BY: T. Franklin Murphy | December 2018
Working through the stages of life with attentive efforts to fill the voids and repair the hurts.
We move from one stage to another in life. We have a general idea of what the next stage entails but are a little foggy on the details. Formulated in our heads is a picture of an ideal life, where we smoothly transition from one stage to the next. Life doesn’t playout in exactness to these expectations. Our visions must adjust to fit reality. Childhood hopes melt when exposed to the heat of reality. Our juvenile minds envision a smooth flow from high school, college, and onto a fantastic career and lovely family. As this drama unfolds, we are shocked that each stage has challenges and must be bitterly fought for, successfully managing our adaptations, and sometimes settling on a new direction—a new vision.
Some have a knack for shaping the life of their dreams, living what appears aa a charm existence, instinctively knowing what needs to be done and how to do it. Maybe this is just the view of an outsider looking in. I had to fight. I’m not alone. I join a massive army of those who constantly fight to achieve, hoping to narrow the disparity between reality and their lofty ideals.
No matter which stage we are struggling with, moving forward stalls when we fear letting go of the past. In order to move forward, we must free ourselves from the past, escaping the hurts, habits and relationships that weigh us down and step away from the comfort of our current limiting existence.
Letting go of foundational pieces is never ease. Our past is indelibly etched in our minds. Experiences form the essence of our being. Life is seen through the lens of these experiences. Walking away doesn’t diminish their impact; they follow us. Major changes are more than removing the noxious weeds strangling our lives. Pasts can’t be discarded; they must be transformed. Rather than plucking and discarding, we must process and integrate, working the past into a healthy present.
"Our past is indelibly etched in our minds. Experiences form the essence of our being."
The unhealthy remnants of bitter pasts accumulate and drain psychic energies, limiting resources that would be better directed towards the present. Like a heavy stone rolling down the hillside, we tend to continue in the same direction, doing what we have always done, adapting with the same destructive patterns. When our method is shortsighted or ill-constructed, each moment marks our future with injurious residue. The weight of life gets heavier and heavier.
When life takes a dramatic twist, we are shocked. Our patterns are disrupted. We must give energy to the newness in order to navigate the foreign landscape. These twists happen both unexpectedly and within the planned structure of our life. We discover at each new stage, whether moving on from college or settling into a relationship, the rules have changed. We face new demands, new schedules, and must learn new habits. We also must make these adjustments to the surprise losses and gains. Whether forced or planned, we must let go of significant pieces of our life and absorb the emptiness of newly created space.
A common response is to quickly fill the void. A quick solution is to return to the past. The pain of the known, unfortunately, soothes the frightening darkness of the unknown. We fill voids by returning to unhealthy relationships, chemical addictions, and fattening eating patterns. We stall, stagnating in the past, afraid of the future.
We must adjust to the moment. Understanding the dynamics of life often demands flexibility. When disease ravages, relationships turn toxic, or careers stagnate, we must change directions, creating new visions and new goals.
Nancy Mairs was forced into this lesson by her debilitating disease. She responded with flexibility. She writes, "thanks to multiple sclerosis, one thing after another has been wrenched from my life--dancing, driving, walking, working--and I have learned neither to yearn after them nor to dread further deprivation but to attend to what I have." (Mairs, 1997, p. 1014).
Judith Stills, PH.D., in the November 2014 issue of Psychology Today, proposes that letting go of the destructive demands both thinking and doing. Thinking to maneuver around deceptive modes of thinking and the doing of behaviors that push us forward. Only by letting go can we invite new possibilities. Believing that leaving past habits and situations is an avenue for new opportunities motivates change but doesn’t relieve the immediate feelings of emptiness following abandoning a comfortable crutch. Sills beautifully states, “This hole is where the future lives,” (Stills, 2014).
Letting go is accomplished by playing an active role. Letting go is not a passive release but a dynamic process, requiring an active attempt to free ourselves from events, people, and habits that no longer serve a healthy role in our lives. A passive attempt often leads to the eventual return to the person or habit that we desperately want escape.
"Letting go is not a passive release but a dynamic process, requiring an active attempt to free ourselves from events, people, and habits that no longer serve a healthy role in our lives."
Leaving a relationship, career, or situation, requires willpower as we fight natural inclinations to return. Roy Baumeister found that when we fight against inclinations, we slowly deplete our will power (2012). The energy expended slowly diminishes energy, eventually leaving us exhausted and unable to maintain resistance. Our strength to direct behavior must be aided with other adjustments.
During initial changes, we are strongly pulled back, emptiness beckoning for our return. As we mentally distance ourselves from the past, these pulls fade. Without resistance, however, the hurt that motivated change loses its motivating sting and we long for the benefits we once enjoyed. “It wasn’t THAT bad,” we tell ourselves. “Maybe I could return and with a few adjustments make the situation livable.”
We must actively force attention on the future to find the cure. We fill the void with new habits and routines aimed towards our goal. We must busy ourselves in our new life. The change of thoughts lessens the temptation of giving in and returning. We bolster our strength and conserve precious will power for demanding challenges.
We must know where we are headed and why we want to go there.
Another active step in letting-go of the past is discarding poignant reminders of the past. We are creatures of association. Many remnants are intertwined with old habits. We live in a tangle web of associations. It’s impossible to discard everything. Certain cars, locations, and events will continue to spike emotions, reenergize temptations and dragging us back. We must stand strong, courageously facing reminders, quell the storm and continue forward.
We survive the impact of these influences by structuring limited exposure to environments and things of our previous life. By packing away photos, gifts, and items emotionally connected to the past helps us conserve strength for other battles. We often must distance ourselves from friends and location that pull us back.
These are difficult changes. Our drive to be loyal conflicts with our desire to change.
If we keep everything the same, except for the one habit we intend to change, we will fail—too many reminders, too many temptations, too little strength. In time, associations weaken becoming only faint memories and small reminders. The new life strengthens, giving new hopes and new connections.
A third step we can take is repair. Unfinished business festers in our minds. No matter how much we try to busy ourselves with the future, discard reminders, and move on. If there is unfinished business, it will invade our psychic space. Repair must be done with caution. It leads us back to the very situation we are desperately trying to leave. Freeing ourselves from the change of the past, leaving friends and situations in the swamp can ignite guilt. Instead of enjoying the dream we worked so hard to create, we feel guilt. Our efforts to relieve the guilt may get us ensnared in the net we recently escaped.
The ninth step in the twelve-step program is to make amends. When we are ready, it is beneficial to communicate our remorse. Not necessarily remorse for change but remorse for any pain we have inflicted. This is a delicate interaction that cannot be accomplished with a narcissistic desire for release of personal guilt through a one-sided presentation without openness to the expression of feelings from the injured. True repair allows for the other person space to also express their feeling and reveal their hurt.
The narrative of our life begins to transform. With major change, we have the opportunity to rewrite our narrative. We don’t discard the facts of our past. We did what we did. We were who we were. But our rewrite can be seen from the eyes of deeper maturity, more balanced and empathetic. A new narrative of divorce allows us to incorporate our partner’s past and their struggles.
The ultimate healing demands forgiveness. Being wronged, hurt, and betrayed naturally invokes anger against the injuring party. We respond this anger to protect our rights. Our response has a modifying effect on future on behaviors, often protecting us from further attacks. Once we have extracted ourselves from the danger, we can let go of the protective emotion. It is easy to harbor that anger, keeping the embers burning. This keeps us tethered to the past, especially when the perpetrator is ourself. We must forgive, not necessarily forget.
Often there is not an obvious defining moment which differentiates from one step to the next in human growth. Life blends together. Other times the stages are very defined. Moving forward is conscious and potentially hazardous. Implementing change whether significant or not must be done with care, observing limitations in self-discipline, seeking support, arranging environments, and rectifying injured pasts. We can forgive the errors of our pasts and find beauty to our futures.
Baumeister, R. F., Tierney, J. (2012) Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength
Mairs, N. (1997, November 5). Letting Go. The Christian Century, 114(31), 1014.
Stills, J (2014) Letting Go. Psychology today