How to Let Go of the Past and Forgive


“Forgive others not because they deserve forgiveness, but because you deserve peace.” ~Jonathan Lockwood Huie

As a child, I faced constant physical and mental abuse.

Several classmates would beat me up in the schoolyard, hitting and kicking me. They also chased me down the streets to my home when school was done for the day. I had to cycle at my fastest to avoid another beating. It felt like I had to go through a war zone every day.

Besides the physical abuse, these children also constantly criticized and ridiculed every single thing I did. This made me feel incredibly insecure about a lot of things, including the way I walked and talked.

In short, they did everything in their power to make my life as miserable as possible. They succeeded: I became an incredibly unhappy and anxious child. I came back home crying countless times.

Despite efforts by teachers and my parents to help, all of this lasted for five long years.

It only ended because we all went to different high schools and classes after finishing primary school, not because they ever showed remorse. Still, I managed to let go of what happened and even forgive them. In fact, I have flourished and live a happy and fulfilling life nowadays. Here’s how I achieved this.

First, Forgive Yourself

We are often our own worst enemy. Instead of showing empathy and compassion to ourselves, we tend to be overly critical. When I was being bullied, I blamed myself. I thought if they were targeting me, there must have been something wrong with me, which meant I had to change myself to prevent further bullying.

Now, I know that isn’t true, and there is simply no excuse to bully anyone. The responsibility for their actions lies with the kids who hurt me, not with me.

At that time, I was simply being my authentic self, and that’s a great thing, not a reason to bully myself.

You’re likely being harder on yourself than on others. So, to counter this, imagine one of your friends faced the exact same thing you’re facing. How would you respond to that friend?

You’d probably show support and be kind to them. Now say those kind words to yourself. You deserve empathy and compassion just as much as your friends do.

“Nothing can harm you as much as your own thoughts unguarded.” ~The Buddha

Realize That Those Who Did It Are Gone

One of my favorite stories about the Buddha is about a man who spat on his face and insulted him. After the Buddha did not lash out at the man, but instead remained calm and kind, the man returned home confused. The next day, he returned to the Buddha. He hadn’t slept all night, haunted by his own behavior and the unexpected reaction from the Buddha. He begged the Buddha for forgiveness.

Instead, the Buddha explained to him that there was nothing to forgive. The person the Buddha was talking to was not the same person who spat on his face the day before; the man had changed during the night because of his repentance, and the man who spat was no more.

In the same vein, I believe that after all that time, the people who made me suffer as a child have changed. They were children at the time, but have now grown up to be adults. I have changed so much between then and now, and so have they. Those children who did this to me are no longer here. So is there really someone to forgive anymore?

I imagine this mindset is harder to adopt if you feel the person who hurt you hasn’t changed. In that case, it might help to remember that people who bully or abuse are often in great pain themselves (which is often why they bully or abuse). This doesn’t condone their mistreatment in any way, but it might make it easier to release your anger toward them.

Take Back Control

Another way that I let go and forgave is by taking back control. If you let bad experiences in the past guide your present and future, then you give control to those experiences and the people who caused them.

I’d highly recommend switching your perspective: Yes, those terrible experiences happened, but if you let them define who you are now and who you will be, then don’t you suffer twice? Once in the past, and again in the present.

Instead, you could take back control of your present and future by letting who you are right now guide your actions. I find it empowering to take control of my life and create my own path.

One way to do this is by crafting your own identity. Instead of identifying myself as a victim, I view myself as a victor. Someone who endured hardship and only got stronger through that suffering. By creating my own helpful identity, I take back control.

Appreciate the Gains

Another shift of perspective is by looking at how the experiences have positively shaped you instead of focusing on the suffering. Of course, there are situations where nothing has been gained, but in my case, there were certainly gains.

For example, the abuse made me tough. Nowadays, I’m not easily impressed by problems, knowing I have faced much worse and came out on top. It has also made me more empathic, having lived through a lot of suffering myself. And my suffering brought me to Buddhism, where I learned about the nature of suffering and the path to end it.

What have you gained from your hardships?

Focus on the Present

The past is dead. It can’t be changed, and it’s no longer there. So why keep thinking about the past when there is the present where you can actually do something and change your life for the better? After all, it’s only in the present that you can act.

A healthier approach toward the past is to look for lessons you can learn. If you approach the past that way, it can have a positive impact on your present and future. For example, I learned that it’s of great importance to stand up for yourself. That’s a lesson I take to heart and apply almost daily.

Another way you can focus more on the present is by practicing mindfulness and meditation.

“Anxiety, the illness of our time, comes primarily from our inability to dwell in the present moment.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

Let It All Out

It’s completely normal to have intense emotions about bad experiences in the past. So don’t hide from those emotions but let them out instead. There are many ways to do this, like writing in a journal or drawing or making music. Pick the method that suits you best.

By letting your emotions out, you better understand what you’re feeling and why you have those emotions. This creates an opportunity to find peace within yourself.

Find Support

Sometimes you can’t let go and forgive on your own. In that case, it can be of great value to find someone you trust and who can support you. This can be a friend, family member, counselor, or anyone willing to help you get through your hardship.

In my case, I found a lot of support from my mother and best friend. They helped me process my feelings and gave me a new perspective when I was struggling.

“Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything—anger, anxiety, or possessions—we cannot be free.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh 

These are the steps that helped me let go and forgive. Remember that this is often a lengthy process, so don’t give up when you don’t see results immediately. If I can do it, so can you. The best of luck!

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