The residue of negative emotions after a significant event happens in your life can become consuming and controlling. They can affect your perspectives, the decisions you make, the people you connect with, and even your health.
So why do we hold on to negative emotions of an event from the past? What keeps something like anger, sadness, and other negative states around for weeks, or even years? The answer is:
There is something you haven’t confronted yet.
Lingering, negative emotions are unresolved conflicts in your subconscious mind.
Something about the event is traumatic enough where letting it go is simply too difficult. It’s as if you still have a decision to make, or an action to take, to get it resolved, but you don’t take it. So it sits inside you, like unfinished business, waiting for a resolution.
When you think back to a situation that upset you in any way, do you still get upset thinking about it now? If so, those emotions are caught in a “feedback loop”.
A feedback loop is caused when you feel bad about your past, and feel bad because you feel bad about your past! The feelings from the past intertwine with the feelings you are having today. So every time you relive it, it gains intensity. A feedback loop helps keep old, unresolved emotions “alive”.
What really gets people down is that when they recall the memory, they feel the emotions as if the event were happening right now. Not only do you remember what you saw and what you heard, but you also remember the way you felt because the memory of the event is linked to the emotions of that event. If whatever needs to be resolved is not resolved, the negative emotions linger in the background. And they become the foundation for every action you take, and every thought you have.
The good news is you can easily let these emotions go, if you want to. They can be “un-linked” from the sights and sounds of the memory. As if the emotions were represented by a balloon, and what you remember seeing and hearing is the string tied to that balloon. You can simply untie the string and watch it float away.
The following process walks you through how to untie that string, and release the emotion. You won’t actually stop remembering it, but your perspective of the memory will change so that you feel differently about it.
It’s a brain hack, and one you anyone can do!
Are you ready?
The first thing to do is recall something that makes you feel bad when you think of it. Maybe someone yelled at you when you were a kid. Maybe someone looked at you weird. Or maybe you were hurt in some way. I will say that the following technique can work with highly traumatic memories, but I would rather you find a professional to help you with the trauma first, as there are many layers to that kind of memory.
Do you have something in mind? Let’s begin.
When you remember the event, are you looking through your own eyes? Or, can you actually see yourself, from a third-person perspective?
Whichever perspective you have, switch it around. If you are looking through your own eyes, step outside yourself and look at you, and the situation around you. If you are already outside yourself, step in to yourself, and look through your own eyes. After you’ve tried both, stick with the one that feels better to you.
Next, keeping yourself in the perspective that feels better, look around. Is there movement? Or, is it more of a still image? Whichever it is, change it. If there is movement, as if you are an actor in a movie, change it to a still image. If it’s a still image, turn it into a movie. When you’ve tried both, stick with the one that feels better.
You with me so far?
Now, what do you hear going on around you? What noises are you tuning in to? If you hear people’s voices, imagine their voices are cartoon voices, or even funny animal sounds. You might even want to add some some silly carnival or ragtime music.
You are doing great. I know, you’re using a lot of imagination here, but we’re almost there.
In this memory, you are now looking at things and hearing things a little differently. How do you feel about this memory right now? Is it the same? Has the emotional impact of the memory decreased in intensity?
Last step. Step out of your memory altogether and see that memory in front of you as if it were in a box. And you were looking down into the box, seeing yourself, and everything going on around you. Put a lid on the box, and place it on a conveyor belt. Watch the box get smaller and smaller, as it is transported to…
And that is the one part that you must do on your own. This is where you take control of where the box goes. And after you’ve created that scene, come back to here and now.
Take a moment if you need to. Sometimes a deep breath helps integrate the exercise.
When you think about what that memory used to feel like, does it feel any different now?
Can you even picture it the same way anymore?
When you are triggered by a negative memory, you have the option of working with that memory, or repressing it. What you choose at that moment is one of the major components that define your quality of life from that point on.
Paul, Thank you for this excellent article! Feelings from past can effect us in so many ways! I’m excited to put this practice to use to continue to work on improving my overall quality of life 🙂
Justin, thank you for sharing that. Holding on to negative emotions is a great way to stay unhappy. Considering how unpredictable life is, the best time to let go is now. Thank you again!
Paul, such a great post! The past can become so limiting to our success without us even truly acknowledging it’s affect. Thank you for encouraging us to confront those emotions and for teaching a technique to help move forward. Looking forward to mastering this technique and will pass on the information on to my friends and family. Thanks again!
Thank you so much Celest! You worded that perfectly, “The past can become so limiting to our success…” I love it.
What a great topic, Paul. I’ve had to personally work through such in my life and am encouraged to now have the hindsight to share with others. Your inner-freedom-style of addressing the challenge is powerful, as visualization is happening, whether or not it is being used intentionally to overcome or by default while living in the past. What strategy do you recommend if someone is really just stuck? Is there a “next level” technique you recommend?
I can relate Amber. I have been very fortunate to have been exposed to many negative events in my life. The lessons I’ve learned are invaluable and I wouldn’t change a thing.
When someone is truly “stuck” on something, they are usually stuck on the outer layer of the problem. They ask themselves questions like, “Why can’t I get over this?”, or “Why does this keep happening to me?” However, it’s more resourceful to ask questions like, “What about this specifically am I upset about?” When you get the answer, the next question is, “What about *that* am I upset about?” And when you get that answer, ask “What about *that* is causing me to be upset?” So on and so forth.
I will be writing a post on this very topic (thanks for the idea!), so keep an eye out. The trick is to get past those layers, which are usually covering an emotional wound. We don’t want to be hurt again, so we keep adding layers, thinking we are protecting it. However, this is the opposite of healing. We need to let air hit the wound, so the healing can begin.
Thank you for your comment and question!
Paul, thanks for the reminder. Sometimes things from the past can creep up on you, and like you said, subconsciously effect your mood, your actions, and your efficiency. Choose to get yourself OUT of that feedback loop! Great advice.
Thank you for your comment Kate! A lot of people don’t believe they have a choice. They believe life happens to them, instead of making them happen to life. A slight mindset shift can sometimes change your entire world.
Deal with it head on. Love this brain hack. Really interesting perspective
Great blog post and really looking forward to your podcast!
Thank you Alex! Like the song says, “You don’t have to let it linger…”
“Stuck in reverse” that is perfect! I’ve been there, for sure. Thank you so much for your comment – I appreciate it!
Your subconscious doesn’t know time! If something happens when you are 3 years old, your subconscious still remembers that. Such a powerful topic and writing, Paul.
Keep it coming!
Thank you Austin! Such a great point. There’s always a significant initial event that creates the foundation of how you react to things over “time”. If you learned ‘anger’ at 3 years old, you’ve basically been responding in a very similar way every time you’ve been angry up to now – unless you’ve worked on that within yourself.
Imagine that… the same way you learned to react when you were a child could be the very same way you react now.
Great post Paul! Our Subconscious can be so powerful or destructive for sure, pending the conscious food we feed it. That loop ….wow.
Don’t know if you ever read Dr. Jospeph Murphy’s Power of the Subconscious but its by far in my top 3 favorite books.
“…the conscious food we feed it” I love it! Great analogy. Thank you for your reply Michael! And thanks for the book recommendation, I’ll definitely check it out. I appreciate it!
Thank you. I have such upsetting memories. I just turned 72 and they seem to be coming up so strongly now that I think Im there and not here. It scares me to find myself speaking what I couldn’t say then, raging in ways I was unable to express then and completely caught up in the strength of the memory, forgetting where I am now. I will try this technique, but I worry, doesn’t it diminish the seriousness of what happened and trivialize the cruelty and abusive things done to me? If I discount and trivialize it, am I not being abusive to myself and disrespectful to my feelings of hurt and outrage?
Thanks so much for your comment Wendy. Of course, if you are completely caught up in the memory to the point where you can’t even connect with the present, where you are today, you will want to speak to a professional to help them get you through that time.
That sounds like some pretty serious trauma. I’m so sorry you experienced what you did.
To answer your questions, my approach is always: The past doesn’t change but why hold on to the pain?
Sometimes pain or hurt stays with us because there’s a need to “own it” just to make sure we never forget what they did to us. Not saying that’s how it is with you, but this does happen. We sometimes feel the hurt and don’t want it to go away because if it does, we might think it’s letting them get away with it.
Again, this may or may not describe what you’re experiencing. I’ve often seen people hold on to their hurt for many years simply because they thought that not feeling hurt was like forgiveness. They didn’t want to forgive and they didn’t want to forget.
I don’t believe in forgetting or forgiving quite frankly. But I do believe in not holding on to negativity other people have brought into my life. If I stay upset at something someone did 20 years ago, then they are still winning and I am still losing. I prefer to detach the pain from the memory so I can discover what’s underneath the pain.
I might find anger. I might find another pain I hadn’t yet identified. The pain we hold on to often hides more of something we should address.
Again, with the help of a professional when possible. If you can’t get yourself back to a safe place in your mind, then exercises like this might not be recommended for you without professional guidance.
To your question about discounting or trivializing, I look at it as giving yourself the gift of letting go of the burden of suffering. Does not feeling pain about a past event trivialize that event?
In my opinion, hell no. That event was real. I may still be pissed off about it, but I’m not going to let them keep hurting me. When I was growing up, I developed a hatred for my stepfather because of his bad behavior. The day I let go of the hatred was the day my life changed. But I had to admit I hated him first! I had to come to the realization that I actually had hatred for him, and allow myself to feel that hatred, so that I could finally release it.
I think that’s a lot of what happens to us is that we don’t allow ourselves to feel or think what we really want to feel or think, so we hold on to the emotional suffering like a badge of courage when in reality it acts like a happiness-eating disease that never goes away.
The day I accepted that I was capable of hating him was the day my depression took a turn and I started living life without that attachment to hate.
Did my letting go trivialize it? Again, hell no. I remember the abuse when I was 4 like it was yesterday. But I was able to move on from the suffering by allowing myself to be angry about it and not forgiving.
I know this is different than the exercise above, but this exercise is one of many that I talk about in my blog / podcast so be sure to check out my other resources.
I might suggest another exercise and that’s a visualization of doing and / or saying ANYTHING you want to the person who wronged you in your mind’s eye. I did this with my stepfather. Something amazing happens when you allow your mind to do anything you want to someone: You get closure. You get to feel as if what you did to them really happened. AND, at the same time, you realize you didn’t actually do it, you just thought it. But, you let your brain “go there” and it is liberating.
Many people won’t go there because of their beliefs, morals, religion, etc. But when it comes to suffering, my goal is to allow ANYTHING I WANT to happen in my brain because it’s my brain. And if I have anger or upset toward someone else, I’m probably going to visualize hurting them.
I’m not saying you should do on your own necessarily but it’s something to explore when you’re ready.
I’ve provided a few episodes that may be helpful to you here:
The past doesn’t have to be painful, it just has to have closure. The biggest gift you can give yourself is to find a way to release the suffering so you can move on. That is the ultimate in respecting your feelings of hurt and outrage.
I’m not saying all emotional pain is resolvable like this, but when it comes to someone’s bad behavior, I prefer to remember what they did, but give the pain back to them. That may not sound logical, but that’s what happens in my mind. No reason for me to own their suffering. They gave it to me, I’m giving it back!
Thank you again Wendy. I wish you much strength through this.