August 17

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How to Let Go of the Past so You Can Be Happy

A while ago, while trying to let go of the past, I watched the show Dark Matter.

The show starts with a bang as a group of people wake up aboard a spaceship that is currently under attack. 

Oh, and their memories are completely erased so they have no idea who they are, how they got there, and why any of this is happening.

Their experience drew me in because I was still processing a shift in my identity that had happened when I left my career as a lawyer, started my own business, moved to another continent, and made a gazillion of other changes that in their totality made me question who this new me was.

The show’s premise made me wonder what it would feel like to have my identity so completely removed that I couldn’t even remember it. 

Who would I be if I no longer remembered who I was supposed to be?

As I continued watching, I noticed that the protagonists’ memory loss wasn’t just a challenge — it also was a liberation. It allowed them to make new choices and to become different people than they once were.

I loved seeing how this unfolded, asking myself all the time how I would feel like in their situation.

Of course, in real life, we can’t simply erase our memories if we want to let go of the past — and most of us probably wouldn’t even want to. 

So here’s what I did instead:

4 ways to let go of the past

1. Letting go of old things

One way in which we bind ourselves to our past are things. At some point I realized that almost every bookshelf is occupied with items accumulated over many years, not just books bought the other day.

In general, many of these books relate to topics that used to interest us at some point, but are no longer relevant to us. Many of us also hold on to other items which relate to past interests. 

For instance, even though I may not have played the guitar or skied in years, I might keep a guitar or ski pants, on the off chance that I want to use them again at some point in the future.

Letting go of these things can be liberating.

When I moved to the United States from Germany almost half a decade ago, I decided that it wouldn’t be worth it to take all of my stuff with me. 

So, I spend weeks sorting through my possessions, making trip after trip to places where I could donate my old stuff, and moved to the US with just a few suitcases and boxes that I sent over via mail.

However, as I realized a year later when I did the the Minimalist's 30-Day Minimalism Game (which is a fun way to gradually reduce one’s possessions), I still had many things I didn’t want to keep.

When I let go of them, I felt a sense of relief.

I also led over a hundred people through this Minimalism game and noticed that most people felt the same way. Many of the participants experienced more freedom and internal space as they progressed.

That’s the power of releasing old things. What is one thing you’d like to let go of today?

2. Letting go of old projects

Just like things, projects from the past can weigh us down. For instance, I once concluded a writing project that had been with me for nearly a decade. Finally seeing my work in print freed up a lot of energy for new projects.

A bit under a year ago, I set the intention to finish old projects — to complete and publish half-written articles and other writing projects, finish books and course I had started to consume, and and and…

Doing this has shown me that completing things is an art that we don’t really learn anywhere. 

Since then, I’ve finished so many things and it has been fascinating to see how much energy got released whenever I could mentally tick something off from my list of unfinished projects.

Completing these also allowed me to reap the rewards that came with it, whether that was positive feedback, deeper insights into something, or even building my audience more.

As writer Neil Gaiman advises: “Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.”

Generally, finishing an old project is a good way to let go of it for good.

Depending on the project though, putting the time and energy into completing it may not be worth it. In these cases, the best solution may be to bury that old project for good by discarding everything related to it.

What is one unfinished project you’d like to let go of in the next month?

3. Letting go of people

Attachments to old relationships or people from our past can be similarly limiting. 

In my case, many of my relationships changed after I got on a different path. At age 25, I stumbled across a spiritual school and ended up with a confirmed spiritual awakening — which, needless to say, shook things up quite a bit in my life that was based on much more material pursuits.

In my experience, the process of letting go of a person from the past is generally much less straightforward than letting go of a thing or project.

Sure, it can help to consciously make an effort to stop reaching out to that person. However, there’s not necessarily a definitive point in time when one can say that the process is done.

Ultimately, the process of letting go of a person ends when we have reached something that I call “positive detachment.” 

Positive detachment happens when we acknowledge the beauty of what we leave behind, and the reality of its ending.

Or, as Behavorial Scientist Steve Maraboli put it: “Letting go means to come to the realization that some people are a part of your history, but not a part of your destiny.”

4. Letting go of the one thing that keeps all this together

Letting go of the past became easy for me when I realized that I only needed to let go of a single attachment.

From a purely practical point of view, we may be attaching to things, projects, and people. On a more fundamental level, all this relates to a single attachment: our attachment to who we once were.

If I truly let go of my past identity, what use is there in keeping ski pants or guitars when my current self demonstrates no interest in skiing or guitar playing?

What use would there be in continuing to focus energy on people from the past if my present-day self would instead choose to be in contact with others who are more aligned with the person I am now?

Any attachment to the past is really about who we were at some point and about the desire to retain that past identity.

Clinging on to an old idea of ourselves helps us have a solid sense of self. While this can bring comfort and stability into our lives, there’s also a cost associated with this: stagnation, a sense of unease, and boredom. 

You might wonder how you start to let go of your past self. That’s where the power of ritual comes in.

In the past, many cultures have acknowledged identity changes — such as the transition from childhood to adulthood — through rituals. Even today, we have some of these rituals, such as marriage or funeral ceremonies.

And while there’s no specific ritual for letting go of your past self, you can simply create your own.

For instance, here’s how I described the ritual I did when I was getting ready to move to another continent:

My “goodbye ritual” consisted of me symbolically walking across a bridge. One side of the bridge represented the past I was leaving behind, the other side the future I was walking into.
The bridge was in the middle of a lonely nowhere, the night was pitch dark with hardly any moonshine and it was one of the coldest and windiest days of winter.
It was a situation that — like the change I was going through — required some courage. Braving the elements made me feel proud of myself and more confident about my ability to handle the upcoming change.

How could you create a ritual that can help you to let go of the past version of yourself and embrace who you are in the process of becoming?

The reward you get when you let go of the past

Ultimately, it’s impossible to find true happiness in the past.

The good news is that letting go of the past allows us to find happiness in the present moment — now, and now, and now.

As the English novelist E. M. Forster put it: “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

And it all starts when we let go of someone we’ve outgrown: our past self.

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  • Great Article Bere I will share. This is VItal information. Letting go is something I’m getting better at. Usually not without some claw marks on whatever it is I need to let go of.

    • Hi Joey, your remark about leaving claw marks on whatever it is you need to let go of made me chuckle. I think we’ve all been there! Thanks so much for your comment.

  • I really like this thought experiment! That quote from Neil Gaiman about learning from finishing rings true too; it reminds me of the mantra “Done is better than perfect.”

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