Letting Go of the Past:
5 Powerful Practices For Releasing Emotional Baggage, Hurt and Regrets
BY DR. PETER AND BRIANA BORTEN
there is a saying that those who don’t let go of the past are doomed to repeat it. in healing there is great peace that is found. photo: marc oliver jodoin
Editor’s Note: In the following article, Briana and Peter Borten walk you through a powerful tool for how to forgive others and yourself by letting go of the past—a critical component to achieving The Well Life. That is, a full, happy, balanced, and gratifying life based around three principles—sweetness, structure and space.
Releasing Emotional Baggage: It’s Time to Let Go of the Past
In order to maintain a strong foundation that supports your progress toward a Well Life, there are all sorts of things you can do to fortify yourself. But all the fortification in the world can be thwarted by the ways in which you simultaneously undermine that foundation.
Are you carrying around nagging broken agreements, dysfunctional relationships, grudges, or limiting stories? It can be an uncomfortable process to clean this clutter up by letting go of the past, but chances are, you’re already living with a certain burden of discomfort because of not having dealt with or released these issues.
What’s Wrong with Keeping the Past in the Past?
Now, before you think, “Oh boy, this is going to be heavy,” we want to tell you that letting go of the past doesn’t have to be a heavy experience. In fact, letting go and moving on is an opportunity to feel lighter. It’s just that, between the heaviness and the lightness, there’s often something that one of our former teachers calls a “veil of discomfort.” The discomfort is only a veil because it’s really quite insubstantial. As soon as we become willing to experience it, we readily pass through it. And on the other side is lightness and opportunity!
Let’s talk about how these loose ends from your past can undermine you and how important it is to letting go of anger and other negative emotions are. Unless you have learned to let go, one thing that may happen when you prepare to go for something big (whether it be a new relationship, a career change, or a cross-country move) is that your mind quickly runs through all your baggage—unresolved issues, past traumas, mistakes, losses—and tells you this is a bad idea.
Rather than hating your mind for this, it’s important to remember that you programmed this mind. You started out as a baby with a clean mental slate, and little by little you trained your mind to look out for things that might threaten your survival or happiness. That’s how your mind is built to work. It just happens that most minds are overly eager to do this job. The more intense the bad experiences of your past, the deeper the groove they cut in your mental record and the more important it is to take letting go of the past seriously.
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So what can you do to successfully let go and move on? Thank your mind for its efforts to protect you, but inform it that it’s working from outdated beliefs and overly generalized data. This is a big step in letting go of the past. There’s no purpose in blaming yourself for how your mind functions. You’ve done your best with the resources that were available to you in each moment. But if you want the freedom to show up to each moment without being restrained by your past, it’s imperative to recognize that your baggage impedes this. Limiting beliefs and the echoes of past emotions are an intrusion on your space and the peace that lies within.
Learning to Let Go: Figure Out What’s Holding You Back
The key to identifying and letting go of the past incidents that get priority cleanup status is that when you bring them to mind and then check in with your body, you don’t feel altogether light and clean. Instead, you might feel heavy, tight, agitated, or constricted. Or a negative emotion might come up, such as guilt, fear, shame, anger, regret, sadness, or grief.
It’s possible that something you did that was objectively bad doesn’t actually provoke an especially strong physical or emotional response when you focus on it. In such cases, it’s important to remember that the objective “sin rating” of an event is less significant than how much of a hook it has in you. On the other hand, you might have accidentally thrown away your child’s first finger-painting and experience a tremendous feeling of guilt when you think about it—this would be something worth addressing.
Create a table as a way to of letting go of the past and releasing the baggage that is holding you back. At the top of a sheet of paper, write “My Baggage List,” then create 5 different columns on your paper with the following headers: Issue, Blame, Consequence, Opportunity, Fix. (If you’d like you can download this worksheet as a PDF from thewelllifebook.com/resources.)
Let’s look at how to fill in each column.
Column 1: What Are Your Issues?
In this column, write three unresolved situations. These could be: Things that happened in the past that you haven’t let go of and still affect you (Perhaps you got your period while giving a speech to your school in white pants)
+ Problems that are occurring right now (Maybe you’re overweight and you hate it, or you’re in the middle of an ongoing argument with your boss)
+ Issues that involve other people (You ran over Mrs. McGillicuddy’s hairless cat)
+ Situations that live entirely in your own experience (You stole a candy bar from the grocery store)
If you’re having trouble thinking of issues as you’re learning to let go, try asking yourself: What do I dislike or regret about myself, my life, other people, or the world? Or, who (from my own life) would I least want to be stuck with in an elevator? Then search through your answers for unresolved conflicts. Letting go of someone starts with identifying who you’re holding hostage. Don’t try to go through your entire life at this point, though. Just start with the first few things that come to mind.
When you choose the issues you want to work on as part of letting go of the past, you don’t need to explain the whole situation in the Issue column; just use a few key words (“candy bar”) that will help your mind connect to it.
Column 2: Who Are You Blaming?
For each of your issues, it’s now time to determine whom you are blaming for their existence. Whom are you holding hostage in your mind? From whom are you withholding forgiveness? Write their name or names in this column. It’s quite possible (and common) for your response here to be myself.
The Power of Forgiveness
Think of letting go of your past hostages as a mental cleanse before you start building your new life. There’s so much talk in the natural health world about ways to cleanse our bodies, but so little about how to cleanse our minds. The most powerful mechanism for mental cleansing is forgiveness. Here’s how to do it.
Recognize that most people are just confused children (or at least we can be when we’re emotional).
We’re still looking to get our needs met, still wanting everyone’s approval, still perhaps wanting to cause hurt when we get hurt. So when we’re upset, we are often operating from a perspective that’s not much different than it was when we were six years old. Learning to let go involves involves acknowledging this perspective and embodying empathy.
In the process of stumbling through life, we often cause pain for others. If you’ve been on the receiving end, it may be worth considering that the perpetrators of the hurt were acting out of confusion: not really understanding that they could get their needs met without hurting someone else, not really understanding the impact of their actions, not really conscious of the love that’s always available to them, and not really understanding the nature of their connectedness to you. This may not make their actions okay for you, but hopefully it makes forgiveness an option. With this understanding, letting go of anger and moving on from the past is a lot easier.
Consider the possibility that lifelong punishment may be unreasonable.
If it’s your intention to withhold forgiveness of someone (possibly yourself) for the rest of your life, maybe this qualifies as “cruel and unusual.” It’s a uniquely human thing to hold a grudge and never let it go. Ask yourself: How long will I hold on to this before it will be enough? Or, how much longer am I going to pollute myself with this?
View forgiveness as something we do for ourselves as much as for the other person.
When you withhold forgiveness of others, you basically take on the job of administering an ongoing punishment instead of letting go of the past. So, you’re playing warden in the mental prison you’re keeping them in, and it demands energy and mental “bandwidth.” Do you really want to give your energy and peace of mind away to the very person you believe wronged you? Does corrupting your peace and restricting your inner freedom make the situation better in any way?
Resentment is an emotional poison in your system. Even if you don’t want to do anything nice for the person you’ve been resenting, for your own sake you need to get that poison out by letting go of this anger. The nice part is that it will bring you immediate relief. You get to quit that warden job and detox from the poison in the same act.
See forgiveness not as a single act, but as an ongoing commitment.
Often it may not be possible for you to just pronounce someone forgiven and have that be the end of it. As we said, strong feelings cut deep grooves; it’s easy to fall back into them. Instead, you might need to make a commitment with yourself that from now on you’re going to recognize any time you’ve begun harboring resentment toward them again. And every time you notice that you’ve picked it back up, you’re going to let it go again. Letting go of the past is a process and learning to let go takes practice. You’re not going to analyze why you picked it up again, you’re not going to scold yourself for having picked it up again, and you’re not going to indulge in the resentment again. You’re just going to drop it (forgive them again) as efficiently as possible. And you’ll immediately feel lighter. Soon, the habit of dropping it will begin to replace the habit of holding onto it.
This adversarial part of you insists to yourself (and probably others) that someone did something wrong. That something shouldn’t have happened that did happen. And simultaneously that you and your current perspective on the matter are right about this. Perhaps you build your case in the shower and while driving.
The thing is, when you’re stuck in needing to be right, you block your progress in life and letting go of the past. You diminish your perspective by hanging onto this. You keep yourself from seeing the big picture of what will most efficiently get you to a life of happiness and fulfillment.
Remember: the person who needs the most forgiveness is you.
If you’re like nearly all other humans, to some degree you blame yourself for everything about your life that isn’t the way you think it should be, which makes letting go of the past difficult. You may not be aware of it, and you may also be blaming someone else, but chances are when things aren’t perfect, your mind has an explanation that amounts to: there’s something wrong with me, or, perhaps more specifically, my body is wrong, my mind is wrong, I’m making the wrong choices, I messed up my life, etc.
Self-limiting beliefs are like sandbags weighing down your hot air balloon. And when you forgive in the process of learning to let go, it’s like cutting the strings. When you start forgiving habitually, not only do you begin to experience a lightness and freedom that for many of us has been absent for decades, but you also begin to recognize just how powerful you are. Although letting go and moving on takes work, it has it’s advantages!
Column 3: Consequence
It’s time to return to your Baggage List. In the third column, given the grievance you listed in the first column, the person or people you’re blaming and withholding forgiveness from in the second column, and the discussion earlier, what is the consequence of allowing this to remain unresolved? Even if you can’t think of an objective consequence of not letting go of someone or a past occurrence, there’s always the toll it takes on your peace of mind and space. For example, if you’re in an unresolved argument with your boss, maybe this is causing you to dread work, which you normally enjoy.
Column 4: Opportunity
What if you could just stop struggling with it and be at peace about this? What would be possible if you let the past issue go? Greater happiness? More energy? Freedom? The ability to move on with your life?
Write your answer here.
Column 5: Fix
This column is where you look ahead to how you can work to resolve this issue to free yourself to build your Well Life. What action will you take to fix this issue? A commitment to let it go every time it arises? A communication to achieve resolution? A demonstration of your trustworthiness? A ritual for letting go of the past in which you release yourself or someone else from your prison?
Here are a few more ideas for letting go of someone and moving on:
+ If you broke an agreement, betrayed someone’s trust, acted without integrity, or in some other way caused harm (and the recipient of this harm could have been you), acknowledge what you did, don’t make excuses, and clean it up. In order to let go of the past, do something that displays the sincerity of your apology. Go above and beyond—especially if your aim is to regain someone’s trust (or your own). Show up for them (or yourself) 110%. Replace or repair what was broken, or repay what was stolen.
+ There are times when admitting a past wrongdoing or openly fixing an old trauma in order to clear your side of things would do more harm than good. If the other party has moved on, or it wouldn’t be safe or productive to involve them in your resolution, don’t. Although we want you to repair the wounds you have caused, this isn’t always possible or necessary for letting go of the past. In such cases, our concern is your healing, forgiving yourself, re-establishing trust in yourself, and your putting this behind you. In order to accomplish this, besides a commitment to forgiveness, you may consider an anonymous act of kindness toward them, a donation to a charity, or a ceremony by yourself, such as planting a tree to symbolize new hope and healthy growth. Learning to let go oftentimes includes more of a focus on yourself than someone else.
+ Most of the past transgressions that weigh on us involved ways in which we didn’t honor ourselves or actually did ourselves harm. Besides forgiveness—fierce forgiveness—we encourage you to actively demonstrate love for yourself. How can you show yourself how much you love you today? What nice things could you do for yourself? How could you listen to yourself even better? How could you honor yourself more completely? This is not only a great practice in and of itself but can be a powerful tool for letting go of the past.
+ Consider letting go of the past through a forgiveness practice used by Dr. Ihaleakala Hew Len based on the ancient Hawaiian art of reconciliation known as ho’oponopono. See yourself in your mind and repeat these four statements, as if speaking from your soul to yourself: “I love you. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you.” Using these words like a mantra can help release you from your own bondage and return you to health. It can also be applied to others.
Healing and letting go of your past takes effort and a willingness to be uncomfortable, but it’s absolutely worth it. Every time you resolve one of these issues, it’s like letting go of a suitcase full of rocks. As you experience increased freedom and lightness and continue learning to let go, you’ll start wanting to identify and clean up conflicts and grievances because you’ll perceive their weight on your spirit. Your future plans are more likely to succeed with a clean start.
This article on letting go of the past is an excerpt from The Well Life: How to Use Structure, Sweetness, and Space to Create Balance, Happiness, and Peace by Briana and Peter Borten and is published by F+W Media, Inc. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
About The Author
Briana Borten is a wellness entrepreneur and peace engineer who inspires people to live extraordinary, healthy lives and fulfill their dreams. After a car accident left her injured, she discovered the rehabilitative power of massage and became a certified massage therapist. Since then, she has graduated from the California College of Ayurveda as a Clinical Ayurvedic Specialist. She is the co-founder of The Dragontree, a wellness organization with holistic spas in Portland and Boulder, online courses, natural body care products and resources for vibrant living. Learn more at: thedragontree.com
Dr. Peter Borten became interested in healing and herbalism at a young age, writing his first report on acupuncture at age twelve. He received his B.S. in botany from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and earned his master’s and doctorate in acupuncture and oriental medicine at Oregon College of Oriental Medicine (OCOM), where he also became a certified Qi Gong instructor. He has held a private practice since 2000 and taught Chinese medicine and Daoist philosophy at various colleges and universities. Learn more at: thewelllifebook.com