A Radical Approach to Happiness
Your past is past and it does not determine your future.
But the past can be heavy. All of us have been hurt, we've been rejected, and our sense of self-worth has suffered. We have shame, we have regret, and we have guilt. Some of us have had big past trauma.
And some of us are stuck in blame. When we blame our present conditions and our lack of hope for the future on our past, we are living as a victim of our past.
That's why you so often hear the phrase "let it go", and in a lot of ways it makes sense. How much easier would it be to live happily in the present and imagine a happy future if you could just let go of the past as if it had never happened?
But it did happen.
Your past is past, and yet if you're human, it's likely that your past has influenced who you are today and the person that you are becoming. I much prefer the idea of rising above your past, or transcending your past, rather than trying to forget the past or pretend that it wasn't so.
The past has a lot to teach us if we are willing learners.
I’ve been hearing a lot lately about the idea of replacing the phrase “let it go” with “let it be”. It’s a subtle shift, but an important one. Letting it go evokes a fantasy of being completely unencumbered by the past and to some degree it requires denial or minimization of the effects of the past.
We don’t need to let our past drag us down or hold us back, but we can practice radical acceptance of the past. In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) radical acceptance is defined as accepting life on life's terms and not resisting what you cannot change.
And that’s what letting it be is all about—we don’t let the past go so much as we just let it be. We don’t deny or minimize the pain and we don’t attach to it either. We just accept that it is there and adjust accordingly.
In his book The Miracle Equation, Hal Elrod tells a dramatic story of how he came to a rapid acceptance of the fact that he might never walk again after being hit by a drunk driver. He vowed to be "the happiest person you've ever seen in a wheelchair". He did not, however, attempt to deny or minimize the tragedy of his situation. He understood that he couldn't change what had happened and made a decision to make the best of his life.
[By the way, the author did recover and was able to walk again and he attributes that medical miracle in a large part to his attitude.]
Elrod suggests that you only allow yourself 5 minutes to rant or cry or wallow over something that has happened in your life that is beyond your control. After 5 minutes, you shut the negativity down by saying “can’t change it”, and shift your focus to what you can control which includes your response and the story you choose to create about what has happened.
I’ve used similar techniques in the past to practice acceptance of what is (a.k.a. reality), but I love the simplicity of this! So the next time you find yourself spinning out over something you can’t control--like rain on your wedding day or a black fly in your Chardonnay—give yourself 5 minutes to be upset, acknowledge that you can’t change it, and put your energy into how to best proceed given what has happened.
The more you practice this, the easier and more natural it becomes. Radical acceptance of something like a debilitating accident can only come after you have practiced many, many times on the small stuff.
So start practicing!
Although you can't rewrite your past, it's never too late to rewrite your present or your future. Your story is all about your perceptions, assumptions, and judgments all of which you can change.