Letting Go of The Past

When our son Charlie was little he had a passion for sticks.

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Every walk to the beach, park or forest it would begin.

First one perfect small one. “Look Mum, it fits in my pocket!”

Then another. Well, who has only one pocket?

And another. This time bigger. Maybe stuffed down a sweater.

Then another, under an arm.

And another, and another, and another.

Until our small boy would be staggering under arms-full of sticks.

I remember one hike up in the deciduous forests of Canada’s Laurentian Shield where the forest floors are awash with straight, smooth, long and perfect sticks. Charlie’s arms were full to overloading and we all knew he could never get all his treasures home on the flight back to Washington State.

Then he saw it: (another) perfect stick.

He looked at his hands, arms, sweater and pockets but they were all full to bursting.

And the enormous truth dawned upon him.

He could not physically carry one more stick.

If he wanted to pick up this stick – this perfect stick – he’d have to let one go.

Maybe more than one.

And he wept bitter tears for a long time at the injustice of this realization: That to take on what you want in this present moment, sometimes you have to let go of what you’re already holding onto and sometimes, it pays to keep a little space for good things yet to come.

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At the end of a year spent exploring relationships skills, it seems fitting to talk about letting go.

I mean think about it – making space to flourish in a relationship will most certainly require two hands, both arms and an over-stuffed sweater or two.

There are lots of ways to slice it, but I’m going with the structure of time to show how you can flourish so much more in your relationships to the extent you let go of certain aspects of your ~

  • Past
  • Present
  • Future

Today – I’m focusing on the Past.

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While “Pistanthrophobia” hasn’t yet made it to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is making the rounds of urban and crowd-sourcing haunts and it captures a rather fascinating idea: the fear of trust in present relationships due to bad stuff in times gone by.

The two biggest dead-weights from past relationships that people haul into their present and future are ~

  • Unfinished business, which creates lose ends, puzzle pieces, ghosts of emotions with no place to rest.

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  • Outdated interpersonal strategies which keep you all geared up to slay – and protect you from – dragons long gone.

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1) How to release unfinished business from past relationships

There are so many ways to have unfinished business. Maybe there’s someone in your distant or recent past who ~

  • died
  • moved far away
  • cut you off emotionally
  • divorced or left you
  • remarried
  • became unrecognizably ill 
  • became severely mentally unstable

but you notice that you’re still reacting to this person. Still holding onto resentments, expectations, longings, rage and ghosts of all sorts in this new relationship you are in. Or with your children, or partner or friends.

Usually, if we’ve truly loved the person who’s gone, we’re still looking for wisps of him or her in our current relationships. I have to admit when at age 23 I met my now husband Mark I remember what drew me to him was that he felt somehow familiar (who knows how or why) and that he was very, very kind. These just happened to be two things I was missing desperately after my mother – to whom I was super close – died when I was 19.

Likewise, if we’ve really suffered in a relationship with someone who has now gone we’ll be on high alert to avoid people who remind us of them. If your ex was controlling, you’re likely to hit the roof if your new date says or does anything that even remotely smacks of control. 

While I lucked out with Mark – who happens to have loads of other qualities I also vastly appreciate – I could have been lulled into a marriage simply because I felt particularly needy for familiarity and kindness. 

So – it pays to bring some conscious awareness to these past relationships, to figure out what you love and want more of, and what you didn’t appreciate and want less of. And THE biggest difference in how you release or transform any unfinished business depends upon the ratio of love to loathing.

In other words it’s important to ask yourself ~

  • What aspects of this past relationship do I love so I can celebrate and be grateful for all that was wonderful about this person in my world; grieve what is now lost; and integrate what I cherish so these aspects of this person may be part of my future life?
  • What aspects of this past relationship do I dislike so I can express my negative emotions (like anger, disgust or disappointment) toward the impact of this person on my world; mine the experience for lessons learned so I can work on forgiving both of us; and shift into gratitude for my resiliency now that this experience is in the rear view mirror?

The truth is, very rarely is the person we’ve lost 100% loved or loathed. We are all nuanced human beings, which is why doing this work can be so helpful to you in your current or future relationships. Here are 3 suggestions for how to move through this process.

1. Write.

Hiking at Mount Rainier last week Mark and I stumbled upon a poignant tribute. Tucked into a crevice between 2 rocks was a vase with a posy of recently wilted and now frozen flowers. Nearby was a sodden and blurry note.  I picked it up and tried to decipher the words only to discover it was a letter of release. The writer – whose name I could not decipher but whose hand seemed feminine – wrote: “It is time for me to let you go.” Catching only every few words between smudges she named some things she loved,”You were my rock, my friend, my confidant.” And she named some things she regretted; “But you never came to me for help, you never let your guard down…

She included a poem, and a wish and a blessing and put in the letter that this was going to be her final goodbye. She was moving on.

This is such a wonderful process. Name it all. Bring this person to mind – again no matter the ratio of love to loathing here – name it all. What did you appreciate? What didn’t you? What will you take forward into your life? What will you release?

If you’re more visual you could make a collage using images to represent qualities you want to keep, and qualities you’re ready to release.

The only goal is conscious awareness.

2. Emote.

Anyone who knows me knows I’ve been a total pill over the past year as I’ve worked to gradually sift and sort through what seem to be the ashes of an old friendship. I’ve raged, I’ve cried, I’ve stomped my feet and laughed. And bit by bit I’ve noticed glimmers of peace beginning to settle in. I still get pinged when I’m reminded of things I miss or things that make me mad about this person, but by noticing what I feel when I feel it, and by finding OK ways to express what I feel, I am moving through this process.

I know it all helps. Let it out. Let it out with friends. Let it out under bridges. Let it out in the shower or the forest. Let it out with therapists and spiritual advisers. Be there for yourself as if you were a loving parent with a sad six year old. Nothing to be done but hug, listen and making soothing noises.

3. Grow.

This is your journey. Sure, you can move through your life with blinkers and blinders, getting gifts or wounds and being equally oblivious to both. Totally a choice. But, it is so much more deeply rewarding to be on a journey of self-discovery. To wake up. To notice you have options. To appreciate choosing.

The process of reflecting upon past relationships to discern what you want to be grateful for and integrate is one of the best gifts you can give  yourself, and those around you.

So, take charge. Decide how you want this to go. What do you need to do? Whom do you want around for support? What can you call in to help?

Beginning this journey with the end in mind, it can be helpful to have a sense for how you want this to go. Maybe a gentle intention,  something along the lines of ~

X is no longer with me. I am choosing to feel love and appreciation for these things [list], and I am choosing to release with gratitude for lessons learned, these things [list].  Today is a fresh start and I’m glad I get to grow from all that life offers.”

(Or whatever you want to say – remember, you’re the boss of this enterprise!)

2) How to release outdated interpersonal strategies designed to protect against dragons long gone.

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When I married Mark and moved to the USA from England, I was hauling a vault full of armor, spears, shields and defensive sling-shots from my childhood.

I’d built my protective layers and excellent arsenal in reaction to some pretty brutal nuns at boarding school; a family who loved me but had issues (surprise!); and from the recent, sudden death of the person I loved and depended upon most in the word – my mother.

 

Here’s what that looked like:

Because the nuns didn’t approve of whining and complaining, I had decided long ago never to ask for what I wanted, since not only was I unlikely to get it, I’d be criticized or ridiculed for even asking: for even having needs!

HINT: This is NOT a helpful strategy for making a marriage work!

SOLUTION: The hard way? Day by day, issue by issue – Mark had to work with me to show up; to risk having an opinion; to risk making a suggestion; to say no. That, and group therapy and good friends.

The youngest of five daughters, I was acutely familiar with how tough my parent’s marriage became  & I began to think in rather black-and-white terms: my mother was right, my father was wrong. I extrapolated that right/wrong thinking into all sorts of unhelpful places.

HINT: This is NOT a helpful strategy because it cuts you off from people who are nuanced, rich, complex and very interesting.

SOLUTION: When a strategy seems to be too small, too restrictive, too limiting – it’s a great time to examine it. Maybe then you’ll realize you’ve outgrown it and can let it go.

Because I grew up in an English/Irish family who didn’t discuss emotions, I was fabulously guarded against ever being seen as not OK. No whining, no complaining, no feelings, no needs and certainly no therapy for me thank you very much!

HINT: This strategy self-destructs. At some point, one’s bottled up emotions come spewing out as depression, anger, illness… trust me. It all comes out.

SOLUTION: When it comes out (see above) get help. It’s a fabulous opportunity to learn about feelings and needs.

When my mother died, I decided the pain of losing someone I loved so very much was not anything I ever wanted to go through again, so I built a deep and effective moat around my emotional core. It’s marvelous for keeping people at bay. Not so great when I need or want to let someone in.

HINT: Love and loss go hand in hand. 

SOLUTION: There are NO guarantees so this one too had to be re-examined. I had to face the risk of losing Mark before I could love him. I had to risk the pain of losing a child, before I felt I could bring one into my heart. I don’t like that vulnerable place it puts me – but I like it more than not having made these choices.

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Not to rain on your parade or anything, but you have your own armor too. You’ve been putting it on, one piece at a time, since birth. You’ve been putting it on so slowly that you possibly don’t even notice you are wearing it nor feel it’s weight around your heart.

How to release these outdated protectors is as unique as your protection. But there are three super simple little tips:

  1. Know that when you impulsively react – as opposed to thoughtfully respond – to some interpersonal challenge, that’s your old, outdated protection leaping to the rescue.
  2. If you pay attention to that reaction, to that impulse, you can follow it inside and get to know it more by asking yourself:  When I just reacted that way, what did I not want to feel? What was I protecting myself from?
  3. If you can find out what feeling you did not want to feel – what it was your protector was protecting you from – ask yourself, “What do I need so I can be more OK with this feeling now?  Can I be there for myself when I feel pain, loss, shame, fear, vulnerability, loneliness?

Example:

Your partner says – I’ve invited the neighbors over for BBQ on Saturday.

You react with – I can’t believe you did that without checking with me! I’ve got a totally full weekend and now it’s up to me to put on a huge social event!

Your partner says – Hey, relax! I’ve already shopped. I’ll cook. I thought you’d appreciate the night socializing.

 

Step 1 – You notice you reacted strongly and with disapproval.

You could have responded from a much less reactive place, e.g.,  

  • Thanks, great idea!
  • Oh – tell me how you see the evening unfolding?
  • Oh boy – a sweet idea but I feel a bit overwhelmed actually – I’ve filled my weekend up so tight. Can we talk about it?

Step 2 – Notice what you did not want to feel.

Truth is – if you are honest – you didn’t want to feel judged by these new neighbors. You’re feeling out of shape, tired, the house is a mess and the yard’s not much better. It triggered some old vulnerabilities about not being “good enough”.

Step 3 – What do you need to be OK with this feeling?

Probably own it and talk about it with my partner. “You know, I had this flash of fear of being judged by those new neighbors. They’ve fixed up that place so lavishly. But, if I slow it down, I love our old place and goodness, I really am ready to let go of keeping up with the Jones. Hmm…isn’t their last name Jones?!

By all means pick up a few sticks in life, but let yourself put some down as they become heavy and unwieldy. And leave a little space for that just perfect one you may find – tomorrow.

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NEXT WEEK – how to let go of some aspects of this present moment to improve your relationships.

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FIRST TIME HERE?

This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.  →Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you’re interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.

OVERVIEW

SKILLS FOR UNDERSTANDING

SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity

SKILLS FOR CONNECTING

SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut

SKILL SEVEN ~ Practice Kindness

SKILL EIGHT ~ Negotiate with a Win-Win Mentality

SKILLS FOR RE-CONNECTING

SKILL NINE ~ Build (or rebuild) trust.

SKILL TEN ~ Apologize & “Do Over” When You’ve Blown It

SKILL ELEVEN ~ Forgive and Move On When They’ve Blown It

SKILL TWELVE ~ Let go. Relationships end. You’ll learn, grow and carry on.

  • Let go of the past

4 thoughts on “Letting Go of The Past

  1. Pingback: In This Moment, Let This Go… | Gemma Utting MA, LMFT, CLC ~ Couple & Individual Therapy, Parent Support, Pre-Marriage Prep & Relationship Skill Building.

  2. Pingback: Great Expectations – A Story | Gemma Utting MA, LMFT, CLC ~ Couple & Individual Therapy, Parent Support, Pre-Marriage Prep & Relationship Skill Building.

  3. Pingback: The #1 Relationship Skill | Gemma Utting MA, LMFT, CLC ~ Couple & Individual Therapy, Parent Support, Pre-Marriage Prep & Relationship Skill Building.

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