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Friday, January 25, 2013

Why Letting Go of the Past is So Difficult

In the movie Groundhog Day, Phil, the Bill Murray character is stuck in an endless loop of déjà vu. He wakes up each morning to find everything he did the day before is erased and it’s Groundhog Day again! 

In what ways is your life stuck in Groundhog Day? 

Most of us struggle to let go of the past and get caught up in internal voices of fear, doubt, and insecurity that prevent us from moving forward in our lives. 

What do your negative inner voices tell you? 

Perhaps they say it’s too dangerous to feel your feelings or to speak up assertively? Or whatever you try to do won’t work anyway, and you’ll end up more disillusioned? Or perhaps that you need to stay in a relationship that isn’t working because you won’t survive alone? Or perhaps you always second-guess yourself when you make a decision and think about what you did wrong, rather than what went right.

Why do our brains cling to the negative?

Negative or self-critical inner voices almost always have their basis in past experiences in which we were rejected, ignored, bullied, or punished by parents, peers, or partners.  Our brains are wired to help us survive. As such, they cling to and store negative information, letting positive experiences float on by, unless they are particularly unique or intense.  Our lower brain centers, especially the amygdala, sound the alarm bells when we try to change our behaviors, or venture into new territory. If we experienced a painful rejection, our brain sends the signal that freely feeling and loving is too dangerous. Better to remain alone at home, where nobody can hurt us. Or perhaps we begin an exercise program and our brain sends us pain and anxiety signals to warn us that we may get injured.

How do we tune out the negativity and move forward?  

The answer is two-fold:

(1) Accept that some risk and uncertainty are inevitable 

Make a deliberate decision to move towards your goals, despite the presence of fear and anxiety.  This approach is one of the techniques used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. The more we avoid, the more anxious we get and the more power we give to the fear. When we face the feared situation, fear naturally begins to go down as our bodies register that we are safe.

(2) Learn to live in the present and respond to current circumstances.

Instead of thinking only about how your current situation is similar to a past incident that turned out negatively, think about how it is different. Do you have different skills or knowledge now? Are you dealing with different types of people? Do you have different resources and more freedom to change or leave a situation that is unpleasant? Rather than predetermining the outcome, try to stay open-minded and responding to the new situation as it unfolds? Take one or a few small steps in a new direction, then evaluate how things are going.
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