Like many of you, I’m simplifying my life. I’m getting rid of stuff I don’t need, don’t use, can’t take care of or don’t want. Recently I ran across an old letter I’d saved, written by my mother. Throughout my entire life, we had an emotionally destructive relationship. Even as an adult, as a Christian and as a professional counselor, I could not communicate with her. I could not figure out how to keep her from pushing my buttons, and I struggled with deep hurt and resentment because she didn’t want to change.
In a moment of courage, I wrote her a letter expressing my hurt, hoping to get an apology or some sort of acknowledgement that what she did to me was wrong. Instead, I got a response that hurt me once again. This is the letter I saved. It was painful the first time I read it. Why did I keep it all these years, and why did I rip open old wounds by rereading it?
In the same way I did with the letter, perhaps you’ve hung on to relational wounds and negative emotions long beyond what is needed. We tuck them away in some dark corner of our heart and soon our life becomes cluttered with unfinished business that interferes with healthy living now. So how do we let go of past painful emotions?
1. Acknowledge the truth of what happened. You can’t change something you won’t own. You can only change something when you face it and deal with it. I had to accept the truth. Yes, my mother was destructive, but she was not going to become the kind of mother I wanted. She was never going to apologize for what she did to me. From her vantage point, she did nothing wrong.
2. Allow yourself to feel your feelings. Let them serve their purpose. They are here to teach you something about life, about yourself or others. Listen to what they’re telling you. Learn from them, but don’t coddle or save them. I felt hurt, anger and resentment. I needed to grieve the loss of what I wanted (a mother that cared about me and that cared about her grandchildren). I needed to forgive her for her own brokenness and inability to see what she was doing and her fear of admitting the truth to herself.
3. Pay attention to your internal dialogue. Our feelings are linked to our thoughts, and it is often our negative thoughts that get us stuck in repeating the bad feelings. Are you telling yourself the truth? If so, change what you can. Accept what you can’t change. For example, I couldn’t change my mother’s opinion of me, but just because she didn’t like me, didn’t mean I was unlikable. Just because she didn’t love me, didn’t mean I was unlovable. When we allow the words of one significant person to define us, then we allow those words to control us. That can become very destructive to you.
4. Remind yourself of who you are in Christ. I am totally forgiven, fully loved and accepted. Even if someone doesn’t love me or accept me, like I wish he or she would, I have Christ and he gives me all that I need. When I began to hear God’s Words (Psalm 107:20) louder than my mother’s words, I began to heal and began to stand up straight. Her hurtful words lost their power to determine my emotional wellbeing any longer.
5. Purposefully say goodbye. Receive God’s forgiveness; forgive another person and /or yourself. Let your hurt and anger go.
Take some time this week to write a letter to yourself working through these four steps. When you’re all finished, read it one more time and then rip it up or burn it symbolizing that you are letting go. If these same painful emotions surface again, remind yourself you have moved on. They have served their purpose and now it’s time to say goodbye so that you are free to live a happier and more productive life now.
Remember, your emotions are closely linked to your internal dialogue. Psalm 55:2 says, “My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught.”
How might you work to change the way you talk to yourself about your past hurts or regrets?