A Surprising Way to Let Go of Painful Feelings and the Past

“We do not heal the past by dwelling there; we heal the past by living fully in the present.” ~Marianne Williamson

I’ve struggled with it.

Letting go, I mean. I’ve struggled with moving on from my past. I’ve struggled with ridding myself of guilt, shame, and grief. I’ve struggled with freeing myself from mistakes, past relationships, and worries about the future.

It’s not that I haven’t tried. Believe me, I’ve tried really hard. I’ve written goodbye letters, mentally cut the energetic cords, and fiercely gone back into the pain to free myself fully from it. I’ve cried my eyes out, talked about it, and brought it to my meditation pillow.

What I’ve tried has helped to some extent, but not completely. So, instead of moving on I’ve felt stuck between my past and my future. You know, like in limbo. And that’s not the place to set up camp; both you and I know that.

It’s frustrating because I’m fully aware of the importance of letting go and moving on. I know that attachment is the reason we suffer. I know that past pain, anger, and resentment holds us back. I know that holding on to the unwanted blocks the wanted from coming in.

Letting go is essential. But, it’s not always easy to apply theory to practice. If you’ve also struggled with it, here’s another approach that has helped me to truly let go and move on.

Why Letting Go is Hard

First of all, everything is energy. Our thoughts and feelings emit a vibration, and what we send out to the world is what we receive back. This isn’t some woo-woo thing—it’s quantum physics (source).

That means that whatever we give our attention to—wanted or unwanted—grows. If you focus on happiness, joy, and satisfaction, you’ll experience more of that. If you focus on pain, regret, and guilt, you’ll experience more of that.

Just think about it, have you ever tried to rid yourself of stress, only to have found yourself getting more stressed, especially when you knew you shouldn’t stress? Or have you told yourself to stop worrying, only to have found more things to worry about?

Mother Theresa knew about this. She said, “I was once asked why I don't participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I'll be there.”

An anti-war demonstration focuses on war, which triggers feelings such as frustration, anger, and hopelessness. A pro-peace rally, on the other hand, focuses on peace.

The same goes for letting go. Unless you’re able to truly let it go—meaning that you withdraw your attention completely from it—you're more likely to focus on the unwanted and thus draw more of that into your life.

Step 1: Say “yes” to what is.

You cannot reject or push against the unwanted. You cannot focus on a problem and find the solution. Because the solution is never where the problem is. So, you need to shift focus.

You shift focus by first accepting what is. If you want to let go of shame, start by first accepting that you’re feeling shameful. Don’t argue with your thoughts and feelings. Don’t resist them. Don’t try to push them away. Instead, give them permission to exist.

As Eckhart Tolle said, “Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it.” To reach complete acceptance, spiritual teacher Bentinho Massaro suggests a technique where you agree with your limiting and hurtful thoughts.

For example, to accept guilt over something that happened, tell yourself, “Yes, I’m guilty.” If you struggle with forgiveness, tell yourself, “Yes, that’s right, I can’t forgive this person.”

This doesn’t mean that what you’re saying is true. Instead, it’s a tool to control negative thoughts and emotions so they don’t control you. By agreeing with them, the battle between you and them ends. When there’s nothing more to argue about, they lose their power over you. Touché.

Step 2: Let in instead of letting go.

Once you’ve reached a place of complete acceptance, you can move on to the second step.

This is about inviting the new.

Letting go can easily trigger fear. When you leave something behind and don’t know what to replace it with, you leave space for the unknown. Change is always scary, especially when you don’t know what’s coming next. That’s why you might find yourself clinging to the unwanted because that’s what's familiar and known to you.

To make sure that doesn’t happen, consciously decide what’s coming next. Let in instead of letting go. Rather than pushing away the unwanted, invite the wanted.

When I left my corporate job in search of a higher calling, I battled with shame. Shame for stepping off the beaten path, for making a controversial choice, and for not having a clear path in front of me.

It was when I finally stopped fighting shame that I was able to see clearly. That's when I could invite curiosity to join me instead. Curiosity did the exact opposite of shame; it helped me see the opportunities, not pitfalls, of the unknown and taking the road less traveled.

If you want to let go of anxiety and self-doubt, invite peace and confidence. If you want to let go of a past relationship, invite a new loving relationship. If you want to let go of the lazy and dull version of yourself, invite an active and energetic version of you.

This can be done step by step. For example, let’s say that you want to move on from an ex-love. Maybe your focus isn’t on attracting a new partner directly, but rather on inviting a happier, healthier, and more loving version of yourself. Then once you feel ready, you can invite in the relationship you long for.

Focus On What You Desire

It’s frustrating to replay mistakes over and over in your mind. It’s frustrating to cling to things from the past. It’s frustrating when you try really hard, but are unable to move on. Not only does that taint your future, it also steals the joy from this present moment.

Instead of trying harder to let go, accept fully where you are. Embrace it completely. Say yes to all worry, shame, and guilt. Confirm all the negative thoughts and feelings so that you can release yourself from their grip. Simply, give up the battle.

Then, invite what you desire. Imagine, visualize, and fantasize what you’d love to have instead in your life. Tony Robbins said, “Where focus grows, energy flows.” Focus on the wanted, not the unwanted.

You got this!

About Maria Stenvinkel

Maria Stenvinkel is on a mission to help people get a career they truly love. Download her free worksheet Get a Clue to Your Calling With These 10 Powerful Questions.

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  • RaeB

    Thank you! This is the right message at the right time in my life! You’ve helped me take a few steps closer to being my better self!

  • Oh I’m SO happy to hear that! I wish you all the best <3

  • kittyk

    Your message has struck a cord that I have needed to hear for a long time. I have been slipping for over a year down a very depressive past. People who have betrayed me, children that hate me, grandchildren who I am trying to help through all of their pain because of this past. I have had a broken heart for many years because of these traumatic events, but I have to let them go, have to step back and let the children do as best they can. I want to repair everyone, it is my genes, my mother was like this, my grandmother also. Everyone comes needing our help. But as I approach 70, I am worn out with grief and pain, all caused by betrayal. So I am taking your wisdom and I am hoping to be strong enough to let go. Thank you for writing this just when I needed to hear your wise words.

  • Thank you for sharing! Please know: you don’t need to repair anyone. We are all responsible for our own life and you give the best to everyone by taking care of yourself and letting the grief and pain be a part of the past – not the future. You deserve the very best and so please allow yourself to move forward. Turn that pain and grief into love and gratitude. Lots of love to you!

  • Bellollpop

    This so resonated with me. Thank you. Even just the simple sentence ‘give up the battle’ made such a huge impact on me. I will print your words out and keep them as a reminder. I think, finally, now, I can engage myself fully in the present. Thank you for providing the key to the door to my happier, less hounded, future!

  • Laura

    So helpful. Thank you. It is a struggle for me too, but I tried this exercise and realized that I have accomplished so much in my life.

  • purna

    Hi, I tried the first a few days before this piece came to my email and gosh it really worked. I remember in the morning I woke up and feeling dreadful. I was broke, single, detached from my family and I felt completely alone and I asked this question every time, “Purna, what is it? Is it fear, shame, or guilt?” I identified it, acknowledged it, and accepted it. And it felt a lot better. I found it important to label the emotions once it arose and be fine with it.

  • Catherine Ruth

    This article is beautifully written, and precisely nails the way to move with and then beyond what is not good for your life. So much said with so few words.

  • Ohh, I’m so happy to read this! Yes, surrendering is powerful. I’m sending you lots of love. xoxo Maria

  • Wow, that’s amazing! And it’s so true, we tend to look at what we haven’t accomplished instead of what we do have. Love your change in perspective. xoxo Maria

  • Your comment just gave me goosebumps. Such a wise way to look at things. Sending you lots of love Purna! xoxo

  • Thank you so much Catherine! 🙂 Really appreciate your kind comment. xoxo Maria

  • Marlene

    This is so helpful for me. I sm going to try to incorporate this wisdom into my life. I can’t live with guilt forever and be happy.

  • What a tremendous post. You take well worn advice and make it very practical and accessible. Thanks to you, the next time I think of letting go, I’ll think of letting in. Thank you 🙂

  • Cate

    Great post — thank you! Many of us trying to live consciously strive to be accountable in the wake of, say, a painful break-up. We want to do the hard work of growth; we don’t want to be one of those people who just move on to the next lover and do the same thing all over again. That’s really important — but so is recognizing when it’s time to again face forward and open to new possibilities.

  • Robert

    Thank you for writing this, it gives me hope but at the same time it makes me angry. When you write it like this, it seems so easy. Just let it in, accept the feelings. Its so hard. Its so unbelievable difficult.

    I am gay. My family knows this, I just came out of the closet recently. I am also in love with my best friend, he knows I’m gay, but not that I am in love with him. I try to accept that this is a situation I have to let go of. The love will never be returned from him. But every time he talks about a new girl he’s dating, I get angry. I am not able to accept the fact that he’s dating other people, even though I know that I am completely out of my boundary when I get angry with this.

    This situation also makes me lonely, nobody knows I’m in love with him and I feel I am completely and utterly alone in my situation. I try to accept this and sometimes I believe I am on top of the situation. But then something happens and I lose control over myself and start to cry, unsure what to do next. I don’t want to lose him as my best friend, because I like him very much. But at the same time I don’t want to deny and hurt my own feelings, which happens way to much for what I can handle.

    I’m not sure whether this will be a appropriate comment for an article like this and if its not I apologise. I just wanted to vent. Thanks again for writing this, knowing that there are people like you out there devoted to help other people fills my hearth with joy. I am sorry again if this is a weird comment, I just wanted to vent.

  • Niraj Thapa

    I have been reading tinybuddha for years and this post today touched me so deeply. Thank you! You have inspired me in ways you will never know.

  • I’m so happy to hear that Marlene! Let that guilt go. Love to you!

  • Thank you so much Cylon! I’m happy to hear that you liked it 🙂

  • So well said Cate. It’s all about the balance of learning and growing from our past and then moving on and opening up to a new and better future. What you wrote really resonated with me. Thank you! 🙂

  • Hi Robert!

    Thank you for your comment, I really appreciate it. Just because it can seem simple in theory doesn’t mean it’s easy to apply. Letting in and accepting those feelings isn’t often easy. It requires time and patience and yes…. it is really hard. I know.

    Thank you also for sharing your situation and for venting. It’s so important to do that. I’m here and I listen.

    Have you told him about your feelings? I know this might scare you, but that can really help in moving forward. Maybe there’s a chance he feels the same way (it happened to a lesbian friend of mine), and if not, then at least you’ve talked about it and it can be easier for you to move on.

    Carrying these feelings alone can feel like a heavy burden. I know that saying it to that person can trigger a lot of fear… and you’re probably scared of losing him as a friend. Maybe you’d lose contact for a while, but then you could come back to each other again. My point is this: What do you need in order to feel better? Do that.

    You seem like an incredibly nice and sweet person and you’re meant to live a good life. So think about what YOU need to move on. I’m sending you lots of love.

    Love will find you <3

  • Wow, thank you Niraj! Really really appreciate your comment. Lots of love to you! xoxo Maria

  • Kakarot3481

    I’ve been struggling with unforgiveness for decades against people who have wronged me especially my dad who was very mean and abusive. He has since “passed on” and I still feel stuck in a negative rut. Ive prayed and prayed for a method breaking its hold on me. Letting in is a new strategy that I havent applied yet. Thank you for the new information

  • Brav3

    Thank you Maria for a nice and insightful article. It resonated with my understanding of acceptance and letting go.

    I think people struggle with acceptance because of pain associated with it. So, they either hold feelings in or fight against them, which sadly, makes things worse. Treating pain as your teacher is the way to cultivate acceptance.

    You used words letting go is letting in. It can also be said that letting go is letting it be, which basically means one do not try to fix things. This attitude is very helpful when one hits a brick wall, when there’s no escape.

    Here’s something I am perplexed with. You wrote ” Focus on your desire”. I think different words could be used here. Instead of focusing, fantasizing on desires and that ‘perfect future, inspecting and observing your desires is the way to see how our minds plays these stories and make us believe that it will be the source of happiness.

    This whole world is running on desires, not sure if you have noticed or not :). Desires aren’t the source of problem or we can get rid of them. Matter of fact, one should enjoy fulfilling their desires. However, its the interpretation of desires as a source of happiness and something permanent and satisfying, that cause suffering. Letting go of past is very important as it liberate us. But if one dwells on the fantasy of future, when I get this or that etc. it would be nearly impossible to stay and enjoy the present which is where one’s future is created.

    Therefore, focus should be on seeing and inquiring the stories that your mind plays to make you run after your desires, rather than inviting and focusing on desires. Asking questions like – Do my desire cause harm to others? Will I be happy forever as my mind says to me? Will I bring pain and suffering to others if I fulfill my desire?

    To put it simply, there’s nothing wrong having alot of money, enjoying luxury and comfort of lives, looking for a good partner etc. However, if we get caught running our lives on chasing this future, we will never be happy in present, similar to when we are caught up in ruminating about past. So, do what you can do in present and then let go, be at peace in this very moment, in midst of chaotic life.

  • Philippe Rogers

    Thank you so much for this, Maria! Me and my girlfriend were forced apart because she is still dwelling in her past and I sent her this article, in the hopes she truly embraces and understands it.
    You’ve put the idea of letting go so gently that I feel more confident and I’m sure it’s gonna help her, too. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

  • Great post -shared:)

  • Thank you for commenting and telling your story! Remember that forgiveness doesn’t mean that what your dad, or someone else, did to you was right. It simply means that you no longer want to carry that burden. The strongest and kindest people on this planet have often been through the hardest of times. They’ve managed to turn that pain into wisdom and a desire to help others. I know you can do the same. Lots of love to you!

  • Hi, thank you for your comment! Very well put it. I completely agree with what you say. I believe that it’s essential to enjoy the present and in a perfect world that would be how we would live. But since we have a mind that tends to wander, I also think it’s key to create, in our minds, a future that we look forward to. To change negative narratives we have running for better stories. Since we create our future in the present, it’s key to make up our minds where we can go and how we can live – without getting attached to those things. It’s a really interesting topic and I can talk about these things for ages 🙂 Love your input! xoxo

  • Hi Philippe, thanks for your comment! Oh, I’m crossing my fingers for you guys 🙂 xoxo

  • Thank you sweet Laura! 🙂

  • Brav3

    Hi, Thanks for your reply. It is indeed a very interesting topic and we can continue to talk for ages. I understand that you wrote this article with the intention to make people see more positive side of life rather than fixated on negative past, which is very kind of you. Sorry, if I come across as someone who’s picking on your article. My intention is only to write a reasonable comment.

    We all know that this world is way far from being perfect. However, we all can work on our mind and be slightly less attached. Mind is meant to wander, unless one become enlightened or something (never met anyone yet, so not sure if it is possible) and yes, being hopeful about the future is the way to create it. Also, it is important to see that it is not the source of our contentment, peace or happiness and it is not permanent.

    It is extremely hard to be not attach to that fantasy-future. And when things do not go the way you want them to go or they change with time as they always do or we fail in trying to achieve that future, whether its a relationship, job, home etc. We get utterly disappointed and despaired.

    We need to see that its all delusions from our mind. Again, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do anything. We must give everything we got to achieve whatever we want to achieve in life ( Job, career, love etc). But we also must stay in sync with the reality, which is that these things aren’t the source of happiness, and they are subject to loss with time as they are impermanent.

    Cheers ! xx

  • Sati

    Beautifully explained…I’m going through a turmoil of emotions right now based on fear, however reading this article I realize that I can stop giving power to my fears by confirming them and inviting what I want…thank you so much for this insight. Much love and light x

  • Oh I’m so happy to read this Sati. Feed faith instead of fear 🙂 Lots of love and light back to you!

  • Oh no you didn’t! I loved reading your perspective which I totally agree with 🙂 If we can’t find love, happiness and joy on the inside, we will never be able to find it outside of ourselves. At least not long term. One thing I like to think about is that everything I do in life – say creating a new project – matters a lot. While I do it I give it my everything. At the same time, it doesn’t matter at all. That thought helps for me to stay unattached.

    Have an amazing day! xoxo

  • NRana

    Hi Maria, Reading your article ,was a like a breath of fresh air at a time when i was and still having a tough time with my unreasonable husband who takes all my actions in a negative manner. In the process i get so disturbed and find it tough to get on with my daily routine but upon reading your suggestions i feel there is god and hope somewhere

  • Thank you for commenting! I’m glad that it helped. And yes yes yes… there IS HOPE. We’ve got to nurture faith, not fear. Lots of love to you! xoxo

  • lv2terp

    Great post! Thank you for sharing your wisdom and message! Great advice/tips to ponder! 🙂

  • Sethu Thennarasu

    wow !! Thank you sharing this post ! Wonderfully worded article .

  • Sethu Thennarasu

    Hi Maria , life changing article . I am in the process of letting go the stuff that doesn’t serve any purpose in my life . Your tips gave a confident to me .. Thank u

  • stefany

    Great post! This is a total different way to look at it, with the same strong message. Letting is your freedom. Thanks for this great article.

  • Aww thank you!! xoxo

  • Wow, thanks Sandra! So so happy to hear that! xoxo

  • Thank you so much Stefany! Love to you xoxo

  • Shubham Lagyan

    A nice thought of relieving your jealousy ,ego,anxiety and past mistakes …

  • Iphoenix

    Thank you Maria for making it very clear that when you live in the past you are spoiling the moment, this is something I have always done, and have missed so much of my present time. I will always try to remember to focus on inviting the wanted into my life now.

  • Lucyna

    Thank you for sharing this. The biggest struggle I have is that I don’t know what to replace the negative thoughts/behaviours with. Affirmations and positive self-talk help a lot, but when it comes to DOING something more positive, KNOWING my desires and setting goals, I get stuck. I’ve heard that it’s helpful to do something that is both mentally and physically engaging. I feel like I’m near the crest of the mountain, but I just need to know the next step to push me over into fully letting go and adopting healthier mental behaviours. I’m realizing that defining my desires is going to take effort; more than I thought. It’s rare for most of us to be encouraged to discover our passion(s) and follow our hearts. We are not taught this, which is incredibly unfortunate. I’m currently working on The Desire Map book, but it takes time and effort. I don’t know how to evaluate myself. I don’t really know ME at all. I would love for there to be more tools for us to learn how to discover our passions so that when we want to distract ourselves from negative thoughts and focus on creating positivity, we actually know what to DO.

  • Doug

    This is a great message. I’ve referred back to this article a couple times. Now I’m bookmarking it. Very helpful and thanks for sharing.

  • Thank you!

  • Yes yes yes!! Love hearing that 🙂 xoxo

  • Aww thank you Doug! So happy that it helped you 🙂

  • Hi Lucyna!

    Thanks for commenting. Yes, I agree that it’s very unfortunate that we don’t learn earlier how to discover our passions and our calling. That’s actually what my blog is about. You should check it out, I have a free worksheet there that I think you’ll enjoy 🙂

    Try to make the whole process of finding your passions and desires fun. Don’t push yourself. When you feel like trying harder – don’t. You won’t find your desires from a place of frustration. And instead of looking for that great passion, follow your curiosity. Look for the small things that excites you and follow that.

    When we are on a journey to discover ourselves, it’s easy to feel lost. To feel like we don’t know ourselves any longer. That’s perfectly in order because we’re challenging the identity we resonate with. Try to be easy about the whole process and trust that what you need will come to you. You can find me at my blog if you want to talk more. Cheers!

  • Clara

    Dear Kitty,

    Thanks for sharing your feelings and experience. There are no frontiers in pain, disappointment and wisdom .
    You are strong – let go, we all make mistakes and wrong choices even when intending to do good, there is a quote that says that without those mistakes you wouldn’t have reached the understanding now available to you.
    Good luck,

  • Shivank Tiwari

    Thanks maria for sharing your thoughts!
    Best part of the article is that there is no preaching in that.
    What have you written perfectly makes sense and it really helps to see things from other’s perspective and these things help when you are really looking for some, which is the case of mine.
    Actually, i also wish to write similar articles.
    Would you like to be a help as i would also like to contribute as you.

  • I’m happy to hear that you liked it! Unfortunately, I won’t be able to help, but I wish you all the best! xoxo Maria

  • ka

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I am 32 years old and have been struggling for 2 years to let go off the guilt, shame etc. from a strained friendship with three people. My issue has been always been trying too hard not to think about them and the pain they caused/vice versa. I will learn to implement your thought process and hopefully It works out! Please pray for me!

  • I will. Lots of love to you! xoxo

  • Didi Claire

    Wow, thank you. I just started the journey of positive thinking after reading about the law of attraction, and I already feel less stressed. And this article emphasizes just that. Thank you so much…

  • LovenoLimit

    And I’ve been struggling with jealousy, and past mistakes with leads to mild to moderate anxiety. This hurt is eating at me

  • Robert Levandowski

    Thank you so much for this. I have read it two days in a row and twice today ! I am currently going through a break up. I have been feeling so lost lately , and this really opened my eyes.

  • Moonisha Gobinathan

    just what i needed to read! thank you so much for sharing. this really resonates with me and i felt relief after reading this. i’m going to read more of your articles!

  • So happy to hear that Robert! 🙂

  • Awesome to hear!! xoxo Maria

  • Quincy Bishop

    Thank you for sharing! I actually know this process already yet I’m struggling to change my focus and heal. My first love(ex) hurt me to the core not just for ending it,but why(judgement from my past), how( embarrassing, in public), when(valentines day,same day my father passed), and a new man a week after we stopped talking(all over social media). This has brought so much pain,anger,resentment,and feeling betrayed. Its a lot at once and from my first love which has made me feel cold.lost,not very hopeful, and in the pits. Any suggestion to deal with several layers like I’ve expressed? I want to let go so bad I’m so tired and drained from it!

  • John

    I wish I was dead constantly, I have moved past fear and accepted I shall never find peace in this life, I am expendable ..the only way I can escape I’d the obvious choice of suicide…ill be cooking a meal and I stare down at the kitchen knife and wonder how bad the pain would be, and if I could accept the pain, how fast would I bleed out… Or if I’m driving I fight the urge to yank the wheel in front of am oncoming 18 wheeler

  • Hey John ~ My heart really breaks for you, as I can tell you’re in a lot of pain. I promise you you’re not expendable, even though it may feel that way. Have you shared what you’re feeling with anyone in your life?

  • stephanie morales

    I’ve had alot happen to me in my life. And alot of it has to do with my mother’s choices in life. In my eyes she chose the partying life as her first priority, her friends second and to be a mother, we’ll let’s just say I don’t really think she cared much at all. Sometimes she would not come home for days at a time, yhat

  • Jennifer Stewart Fennerl

    Thank very much you for this. It has helped me a lot to let go of something I have not been able to let go of!

  • Emma flack

    I was in exactly the same position as you Stephanie, in the fact that i cared for my mum but wouldn’t let anyone else help, it was an enormous strain, i said to my husband i will never be free of this until one of us dies…shortly after she passed away and i can’t get over the guilt of this and shouting at her.I did not know how bad she was and now i feel awful…so the pain for me still continues.i hope you find some peace.