Shelving the Past

Recently, I had the pleasure of going for dinner with one of the most insightful people I know. We only see each other once every few months – he’s often travelling, touring, or teaching yoga day and night – but every time we get together I leave feeling incredibly uplifted and inspired.  We got onto an interesting topic last time we got together – the past – and how we have the tendency to hold onto it.

People always say the past helped them become the person they are today. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that – the past can be full of hardships and mistakes, as well as growth, deepening of relationships, and happy memories. Of course the past helps us become who we are today. But there’s a difference between allowing it to shape who you are, and allowing it to define who you are. We all have the choice between looking back on past experiences and archiving them in the vault of memory, or pinning them to our proverbial jackets for all to see in every walk of life.

We talked about the things from the past we’re guilty of dragging around with us into our present. Traced negative self-talk back to events in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood to find its origin. As you know, two of my bigger struggles are speaking in front of people, and dealing with how I look. The self-destructive things we allowed to be planted in our youth and grow into poisonous weeds that tangle around our every thought, holding us back from reaching our true potential.  I was in the middle of trying to explain how it feels to have a continual loop of self-detriment running through your head, worrying that the nerves and thoughts about yourself on the inside are going to spill out somehow and everyone will see exactly the same things you do – when my friend interrupted me with a smile.  “But they’re just stories“, he laughed.  “They’re all just stories we choose to keep telling ourselves; they’re not real.”

I’ve always been an advocate for the power of choice. Not blaming things or other people when things are crappy. Not waiting for tomorrow to roll around before deciding it can be a good day after all. Choosing hard work and determination over fear of failure. Questioning rumours rather than contributing to their continuation. Swallowing pride over perpetuating a grudge. But I’ve always had trouble with choosing not to beat myself up over things out of my control. I listen to the voice that tells me I’m not fun or attractive. That I’m too quiet, too awkward, too ugly. I let it hold me back in social situations and I allow it consume my thoughts. But after this conversation with my friend, I felt I really could let go. Close the door on the past experiences that lead to these unhealthy thinking patterns, acknowledge them for what they are – “just stories” – and choose to let go of them.

All sorts of things can happen to us throughout life, and unfortunately, as often as there will be people to lift you up and enrich your life, there will be people who hurt you. They may be deliberate, or they may be completely unintentional – but they can fester in the mind and take over a lifetime if you choose to let them. But there’s something incredibly powerful when you come to the realisation that you are choosing to perpetuate those stories you tell yourself, and you can choose to close the door. When you realise that you’ve had the choice all along to either be defined by the past, or keep it where it belongs. The past definitely shapes who we become, but it doesn’t need to accompany us day in, day out, telling us who we “are”. The danger comes when we start to believe we are the sum of our past mistakes and hardships. Labelling ourselves “awkward,” “ugly,” or “a sufferer” of this or that. If we keep telling ourselves the same stories, we start to believe it.  And in doing so, how we limit what we can become.

When you realise you alone have the power over those stories, it can be as simple as closing the book. Storing it on a shelf somewhere, always there, but up high and out of immediate sight – instead of carrying it everywhere, a heavy weight dragging down on the soul.  Choose how much credit you give those stories, and ask yourself if they’re really worth perpetuating. Choose to learn from the past, and then to let it remain there.  Choose whether you want to limit yourself by others’ definitions, or to let go of them and set yourself free. None of us need be a slave to stories.

Is there a book you’re dragging around with you that would be better off shelved?

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59 comments

  1. I love you reflection on your life and life in general. I’m struggling lately with one particular family member and it sends me back and forth and I keep coming back to what I can do to make our relationship better…and I just don’t think it’s going to happen. It’s really really hard for me to accept that though because we are family. I’m a positive person and I love being around positive people who support me. I’m tired of being the only one trying to make things better between us and trying to figure out how we can even be friends. If it was any person who wasn’t family I’m sure we wouldn’t talk but it’s really hard knowing she is family. Anyway, I hope you are able to shelve those ideas/beliefs/mistruths and not dwell on them. Focus on the present, the here and now! Love!

    1. I definitely hear you on the fact that it being someone that’s in your family makes it so much harder to just shelve – with other people, people whose chapters HAVE closed, it’s easier but when it’s someone who will always be in your life because you’re related, it’s that much harder to do. I definitely empathise!! I think there’s something to be said for being on the same page though (gotta love all these book metaphors lol); if someone is not on the same page (or even in the same book sometimes), all you can do is your best and focus on what you can control in the present, and just keep hoping that eventually when the timing is right, this person’s presence in your life will come about…

  2. what a fantastic post em, and your friend sounds like a good person to have around! i took alot away from this, letting the past stay in the past is perfectly ok instead of dragging it around with us every day. i think lots of people are guilty of that. thank you for pointing out the power of choice we all have!

  3. “…you are choosing to perpetuate those stories you tell yourself, and you can choose to close the door. ” I absolutely love this.

    The entire post speaks volumes to me, especially now that I’m working out all sorts of issues. 🙂 As always, I appreciate your honesty and candidness. One of the many reasons why I love you so. ❤

    Keep this positivity in your life, Em. You're brilliant and beautiful, an absolute JOY to be around. xoxo

  4. I’m proud to be one of the people who can vouch for your awesomeness.

    You, my love, are startlingly beautiful, wonderfully articulate and kind and enchanting.

    Please, do close that book – or at the very least, start a brand new chapter.

    1. ❤ and YOU are way too nice to me!! 🙂 I feel like this year, or towards the end of it, anyway, is definitely the start of a brand new chapter. I think the lesson is just to let go of all the things that have already happened that I no longer have any control of, and stop wasting energy on thinking, ruminating etc. and instead focus on putting it into the future I CAN control 🙂

  5. Em, you are probably the most beautiful person, barring none, that I have ever met. I’m glad that you are learning to see things this way. Sometimes I wish people could see themselves through my eyes. Our self-reflection is often inaccurate do to cognitive distortions. I read a list that they use in cognitive behavioural therapy and found that I absolutize, catastrophize….and 16 out of 25 other things or so. Point being your right. I have a ton of stories I tell myself to keep reminding me to punish myself in one way or the other. Returning to the land I was born in was a start, thought the move was mainly financial. But stories, and rumors, and gossip that abounded, even from friends of mine back there are fading away from my mind like they never existed. And the sad truth is that they never really did. If you can do it staying one place that would be ideal. BTW my blogs are finally on WordPress. Something about Dukespawpaw, haven’t figured the thing out yet but I’m working on it. I’m a noooob, well a noob with 72 blog posts.

    1. Corey you are such a sweetie. And I’m so glad you finally have a blog! Now I can officially add you to my Reader! 🙂 That’s really interesting about the CBT – I was supposed to go for it once but I never ended up going. I do remember sitting in a therapist’s office once though before she told me CBT may be a good thing for me, and she opened up a book with a similar list – I guess it was thought patterns of people with anxiety. And when I realised I ticked about 20 out of 25 boxes I burst into tears!! But it was also the catalyst for change – as if seeing it there in writing proved that how I was living my life was in direct conflict with the life I wanted to live. And I think it took hearing my friend say, simply, you can CHOOSE how much power you give to things you cannot control any more – or you can just choose to close the door and move on. It’s great advice when you think of it so simply 🙂

  6. “They’re all just stories we choose to keep telling ourselves; they’re not real.”

    what a powerful statement… i can see why you always feel inspired and uplifted after meeting up with this friend, emily.

    i feel like there are certain things that have shaped me into who i’ve become. they’re awful and horrible, and yes, they still eat me alive… but at least i have certain qualities i can now take pride in; i have tough skin, i’m ferociously independent, i enjoy time alone, i’m always cautious, and i’ve (mostly) become the type of woman i want to be. i haven’t lost faith in humanity, and i still believe (despite everything), there is good in everyone.

    and damn it, if that’s not lucky… then i don’t know what is.

    for what it’s worth- i’m very proud of your accomplishments and your positive attitude… i always have been. you have wonderful qualities, and although it’s tough at time, you have a confidence and a light that shines through more than you’d think. it’s encouraging.

    xx

    – e

    1. Thank you so much for such amazingly kind words. 🙂 I’m so happy and proud to hear that you’ve taken such awful things that have happened in the past and turned them into positives. I love that list 🙂

  7. Well said.

    Part of this reminded me of something I read this weekend about stage fright, can’t remember where I read it, though. To deal with that feeling, one of the things the speaker remembers is that the crowd is there because they want to see them speak. This sort of transfers over into real life in that you don’t have to feel nervous around your friends–they want to be your friends, otherwise they’d disappear.

    For years, I had quite a few volumes I was lugging around (aka “baggage”). It’s hard to let go of the past but I find that the further I move forward the less I understand the person I used to be, and therefore the decisions I used to make. That’s not to say I still don’t make bad decisions, or do things I regret. I’m human, so these kinds of things are inevitable, but they don’t have to be daily occurrences.

    There’s no substitute for perspective. Either you realize that you have every reason in the world to be confident in yourself, and that to do otherwise will only hold you back, or you lay chained in frustration to the tiny obstacles we all face. As I read more and more of your blog, I can see that you’re not just overcoming things–you’re leading the way for others to do so as well.

    1. I wish words on a computer screen could do justice to how much that last sentence meant. Seriously, that means the absolute world 🙂

      “The further I move forward the less I understand the person I used to be, and therefore the decisions I used to make. ” This is so well put – and I totally relate. I guess it’s what they call “growing up” 🙂

      1. Well, just so long as you know I’m not being patronizing. I can tell by the amount of comments you get that you’re doing something great here.

        I have volumes to say about “growing up,” but I can tell I’d be preaching to the choir. You just keep talking, and I’ll let you know when I disagree with something 😉

  8. Hey Emily,

    I loved reading this post! Your reflection reminds me of why I’m so interested in learning about narrative therapy, a therapeutic approach that focuses “on people discovering through conversations, the hopeful, preferred, and previously unrecognized and hidden possibilities contained within themselves and unseen story-lines” (http://www.narrativetherapycentre.com/index_files/Page378.htm). It’s based on a postmodern belief that our lives are not contained to one story and one objective truth, but are multi-storied and possess multiple interpretations of any single event – a very inspiring way of thinking about life!

  9. I think a lot of us are guilty of holding onto the past, I know I certainly am (working on letting it go though, I swear!). I think for me though, letting go of the past makes me feel like I’m going to lose a part of myself in the process. My past experiences have shaped my life, and I know I’m stronger for experiencing all of it. But I think sometimes we fear letting go, we fear what happens when we let go of it.

    1. Oh I think that’s definitely a huge part!! When we hold onto things for too long, we almost use them to identify ourselves – identifying ourselves by our stories and not by who we really are. Goodness my friend is a wise one lol I wish I could have been the one to come up with this idea!! 🙂 I think as long as you believe you have wisdom and experience with which to fill that gap once you’ve let go, things can really turn out amazingly… but it’s that first step in letting go that’s the hardest.

    1. I know you do 🙂 And somehow those people have all come into my life… maybe it’s not letting go and trying to fill that gap with things, it’s letting go and having faith the right things will naturally fill it in…

  10. Beautiful Emily!
    I must say, I think you’re getting into y head somehow because I’ve been working on a post about re-writing your story:)
    I look at my past as something that I had to go through in order to arrive here. I simply had lessons that needed to be learned and sometimes we have to experience things the hard way so that we can get it.
    Recognizing the reality that “I am not my story” has been truly liberating and I no longer have to feel inferior because of past issues.
    Thanks!

    1. What you said is so true!! Which is why it frustrates me so when I see people complaining about the past, how wronged they were and how awful their experiences were… it’s so self-pitying. I wish everyone could see the past simply as lessons that had to be learnt, and in the case of stubborn pupils (like myself lol) they’ll only hit harder until you “get it”. I can’t wait to read your post!

  11. Well exactly, the past and other people affect us only in as much as we let them do so. However, don’t force yourself to be some super metahuman, taking on everything stoically like you think you should. There’s just as much strength in trying to tackle things and process them before you back them away.

    p.s. I don’t think I need to go into an excess of detail about how much all of us think you’re amazing, even though some of us have met you 😉

    1. Oh that’s exactly the point I was trying to make – tackle them, process them, learn from them, then move on 🙂 And I was NOT amazing in person, I was on zero sleep and a different time zone – awful company!! I want to hang out with you again when I’m fully functional 🙂

  12. Isn’t it funny how one negative comment can drag us down and ten positive comments can do nothing about it?

    It is true – we have the power to decide which thoughts we want to hold on to and which ones we should let go of. It’s a matter of practice, I guess. You, my dear, are on the right path!

    1. It’s definitely practice – it’s so much easier to believe the negative than the positive, and I’m finding, sadly, that seems to be the common case. Why is that?? I guess all we can do is catch ourselves holding on to the negative, and choose to let go, and hope that with enough practice, it’ll become more natural…

  13. Great post, em. This post probably would have made me cry a couple years ago. But hey, I got over all that drama (with a jerk!). haha. Leaving the past in the past is a HARD process. It seems as if almost everyone has baggage. And it’s hard not to–it’s all we can go off of sometimes. But I agree with you, it HAS to be left in the past. You’re right, it’s about choosing to let go.

    1. Aww, thank you so much! It makes me happy to hear you’re practicing every day – it is a bit of a struggle but I feel like it’s something that’ll get easier with enough dedication 🙂

  14. Thank you for sharing this, Emily. There are a lot of different thoughts going thru my head, but I don’t want to write a book in response to your blog. (c; I will say that I definitely think this is something we all struggle with to some degree or another. I wish everyone had the ability to see themselves thru someone else’s eyes; methinks that would change a lot of how we view ourselves.

    I’ve never met you in person; what I do know of you is from reading your blog (and the lovely comments on my own blog), but I can tell you from my perspective you are a pretty extraoridnary person. (c:

    1. Oh, book responses are ALWAYS welcomed 🙂 It’s an interesting thought, how the world would be if we all saw ourselves through someone else’s eyes. I suppose it’s a process of learning how to adjust our own and give ourselves a bit of credit. Thank you so much for your sweet words – I’m so glad we found each other’s blogs 🙂

  15. “Close the door on the past experiences that lead to these unhealthy thinking patterns, acknowledge them for what they are – “just stories” – and choose to let go of them.”

    That statement is really powerful and definitely gets me thinking. Sometimes I wish things were just as easy done as said, but I think I, just like you, have the ability to make the choice to let go. Over the years, there are things I’ve let go of, but I still don’t feel like I fully live in the moment; I am often guilty of listening to those little voices in my head that whisper things of the past. But your friend is right, they’re just stories, and they’re not real. I feel like the more I listen to those stories, the more “blown up” they become. What might have been one small event grows to be huge in our eyes the more we remind ourselves of it! Overthinking makes things seem more traumatic and awful than they really were, at least in my experience. I wish there was an easy fix, but I think it’s something that takes time, dedication, and patience.

  16. Sometimes I feel like you just crawl inside my brain to find blog posts that absolutely speak to me. And all your posts do. The line that really got me was: ““But they’re just stories“, he laughed. “They’re all just stories we choose to keep telling ourselves; they’re not real.”” That’s really eye-opening for me, that my past IS just a story and that I need to shelve some of the bad memories to make room for new memories. I need to just shelve my entire book of “Dad” and put it up high on a shelf I can’t see. I need to stop holding onto it, and letting it give me an excuse not to own up to my full potential.

    1. Your words always mean such a lot, and I really hope you can put that book up on a shelf, or in a box, and store it away. Let yourself be free without being dragged down by something that belongs in the past. You have SO much potential, I know it, and I can see you’re already on your way 🙂

  17. Beautifully written, Em!

    As I get older, I get better at silencing those evil voices that reside in my head. Voices that used to tell me I was not smart enough, not pretty enough, not thin enough, not loveable. These days, I am surrounded by people who lift me up instead of bringing me down.

    I think the toughest book for me to shelve is the story of my relationships past… I have held onto those feelings of being hurt and having the rug pulled out from under me. But then I recently read a quote that said something like, “We are not held back by the love we didn’t receive in the past, we are held back by the love we are not extending in the present.” And that quote totally hit home with me!

  18. This is a brilliant post and I applaud you for facing your insecurities head on. I, too, have battled my whole life after having been raised by parents who, because they could not let go of me, told me from the time I was old enough to get involved in activities that I was “too scared” or “too small” or “too shy” to do whatever it may be. In their own insecurity they instilled in me a sense of fear that has been difficult to deal with even in adulthood.

    Identifying the root is only a part of it. The words you used – shape or define – are very good. It is one thing to allow a bad experience or set of bad experiences shape your character for the good, but it is another thing to allow them to define you and, therefore, hold you back.

    Thanks so much for sharing. It is a lifelong battle to deal with childhood scars.

    xoxo,
    Carrie

  19. I’ve always been the kind of person who self-evaluates a lot. But reading your posts make me evaluate myself in a different way. I have a lot of issues in the past that involves some of my friends and I can’t let it go. I can say that I’m the type of person who “gets re-pissed by an old situation when I get flashbacks about it.” (It’s actually a Facebook fan page that I think describes me well).

    I agree. The past has definitely shaped me. It made me stronger(ish) but it also made me a bit more guarded. That’s why I know I haven’t let go fully of the past. I need to work on that.

    Great post, Em.

  20. This is something I needed to hear, something I need to hear basically every day. I am very much ruled by my past even though I’m smart enough to know it’s silly to let that happen. I have a few books that need to be put on a shelf, and I’ve managed to get some of the smaller ones up there, but the big ones take some work.

  21. I love the book analogy so so much! I went through a period where I took pictures out of picture albums, and ripped pages out of diaries because I so badly wanted to pretend like my life had been full of vanilla, “normal” things. I soon realized that my entire childhood was missing from my picture albums. I mean, there had to be some good stuff in there.

    The book analogy says to me: don’t forget about those things/those people, but put them away, don’t carry them around. They are a part of you, but they don’t define you. I LOVE that! A post-it-note with the book analogy is bound for my day-timer as I write!!

  22. Great post, Emily. I agree 100%. The past is influential, but people CAN change. Surprised you’re afraid to speak in public — I’m the same way. Something that needs to be changed!

  23. That last paragraph is on point and perfect. I’m enthralled with the idea that the stories I tell about myself, TO myself cause me to limit myself. I know there are parts of me that I need to just let go of and throw back on the shelf. I love the idea of my past as a book that I can always pull back out and flip through, but that I don’t necessarily have to live in my every day life.

  24. Great post, Emily! I heard a radio story once about a woman who, due to a brain tumor (I believe) lost her ego completely. She was unable to distinguish herself from the world around her. Eventually though, her brain started to recover, and she began to once again think of herself as an individual. This time though, she was much more aware of what made her…well, HER. She says now, based on her experience, that she thinks our identities are just collections of stories about what has happened to our particular bodies and what our bodies can do.

    I think your explanation adds to this. Our identities aren’t based on objective observations of ourselves, but rather are constructed socially. The stories about ourselves that we hear from others are just as integral as those we tell ourselves. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and really, it’s probably a great thing, but then we can’t forget that it’s ultimately our choice to accept or reject others’ stories, and that we can always craft new ones.

    Thanks for provoking a thought!

  25. Oh my goodness. Absolutely. I am a person who can dwell on things for very long, and have them affect my self-esteem and my life months, sometimes years, later. I wish I had the ability to just brush off things more easily, especially how people treat me or talked about me when they are not friends and are not in my life. I give them way too much significance and power over my present and future. The only consolation is that at least they don’t know that, but that doesn’t really make it any better for me.

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