How to Stop Your Past from Poisoning Your Future

How to Stop Your Past from Poisoning Your FutureYour exes.

What comes to mind when you think of them?

If you’re like most women, the first word that comes to mind is “heartbreak.”

Pain. Mistakes. Scars.

You have to carry that baggage for the rest of your life.

Common wisdom says you should forgive.

You can’t let go of the past until you’re completely at peace with what happened and hold no anger.

That’s a wonderful goal to aim for.

Forgiving your exes lightens your heart, helps you heal, and restores joy to your love life.

But it’s not easy. Not in the slightest.

Surely, if you could forgive, you’d have done it already, right? Because it feels so much better when you let stuff go.

You don’t want to carry that stuff around with you. You, more than anyone, know how much better life would be if you didn’t feel pain every time you thought about that part of your past.

That’s why I sometimes suggest a different goal:

Compassion with boundaries.

It accomplishes many of the same benefits as forgiveness, but it’s much more attainable. It helps you reap the lessons and discard the chaff, so that your future looks a whole lot brighter.

Let’s start by looking at boundaries.

How to Keep Bad Things from Happening Again

The reason so many of us hang onto unforgivingness is because we think it protects us. We don’t want to get hurt again.

So we remind ourselves periodically, “Look at what happened last time I trusted someone! Remember how that turned out?”

But what happened to you last time doesn’t predict what’s going to happen to you this time.

You’re smarter now. You’re stronger. You don’t need to hold onto those old memories in order to make wiser choices this time around.

Letting the past hang around just casts a pall over your future. There’s a better way to keep yourself safe.

And that’s by setting boundaries.

Boundaries are your limits. They define exactly how you’ll allow yourself to be treated. Some boundaries go without saying—no abuse, no violence, no cheating. But other boundaries are fuzzier. Let’s discuss a few of those.

For example, will you allow an intimate partner to crack a joke at your expense? Is it okay if he shows up late? What if he gets mad at you in a way you find intimidating?

Before, you may have allowed those behaviors. You didn’t want to lose the relationship, so you didn’t call him out on the stuff that made you uncomfortable.

But you’re not that woman anymore.

You’re not going to give up your power in a relationship again. You’re going to stand your ground. And boundaries are going to help you do it.

Get out a sheet of paper and write down a list of your boundaries. What won’t you tolerate in a relationship anymore? What’s unacceptable? Put it all down in writing (for yourself…no one else).

This is where you can gain useful lessons from even your most painful past experiences. Think back to behaviors that made you feel small, used, or powerless. As you write them down, feel yourself drawing a line between your past and your future. Tell yourself, “No more. Never again.”

Letting Go of the Anger

As you think about your past, you may find yourself getting angry that you allowed men to treat you the way they did.

It can be hard to consider forgiving them for behavior that was heartless, even cruel.

Try this instead.

Consider that these men who hurt you were themselves wounded.

Maybe they grew up seeing relationships in which both partners hurt each other, so they thought that behavior was normal. Maybe they never saw what healthy love looked like. Maybe they never felt loved, so they decided to take what they could.

That doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it helps you feel compassion.

If you still struggle to feel compassion, try to imagine your ex as a 5-year-old boy. That boy didn’t know he’d grow into a man who’d make mistakes. That boy was just like every other boy, full of life and energy. If you can’t feel compassion for the man, can you feel compassion for the boy?

The other place where you may need compassion is with regard to yourself. You may not just feel angry about what he did; you may feel angry with yourself for letting it happen.

If you’d have known better, you would have acted differently. But you did the best you could with what you knew at that time.

Can you feel compassion for your own mistakes?

We all make mistakes in love. Sometimes, they’re major mistakes. But those mistakes are our teachers. They show us what to look for in future partners.

Have you done the work of forgiving an ex? Let us know in the comments.

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11 thoughts on “How to Stop Your Past from Poisoning Your Future

  1. E.E. Crabbendam said:


    If you can UNDERSTAND how the other person felt, right or wrong, then I believe you can forgive. Usually they don’t do what offends or hurts us so badly as an act AGAINST us personally so much as it is an act FOR themselves coming out of their own pain from wherever that pain comes from in their own history. It doesn’t change what happened, but it puts the situation in a prospective which releases us from the grip of that pain and neutralizes it so that we can go on and in my case, even become friends again with the ex with no apologies necessary.

  2. Laura Davimes said:

    VERY helpful! I had a hard time forgiving my ex because he didn’t really apologize and he kept blaming me for what I felt was 80% his fault (cheating and lying). Hard to forgive someone who isn’t sorry… right? I actually read 2 books about “The Art of Forgiveness” … Then I did Blue Bottle Love for him and for myself. Lots of forgiveness meditations and wrote to him about the compassion I had for him due to his upbringing by crappy parents. Still I thought all that bad stuff could happen to me with the next guy… and it did. I had not thought about the idea of setting boundaries and just believing in myself to keep these boundaries… and maybe even stating my boundaries. Great idea!

  3. Kelley said:

    Perfect timing. I find myself in a long term relationship that leaves me sad and unfulfilled… period… I have gone to counseling and tried every communication tool I can find to get make him understand how his decisions make me feel. I have repeated the same few concerns to him for YEARS, without any sign of change or successfully solving the issue of how to make us better together… I have dreamed of the day we would be able to sit back and say “We did it. OMG it was so hard and so much work but look at us now!” That has been a dream of mine for many years. After reading your article I was struck with such force, the realization was like a smack in the face. That for reasons I can not comprehend, I have allowed myself to be treated so badly for so long. That I have allowed someone to determine how I feel about myself regardless of the facts. I let his words define me and slowly I have become that girl who has such low self esteem that she can’t see beyond what he tells me I am. I know in my heart that if there were no financial reason to stay I would have left long ago. And instead of going thru the work of separating from each other after 7 years together – I stay out of fear that I might be what he tells me I am… a loser who has nothing and is unable to financially take care of her self. I live without any physical contact or loving compassionate touch what so ever while he tells me I’m selfish for wanting those things and a broken record who complains about needing this “stupid shit”. From someone who waits for me to leave the house so he can watch porn and take care of our lack of physical contact by himself while he tells me how ridiculous I am for that hurting me…
    Thank you for this article. I not only have page after page of behavior that is unacceptable but it is behavior that is my current situation and I am deciding now to focus on being strong enough alone so I can leave to find the person who cares how he makes me feel. Thank you.

    • James Bauer said:

      Hi Kelley. I’m happy to hear this article awakened your desire to open your heart and mind once more to the qualities of relationships that make them worth participating in.

  4. Indie said:

    Wow, this was one of the most profound exercises of the day. I’ll keep working deeper. Many thanks James. Your articles are so helpful.

  5. Anonymous said:

    I love the advice on this site and the emails I get. This I something I’ve been dealing with with my new boyfriend and thinking he’s going to do the same things that my exes did. I did catch him talking to his ex and telling her he still loves her which made me upset but I do feel compassion for him and I’ve forgiven him and moved on but it’s still hard to trust he won’t continue talking to her. I’m hoping this will help.

  6. juli said:

    Thank you for this – there were so many mistakes. What do I do with the reality that my ex never loved me? Because I’ve come to realize that he is a full on narcissist – this one is a hard one to swallow. He is the angry one – I work on compassion every day. I am a yoga teacher and have done lots of work in this area. I am ready to be loved! I have had to work on is my ‘people pleasing’. I call myself a recovering people pleaser. I’ve gone to therapy and work on this as well. I’ve learned that I attract manipulators because of this. Setting boundaries is my work and I think I go overboard because I fear being taking advantage of again. My ex and I have a son together … he won’t talk to me because he says ‘I get angry’ and will only text me. I would like to move forward with my ex in a way that we can communicate for my son’s sake. I know he is angry because I would not comply anymore to his narcissism and we divorced. I find myself sabotaging my new relationships at times with the junk of the past because of the drama that arises with my ex’s anger. I did meet a new man who is a complete 360 from my ex and have found love and freedom from the loneliness I experienced in my marriage. But because he is not a narcissist – he does not truly understand what I went through. My marriage affected me to the core. It is not easy to move forward and keep the pain of the past from affecting your future. I try not to talk about what happened in my marriage with my new love but it is so large that sometimes I have to or will explode. Once I do, I regret it because I would have loved to have met this new man in my life before I knew the pain of living with a narcissist. I feel like he won’t ever know the “Me” I was before this experience. I worry at times that he won’t love me anymore because of the garbage of my past. And I know that affects my behavior… how do we throw out the garbage? How do we let go and forget-some days it seems an impossibility. And then I feel sad.

    • James Bauer said:

      Hey Juli. Those are good, insightful questions you ask. Here are a few general principles other people find useful in situations like this.

      1. Approach change as a team. For example, have a code word that you use when one or both of you realizes your behavior is really a reflection of the past. This kind of labeling helps both of you to compartmentalize it and not take it personally. It allows you both to move past problematic behavior faster whenever it accidentally creeps in.

      2. Start journaling about it on a regular basis. It’s one thing to have an insight on something like this. It’s another thing to consistently work on it. Journaling helps with that. It helps by creating a space for you to pause and reflect each week on what you have done well, what you could do better, and what you should focus on during the next seven days. Some people set recurring reminder on their phone to sit down and do 20 minutes of journaling.

      3. Expose yourself to ideas and information that will help you to be yourself while being more assertive. The book “Not Nice” has a mean sounding title, but it teaches people how to have better relationships by developing assertiveness skills to overcome their tendencies to be so nice that no one knows the real person behind the mask of people pleasing.

      4. With regard to getting along with a narcissist, it might be worth consulting a therapist on an ongoing basis, but here’s one concept to keep in mind. Be as boring as possible. Don’t be interesting enough to arouse the narcissistic wound of rejection from your partner.

  7. Anonymous said:

    Good post. I learn something totally new and challenging on websites I stumble upon everyday.

    It’s always interesting to read content from other authors
    and practice a little something from other sites.

  8. Nancy said:

    Honestly, I didn’t do the work intentionally, but did letters of rage. Which in my case turned into letters of compassion, as much as wanted to rage, my heart went to his pain growing up. It was titled,
    ‘Where was I when you were being hurt?’
    ‘Who protected your heart befor we met?’
    They were both very healing things for me. I just feel sorry for him, I pray for him , I forgive him, but as you say will not accept behavior any longer, and from miles away.

  9. Debbie said:

    It’s taken a long time, (20 years), but I’m finally able to hold a conversation with my ex and talk about the kids and things that happened when they were young. We have 4 kids together, 3 are married and we are soon to have 5 grandchildren under the age of 3! So lots of family events. I’m grateful for the past that we shared now and while I was miserable at the time of our divorce, I’m grateful for the independence I’ve had to raise my kids without a self centered environment. They still wish he’d spend time and notice them. Sad for them. But the kids are extremely close and enjoy each other and that’s a gift. It’s so much easier to forgive and have compassion now. Thanks for your reminder of how to let go! Maybe there’s someone out there interested in the twilight years…

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