How to Leave the Past in the Past: That's Where It Belongs

Jeffrey Keefer

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There are always things we could have or should have done differently, yet we cannot change the past.

Let me say that again . . . WE CANNOT CHANGE THE PAST.

No amount of time spent on the woulda, shoulda, coulda will change what we have done or have not done. Crying doesn’t change it. Yelling doesn’t change it. Dwelling on it does not change it.

In fact, nothing can change the past once time slips past us, and with it our actions, thoughts, beliefs, feelings, dreams, and goals.

The past is . . . gone.

I am not saying this in any negative way whatsoever. In fact, I am often happy that the past is indeed behind us, as in a real way that invites us to take a daily fresh start to be the sort of people we believe we really can be. The sort of people we really want to be.

Learn from the Past

While we cannot change the past, the one thing that is most empowering for us is that we can learn from it. We can use our understanding of past events and learn from them to inform our future. To make a more fair, just, and positive future for ourselves and our society.

Now, you have likely heard that quote from Santayana:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

That adage is all about leaving the past unexamined, and the perils that come as a result from not learning about what has not worked well. We tend to repeat these things to our own peril. This is about ignoring the past or not learning from it, both of which can be problematic for us.

However, I am focusing on when we somehow can’t get beyond our own past, which is failing to learn from it in a different way, a more insidious way as it has us dwelling on the past as a sure recipe for living a life of defeat, one that has us defeated before we even begin. This is that terror of not wanting to take that next step for fear, one that persists in the shameful beliefs of not being good enough, smart enough, talented enough — or just the opposite, that no matter what I do, those external to me will always oppress me and hold me back.

Either way, these feelings can stall us and rather than work for a brighter day, we believe the long night will never end.

Who really wants a life like that, anyway?

Well, it seems many people do, yet that is not likely why you are reading this, is it? If anything, our future is rich with opportunities, while the past is . . . the past. Let’s leave it there and create the best path for life moving forward.

Getting Unstuck from the Past

I have been there. Not only am I the first in my family to go to college, I am also the first to complete graduate and doctoral work, all while overcoming the pull of the past, one that limits and speaks more words of “you will never make it” than words of support that “you have to make it to break this cycle of not moving forward.”

This is one of the reasons I have valued education as a constant theme in my life, having always worked in it professionally as I see the value of learning. Let’s face it, when we learn something or attain a degree or external marker of academic success, it is one of the few things that cannot be taken away.

We can lose many things or have many things stolen from us, but once we learn something, it is inside us and remains there for good. It becomes part of the foundation of what makes us . . . us.

I work with many people who are also desperate for a bright, happy future, yet struggle to escape difficulties from their pasts. While I am not speaking about overcoming perfectionism or confronting the challenges presented by being manipulated by others, I am focusing on those things we can do to not get bogged down with looking back . . . instead of looking ahead.

One thing that works for many is using a self-affirmation, a short mantra repeated with eyes closed or openly looking at oneself in the mirror. The power of this positive thinking involves repeating it enough times that we talk ourselves into believing it.

This is effectively reprogramming our efforts wishing we could change the past into positive efforts to make a better future.

The irony is . . . these affirmations are all true anyway, so repeating them helps us to update and reframe those doubts we internalized along the way.

Mantras for Living in the Now

Over the years I have used these when feeling stuck moving forward. I invite you to take one that resonates most deeply and try it, repeat it. The best result is you will come to believe it. The worst is that you will have taken only a couple minutes away from being stuck . . . and thus actually moved on!

✓ I live in the now, make my future, and leave the past behind me.

✓ I learn from the past as I cannot change it.

✓ My past is not my future.

✓ I am no longer who I used to be.

✓ I live for my future opportunities.

✓ Blaming my past excuse to not build my future.

✓ I honor my past, yet I leave it there.

✓ I am a good person and I will create a good future.

✓ I forgive my past to empower my future.

✓ Like a peaceful river, I move forward.

✓ I will step forward and create my path.

✓ I live for bright opportunities and not dusty memories.

✓ I am becoming, and I am wonderful.

✓ I embrace today as a new day.

✓ I determine my purpose and not my past.

I have found myself stuck in the past at various times in my life, and it is rarely a happy experience. Being stuck means we cannot create a better future, and that is no way to live. No way to live at all.

Mantras? Really?

One fine note, especially if you have never tried to use a mantra or positive words to help inspire yourself or move forward . . . just try it. Do it in the bathroom toward the mirror. You will be alone, it is private, nobody will see or hear you, and it does not cost anything.

What is the worst that can happen, it doesn't work? Of course, the best thing that can happen is you get unstuck, and that is a pretty good place to be.

How good is that a possibility to begin a new year, leaving the past in the past and moving forward to a greater future?

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Educator. Writer. Open Knowledge Advocate. Institutional Researcher. I help people navigate their learning needs and take informed action.

New York City, NY
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