Over the last 20+ years or so as a learning professional, I have become quite used to hearing phrases like “control the controllables” and “accept the things you cannot change”. Most inspirational quotes and memes always talk about letting go of the past and focussing on the future. This can so easily be embraced, especially if there are dark times in the past that still haunt you. Permission to let these events go and focus on what is to come can be very liberating if you’ve been tortured by difficult memories for a long time.

After seeing such a meme today, I found myself questioning it. Why should we ‘let go’ of the past? Why should we encourage others to do so? And actually, how easy is that to do, especially if the past has had a significant impact – positive or negative – on who we are today? Education tells us that history is very important. History gives us answers as to how and why we’ve ended up where we are today. We teach history because of this. History has been a major player in recent movements such as ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘#MeToo’. What’s interesting here is that it is often the mistakes of the past that inform our future – and where we feel the guilt and shame of the past is often what inspires change. However, it’s a lot easier to judge and criticise the mistakes that other people have made in an effort to affect change than it is to look at our own mis-steps. That same level of guilt and shame, when levied at us personally, is sometimes too difficult to bear.

Which begs the question – how do we learn from our own experiences and mistakes when judgement, guilt and shame often prevents us from reflecting? And how do we move forward into a future that, yes, we can control, but expect it to be different if we’ve ‘let go’ of the past?

What I’ve come to learn is that it’s not the past that’s the problem – it’s the judgement, guilt and shame upon which we view the past through. If the past is painful, and therefore a part of our lives that we haven’t managed to healthily co-exist with yet, how do we ever expect to learn from it? In fact, how could we EVER expect to just ‘let it go’?

A client of mine recently told me how he has huge feelings of guilt and shame about his past, and particularly how good a father he was. Bear in mind that he has an incredible relationship with his children and grandchildren now, but it is always marred by those past feelings of failure, and it still makes him try very hard – almost too hard, even now – to win his kids approval. He told me how he’s spent many years trying to let go of the past and focus on the future. But as we talked, it became clear that he is trying to let go of the past because of how painful it is. At no point has he ever set aside judgement, guilt and shame and reflected on his experiences and behaviour with nothing but curiosity. At no point as he allowed himself to learn the lessons. At no point has he questioned that the way he felt 30 or 40 years ago was not only understandable and valid, but also very different to how he feels now.

And at no point has he ever found a way to forgive himself.

The shadow of the past is not the past itself. The shadow is the judgement, guilt and shame through which we view the past. The shadow is there because we haven’t sought to understand with non-judgemental curiosity what was going on for us at that time and learned to forgive ourselves. Every experience, every memory and every mistake has led to everything we are right now. So whilst I agree that what matters is what we DO from hereon in, I can’t help but feel a sense of resistance to just casting the past aside. Personally, I’ve learned so much about myself by reflecting, non-judgementally, on the decisions I’ve made and the outcomes that followed. And whilst there are things in my past that I’m not proud of, getting closer to understanding the reasons why I did those things has helped me to release the guilt and shame I’ve felt about those decisions. It’s helped me to forgive myself. And the wonderful benefit ‘by proxy’ is that I can choose to make decisions informed by those mistakes without feeling the pain of them every time. I’ve truly ‘learned my lesson’, as it were. These days, I face into the future with all the wisdom, but without a load of ‘shame baggage’, and it’s making the journey a lot easier and a lot more fun.

So we can’t control the past, it’s true. But we can learn from it, if we can find it in ourselves to view our own past from a space of curiosity, rather than criticism – from a space of empathy, rather than judgement. And with those lessons and that self-forgiveness, the future that IS in our control can be very bright indeed.