when you’re faced with a challenge? Is it when you’ve just had a difficult conversation? Is it when you just failed? Is it a person? Is it a place? Identify the trigger. Once you’ve identified the trigger I want you to say to yourself this thing: I MUST NOT dwell in my past. Say that to yourself over and over and over. Then move to step #2.
2. See the past as a story
What? How can this be? It just happened. It’s not a story. Oh yes it is. There is no one truth about your past as being bad. You’ve decided that this was bad. Bad doesn’t mean that you didn’t have a reason to feel sad, anxious, stressed or depressed – or that you want it to happen again. What I mean by labelling our experiences as good/bad is that we then believe that there is one ultimate truth. Why are some people successful and others “fail” under the same terrible circumstances? Circumstances that were beyond their control? Your success or lack thereof is the story you tell ourselves. Those that are resilient just believe they are resilient. It’s so simple that we trip ourselves up. If you can decide what story you’ll tell yourself about your past, why not make it a good one? Make it a story of triumph. Make it a mantra of yours that you ALWAYS benefit from every experience you’ve had, because you do and you can. You get to decide and while we cannot control our circumstances, we can control our decisions. Our decisions include what we think about what happened and what we do going forward.
3. Focus on a compelling future
Now let’s talk about moving forward. What is driving you out of your past if you don’t have a compelling future vision to move towards?
I know this is a bigger question that you may need some time to think about, but what is your purpose? Why are you here? What are you here to learn? What’s your mission in life? What do you want to get out of this thing called life? How do you want to squeeze all the juice from this day because you don’t know if you’re going to have another one? If you can have a compelling future driving you forward, you start to see how this all fits in. These mistakes you made are your process of personal growth. If I didn’t make so many decisions that I later realized weren’t in my best interest, I wouldn’t have been able to teach these stories. If you didn’t mess up time and time again, you’re not human. And if you’re going to have a compelling future vision you’re going to be stretching yourself.
This vision doesn’t have to be grand in scale, but personally compelling to you. Do you want to become less stressed? Lose 28.5 lbs. Be a better husband, father, mother, sister, brother, wife, partner, friend? What does all that you’ve experienced mean in your growth towards that person? One thing you know for sure is where you are today and the habits you have today. IF you want to make a change, you’ll have to do something DIFFERENT than what you have always done. Instead of waking up late, you wake up early. Instead of being late, you’re on time. Instead of being negative about a situation, you look for the positive. Instead of walking away, you stay and have the conversation. Instead of thinking about your past, you start thinking about your future.
This is how you get different results in your life and move out of the past. You start making different decisions.
To wrap this up, don’t berate yourself when you get lost in the past, but do realize that it’s wasted time and energy that you can be using to create your future. Identify the trigger and create a new emotional habit by saying to yourself, “I MUST live in the present”, telling yourself a positive story about your past, and then seeing it in the context of your future vision. This is the daily work of all of us humans but it’s worth it. When you change the way you think, you change your life.