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Tiny Wisdom: Letting Go of Painful Memories

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” ~Unknown

Recently, I’ve been listening to a guided healing meditation I found online. I searched for it because I sensed something was wrong with my body, a couple weeks before a doctor confirmed it.

I didn’t expect it would bring up old wounds, but it has. There’s one part where the soothing voice instructs the listener to think back to the confidence of childhood. When I hear this, it reminds me that I wasn’t confident then, and that many painful events chipped away at my self-esteem.

At this point in the meditation, I usually shift my thoughts to a moment when I felt self-assured performing onstage, but yesterday something different happened. Instead, I cried. And shook. And shivered. Right then, it all came back–anger, shame, and a sense of powerlessness.

I was surprised to feel those raw emotions, after so many years of healing and forgiving. It reminded me that letting go truly is a journey, not a one-time choice.

A while back, in an interview, someone asked me if I think letting go is easy. I think she was surprised when I said, “No.” In theory, it is. Just like you would simply drop your arms and release something heavy you’re holding onto, letting go feels freeing.

The hard part is that we often need to let go over and over again. It isn’t like pulling off a band-aid. Old wounds have a way of resurfacing as we stumble, learn, and grow.

This doesn’t make us weak. It makes us human. We don’t need to let go of anything forever. We just need to learn what it means to let go in a moment, and then remember what that looks and feels like to do it again when necessary.

It may mean practicing mindfulness, or reminding yourself that it wasn’t your fault, or revisiting what you learned through the experience. What matters isn’t that we find letting go to be easy; it’s that we find it to be possible.

Today if you find yourself clinging to a painful memory, ask yourself: How can I focus on healing in the present, instead of living in the past?

Image by Sofan Chan, The Art of Happiness Gallery

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About Lori Deschene

Lori Deschene is the founder of Tiny Buddha. She is the author of the Tiny Wisdom eBook series (which includes one free eBook) and Tiny Buddha's Guide to Loving Yourself. She's also the co-founder of the eCourse Recreate Your Life Story: Change the Script and Be the HeroFollow @tinybuddha for inspiring posts and wisdom quotes.

Announcement: Wish you could change your past? Learn to let go and create a life you love with the Tiny Buddha course!
  • se

    thanku

  • http://barefootandvintage.wordpress.com paige

    wow…this post came at a time when i absolutely needed it.  just when i think i’ve “completely” let go of something, i see/hear a reminder (this am, in fact!)  and i’m hurt all over again.  not nearly as hurt as i was several months ago, but still…hurt enough that it cripples me for a short time.  and my self esteem.
    would you mind sharing the guided meditation you found online?  i’m interested.
    thank you!

  • Anonymous

    Brilliantly written.
    I have always struggled with “letting go”. I used to think that once you truly let go, those memories wouldn’t bother you again. But the fact that they keep coming back once in a while upsets me because it means I haven’t completely got over the pain.

  • JBW

    Lori, seriously do you follow me on facebook? (Just kidding) I got into a discussion yesterday with my sister-in-law about a quote she posted “How people treat you is their karma; how you react is yours.” I asked her if she had been looking at my Buddhist Inspiration photo folder on fb because the quote was in there. She actually had just come across it in another way.  But we got into a discussion about how changing your perception is really a hard thing to do.  When you are surrounded in a world of negative, it’s hard to try to make the world seem positive.  When I think back to my childhood, I have good memories of my family but I had no friends, similarly I find as an adult making “real” friends is just as hard as it was as a child.  I’m different, they are different and often our differences are too different.

    The more I try to become positive, the more mountains I seem to have to climb to get there.  During our Red Mountain District meeting in Arizona a couple weeks back, the young men’s leader was discussing something Greg Martin had said during their recent conference.  When he asked the group, “what do you think I want you to be?” No one really answered; he said “I want you to each be a mountain climber.” He continued to explain that life is equally good and bad, and that balance must be the inertia that moves you to climb each mountain you encounter.  I feel your article today truly reflects that.  No matter how much we may think we have already climbed and past high mountains – there are always more mountains and they often lead you back through things you thought you already conquered but really you just moved on from.
    I enjoy reading your posts everyday, they are a reminder that there is someone out there that feels exactly like I do and is taking the time to inspire others.
    I enjoy reading your posts everyday, they are a reminder that there is someone out there that feels exactly like I do and is taking the time to inspire others.

  • linnaeab

    Lori,

    Thank you for your honesty … stating things just as they are … not as we wish them to be.
    This includes our own dedicated practice in changing thoughts and ways of experiencing emotions. It is a life-long practice. 

    linnaea

  • Anonymous

    Experience has shown me too that you need to let go repetitively until you eventually leave it behind!

  • Daria_blue

    This is a constant struggle for me. I try really hard to ‘be present’, but like Paige said there are little reminders that sneak up and take you back to a place you don’t want to be. Although it’s not as painful, I still don’t want to go back there. 

    I’d also be interested in knowing the guided meditation you found.

  • Silent Majority

    Definitely tough to stay in the present. “Be here now” is my mantra in those situations, but it only serves to re-center. I’d like to learn from those past moments of pain and embarrassment; at the moment I only seem capable of swimming in them. 

  • azima143

    Neha…whenever they come back…observe them and go deeper inside them…fully express those feelings..go deep down into them and cry yourself out, and observe those thoughts…they may come back. and over time they’ll have less of an impact… but you can’t suppress them either…face them each time…and eventually you will get over the pain (or realize its just a memory and that you don’t have to react to it with pain)

  • http://manifestconnection.blogspot.com/ Kari

    Azima – That’s great advice! You can’t deny the feelings because they are a part of who you are, a part of being human – but you can choose how you deal with them. Observing them for what they are and understanding why they have been brought back is better than letting them ruin your day.

  • Hippiechic81

    Thank you for this article!! I have a terrible habit of holding onto past memories and experiences. I’m still dreaming about high school and I graduated about eleven years ago!! I feel a bit better knowing I’m not the only one and I really want to focus on enjoying the present instead of worrying about the past.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Yes, I used to think the same thing! Then I realized I was putting a ton of pressure on myself to let go *forever* and that made it even harder to let go in the moment. Some of my pain has not completely healed, but it has transformed–and I think there’s something useful about that. It’s a big part of what created this site.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I’m glad this post came at a good time for you! Here is the meditation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFh-Km4AXeE

    It’s best to listen to it with headphones, as there are different words for each ear at different parts throughout. It’s 30 minutes long, and I’ve found it really powerful in creating a peaceful state of mind.

    Much love,
    Lori

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Hi Daria,

    You can find the guided meditation here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFh-Km4AXeE

    One thing that’s helped me is to think of peace and happiness as a ratio. I can’t say for certain that I will get to a place where I never feel pain when thinking of certain memories, but I know that I can work to increase my rebound rate (how quickly I let go and come back to the present when something pulls me back.) In this way, I increase my ratio of happy/present moments to pained/dwelling ones–instead of stressing over whether or not I will ever be able to completely let go.

    I loved what someone else wrote about letting go being a process. It’s all a journey!

    Lori

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You are most welcome!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Hi JBW,

    I can relate to what you wrote in a big way. I find that whenever I focus on (and potentially stress about) TRYING to be positive or mindful, it becomes an even greater battle, because it reminds me that I still have to try. Sometimes I wish that those states of mind were instinctive to me–that my balance wasn’t quite so dependent on a very specific self-care system (meditation, yoga, just the right amount of sleep, not too much caffeine, or sugar, or alcohol). There are people I know who seem to embody those qualities much more effortlessly, but for me, it takes work–there ARE mountains. And I definitely feel like I’ve already climbed my share!

    Still, it’s such a wonderful way to look at things (that there are always more mountains to climb.) It makes it easier to accept myself when I stop fighting who I am, and instead focus on the fact that I have the strength to do what I need to do.

    It’s so comforting to know that a lot of us deal with the same things. I think sometimes the greatest pain that we feel isn’t so much what we go through, but rather that we think we have to go through it alone–that other people might judge us, or that they won’t understand. It’s nice to know we are never alone. =)

    Lori

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=578321030 Dina Zaman

    Hello! I swear to God Tiny Buddha is PSYCHIC. All your emails come at the right time. Would love to know where you found this healing meditation online. And stay blessed. You have made many people happy.

  • Leejones1029

    I have had some great joys, but also great sadness. At times my fault, but usually not. More recently I have been afraid I will never be happy again. Main reason being, I can’t forget, and the more aware of that I become, the greater my unhappiness appears to be hopelessly entrenched. It is a ver sad feeling.

  • Rizwan

    I have struggled to let go of some really unpleasant memories from last year. The fact that they were caused by a loved one doesn’t help. When they resurface, I feel upset and sometimes talk about it, making her feel guilty, and eventually myself for bringing it up again. I just wish there was a way to let go, other than just trying to believe they are just memories and don’t mean anything now. Because whenever they resurface, I know how much it hurt then and how much it would hurt if it happens again.

  • Shrina206

    This was incredibly helpful. So many ppl like myself get frustrated because old wounds surface and controlling those old emotions are difficult. It’s almost like reliving the past. This article speaks to the raw nature of human life that suffering from old wounds is a possibility because it is not like ripping off a bandaid.. It’s almost like weeding a garden. At the end of the day being able to recognize the pain and being able to effectively deal with it is what we all should aim to do. Not bottle it up or ignore it. Our life is like a garden that constantly needs to b taken care of… Gotta get down on ur knees and pull out those weeds when they surface.. With patience and care not to disturb the roses.

  • JoceyB

    So timely in my life.   Resolution of a 5 year old resentment is coming to forgiveness and closure this week.  I am taking time to release the pain of it all. 

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I love how you phrased this–that life is like a garden. It reminds us that the tending never stops. There will always be “work” to do for our healing and well-being, and that’s okay because it’s part of the process.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I think that’s even more difficult–when you’ve forgiven the person who caused you pain, but the memory still endures. That’s a big part of what’s been challenging for me. Over time, a lot has gotten easier, but every now and then, it all comes back. I had a pretty big revelation the other night: I decided not to talk about it when the memory came back, but instead to breathe through that urge (since I have already had that conversation many times before). Of course, this might make less sense for you, depending on what the situation is. But it’s definitely an exercise in letting go–feeling the emotions, remembering that I have worked through them before, and that the only thing I need to do is feel and then release.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I am so sorry to hear you’re dealing with such sadness. I don’t know you, but I know you don’t deserve that. No one does.

    Have there been moments today when you weren’t consciously thinking about that thing you said you can’t forget? If so, then perhaps you CAN forget–you just can’t guarantee you can forget forever.

    I also get bogged down sometimes by the fact that I tend to come back to the same thoughts and feelings, over and over again–and then I wish that would never happen again. But the second my mind goes there, I am unhappy because I am fighting what I imagine my future will contain instead of focusing on doing my best in the present. Mindfulness truly is the answer to so many of the things that hurt us.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Thanks so much, Dina. Your comment made me smile. =) You can find the meditation here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFh-Km4AXeE

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You are most definitely not the only one! We are all far more alike than we sometimes realize. 

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Yes, I know exactly what you mean. Sometimes when I feel knee-deep in an emotion, it’s difficult to do anything other than feel. Deep breathing helps a lot. My mantra is “Just let go.”

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Thanks linnaea. It’s somewhat comforting to simply accept that this is a lifelong practice. There’s no need to “get it right.” It’s all about learning and growing, which is far more achievable than trying to be perfect!

  • Anonymous

    Azima – Thank you for such wonderful advice.
    Funny thing is when the feeling comes back, all you want to do is get rid of it quickly. Distract yourself.. get busy with work You don’t want to feel that way and you do everything to fight it.
    But like you said, the healing comes when you fully express those feelings.

  • http://twitter.com/michellecruble Michelle Ruble

    Such a wonderful article and thank you for writing this.  It really helped to not think I was crazy when you let go and those memories creep back up – I love what you wrote here:

     ”This doesn’t make us weak. It makes us human. We don’t need to let go of
    anything forever. We just need to learn what it means to let go in a
    moment, and then remember what that looks and feels like to do it again
    when necessary.” 

    This was so helpful and a great reminder to keep posted somewhere or in my journal.  THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You are most welcome, Michelle! I think a lot of times we stress ourselves out thinking we need to do things perfectly (even finding peace!). I know that I have. I’m so happy that this tiny post was helpful to  you. =)

  • Pingback: 8/10/11 Tiny Wisdom: Letting Go of Painful Memories | Tiny Buddha: Wisdom Quotes, Letting Go, Letting Happiness In | Buddhism | Scoop.it

  • Searching For Trueself

    Great job Lori!! What was the guided meditation?

  • Searching For Trueself

    Great job Lori!! What was the guided meditation?

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Thanks so much! You can find the guided meditation here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFh-Km4AXeE

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for this beautiful post Lori. yes, like most human being, I also have to let go over and over again to complete the healing process. In the end, I just need to learn to live for the moment.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You are most welcome, Prime. =) I just published your post for tomorrow. I really love how it came out!

  • LanceThruster

    Dr. Seuss wrote, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

  • traumatic events

    The problem is that I need to come to terms with the painful memories, because it was so severe and connected to myself my life and my future that I actually cling on to the past for life and live in it hoping it will resolve I need to come to terms with to move on, not cling to it to be healthy, but my soul is not ready to let go until that happens. Anyone know how to do this?