One of my coaching clients is haunted by the memory of a former partner. She wonders how she allowed such a “bad” relationship to go on for so long. Of course she did the best she could with the awareness she had at the time. But now she has 20/20 hindsight.
We’ve all been in her shoes. We wish we could’ve been more conscious, more able to act on the signs that things were not going well, and avoided the “bad” thing that happened. But when we focus on the past, we ignore the clarity that is available to us right now, and the insight that can help guide us to an even better place.
That shift in focus from the past to the present to the future takes some effort. Blaming the other person is much easier, of course. And we can also pretend that we were duped or unconscious the whole time. But we are much more likely to find peace—as well as some benefit from the experience—if we withhold this kind of judgment.
So if you’re looking back on a bad experience or relationship and blaming yourself or someone else, try this instead. Rather than looking at the person with whom you had the conflict as the enemy, try to look at him as an old war buddy. You shared a tough time, but you got through it. You did your best under hazardous conditions, and now you can recount your “war stories” without any remorse that things should have been different. Just accept that they happened and simply move on.
Do you feel some resistance to letting this person — a partner, friend, family member, or even a past you — off so easily? Then perhaps consider that when you choose to forgive someone whose behavior hurt you, you do yourself a huge favor. Someone once said that holding on to resentment is like eating rat poison and hoping the rat will die. You could release the hurt, anger and sense of betrayal not because the person “deserves” it, but because you will feel better when you do. If forgiveness is out of reach right now, then just don’t think about it. Refuse to think or talk about what happened until you can look at the topic with some equanimity. The less you return to the painful memories, the sooner that time will come.
I’m not saying you should condone the behavior that hurt you. And I’m certainly not saying you should jump back in the foxhole with your old war buddy. I’m just saying that when you can accept what happened—which means, more than anything else, that you understand that what happened truly did happen in a past you can’t change—then you’ll start to move on. And where are you going? You are moving forward on the path in front of you, right here, right now. Just start moving. And forget about figuring out what happened in the past “so as not to repeat it.” You don’t even have to feel like you “learned a lesson” or you got a “gift” from a relationship, or even any new skills or tools. You just have to start paying attention right now.
But how can you be sure that history won’t repeat itself? Again, the answer is simple, and lays the past to rest by keeping you in the present. Just learn to notice when things are out of balance in your life. And how will you know? There's a built in signal that will always let you know when things are out of balance. It's called stress. You want to take your awareness of the stressful feeling and try to find the stressful thought that is creating it. From there try to identify a thought that feels better. It may take some practice, but you will get better at it.
And when you consistently engage in the practice of identifying your stressful, negative thoughts and find alternative, better-feeling thoughts research shows that you are creating new neural pathways that will lead to long lasting benefits, like decreased anxiety and depression, and increased satisfaction and happiness. Bottom line: you will change, and as a consequence your world will change for the better, too.
Not everyone gets to make a new world. But people who want to put their past behind them have a golden opportunity to do so. And that is a gift. You can thank your old war buddy for it the next time you see him.
This week I'm rejoicing in the launch of my new eZine, Special Delivery! Sign up for your FREE weekly subscription – delivered straight to your email inbox every Tuesday!