“Sometimes the past should be abandoned, yes. Life is a journey and you can’t carry everything with you. Only the usable baggage.” ~Ha Jin
You’ve probably heard of the fear of missing out but what about the fear of letting go?
My father was volatile and mentally unstable. Criticism was his preferred method of communication. As a child and teenager, I learned to keep my thoughts and feelings locked away and became an expert at deflecting personal questions.
Without realizing it, I carried this habit into adulthood, avoiding any talk about my feelings or turning them into a joke. When a friend finally called me on it, the shock of self-recognition quickly turned to resistance. This is who I am, I thought. Why should I change?
I plodded on, working as hard as ever to keep my fortress intact. It wasn’t making me happy yet I wasn’t ready to change.
As I struggled with my desire to cling to hurtful memories and self-defeating behaviors, it dawned on me that I was afraid to let go because defensiveness was part of my identity.
The problem wasn’t that I had baggage—everyone has baggage—but that it had come to define me. I didn’t know who I would be without it. At that point it hit me: I had to dig deep, discover the person I wanted to be, and then act on it.
After I identified that I was holding on to the past because it seemed too important to jettison, I discovered that letting go is harder than it sounds. Relaxing a long-held belief isn’t a one-day, one-week, or even a one-year process. However, it is possible.
This is the five-step process I discovered:
1. Write an honest list of the thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that weigh you down.
Grab a pen and notebook, find a quiet space, and spend thirty to forty minutes thinking and writing. It is important to be honest and write down whatever comes to mind. Don’t judge what comes up, just take note.
2. Reflect on each item and identify the source of the thought/belief.
Travel back in time and see where you picked up these items of baggage. Do you fear intimacy because a partner cheated on you? Do you dread holidays because your parents drank too much? Acknowledge the painful memories but don’t wallow in them. Write it down and move on to the next step.
3. Find at least one positive in each hurtful experience/situation.
Look for the silver lining in your cloud. For example, my father’s criticism made me aware of the power of words and taught me the importance of speaking with kindness. Looking for the good in the past helps you reclaim your power. You are no longer a victim; you decide what you take from that experience.
4. Create affirmations to foster change and counteract negative thoughts.
Take the positives from step four and turn them into affirmations or statements of intent, i.e.: “I will speak with love” or “I will treat people with kindness.” This puts the emphasis on positive future behavior and frees you from the past. Make the affirmations tangible: put a reminder on your phone, write them on post-its, or put a list on the fridge.
5. Practice patience and mindfulness.
It takes time to change habits, especially when they are rooted in deep hurts or fears. Check in with yourself regularly using journaling or meditation. If you find yourself shouldering old baggage, be sure to acknowledge it, then gently release it and focus on your affirmations. Replacing negative thoughts with positive actions will help you let go for good.
There are infinite possibilities for each of us, baggage notwithstanding. Everyone has pain. It’s part of what makes us who we are. What defines us, however, is how we handle it. One of my favorite artists, Bruce Springsteen, has some wise words on the subject:
“You can find your identity in the damage that’s been done to you. You find your identity in your wounds, in your scars, in the places where you’ve been beat up and you turn them into a medal. We all wear the things we’ve survived with some honor, but the real honor is in also transcending them.”
By taking the time to identify and understand our baggage and making a conscious decision to let go, we free ourselves to experience life in a richer, deeper, more meaningful way.
Photo by Donnie Nunley