A woman floats peacefully in a pool representing how to let go of the past

We all want to learn how to let go of the past and feel happy. But sometimes the life experiences that cause us the most pain are the hardest to put behind us. 

As a counselor, I meet many people who have made terrible mistakes that they regret every day. Others have lived through trauma that is still alive for them and impacting how they think and feel. Others are stuck in grief or loss, or holding on to old anger that feels like it’s consuming them. 

Understandably, these clients want to know how to let go of the past, to finally put it behind them so they can stop feeling haunted by it. I help them make friends with their pasts and the seeds of personal growth in their most difficult experiences — because that is the true path to healing and moving forward. 

In this article, I’m sharing why letting go of the past feels hard and what you can do if you’re stuck. I hope that it resonates with you and that you can put this information to good use in your life. If you would prefer to listen to this one, I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on letting go of the past. You can find it on this page (player below), or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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Why Can’t I Let Go of the Past?

When you’re ruminating about bad things that have happened to you, beating yourself up for past decisions, or stewing in angry feelings that won’t go away, it hurts. It keeps you from being fully present in your life as it is today. It makes it harder to dust yourself off, learn from your mistakes, and start a new chapter of redemption and growth. It keeps you feeling like a victim of someone else’s misdeeds, rather than connected to your potential to make good things happen in your life. 

Of course, none of this is voluntary. No one would choose to live this way. In my experience working with people who are struggling to let go of the past, there are a few emotional “hooks” that dig their way into your heart and mind when you don’t know what to do with a difficult life experience. They don’t come out on their own, but they can be worked out and healed with the right support. 

The path to letting go of the past depends on the life experience that has led you to feel stuck. Here are the experiences that I see most often. If you are struggling to let go of the past, you might identify with one or more of these: 

  1. Regret and Letting Go of the Past

One “hook” that will keep you stuck in the past is regret. We all have regrets, but some of the people I meet have made big, irreparable mistakes that they struggle to live with. Mistakes that caused them to lose their health, their families, their careers, or their futures. Even mistakes that caused the death of someone else. 

Because of these mistakes, they hate themselves. They no longer feel worthy of love and respect. They believe their lives are over, or that they will never be the same. Even more ordinary regrets — like choosing the “wrong” career,  or ending a relationship rather than working on it — can eat away at you if you don’t know how to deal with regret and move forward.

Regret can also be fueled by betrayal, of yourself or of someone you care about. Maybe you stayed in a toxic relationship that eroded your self-esteem. Maybe you cheated on your partner and it devastated them. Maybe you didn’t protect your children when they needed you. 

The path to healing from regret is processing the feelings of guilt, shame, remorse, and anger toward yourself. This is difficult, because your tendency will be to push those feelings away. You may avoid talking about your regrets, or get defensive when you do discuss what happened, but this will only keep you stuck. A good therapist can help you manage defensiveness so that it can’t stunt your growth any longer. 

When you can tolerate the painful feelings of regret, they’ll hold less power over you. You will have an opportunity to write a new story about what happened and why, one that is self-compassionate without abdicating responsibility. 

An important part of this new story will be the seed of growth that you found in the rubble of your mistakes. Because of regret, there are things you understand that you did not understand before. You’ve learned something about your values and how you want to live your life every day going forward. If there is an action you can take to repair some of the damage from your mistake, taking that action can be an important part of healing. 

This is how you make friends with regret — you build your awareness of the ways you have grown because of it, and you commit to your continued personal growth. You decide how your life, relationships, values, and ways of being in the world will be transformed positively as a result of this experience, and then you bring that transformation to fruition. 

This process doesn’t make regret disappear, but it makes it useful to you, and it allows you to let go of the past and move forward. 

  1. Unresolved Trauma and Letting Go of the Past

PTSD is very real. It can happen if you’ve experienced physical harm, been the victim of a crime, lived through abuse, or if you’ve experienced the trauma of betrayal by someone you trusted, to name a few common causes. Any experience that makes you feel overwhelmed, terrified, or powerless can have a lasting traumatic impact on your mental and emotional health

One of the symptoms of PTSD is intrusive thoughts and feelings about the trauma, which can keep you feeling stuck in the past. These intrusive thoughts can be triggered by anything that even remotely resembles the traumatic experience (like a song that makes you think of your abusive Ex, or a cologne that reminds of your partner having an affair), and people who are suffering from PTSD often jump through a lot of hoops to avoid anything that could trigger these painful thoughts and feelings. 

The path to healing from trauma is not to avoid your triggers. It’s to safely reprocess the traumatic memories through evidence-based, trauma-informed therapy. If you suspect you’re experiencing PTSD symptoms, it’s really important that you get professional help, from someone who knows what they are doing. Connecting with the wrong therapist, or god forbid an unlicensed life coach, could actually make your symptoms worse. But the right help for trauma can be very effective and can provide life changing relief that helps you let go of the past. 

For more guidance on getting the right kind of help, see my article on how to find a good therapist.

  1. How to Let Go of the Past after Grief and Loss

Often when we don’t know how to let go of the past, it’s because we’re experiencing grief or loss that we haven’t been able to resolve yet. 

Life after the loss of someone you love is a foreign territory that you have to learn how to live inside of. The process of grief helps you to do that, but sometimes people get stuck in their grieving process. This could be because they haven’t been able to release control and allow the waves of grief wash over them — which is totally understandable. Grief not only hurts, it’s scary. It can feel like it’s throwing you down a dark well that has no bottom. The natural impulse is to push those feelings away, but when we do that, we’re only kicking the can down the road. The grief doesn’t go anywhere; it is still waiting for you, and it will sneak up on you when you’re too tired or otherwise vulnerable to continue fighting against it. 

Until you are able to roll with the waves of grief, it can feel like you’re stuck in the past, unable to let go of your loved one and move forward with your life. You may feel like there’s something wrong with you because your grief doesn’t seem to be changing or becoming more tolerable. If anything, you may feel like it’s getting worse. 

Getting stuck in grief is not a sign that there’s something wrong with you; it just means that you have unfinished emotional business with the past, and you can take care of it by intentionally engaging in the work of grief. The only way out of grief is through it, and once you are able to move through your grief, you will begin to feel it shifting. At the end of this process, you will be able to remember your loved one and feel the warmth, love, and appreciation you have for them, rather than only feeling the pain of their loss. 

It is always a good idea to get support with grief, but this is especially true if you feel like your grief is not resolving. A good therapist can help you stay in the ring with your feelings, process the loss, find closure, and develop a new relationship with your person that will be yours to keep forever. 

  1. Letting Go of Unresolved Anger

Anger is your friend, but when you don’t know what to do with anger it can keep you from letting go of the past. 

There are a couple of reasons that people struggle to let go of anger, in my experience. The first scenario is what I think of as a “psychological splinter.” This is like a shard that’s lodged in your psyche, generating emotional pain that you’re experiencing as anger. This could be because someone hurt you in the past, or because you lived through trauma. It could also be that you’re living in fear that something awful might happen to you or to the people you love. 

Difficult life experiences can lead people to adopt highly negative mindsets that generate anger. It can also happen when you’re exposed to people who struggled to manage their own anger and you’re “infected” by their emotional climate. 

When unresolved anger is caused by a “psychological splinter,” it’s important to get help. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Experiential Therapy, and Narrative Therapy have all been shown to be effective treatments. A good therapist can help you identify the thoughts, associations, life experiences, and the meaning you’re making out of them that is generating anger inside of you. This process helps you validate your anger, while also finding forgiveness and shifting into more helpful mindsets. Therapy can also help you manage angry feelings when they do arise so that you can redirect yourself and stop letting anger control you. 

There is a second scenario that can keep you feeling stuck in anger — when something is legitimately wrong in your life and you need to do something about it. 

Anger is not meant to metastasize and become a stable fixture of our personalities. It’s meant to serve an immediate purpose; to tell us when our values, needs, rights, and boundaries are being encroached upon so that we can take action. 

If, for example, someone is living with an abuser, they will feel angry a lot of the time. They may feel bad about their anger, or even like the fact that they’re getting angry is what’s causing the abuse. The unfortunate victim in this scenario does not need to learn how to take a deep breath and let go of their anger. They need to listen to what their anger is trying to tell them, decide that they do not deserve to be mistreated and that they won’t accept it any longer, and then get the heck out of there. Once they take action and then heal from the trauma, their anger will resolve, because they don’t need it anymore. 

Sometimes anger is your emotional guidance system alerting you that something needs to change, whether it’s a toxic relationship, an exploitative job, or other situations that tread all over your dignity and autonomy. Until you make the change, it can feel like you “can’t let go of the past” because you can’t stop thinking about the violation you’ve experienced. It requires emotional intelligence and sometimes professional support to figure out whether anger needs to be managed, or obeyed. 

Support for Letting Go of the Past

If you’re having a hard time figuring out how to let go of the past, you are not alone. This is one of the most common reasons that people get involved in therapy or coaching, and I hope that you will consider seeking support if you need it. 

You can’t change the past, but you can change your relationship with the past, and that will make a positive difference in how you feel in the present. If you would like to do this valuable work with a clinician on my team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

P.S. — For more advice on healing from painful experiences, feeling happier, and moving forward, check out my “Emotional Wellness” collection of articles and podcasts. I’ve made it all to support you

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How to Let Go of the Past

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Music in this episode is by Dead Ghosts with their song “Rocky Said.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://deadghosts.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby and you’re listening to the Love, Happiness and Success podcast. Are you feeling like events of your past are still impacting you in the present? If so, this episode is for you. You’ll learn how to let go of the past, make peace with it, and most importantly, grow from it so that you can move forward. Today’s mood music is brought to you by the band Dead Ghosts, the song Roky Says. And you can learn more about Dead Ghosts on Bandcamp, deadghosts.bandcamp.com.

Dead ghosts. That’s what we’re here to talk about. And we wish they were dead, right? You know, some ghosts, some artifacts of the past can feel very, very alive inside of us for a long time after the events have transpired. And I know you know what I’m talking about. And really, that is why I wanted to make this particular episode for you. Because I read your questions, I see your comments on our website, growingself.com. You guys have been reaching out through Instagram, Facebook and even I see the questions, the goals that new clients coming into our practice have, and so much of these different circumstances.

But at the core, so often, how do I make peace with what has happened, the things I’ve done, the things that I’ve lived through, so that they stop impacting me in my present. I feel like I am being negatively impacted by these things that happened a long time ago. It’s hard for me to feel safe in the world or feel hopeful about the future. How do I move past this? How do I feel free again? How can I leave this behind me and write a new chapter?

And that’s why I really wanted to make this podcast, because we talk about so many different things on the show. We talk about healthy relationships and I talk about advice for couples and individuals wanting to have healthier relationships with others or themselves. We talk about things related to career, how to get that clarity and confidence, but also how to grow in the arena of your professional experiences.

But always we’re talking about growth for yourself, just even as an individual. And why I wanted to talk about how to let go of the past is because so often, at the core of all of these different circumstances, whether you’re working on relationships or yourself or your career, there is often this element, this elephant in the room of a past life experience that is creating obstacles or challenges or difficulties for you in the present. And until you understand what these are and how to work with them, and ideally, how to move this and overcome it, to kind of climb over it and get on the other side, it is going to continue showing up.

And so to me, this topic, how to let go of the past, feels like a very just core concept that is going to benefit you in every domain of your life because we all have, you want to call it baggage, ghosts, whatever it is, skeletons in the old closet. And it’s because we’ve been living life, it is because we are humans who on our path of growth and discovery and go out into the world and we learn as we go.

And sometimes — no actually all the time — through those experiences, we all make mistakes, we do things that in retrospect we wish we hadn’t done or we live through very challenging things, maybe through no fault of our own, maybe it is the hand that we got dealt. And though even if it isn’t something that you created, you’re still left with a task of how do I clean this up? And we all have to do those things.

So today’s episode is all about that. We are going to be talking about why we can get these hooks stuck in us, these things from the past, why they get their claws into us in the first place, because knowing that informs what we need to do to wiggle those hooks out of us and do our healing and be on our way.

We’ll be talking about that, and then we’re also going to be talking about what are some of the strategies, the things that you can do, the mindsets, the activities that will actually help you begin doing the work of recognition, awareness, healing and growth that will help you move past the past and into a bright new future.

I have lots of things planned, lots of information and we’re just going to dive into this. And also, just so you know, we’re going to be talking about many other articles that I have on our old podcasts that I’ve done in the past and you can find links to everything that I’m going to be talking about on the article of this page.

It’ll be growingself.com/how-to-let-go-of-the-past and also you can go to the Emotional Wellness collection on my blog. So growingself.com/blog-podcast, go into the Happiness Umbrella Collection and then you’ll look for Emotional Wellness and most of the resources that I’ll be talking about on this episode and many more will be available for you there. So I just wanted you to resource you so that this podcast episode is but one of the things that hopefully you engage with as you work through these things in your life.

Okay, so to dive right in, the first thing we need to talk about is why you can’t let go of the past. Because even though we all have stuff that sticks to us, understanding the things that have more emotional tenacity can again help you get that self awareness and also help you understand what you need to do specifically in order to move it so you don’t stay stuck.

And so the usual suspects when people are feeling haunted by things come from usually one of the following: one, feeling like you made an irreparable mistake, you did something or didn’t do something. You had the opportunity to take an action in the past and for whatever reason, either you went the wrong way or inaction can be a mistake. But if you feel like it is over, it is no longer fixable. And now you are living with the consequences, that comes with a ton of regret.

I have done a podcast and articles on the subject of regret specifically, so lots to talk about there that you might check out. But that feeling like you made a mistake, that is no longer a solvable thing is something that oftentimes comes with that feeling stuck.

Another big thing that can contribute to this feeling haunted can be linked to number one, feeling like you made a mistake. But this is a special kind of mistake. It is feeling that you have betrayed or harmed someone. Someone else or yourself. So if whatever action or inaction you took was linked to something that caused harm for another human, that one is going to be tougher to move past.

A third iteration of a thing that will trap us is if we’ve lived through something highly traumatic that you have not yet had the opportunity to process and heal. There is a healing sequence. There are stages of healing and growth and recovery. And until you’ve done that, that trauma is going to be impacting your life. And so healing trauma: solvable problem. It is achievable.

There are lots of counselors, therapists who specialize in this kind of work helps lots of people. You can be helped by it too. And until you do that work, it’s going to stay alive in your life. Similarly, and this can also be sometimes related to trauma, if you are living with unresolved grief or loss that you haven’t yet had the opportunity to fully process, it’s going to be knocking at your door.

And then lastly, something that will also keep us stuck in the past, that can be a kind of consequence of any and all of the life experiences that I just described is unresolved anger. Anger towards others, towards yourself, towards the mysterious universe, all the things. Anger will also create a hook. These are all emotional hooks that will dig into your mind and heart and they don’t come out on their own and they can be worked out, they can be healed.

And there are different paths forward for any of these different life experiences. And so the very first step in healing and recovery from this that I would advise is to first of all spend some time thinking about, journaling about, or talking about, a friend, a good counselor who could give you some space. What is this? Yes, I feel that the past is alive. I feel like I can’t move forward. But why? Did I make a mistake? Did I hurt somebody? Did I hurt myself? Was I traumatized? Is there unresolved grief or loss? Is there anger that is active for me? And you know what?

You may discover that the answer is a little bit of all of those things. And that is completely fine. That just means that the work ahead is going to be more involved. It’ll take a little bit longer because you’ll need to be working through growth and healing in each of those domains, which is completely fine.

But one of the hardest things about feeling trapped by the past, I think, can be the experience of almost helplessness. Like legitimately not knowing how to fix it. We can’t just get over it, we can’t just let go of the past. And very well intentioned people are very eager to advise us that we should do those things.

But if you have ever lived through that life experience, you’ll know that it’s really not that easy. And there is not a roadmap, there’s not like how to let go of the past class. And so because of that, legitimately can feel very stuck and helpless because we don’t know what to do to help ourselves. And this is true even for very competent, self directed, autonomous, confident people.

This is like a new thing. It is knowing how to operate in a very deep emotional and psychological realm that we’re not equipped to do because we don’t have to know how to do it. Until you find yourself in this situation, that is when the door opens and we are motivated to figure this out, but also have the opportunity to do this work.

But if it makes you feel any better, every human does need to figure out how to do this work at some point or another. Some of us need to figure out how to do this at earlier points in our lives and some of us need to figure out how to do it later. But none of us is getting out of here unscathed. So this is the work of being an emotionally mature and growing person. It is in everybody’s life path sooner or later. So I just hope you don’t think that it means something negative about you because you are doing this work now. It’s okay, I’ve done it. Everybody’s done it. It’s not a matter of if, it is a matter of when. So understanding the flavor of what your hooks are is the very first and important step in resolving it.

But also, I think, keeping in mind what I was just sharing, like to be intentionally self compassionate and very deliberately avoid any tendency to beat yourself up for having this in your life right now. It’s all all right, we all need to do this. It’s a human experience. So once you have gotten that clarity, worked on, that self compassion, now we can start talking about what the different paths forward for these different hook removals can look like. Starting with regret for what feels like irreparable mistakes.

And we’ve all made mistakes, almost all mistakes are solvable resolvable. If we make the wrong choice, we can make a different choice and get things back on track. Even tattoo removal is a thing. Some mistakes are bigger and have longer lasting consequences. Real estate purchases of choosing the wrong career path. Maybe things that happen in relationships at the very worst if it results in an accident or some just tragic event where the harm is irreparable and we can’t put that or glue the pieces back together again, those are definitely the toughest.

But when these are what’s keeping us stuck in the past, there’s a mental narrative that can be very powerful. And it says if I hadn’t done X then Y wouldn’t have happened or if I had done X then Y wouldn’t have happened. And if I could go back in the past, I would make a different decision and everything would be different now. And this can be huge. And I just want to validate this for a second because even though we all have some of this in our life experience, I am also well aware that some of you listening have this to a greater degree than others.

If it’s because I did this thing, I went to prison for the rest of my life or somebody died or I lost my relationship or my health, my future, I didn’t go to college, I’m going to be cleaning up whatever mess this is for a long time. Maybe I never got married and I lost my opportunity to have children, which was important to me, or I lost my career.

And the real risk here and the thing that can make this so terrible and why you have got to work through this is because it can turn into not just shame but like actual self hatred. Because I did these things or did not do these things. I hate myself. I am not redeemable. My life will never be the same. It’s basically over for me. And that is such a dark place. Such a dark place.

And if you are having any of those mindsets or thoughts floating through your mind, I would just like for you to know, and I am saying this as a friend, it is very, very important for you to get help and support to work through this. This is a again, super dark place deep in the hole and somebody’s going to have to go in there with flashlight to get you and that is okay. People do that for a living. That is what a lot of therapists sign up to do. They love that work and they can come in and find you.

You have to let somebody know that you are there and request their assistance. Nobody is going to accidentally wander into the cave with a flashlight to come and rescue you, you got to send up a flare. But you have to do that because it can be very difficult to find compassion for the person that you were to go back into that past and really understand why you made the choices that you made.

Because I will tell you there’s — spoiler — it actually all does and did make sense when you put yourself back into the context of that time. But you have to be able to connect with that in order to find your way forward again. And it’s deep work. It is really doing a deep dive back into this past, visiting, developing a relationship with this former self and then walking out again slowly developing a new understanding and appreciation of the person that you are now.

It is also deep work in that it involves a lot of meaning creation that can be difficult to do and also I just want to say will not be available to you until later stages of the work. So don’t push yourself into this if it is premature, because it is, it’s going to be for a while.

But where it will go eventually on that path of healing is to be able to find some meaning, some kind of meaning. What is possible now that wasn’t before? What was the transformation? And are there the tiniest aspects of that that are in fact new opportunities, wasn’t what you wanted and it is what you have. So how do we rebuild and find ways of creating a new life with what exists today?

Another big piece of this work which can also be difficult is related to the idea of redemption. We often think of redemption in spiritual or religious terms and that is a function of many of the world religions is that they create a path, a process of redemption for people. And there is a reason why humans have needed that, why those schools of thought and spiritual practices have existed for thousands of years. So if there is a spiritual or religious belief system that you feel warmly towards, this would be a good opportunity to re-explore that and see what it has to offer you.

And redemption can also be found through growth work, through a psychological process where you are understanding why things happened, finding compassion and forgiveness and meaning and then finding a new and redemptive narrative that supports the new you that is going to need to develop as you move forward from this. And so I know that this sounds very ethereal, but this is me trying to explain a psychological process that is often measured in years. Like if it has been very bad for you, if there have been things that have been done that have truly been catastrophic.

I think it’s also important to be honest with you as your friend, that this is not something that you’re going to go to a weekend seminar and come out the other side and feel great, I’m done now. Certainly not going to be achieved by your listening to this podcast, but this is me kind of pointing a flashlight perhaps even a spotlight in the direction that you will begin walking and handing you a map.

Like, okay, so here’s the bend in the river, here’s the mountain. Watch out for the desert. This is going to be a journey, and it may be a long one and it is a very worthwhile one. I just wanted to let you know why I’m explaining things in the terms that I am and why it might not all make sense to you right now, but it will as you begin putting one foot in front of the other, hopefully with a guide, your very own guide, who can walk you through this process.

And then again, knowing that as you do this work, what will begin to emerge and what will create this new solid path under your feet and the scenery around you will start to look different as you keep on going. It’ll be because you write a new story for yourself. You have developed a strong narrative, a big, clear why what happened, happened, and here’s who I am now, and this is where I’m going. And as that story becomes more powerful, you will be able to walk into it.

Along the way, you’ll be clarifying your values. What did this teach me about who I am and what I care about and what is important to me? And what do I want to be now? What do I want my life to be about from this point forward? Because as long as you are still breathing, you do actually get a second chance.

And again, maybe it’s not what you wanted originally, but it is what you have available to you now. And how can you build something beautiful with that? In our wise spiritual and religious practices in the world, redemption often goes hand in hand with atonement. And atonement can be very powerful too. What can you build now, create now, contribute now? How can you serve the world in a different way than you would have been able to before you went through this transformation? Getting clear about that and taking that action can also be very, very powerful in a growth and healing process. So keep that in mind as you begin moving forward.

Okay, so another thing we’re going to talk about is the special kind of growth and healing that we need to do. If there has been betrayal or harm of yourself or someone else, that’s part of what is keeping you hooked in the past. I will say that when you betray or hurt somebody or yourself, it is also in that larger I made a mistake kind of category. So all of the things that we just talked about will still apply to you.

But there’s like some special emotional work that we need to do when there’s been betrayal or harm in the mix. So these can be common experiences. Cheating on a partner, having an affair, particularly if it led to the destruction of your family or of a relationship. That can be a very difficult thing to sit with in the aftermath of particularly if, as many people do in the cold light of day, you realize that the mirage of this very sparkly and attractive person that you had your thing with is actually not a good partner for you.

So when you got there, it crumbled in your hands and now you don’t have that relationship that maybe you had wanted, but you also lost what you did have and now you are sitting there with a lot of regret and a lot of thinking about what might have been. Right. So more on this topic and a variety of podcasts. I’ve written extensively about toxic relationships and relationship addiction and why these things happen.

And also one podcast that might be very helpful to you in this healing process is called what did I call it? Oh, if you’re married and have a crush on someone else, it speaks to the early stages of the experience that you had. And I’m recommending this for you because again, part of the work ahead of you is going to be to get a lot of clarity, understanding and dare I say, compassion for why you did the things that you did. So those are resources for you.

But this can also take many other forms. There is betrayal or harming people. There’s so many different ways to do that, right? You may betray yourself if you stayed in a toxic relationship for way longer than you’ve had to, if you participated in something that was hurtful for another person. I have worked with clients who have an enormous amount of this guilt, past pain for even engaging in bullying or exclusionary activities for other kids in elementary school, middle school, college or beyond. Making choices that in retrospect really hurt somebody’s feelings but not fully appreciating that until after the fact.

And these can be big ones. Getting addicted to drugs or alcohol, that’s a twofer. Because yeah, you’ve really harmed yourself and betrayed yourself but probably caused a lot of pain and heartbreak and perhaps even consequences to the people that loved you. So that’s a big one.

Not protecting your children from very bad situations. By my world, that’s the worst kind of pain, is that. But really, I think through that work, understanding the depth of the original pain or wounding that created an internal situation in you that at the time made it make sense to be hurtful towards somebody else, I think just recognizing the depth of that can be a very difficult part of this work.

And again, this is deep, hard work. This is something you want to do with a really effective partner. So you’d be looking for a good therapist who specializes in not even just trauma work, but who really understands the special kind of trauma that comes with betrayal of yourself and of others. Because with any of these life experiences one of the things that can make it the most difficult to do is that we all have a natural and understandable desire to move away from pain, to protect ourselves from things that hurt.

And the path of growth and healing when it comes to this stuff is running into the hail of bullets, so to speak. You have to walk into this fire in order to go through it and out the other side. And when left to our own devices, we can come up with many compelling reasons to not do this work.

So part of the utility of having a great guide is to have somebody who is strong enough to first create emotional safety that makes it feel safe enough for you to be very courageous and be walking into spaces that honestly, none of us would rather prefer to be going into. But you need somebody who is going to be strong enough to keep you in that ring. So just a word of advice when you’re thinking about personality characteristics of a therapist that you would like to work with, it needs to be somebody strong and knowledgeable.

But other kinds of things that can create this. So we’ve talked about some of them having an affair, staying in a toxic relationship, participating in something hurtful, certainly of unethical decisions, in maybe criminal activity, but also maybe like perfectly legal business activity that still had consequences for other people.

Or sometimes I think one of the things that can be heart-wrenching, difficult to access, but also very real, is when we grow and evolve throughout our lives, when we work on ourselves, we become aware of things that we really, genuinely didn’t know in the past. When we become more emotionally intelligent, more aware of ourselves and other people, when we have more empathy for others, when we become more emotionally mature, we understand the pain of other people in a way that we wouldn’t have been able to in the past and can also understand how we may have even unintentionally contributed to that pain. And that can show up in many, many ways.

So the path to getting help. But here is what you can expect as you walk along that path with a great guide, you’re going to be making contact with feelings of guilt, shame, anger towards yourself, towards others, a lot of remorse.

You can also expect to encounter a lot of self defensiveness. Again, as a protective mechanism. While we do need to achieve self compassion and self understanding, there’s also a powerful tendency to blame other people for our choices, for why we did the things we did, particularly if it winds up hurting them. I had an affair because my wife stopped wanting to have sex with me or gained 40 pounds. So who’s the victim here?

And again, just being aware of that tendency and understanding that while it might help you feel a little better in the moment to kind of manage that anxiety, it will also get you stuck because when others are responsible for who you are and what you do, that is so disempowering with everything, but especially with this.

So we need to find a balance — balancing between self compassion, self understanding, but also this idea of extreme ownership that you did make choices and the goal here is to find the compassionate story without displacing blame onto others or abdicating ownership. This is the path to true forgiveness for yourself and that’s where we are heading.

You cannot have true forgiveness without both compassion and a full accountability for wrongdoing. And this is the growth process. As you do this work, the growth that will emerge for you is that you will understand things about yourself and others. You will have much more clarity with your values, your moral compass and understand that going through this experience has transformed you from the person you were who was capable of doing these things to the person you are now who is a very different person.

And developing appreciation for that and committing to this new path forward because of who I am now, this is how I will live my life every day going forward. I have a new set of rules and boundaries that I’m grateful for and being aware of how your growth, how your life, your relationships, your self awareness, value system and ways of being in the world have all been transformed positively as a result of this experience.

I think every single one of us who have gone through this very painful kind of transformation that starts with our awareness that we’ve done bad things. And again, there’s a lot of people in that club, myself included, wish that there was an easier way to do that work. On the other side of it, nobody will be able to take it away from you. It will be yours to keep and you will be different because of it and that will be valuable and I hope that you can find the value and appreciation for that work.

Okay, another kind of life experience that can and will keep people stuck in the past that we mentioned at the beginning is unresolved trauma. And I’ll give you some information about this and it is beyond the scope of this podcast to do a deep dive into trauma and recovery. But I will give you some resources where you can continue learning if that would be helpful for you. And know that making mistakes, feeling that there have been irreparable mistakes and the trauma of betrayal, these can create a traumatic response inside of you.

So we’ll talk a little bit about trauma, but just know that it can be part of the experience of all of the things that we’re talking about today. Actually, there is clinical trauma, there is post traumatic stress disorder. It is very real and it comes from having lived through the most difficult of life experiences. Feeling that your life or the life of somebody else was in danger or experiencing or being threatened with very real physical harm, crime, sexual abuse and emotional abuse. Betrayal, trauma can also result in a traumatic response that is not in the DSM as part of the clinical definition. So you’re not going to see that at the VA hospital with the war veterans.

But maybe if and part of their trauma, they were abandoned by their comrades in arms or whatever. For many people, betrayal, trauma, being abandoned by somebody who you thought loved you is actually the worst kind of trauma. It is an attachment trauma and it results in some of the traumatic responses that you see in the aftermath.

But PTSD is characterized by two things: intrusive thoughts and feelings about things or adjacent to things that have happened in the past. It can be memories, but it can also just be feelings of pain, loss, sadness, terror, anxiety, hypervigilance, not feeling safe. It’s very intrusive. And the other side of this is feeling that you are having to protect yourself from all of these intrusive thoughts and feelings.

So there’s a lot of avoidance that happens with PTSD, which makes sense if you’re not feeling safe, if you’re feeling triggered by everything, you want to remove yourself from that hide buffer anesthetize, like whatever we need to do. Substances might be a big part of this picture. Avoiding certain situations, places, or people, or feeling like you need to have a lot of control over your life experiences. These are all symptoms of possible trauma.

So just be aware if you have any of those. And also know that if you do, you must get good, competent psychological help, because this doesn’t go away on its own. It doesn’t get better, it calcifies, it can become more stable, but at the core, it’s all still going to be there. So you would like to look for a clinical psychologist or other licensed mental health professional. If you find a life coach for help with this, I’m going to climb through your earphones and find a way to, ugh. Don’t do that.

Find a licensed mental health professional that specializes in evidence-based, trauma-focused treatment. Things like cognitive reprocessing therapy, there’s exposure therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy can have a relationship with trauma work, EMDR, but it’s important that you get the right help.

I have written an article that talks about evidence based practice in psychotherapy and what you want to look for in order to make informed decisions about who you want to work with. I will also tell you right now, my practice, Growing Self, is not the right place for you to be doing this kind of work. We specialize in love, happiness, and success. You are looking for clinical mental health treatment that is trauma focused. It specializes in trauma work.

But this article that I put together for you will help you learn what you’re looking for and what to avoid. So growingself.com/evidence-based-practice. Read that. It is a longer article, clearly though, but I’m passionate about this. I want you to have all the information so that you can make informed decisions so that when you do connect with somebody, it’s going to be somebody who can help you because there are lots of therapists operating in the world who do not do the kind of work that you need to do. So goodness of fit is very important. So please check out that article.

Okay. Now another hook that can keep us hooked is unresolved grief. When we have gone through a very significant loss, when we have lost a loved one, certainly to death in this life. But other kinds of losses, the loss of a dream, the loss of a life, the loss of our goals and hopes I mean, you see this a lot. When somebody’s lived through a divorce or lost a relationship, they’re not just losing that person they had a relationship with, they are losing the dream of their life that that relationship encapsulated. And that can be a lot harder to get over than actually the loss of the person itself.

But certainly if you’ve lost a loved one to death and have not had the opportunity to work through that or another significant loss, even the loss of your physical health and wellness if you were in an accident and you cannot move your legs anymore or can’t do the things that you used to. I know many of our friends are still struggling with the after effects of long COVID, and there’s a lot of loss associated with that.

So being able to do grief and loss work extends much more broadly than having lost a loved one to death. There are many applications of this, career related applications: making the wrong decision, losing a job, being ejected from a business or a career path, losing a business, holy moly, there’s a lot there. And so just knowing about the process of grief work would invite you to check out podcasts and articles that I’ve created on this topic specifically in the past.

I think there’s one that’s coping with grief and loss or maybe the path of healing. There are actually a number of different episodes on this but you can find them all in that Emotional Wellness Collection that I told you about. So they’re all there for you. Check those out.

But also be aware of the obstacles to this work because grief work is not I’m not going to say that it’s not hard to do because it is not easy to do, but in terms of the depths and the level of difficulty, it is easier to do than some of the things that we’ve just been talking about related to the trauma work, the regret, the betrayal kinds of work and the things that are the most difficult in my experience about having or doing effective grief and lost work is not the work itself, but is rather the barriers, the obstacles that will obstruct you from doing the work. So those are the things that happen inside of you internally that keep you from processing. That’s where the real work is.

I know that sounds weird, but that’s actually the name of the problem when you get stuck in this place. So what I’m talking about specifically is the fact that it is really instinctive again for us to push away pain, painful ideas, painful life experiences. We want to flee into these ideas of like I’m strong, I’m fine, I’m over it, I don’t feel feelings, I’m fine. Compartmentalization, right? Finding ways to manage and kind of keep going.

And this can be especially true with complex loss. If it is multifaceted and not straightforward, there can be different layers of emotional experience that can make it that much harder to access. Because in addition to just sadness or missing somebody, there could also be guilt, regret, but there could also be anger. There could also be relief, happiness actually. And that in itself can be difficult. Like I feel relieved and kind of better now that this person is not in the world. What does that mean about me?

So, lots here and this work will be obstructed not by the work itself, but by the degree to which we are avoiding it, basically. And these things are just sleepers. You can do the work now or you can do the work later, but it is not going to move until you do the work.

So go ahead, kick that can down the road as long as you need to when the time is right, which it might be right now. I mean, if you’re listening to this podcast about how to get over the past, it may be because there’s this wise mind part of you that’s saying maybe it is actually because my mom died and I went back to work the next day and never really allowed myself to think about it. And yet I find myself feeling very sad or anxious or angry in these situations or it’s creating distance for me in my relationships and I know that. So I do actually have to do this even though I don’t want to. That’s okay. Nobody wants to. But we have to. It’s the right thing to do.

If you are experiencing inner obstacles to the degree that it makes you difficult to connect with your feelings, make contact with the loss or do some journaling or processing really like finding your path through the pain and into meeting and meaning and reconnection. Get somebody good to help you. I would look for a therapist or potentially a coach who is well versed in the steps and structure and sequence of the grief and loss process. But what you can expect from this work is just that the only way out of this is through.

You are to move forward. You do actually need to move back you are going to feel the feelings, you are probably going to recycle many of the experiences of loss all over again. And that’s a good thing. That’s what needs to happen. It’s all right. And as you do this, there will be an upward spiral that will generate meaning, values and ultimately reconnection.

At the end, many people in this process are able to develop a new kind of relationship with the person you lost internally. If it’s a loss of a loved one or a new understanding, a new sense of peace with the past and a hope and appreciation for the future that is now available to you because of that past. So it’s really tied to the legacy of the past and the future that it can build and allowing yourself to be transformed by that.

Because we don’t build a new life in spite of what happened, we built this new life because of what happened. And that is the depth and the promise of really good grief work. So I hope you explore that if this is resonating with you.

And then very lastly related to unresolved anger, this will keep you stuck in the past for a long time and you will know that this is really the hook that you’re dealing with. If it feels like this is weird to say, but like there’s this psychological splinter still stuck inside of you. Like whatever happened that there’s a rumination you are still having imaginary conversations with people in your head or you are feeling intense feelings of anger.

Maybe you’re replaying scenes in your mind and feeling that like angry charge. Or if it is not something that you are actively conscious of and aren’t associating it with these past events. Maybe how it is showing up is through your own experience of either anger, aggression, hostility, irritability, impulsiveness in your life day to day.

Maybe you are angry at yourself and you are in low key or dramatic ways harming yourself. Maybe it’s more other directed. Maybe you are angry with somebody in your distant past and you have found somebody in your life in the present who sort of feels similar enough that now they are the lightning rod. Even though they are kind of innocent bystanders. It feels like this weird like why am I so angry at this person? So just be aware of those things and understand that that is an opportunity for personal reflection and growth if that’s going on inside of you.

So that is what an emotional splinter, that psychological splinter can look like. But there’s actually another very interesting reason why anger might be both happening and feels like it keeps you stuck in the past, but is actually a very different kind of thing and has a lot of opportunity.

Sometimes we can feel very angry if our emotional guidance system is telling us that something is wrong and that we need to figure out what it is. We need to make a big change. So you could experience this if something happened in the past and you are having this inexplicable, unresolved anger, but like, it’s anger worth listening to.

Okay. So to pass forward here, if in reflecting and listening to this or doing some journaling, you’re like, yes, I have a splinter that is keeping me angry, that’s another great opportunity to get some help if you need it, to figure out, okay, what is this about? How do I process this anger? What do I do with this instead? How do I manage these feelings in a way that I feel better and I can release this hook and working with somebody who can help you access. Is this anger related to hurt or pain or fear or trauma? Did I develop a highly negative mindset due to some adverse past life experiences that is now kind of coloring what I’m telling myself about me and other people in the future or in the present and making me feel angry?

But with this kind of anger, it’s not helpful. It’s toxic. Honestly, it’s toxic for you because it actually has a negative physiological impact on your body. To be swimming in a little broth of stress hormones all the time is not good for you. And it changes the way that you show up in the world so that you are less likely to get positive results in your relationships or with other people or can lead to irritable or impulsive decision making. So it can be very toxic for you, but also to others, other people, obviously, who are trying to have a relationship with you and you’re like all the time.

So it’s kind of like an emotional infection when we’re dealing with this kind of anger, it requires treatment. And so to get good help here, I would be looking for somebody who has a strong background in cognitive behavioral therapy, potentially like psychodynamic or experiential psychotherapy, potentially narrative therapy.

But the goal here is to be identifying the thoughts, associations and life experiences that are generating these feelings of anger inside of you. And we want to acknowledge them and validate them, certainly, but also be able to shift it through forgiveness if it’s attached to somebody else or a life experience that you went through. But also being able to develop a new mindset, a new kind of tool bag of cognitive management strategies that will help you be able to redirect yourself and actually feel less angry in the moment because there are a lot of different things that we can do.

And just knowing that our feelings are often generated by our thoughts when we can change our mindset and the way that we think, it changes the way that we feel. And that’s a big part of this kind of anger management work.

But that is only door number one. Door number two is, is this anger that you actually should be listening to and being informed by. And again, figuring out the difference between those two is another excellent reason to go and talk with a really good therapist. So who can help you figure that out? And so if you suspect that it might be the latter, if it might actually be your emotional guidance system saying, wait just a minute here, I would actually caution you to not go with a clinical, mental health focused psychotherapist.

Because what they know how to do is diagnose and treat mental health conditions. And so you show up with all this anger and they’re like, oh, the anger is the problem, and I can help you resolve this anger. So they go down that path. When a therapist who has more of a personal growth orientation or a very skillful coach, ideally a therapist who operates as a coach, will be able to assist in both of those domains potentially.

But a coach that orientation towards helping is not, this person is experiencing an issue that we need to resolve. It is rather thinking about how does this person’s feelings actually make sense? What is it telling them about their motivation, their goals, their hopes, fears, dreams? And how can we actually lean into this, take influence from this emotional experience to be able to take action that, once taken, will create the change that will make this feel better.

So the psychologist’s stance is these are dysfunctional or disordered thoughts, feelings and emotions that need to be treated. So we’re going to fix it versus a coach, which is, this is motivation. This is this person’s wise mind telling them that there’s a problem and that they need to take action to fix it. Again, figuring out which of those is true for you is oftentimes one of the biggest, the biggest first steps. Like they say in AA, watch that first step. That’s a bitch. So this one is hard.

But if in doing this reflective process, you come to discover like, no, I need to listen to this legitimate anger because this will give me the power, the motivation, the courage to get out of here, to change this, what you’ll want to do is just do some thinking. Like, if you obeyed this anger, what would you do differently? How does this anger make sense? How is this anger connected to your values? What is your current situation? What is the gap between your values and what it is that you want and your actual life experience? What do you want to be different?

And if you are asking yourself those questions and in doing so, being like, oh, my anger is actually making a lot of sense right now, that is a fantastic thing because anger can be healthy. Anger can be extremely energizing, and we want to even cultivate that. So when we listen to it, it’s okay. If I was listening to anger, what is the path that would be following me down? And what are the actions that I need to make this happen in my life, to change my life. And if you do the plan, you work the steps, you create the change, then anger will have done its job and it will not be present in your life anymore, but it will say, oh, thank you so much for listening to me. I was shouting at you for years.

So anyway, those are the steps forward. This is a ton of information. I appreciate you staying in the ring with me and listening to all of this and I know we got fairly nerdy and fairly deep here, but I hope it’s helpful. And again, my goal here with these podcasts for you is to make them really hopefully meaningful and helpful and instructive for you. I mean, that’s a big, important motivating value for me and I certainly don’t want to be churning out stuff that feels like trite advice. I want you to have a deep and meaningful transformational growth experience. I believe you deserve that. 

I hope that listening to this with me today has again not going to change anything for you, but has given you some clarity, direction and guidance on your next steps for entering into this transformational growth process because it is going to be a process. Okay, thank you so much for joining me today.

More resources for you on my website, growingself.com. Check out the emotional wellness collection of the blog and podcast. And certainly if you would like to do any exploration of the things we’ve talked about today that are in the domain of what it is that I do or what our practice can help you with. So certainly things around betrayal, trauma, if we need to be listening to anger versus resolving anger, regret, grief and loss, those are things we can help you with. And if you identified more strongly with trauma, things with trauma, get specialized help for that. You’re really going to want to find a good clinical mental health person for that. So not a marriage and family therapist like me. You’re going to want to look for a licensed psychologist who specializes in those things.

Okay, enough big sistering for one day. Thanks for listening and more Dead Ghosts on our way out and I’ll be back in touch next time. Take care.

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