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Tiny Wisdom: On Letting Go of Painful Stories

“The past has no power to stop you from being present now. Only your grievance about the past can do that.” -Eckhart Tolle

Today I read that Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped in 2002, is going to join ABC as a correspondent, covering missing persons.

In case you haven’t followed this case, Elizabeth was only 14 when Brian David Mitchell abducted her from her Salt Lake City home. Her parents had previously hired the homeless man for a day’s work, something they did often to help people who were down on their luck. And yet for nine months he hid Elizabeth, subjecting her to daily cruelty.

In response to her new position, ABC News spokeswoman Julie Townsend said, “…her contributions will be focused on looking ahead, not looking back at her own story.”

As I read this, I thought about how easy it would be for her to let that story define her and her life. People have done it with far less traumatic events.

She could wake up every day bitter and guarded. She could take comfort in a victim identity, expecting other people to take care of her. She could rehash what happened over and over again to anyone would listen–and we would understand. After all, she’s been through so much.

But when you focus on all the bad things you’ve been through, it’s nearly impossible to recognize when you’re going through something good. It’s even more challenging to create something good with what you have.

The stories we tell and wrap our lives around can easily limit who we become if we let them. The alternative is to let go of that pain identity. To stop dwelling on how you’ve been hurt. To decide that, right now, you have choices, and you’re not going to let your fear and anger make them for you.

Today if you find yourself rehashing a painful past, remember: It may help to talk things through, but if you want to experience real happiness, at some point, you need to let go.

Photo by JapanDave

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About Lori Deschene

Tiny Buddha Founder Lori Deschene is the author of the Tiny Wisdom eBook series and co-founder of Recreate Your Life Story, an eCourse that helps you change your life. She's now seeking stories for her next book, 365 Tiny Love Challenges from Tiny Buddha. Click here to share your story and follow on Facebook 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!
  • Jennifer

    It’s funny to see this post as today’s blog article. While I was driving to work this morning I was thinking about my abusive ex-boyfriend and how the thought of him still makes me so angry and defensive. 

    I convinced myself this morning (as I do very frequently) to let go and stop dwelling on the past. He’s gone for good and I should look forward to this beautiful day and this beautiful weekend because I’m free now and I have peace. This was the perfect post for me today, so thank you!

  • emily

    WOW. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS ARTICLE!  This is such a coincidence because just 20 minutes ago I was feeling SO ANGRY so upset because I started thinking about the past, the 1st half of this year where my boyfriend of 3 years broke up with me and got a new girlfriend.  however, he broke up with her  now we got back together. He really regrets what he did we are trying to work things out. 

    I told myself I wouldn’t think about him and that girl anymore. he only went out with her for 1 month. So I forgive him because I believe our love is so much greater than all the hurt we been through…

    So Thank YOU! this article saved me from terrorizing my day :)

  • Karen

    Great advice.  However, I have to say that “letting go” is not as simple as this article implies.  Yes, it is simple to CHOOSE the action and work towards that action everyday, but those of us who have experienced trauma will constantly deal with triggers that bring up a tremendous amount of anxiety and pain.  We’re not in control of those emotions when they come up, but we can choose how we react to them.  I’d just like people to understand that it’s just not as simple as plastering on a happy face and moving forward.  Most people I know who “move forward” truly aren’t.  Instead they are still putting a band aid on the pain by numbing themselves with drugs, alcohol, food, etc.  The only way to truly “let go” is to go through the grieving process and that involves seeing yourself as a victim and realizing that you had no control over what happened.  Once you’ve acknowledged that you have been a victim, then you can move forward.  People do get stuck in “victim” mode and an article like this is helpful for them to move beyond that stage, yet I would hesitate to tell someone who’s never dealt with their pain to just “let it go.”  It doesn’t work that way.  I’ve tried it.  The pain just kept coming back and I kept hurting people until I realized that I was a victim and needed to deal with the past.  You can’t just push it aside as if it never happened. 

  • JSL

    EXACTLY what I needed today.  I just ‘happened’ to see an interview with Elizabeth Smart’s father by Wm. Shatner a couple days ago.  Mr. Smart now works to empower children in case someone ever tries to hurt or abduct them.  I know she learned some of her strength and courage from her dad.  I have been through much less, but this article is helping me to reframe the way I hold those so-called tragedies.

  • Scorpiatrix

    LOVE ♥ LOVE ♥ LOVE this post!  Thank you so much!  Blessings to you…

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

    Hi Karen,

    As someone who has experienced trauma in my past, I can relate to your perspective. Letting go is by no means easy. It’s not a one-time choice; it’s something you do over and over again, day to day, minute to minute even. And it does involve a process of healing.

    What I noticed with me is that I used to justify my inability to move forward with, “I’ve been through so much.” It was as if I thought there was a direct correlation between the severity of an experience and the ability to move past it. It was an amazing insight for me to realize that, even though my feelings were valid, I could feel a lot less pain if I decided that I truly wanted to let go of the stories.

    For a long time, I didn’t. I was afraid of losing an identity that felt familiar and even comforting. I didn’t want to lose the compassion I thought my stories earned me (which felt even more pertinent since I felt so unloved in my past). So while it did take a process for me to heal, the process never really started until I decided that I truly wanted to let go. It took me almost a decade to decide that. Until I did, I did not start healing.

    Thank you for adding this comment here. I generally keep this “Tiny
    Wisdom” posts short, to hopefully act as small seeds that inspire
    thought and action, but this is obviously a complex topic. And I wouldn’t want anyone to think they are somehow failing because they can’t instantly let go and become happy, like switching a light on. My intention was to suggest that we can only be happy when we decide we truly want to start fresh from right where we are (even if that’s not easy).

    Lori

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

    You are most welcome, Emily. I’m glad this came at a good time to be helpful to you!

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

    You are most welcome! I’m happy to hear that you are no longer in this abusive relationship. I know how tempting it is to live in the past. It can be so hard to let go of painful memories. There were some that I relived over and over for years. When I start dwelling on things that hurt me, I remember what contributor Erin Lanahan wrote, “Freedom is where my feet are.” It always helps to come back to the present moment and focus on creating joy now (instead of reliving pain from before).

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

    You are most welcome. =)

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

     You’re welcome, and blessings to you, as well!

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

    Elizabeth Smart really inspires me. That she can do something positive with her traumatic past is truly remarkable. I have always believed that the key to letting go is recycling past hurt into something useful. I know it doesn’t change that certain situations hurt, but it creates a sense of purpose where previously there was only pain.

  • http://zeroto60andbeyond.com Barbara Hammond

    The key is realizing you cannot move forward without letting go.  It’s not easy and often times very painful, but not as painful as hanging onto the trauma and hurt.  You have to want to.

    Great post.  Thanks Lori
    b

  • http://twitter.com/wayopenscenter Amy Ward Brimmer

     “Freedom is where my feet are.” — I really like that, thank you.  That has been my experience, especially when it comes to letting go of the painful, traumatic stories in my past.  Recognizing them as the stories they are, not happening in this moment.  Yes, I had to allow myself to feel helpless as part of my healing process, but that was/is just one of the aspects of the mosaic that is my life. 
    Discovering that it is possible to be centered and grounded, in my body, at any moment.  Being able to open up to receive the incredible goodness and abundance around me.  It may seem hard that it is not a “one time thing” as you say, but that’s actually the good news.  For me, it keeps coming around for deeper and clearer letting go, and so I get to rediscover again and again that it is over and done.  And I keep letting go.  Namaste.

  • Nelie

    Karen, I appreciate your post.  Having been through something extremely unjust, traumatic and painful myself, I agree that sometimes letting go doesn’t happen just because you want it to.  Grieving in all its forms (including anger and bargaining) sometimes moves much more slowly than you want it to. Recognizing how you were victimized is also definitely an important part of the process.  But I think it’s when you allow the story to define you completely that it becomes a problem–and I agree with Lori that sometimes just repeatedly making the choice, when memories and emotions arise, to not believe they ARE you that is what is really important. Sometimes all I can do when the painful emotions are strong is repeat to myself that it is my intent to free myself from this pain and let go of the past. And I really believe that is helping me achieve that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dorothee-Lang/100000243720517 Dorothee Lang

    Thanks for sharing this. Letting go. So difficult, sometimes. The story and advice made me remember the case of Natascha Kampusch in Austria, who was kidnapped at age 10 and held captive for more than 8 years. Asked how she survived, she said: “‘I forgave the criminal everything. Otherwise I would have been filled with too much hate and negative feelings – that would have left me psychologically and physically at square one.’
    (more of the story + interview, here: http://nz.lifestyle.yahoo.com/new-idea/real-life/article/-/6788723/natascha-kampusch-ive-forgiven-my-kidnapper/)

  • Kelli

    Great piece, thx. When my Mom passed almost 5 years ago, it was very unexpected, although she passed away of a terminal illness. For 4 years after her passing, I carried around a lot of bitterness and anger. Bitterness at those who still had there mother and seemed to have no clue that there life could be changed in the blink of an eye, but more bitterness because I could no longer touch my mother (if I could only feel her touch) but, that bitterness got me no where. It was when I let go of the bitterness that I was finally able to really breath after 4 years of suffocating, and that’s probably when I was truely able to let my Mom be “free.” I still cry and get angry at times yes, I just an episode where I just had to let the tears flow earlier this week, I couln’t hold on to them anymore, but, it’s more of a release now than a suffering cry, well, it’s probably suffering in there too, I miss my Mommie, but, I”m no longer bitter. I can smile and laugh when I see a mother/daughter set and not get angry. Everyday, every minute sometimes, we have to remind ourselves to just “let it go.”

  • Maira

    OMG! This is what I need to hear! Thanks a lot!

  • Anonymous

    Oh goodness, I just read another post asking for advice and i am going to be sending her this link right away!

  • http://twitter.com/CHANDRAKANTHA Jeevan/Mr.Gupt/Jolly

    hey Lori & Karen,

                         I loved what u both said…Karen; u said exactly what I wanted to say…& Lori you gave a very thought explanation from your past…& I can genuinely relate to what both of u have said…& after reading both your perspectives & this blog, “On Letting Go Of Painful Memories,” it has def. given me a more Optimistic view on life & its nice to know that we have all gone through or are going through tough situations in life….However, at the end of the day..we always have a a choice to whether or not to ponder on being miserable or taking actions to being HAPPY…:-), Thanks guys…!!!!

  • Karen

    Thank you, Lori.  That helps a lot, actually.  I think it’s hard for me to see the whole perspective because the phrase “let it go” is just so casually spoken sometimes as if to say one doesn’t care that you’re hurting.  As someone who was not encouraged to express their emotions growing up (like most of us), I find it difficult to understand the concept of “letting go.”  However, I can see that it means I need to replace the negative emotions with more positive, constructive emotions that bring joy and fulfillment to my life. 

    I always appreciate Tiny Buddha!  Ya’ll have helped me tremendously!

  • Karen

    Thank you, Nelie.  I’m just beginning to acknowledge that I have been victimized and appreciate the words of wisdom.  I want to move past the negative feelings more than anything!

  • Karen

    You’re right, at the end of the day we do have that choice to make ourselves happy.  I’ve been making that choice a lot lately even when I’m in my darkest moments.  Just pick myself up and make myself go out and enjoy life every day, and the pain does lessen one day at a time.

  • starlightjourney

    Great positive advice. However, healing past trauma is a journey that often takes time, a nurturing environment, and deep self reflection. It is not an easy journey but one we must take to fulfill our destiny.
    Namaste

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

    I know what you mean, Karen. It’s kind of like telling someone who is depressed to just “snap out of it.” I’ve always found that troubling. Thanks again for taking the time to comment. I’m glad Tiny Buddha has been helpful to you!

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

    For me, it keeps coming around for deeper and clearer letting go, and so
    I get to rediscover again and again that it is over and done.  And I
    keep letting go. — Beautifully said (written). You’re right–it’s kind of empowering to know every moment is a new choice to release the past and dig your heels into the moment. Namaste. =)

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

    That’s great, Miranda. I hope this helps her!

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

    You are most welcome!

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

    I hadn’t heard about her before. What an inspiring story! Forgiveness really is so healing. Thank you for sharing this here!

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

    Everyday, every minute sometimes, we have to remind ourselves to just “let it go.”  <~ So true. I'm glad to hear you've moved forward in the grieving process. I know it can't be easy. It's never easy when we lose people we love.

     In Viktor Frankl's book Man's Search for Meaning, he wrote about a man who was having trouble moving on after his wife died. Frankl asked what would have happened if he died first. The answer was the wife would have to mourn him. So in his living beyond her, he saved her that grief. I thought that was really comforting to consider–that the survivors have actually saved their past loved ones from feeling the pain of their loss.

  • ke

    on a dry-erase board above my fridge are the following words:

    it has already happened.
    enter the new; forgive the negative.
    it only matters if you do some thing about it.

    for years it’s served as all the reminder i need to actualize the ideas you all have shared….

  • ButterflySara

    Another great mantra that has helped me greatly through rough times of remembering: Don’t let “them” (the situation or person(s)) who caused you pain in the past) have the power to hurt you for one more day. They are no longer in your life, and should no longer have the presence in your mind either! Take your power back and turn the experience into something positive that will help others through a situation like your past.

  • Kjohn1114

    I can’t help but notice the similarity to the story of Christ. He forgave his trespassors while on the cross. “…otherwise I would have been filled with too much hate…” Is that not the problem so many people bear today and disguise it with anger?

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

    That’s a great way to look at it. There have been times when I’ve allowed way too many people to take up my “mental real estate.” But you’re right–if they’re no longer around, why spend time dwelling on what they did? It’s in the past!

  • Sasalool

    It’s all about focusing, if u focus on the negative things, u will Feel bad and start remembering all the bad things in ur life one by one i.e. U will open in ur mind the ‘ bad memories’ file. U should focus on the positive things instead which will open for u more positive things

  • http://twitter.com/CHANDRAKANTHA Jeevan/Mr.Gupt/Jolly

    I know exactly what u mean when ppl say, “LET IT GO,” in fact this phrase used to drive me crazy & still does at certain moments even when ppl who truly cares about me say it out of best intentions…The phrase has almost become a cliche to a lot of ppl who seem to care less…TINY BUDDHA has been truly a site that’s been helping me to put my
    perspectives on line as well & I also truly appreciate what LORI has been
    doing; so thank your there…LORI DESCHENE & Ihope u keep developing this amazing site…-)

    btw; we have a blogging site: http://www.inner-u.com; take a look at it KAREN & anyone else who who might be interested in joining the site…& if u  guyslike it try & join it share your ideas there as well…I been trying to read atleast a blog from TINY BUDDHA everyday & sharing it in our site as well…!!

    P.S.; its very nice to hear all your different stories & a part of me feel like I want to talk about some of my experiences as well..but I guess its my trust issues that prevents me since anything you write online these days may tend to bite you in the @## sooner or l8r…lol.  So; I greatly admire all the ppl here who have the courage to share their personal stories with all of us STRANGERS in TINY BUDDHA…Thanks again everyone, & im gonna shut up now…hahah..!

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

    Thanks Jeevan! I love that people share themselves so honestly here. I know it always helps me to realize other people are not so different from me, and that we all deal with the same things. I felt really disconnected to people for a lot of my life, but I think honesty bridges the gap. Thanks also for the link to your site. I’ll check it out! =)

  • Leslie Green

    Wow.  It’s seldom that I learn as much from the comments below a post as from the actual post.  But in this case, that’s exactly what happened.

    First, I enjoyed the article very much.  But as I began reading the comments I realized that there was so much more to learn by exploring others’ perspectives.  It’s hard to cover all bases in a single post, but that’s why this forum is so wonderful – readers and writer can go back and forth to CONTINUE the sharing, learning, and therefore, the growing as individuals, all the while increasing how we’re connected to one another.  This was a great example of ALL of that!  Thank you!

    -Leslie 

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

    I know what you mean, Leslie! I love when people share their perspectives and create a conversation around a post, for exactly the reasons you pointed out. I’m so grateful that Tiny Buddha has become a place where we can all learn and grow together. =)

  • Leslie Green

    I’m happy to hear you say that…because you imply that perhaps at one point the back and forth wasn’t happening as much as it is today (hopefully I’m not putting words in your mouth).  See, my blog is called Trust Life Today, and everything I write is about Trusting and Letting Go.  Sometimes I feel as though people are shy to comment because the topics are so rich and by doing so, they would be showing how vulnerable they are, which might not feel good to them.  The trend is now that more people are posting comments, and through their posts I’ve noticed that I continue to learn and grow — – it’s just that these comments are slow coming, but I suppose ALL in its due timing!  :-)  When you get a moment, please feel free to check out my website:  http://www.trustlifetoday.com.  I think any number of your articles would make for a FABULOUS guest post!  

    Love, Leslie

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

    Actually, it’s always been my practice to reply to comments/questions posted to me directly. If someone takes the time to talk to me, I take the time to respond! Thanks for the link to your blog. “Trust Life Today” is such a fabulous name. =)

    I think I read what you wrote wrong…it’s true, there were fewer people commenting in the beginning. It takes time for a community to grow, so I know what you mean about comments being slow-coming. Keep doing what you’re doing and those conversations will keep growing! =)

  • Leslie Green

    Yes, yes…in your second paragraph you completely got what I was saying.  It’s comforting to know that in your experience it has grown over time.  It’s nice to hear the reassurance.

    And thank you for the compliment on the name Trust Life Today – I LOVE it and the logo creation that went along with it was equally as fun – to work with someone who understood what I wanted to convey with that name was great.  I’m thrilled with both of them.  Take care, Leslie

  • Aweea

    First time reader, first time poster.  This thread has been very helpful to me as I struggle to understand something my therapist asked me to ponder with regards to my extreme resistance towards “letting go” of my feelings and sharing them in session.  He said the following, “Sometimes I get the sense that you don’t want anybody to take it away.
    Perhaps you keep it as a reminder, or there’s a purpose for it. You
    struggle against sharing and letting it go, more than I would imagine.
    Can you come up with any reasons why you wouldn’t want to let it go?”  .

  • CozychairReader

    1.  While seeking revenge, dig two graves – one for yourself.  ~Doug Horton

           2.  Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness – Proverb

           3.  God grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know it’s me.  ~Author unknown
           4.  Life being what it is, one dreams of revenge. Paul Gauguin
                   5.  I have learnt silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the         unkind; yet strange, I am ungrateful to these teachers. Kahlil Gibran 6. 
          “Even during the hardest times, you only have to look around you and       notice you’re surrounded by the softest hearts.” LaRae Rosie (a friend of mine)

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

    What a great question. Did you come up with any reasons? (You don’t need to disclose them, of course; I’m just wondering if this was helpful to you).

    Welcome to Tiny Buddha. =)
    Lori

  • Aweea

    Thanks for the warm welcome, Lori!  Unfortunately, I haven’t come up with any reasons of why I am struggling with letting go…but the information on this site is helping to provide me with ideas of how to work towards letting go.  My next session with my therapist is tomorrow, and I’m still without any ideas of how I could possibly WANT to hold onto the pain.

  • CozyChairReader

    Sometimes we hold onto pain because we want to make someone else wrong. 

    Physiologically, some people’s brains can be very activated in certain areas that will make them more likely to hold grudges (or be creative, or introverted, or extroverted, on and on). 

    I always try to look at out I can get my brain to move out of a certain nitch, like a needle stuff in a groove on a record.  (I”m old school.)  What would calm that area?  Definitley avoiding any thoughts or activities that would reinforce blaming, feeling like a victim, or thinking about similar situations.  E.g., when I was mad after my divorce it did NOT help me to move on by talking to bitter people about their divorces, reading or wathcing TV about bitter divorces, or anything that blamed the opposite sex.  It feels good in a sick way at the moment, but it doesn’t help you move on.

    Meditating is a GREAT way to help the brain detach.

  • M Ali

    Great piece of advice.I really needed it im going through the hardest time in my life.I keep on thinking that if i could go back and fix my past and if i could go back and start all over again but this does nothing but makes the situation even worse

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

    I’m sorry to hear you’re going through a difficult time. I know that feeling of wanting to go back and change the past. That can be a torturous place if you stay there. I hope you’re leaning on friends and family. The people who love you will help you get through this!