Freedom from the Past

Posted on February 27, 2015 by Robert Ringer


Who among us does not have unpleasant experiences in his past? Being bullied in school, getting cut from an athletic team, losing a sweetheart to a rival, the premature death of a loved one, failing a licensing exam, or suffering through an ugly divorce are the kinds of painful experiences that stay with most people throughout life.

Some things we’re ashamed of, others we’re angry about. Some just sap us of our desire to move forward. But whatever our emotions about the past may be, they clog the gears of our brains and prevent us from focusing on positive, constructive ways to improve our lives.

The inability to let go of the past is a self-imposed imprisonment, an imprisonment from which only you can free yourself. For example, when the imprisonment stems from a perceived injustice you have suffered, you have two diametrically opposed options for dealing with it: (1) You can allow it to destroy the remainder of your life or (2) you can use it as a motivating force to accomplish great things.

An important aspect of letting go of the past is to continually remind yourself that despite the level of success you may achieve, the past can never be changed. If so, then let it be etched in historical stone and be done with it. There is no rational reason for allowing it to affect your life today or in the future.

The more you intellectualize these self-evident truths, the more likely they are to be adopted, through mental osmosis, by the emotional cells in your brain. This is similar to the concept of positive visualization — holding an image in your mind and thereby stimulating your body’s mechanisms to do whatever is necessary to convert that image into its physical reality.

Another excellent tool for letting go of the past is to refuse to use the word but. “I know it’s not healthy for me to continue thinking about how I got shafted in that business deal, but I just can’t stop” is a commonly heard type of comment when it comes to the challenge of letting go of the past. Or, “I know I can’t do anything about it now, but if he had given me the opportunity, I would be in a different position today.”

There are many variations to this, but the essence is always the same: In each and every case, but is used as a crutch to hang onto the past. Children should be taught at an early age that the word but is the starting point for the destructive practice of transference — blaming others for your own mistakes — which in turn is the gateway to failure. But can be an all-too-convenient escape route for the individual determined to avoid personal responsibility.

More often than not, when you eliminate the word but, you eliminate the excuse itself. Instead of relying on but, practice saying such things as, “I know it’s wrong to think about the past, so I’m going to stop” or “I know I can’t do anything about it now, which is why I’m going to forget about it.”

The only contribution the past can make to your future is through the experience it has given you, and it’s up to you to convert that experience into wisdom. Freedom from the past is essential to an action-oriented life. If your mind is cluttered with stressful thoughts about the past, paralysis tends to set in, and action dies.

In the 1946 classic The Immense Journey, Loren Eiseley says, “The door to the past is a strange door. It swings open and things pass through it, but they pass in one direction only.”

In other words, you can’t go backward in life. The past is the past, and you have only two options: Move forward or perish. On rare occasions when I’ve made the mistake of trying to get the door to the past to swing in the other direction, the results were not pleasant. And with good reason: The world, like the universe, is in a constant state of change, thus the past is never the way it used to be.

The future lies on the other side of the prison door of the past, a door you possess the power to open and step through at any time. And it’s one of the most important steps you can ever take.

That’s why I am convinced that the most rational way to live one’s life is to forget about the past and concentrate on opening new doors to the future. Best of all, unlike the door to the past, those future doors swing open quite easily — and, for the most part, you are always free to walk through them.

Robert Ringer

+Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.

23 responses to “Freedom from the Past”

  1. Jon says:

    You spoke directly to me with this one, Robert. Thanks!

    • Daniel says:

      Ditto. Yep; he nailed me, too. I'm printing this one so that I can reread it till it sticks, permanently. It's good advice from the sage.

  2. Pedantic Twit says:

    Another great article, Mr. Ringer. Thanks.

    This reminds me about a story I read about an elephant. When it was young, it was tethered to the ground by a chain that it was too weak to break free from. But years later, even though the elephant had grown to full size and could easily break the chain, it never bothered to try, because it had long ago accepted the idea that it could never do it. So it remained tethered its whole life.

  3. gjwebinar says:

    Your best article ALL year. Perhaps in the past year or two. Turn this one into a short book and you have another best seller!

  4. RealitySeeker says:

    "Some men make a thousand mistakes, some make the same mistake a thousand times".

    Why is that? Why does one guy learn from past mistakes, yet another does not? Let's go one step further: Why do some men learn from the mistakes of others, thereby leapfrogging ahead in the game of life by reducing the amount of mistakes they make themselves? Answer that, emulate that, and *teach your kids the same* then you won't have nearly as much "emotional" baggage weighing you down in the future.

    Wouldn't it be so much better to not have to experience "being bullied", an "ugly divorce", getting dumped by a "sweetheart", etc, etc, —-or at least limit the times you get sand kicked in your face and a jackboot thrust up your ass? Hey, I don't know about you, "but" learning the hard way is something I prefer not to do. I especially don't want my kids or their kids to learn the hard way, either.

    This is where good parenting and grand-parenting comes in. Have you taught your kid to fight? —- both verbally and physically? Have you taught him or her how to shoot, safely and effectively? Have you taught your kid how to think? Have you taught your kid why it's best to always distrust government, banks, Wall Street, religious leaders, corporations, standing armies ( especially the U.S. military, CIA, NSA, Langley) and anybody who is a collectivist? Have you read and discussed the Bill of Rights with your kid? How many walk-n-talks have your had together? How many campfires have you shared?

    Training starts at an early age, and training is best started before the public-school system (and the little deviant morons who go there) poison the mind of your little Johnny. In fact, it's best to home school little Johnny during the formative years. That way you can screen his peers and prevent him from being exposed to all of the little pissers who attend public school for no other reason than to lower everybody else to the lowest common denominator.

    For many kids, the broad road to unhappiness actually begins at a public school. Therein the school "good kids" are taught to be obedient little servants by the collectivist teachers. And if your son or daughter is really lucky, she'll be convinced to join the military. In the service of Washington is where your kid will have the best opportunity to make the same mistake a thousand times and accumulate a mountain of PTSD. Hey! Try gaining "freedom from the past" when you or your kid suffer from "PTSD". I remember the day when my uncle blew his brains out mostly because of his military past. Sometimes people do things that they can't live with, so the only way to break the chains and achieve freedom is by blowing their brains out.

    Part of the note left behind read: " I know people won't understand. They won't think my action right, *but* it was right for me".

    • psychicmindvandervoort231 says:

      You are so right about student low-life who brinig better students down. That has been my constant complaint about Public Schools. Somehow, irrespective of money in the family, better students with better potentials ought to be sorted out and separated from "the other lowers". Not fair? No, more than fair, and best for individuals and the so-called larger society. 1993 a had a temporary teaching job and one class was 7th grade. I had one "afflicted kid" who didn't allow me to teach. He was ALWAYS acting up. Finally I marched him to the Office (I really wanted to belt him!) and explained it was him or me. He spent the rest of the year sitting in the office instead of disrupting my/or class! But, I then was considered a "bad teacher".

    • boundedfunction says:

      there but for the grace of slick go i. its a lottery. you can't win, or lose, if you don't play. But, not playing's not an option, is it, while you breathe, even tho most options expire worthless. The value proposition decays from day one. preposition. Proposition. Postposition (many are wont to believe). I light a candle every feb3 in memory – I don’t want to forget the past generally, & certain people particularly – of a dear one. crushed in a car. Cars or Christchurch, “slick” tectonics or lickety-split speed, crushed is crushed. & soon or late, we’re all soybeans – which sounds a lot like “soylent greens,” doesn’t it? Between now & then, the crush is tradable, & must be traded. (Or surfed ~“blue crush” ~ if beans ain’t your metaphor.). Or begged. Or looted. Or some combination of those. Rand’s “trader principle” lays out the pre, pro, & post pretty good.

    • boundedfunction says:

      hart crane stepped off a transom. John berryman hopped a bridge railing; his dad shot himself – or was shot. Ernest hemingway opened wide for his shotgun; his dad shot himself. Dylan Thomas drank himself outta’ the coil. Hunter thompson took a .45 aspirin. F. scott fitzgerald. Tennesse Williams. John cheever. Raymond carver. These last pulled heavier triggers, it took longer, but it never had to, it just did. On & on. my brother. Your uncle. From Idiot savants thru geniuses – the few you’ve heard of or could look up, & the many nobody ever heard of or could look up (“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” ~ Stephen jay gould). Nervous systems, how they react/respond to experience, increments & decrements of survival, from barely to baronial to barely, for how long, these are randoms. Freedom may be just another word for nothing left to lose…nirvana the un-invention of Velcro… & maille… or the shotgunning of it. you’ve got mail, btw….

  5. larajf says:

    Lisa Nichol's book No Matter What! recommends pretending that your forehead is a dual track tape player. When you start to remember that negative story, press the stop button on that tape player. Then press play on the positive tape player and visualize where you're going. It's made a world of difference for me getting past the bad memories. Although, sometimes I have to hit the buttons quite a few times in a short span of time. But you know, I'm just continuing to get better as time goes by.

  6. bullwink says:

    about 20 yrs ago I thought being a computer programmer was a quick way to bucks….so I enrolled in a tech school, everyone was aptitude tested and given a personal evaluation, the last tested criteria was "pattern recognition", one way to keep making the same mistakes is not to recognize patterns, ratios and results, fate is eventual destiny is a choice…."you cannot step in the same river twice…" my greatest (only achievements) in life is when I realized I was living in a patterned way w/ mediocre results, when I chose to break the pattern and try something new I started living life again, when I hear people repeating negatives I avoid them out of necessity ,they are living in the past so boring….."Seize the Day"..thanks RR

    • Phil says:

      Amen, Bullwing. And about RR, 40 years ago I had made some bad mistakes as a teen, due to my own bad decision making in the face of being bullied (basically just tuned out, dropped out, etc.). One day I picked up a book on my Dad's bookshelf that I always though looked boring as heck, just a business book – Winning Through Intimidation). Then I read it in a single reading and my life changed that very day. I think that God led me too it, I found Looking Out for Number One and from then on I have been so blessed to at least have hope every day, and often much more.

      Now at middle age I have been working to change careers, doing different things that are way out of the ordinary. I was not made for corporate ladder climbing, so things can be challenging at time. But when I am laid to rest I think taking the path less trodden will have been worth it.

      Very lucky I have a great wife and child who are there with me through thick and thin, and vice versa.

  7. Paradox says:

    “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
    Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
    Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
    Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

    ― Omar Khayyam

  8. real american says:

    Instead of just forgetting the past (which might lead us to make more foolish mistakes) I learned to VALUE what I went through, to analyze why something happened, why I did what I did and then to LEARN from it in a POSITIVE way. I had always heard "put the past behind you" but it made me feel like I was shamefully sweeping something under the rug.

    Now I realize that everything I have gone through has tremendous VALUE and make the past valuable and worthy.
    thank you

  9. lopaze says:

    Great article and I agree 100% because you have to ALWAYS keep moving forward. You can ALWAYS learn some valuable lessons in your past because experience is the best teacher hands down. A wise man once told me "a life worth living is a life worth recording." So I started to journal all my experiences of my life.

  10. R. LAD says:


    • Phil says:

      Looks like you and I are one of many who are hoping that Mr. Ringer takes care of himself and lives a very, very long and happy life.

  11. psychicmindvandervoort231 says:

    Easy to say, hard to do, when early life trauma colors one's life. Like the Biblical poor, the past will always be with ius As Mr. Ringer suggests, DEAL WITH IT OR GO UNDER. I was fortunate to undergo a form of psychoanalysis while in college, and again some years later. From that I learned self-analysis. IF we haven't repressed a life-altering trauma, we are fortunate. Then we have a chance to deal with it. But, it does NOT go away. But, it can be dealt with. I know from hard life-long experience. And, I believe I achieved much of what I accomplished because of my early life trauma. I am fortunate, but not everybody is… those who are controlled by a difficult past.

  12. cspkeynes says:

    Mr. Ringer you stated above " that the most rational way to live one’s life is to forget about the past and concentrate on opening new doors to the future. " __Did you mean to say that the most rational way to live one's life is to learn from the past and focus on opening new doors to the future ?

    • Jean says:

      Actually, "forgetting" may be a better strategy. In the book, Psychocybernetics, Maxwell Maltz suggests looking at everything that happened in your past as events – no more, no less. That way, you don't impute meaning to them, nor do you give them more weight than they deserve. Learning implies that everything that happened had some purpose. This may or may not be true, and what you take away from the event may not be conducive to living a prosperous or pleasant life.

  13. PBottino says:

    Great post – resonated with me. Thank you so much for being you.

  14. Sean Baltz says:

    Another great writing from a masterful thinker. Thank you Mr. Ringer.

  15. Shankar says:

    I think we should not forget past, but should grow more wise and knowledge from those mistakes. This way we improve our capability to handle the past and eventually that will fade out quickly.

    We can not change the past as we cannot live in the past. If one don't learn from past and just forget past, he/she is bound to do the same mistakes again and again. In fact repeating the same mistake only ruin the life.

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