Do any of these situations sound familiar to you?
- Deepa kept going back over something she had said to her boss, reliving it again and again in her head, caused herself angst, and beating herself up relentlessly about it.
- Wang Wei had a bad experience presenting to the Board of his company and had convinced himself that they thought he was incapable and that he would never do well in front of the Board again.
- Sarah had made a poor investment choice and, since then, continued to believe she was bad at managing money, to the point where it consistently and negatively impacted her financial situation.
- William was in a car accident which resulted in bad back problems, and he complained about it so often that his brand at work had become “the guy with the bad back who always complains about that accident he had.”
If you can relate to any of the examples outlined above, you may be letting a past situation keep you stuck, well… in the past! I’ve seen this occur in many coaching clients over the years.
Here’s a powerful truth about the past: Can you change it? No. Yet every time we go back to something that happened in our history – every time we let a memory of some long-ago situation cause us angst or worry – we are actually “honoring” that experience. Whether it happened last week, last month, or even several years ago, every time we relive it or refer back to it, we are further ingraining that experience into our system. In doing so, we are allowing that experience to serve as an anchor, keeping us stuck in the past.
What’s the implication? As long as we are doing that, we can’t truly move forward to the future. Constantly referring to your past is like having a ball and chain permanently clasped around your ankle.
And, just who is this bothering, really? No one else knows you are going through this private angst, so the only person these past regrets are keeping up at night is you… keeping you in fear and frustration, anger and irritation, regret and sorrow. I ask sincerely: How is that serving you?
The Case of Jacob
Jacob was a client who, years ago, had gotten fired by a disgruntled boss. Jacob was ashamed – mortified even – about the experience, so he kept his past firing hidden, a secret that he hadn’t even shared with his wife or family. And he certainly hadn’t let any of the bosses he had had since then know that he had been fired.
In the years that followed, Jacob had actually become a good performer. He had been hired by a couple of great companies and was offered promotions and increasingly higher salaries along the way.
But there was always a fear lurking in Jacob: Would he be fired again? As a result, Jacob was letting that past situation anchor him, always worried that – at any moment – he could suddenly lose his job.
He came to me, saying that he was tired of the constant worry, the angst. He realized it wasn’t serving him and wondered how to let it go.
The Process of Releasing Past Anchors
“First, Jacob,” I said, “let’s make a list of all the ways your past firing has made you who you are today. Don’t overthink it. Let the list roll off the top of your head.”
It took him a while to get started, but then Jacob surfaced a few points. Getting fired in the past had made Jacob…
… stronger in character, which he pointed out was key to success in today’s ever-changing world.
…more resilient, realizing now that he could handle anything that came his way.
…clearer about the kinds of jobs he wanted, ultimately leading to greater success.
…smarter in his choices about the types of bosses he wanted to work for.
…more determined to succeed and to demonstrate to himself and others that he was good at what he did.
“Excellent start,” I said. “Now, keep this list handy and continue adding to it in the coming days. Your goal is to make the longest list possible of how the experience of being fired has helped shape who you are today.”
Jacob kept adding more points over the next couple of weeks, until he couldn’t think of anything more. When he and I reconnected, he handed me his list, which had grown considerably.
I read out loud to Jacob the points he had written, emphasizing clearly each benefit. When done, I asked him, “Hearing all of the ways being fired has made you better, Jacob, how do you feel about that experience now?”
“Honestly, I’m amazed,” he responded. “I realize now that being fired really did help shape who I am today. I would never have thought of it that way.”
“Consider this: How would you be different today if that firing hadn’t ever happened?” I asked.
Jacob paused. “Whoa… now that’s a new way to think about it,” he said slowly. “Well, if I hadn’t been fired, I wouldn’t be as strong, capable, nor as successful as I have become.”
I paused to let that soak in. “And all of that comes from something you had thought was a bad situation. With that in mind, Jacob, what is one word you would use to describe how you feel now toward the experience of having been fired?”
It didn’t take Jacob long to respond. “Grateful,” he replied, “and almost … well, ‘fortunate!?’ That seems so hard to believe, but it’s true.”
“If that past experience were a person, what would you say to that person today?”
“Thank you,” he responded, then added with a twinkle in his eye, “and good riddance!”
Jacob’s firing had served its purpose. It was time to appreciate all of the learning gained from that past scenario so that he could focus solely on the future – on the joy of what “could be” rather than on the regret of what “had been.”
Let’s Apply This to YOU™ ®
It’s rare to find someone who doesn’t have some negative experience that they relive over and over again. Pause right now, and be honest with yourself: What is one negative situation about the past that you keep replaying in your mind?
As we approach the end of 2018, I encourage you to let go of that experience, once and for all. How would 2019 be a different year for you if you were to completely release that negative from your past?
If you’re ready to drop-kick something that happened to you in your history, walk yourself through the same approach I used with Jacob. Because the best year-end gift you can give yourself is the gift of learning from – and letting go of – the anchor called “the past.” That’s what will allow you to approach 2019 focused on the joy of what “could be,” not the ball-and-chain of what “was.”