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  • Jenn DeWall

How to Let Go of the Past

Jenn DeWall, Resilience, Burnout, & Wellbeing Speaker, Denver

Do you ever find it hard to let the past go? Letting go can be hard for a variety of reasons from a sense of low self worth (confidence) to a fear of change. You feel that you need to hold on to the past to shame yourself into being a better person. Here’s what I mean - have you ever made a mistake at work? Maybe you misspoke or miscommunicated, causing a client or boss to be unhappy with you. If you haven’t let it go, chances are that even recalling this moment can still make you cringe in shame. It might sound like constant self-judgment, “what is wrong with me?” “I’m so stupid,” “I’m never good enough?” I can still cringe recalling feedback I once had for wearing jeans on stage while speaking. I received feedback that they would love to hire me, but never could because I wore jeans. It still kills me to this day, especially because I have a closet full of alternative dressier options, but yet I still judge myself for being stupid and wearing jeans. I should have been more curious about my audience.

The more you hold on to the past the more it’s consuming your mental energy, confidence, and killing your resilience. Building on my example, if I continue to live in “no one will ever hire me because I wore jeans” I’d never continue to put myself out there. I would still live in the shame that I’m not good enough, because this experience fuels my negative self talk and validates it “I somehow always mess up.” But here’s the reality, I will goof up again. I am human and so are you. The only thing I can do is learn from it, accept it, own what I could have done differently and move on.

Holding on to the past is like creating a self-made prison, keeping you locked up, unable to move forward because you’re stuck living in shame. Think about how it might be impacting your mental health. Wouldn’t you like to feel different? Here’s how to let go of the past.

  1. Find the lessons. What did you learn from the mistake or experience? Maybe you learned the wrong way so you could better learn the right way.

  2. Focus on what you can control and accept what you can’t change. Reflecting on the past can be painful. There may be things that you cannot change, but it does not mean YOU cannot change. It does not mean that you can’t be a different person. The road to success in life is full of obstacles and setbacks. The event might be a setback, not a stop sign.

  3. Take responsibility. One of my favorite expressions is “own it to control it.” When you live in shame, judging yourself for the past, you can’t take responsibility. Responsibility is a forward action. Living in the past is a stagnant action. When you own the past and take responsibility, you can quiet the shame and anxiety you feel. You’re no longer hiding from it so it loses its power over you allowing you to move forward.

  4. Talk to someone about it. Similar to “own it to control it”, talking it out is another step in allowing yourself to process it. Plus you’ll likely find support from others who will meet you with compassion. Remember, you are your own worst enemy, especially when it comes to shame around the past. When you talk it out, you get it out of your head, allowing yourself to process it and move forward.

  5. Talk to yourself like you would a friend. “The greatest abuse a human will ever endure is the abuse inflicted upon them by themselves.” The more you live in your head about it, the more of a jerk you will be to yourself. It’s hard to move forward when all you’re doing at a conscious and subconscious level is treating yourself like crap. You need to practice self-kindness. You were doing your best, given the information and experience you had at the time. Which brings me to the final tip.

  6. Practice a self-compassion mantra. Something that you can recite to yourself when the bad thoughts start to creep in. Here are some examples: “I am good enough,” “I matter,” “I am exactly where I need to be,” “I did the best that I could then, given the information and experience I had at the time,” “I cannot control the past, but I can control what I do with it.” Write the mantra down, put it on a post it, somewhere that will remind you that you are not your past. You are stronger from it and have moved on.

Learning to let go is not easy. However it is a must to build resilience, confidence, and build success. You are human, you will make mistakes, you are perfectly imperfect. The beauty is that every day is a change to begin again. You are not stuck, you are not a tree. Be kind to yourself and let it go.

Reflection questions:

Are you staying in your comfort zone or avoiding taking risks because of something in the past? If so, what? How long are you willing to stay in your comfort zone?

Jenn DeWall is a workplace resilience and wellbeing speaker. The helps leaders and organizations overcome burnout, build resilience, and find joy at work (and life) again.

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