Start fresh by letting go of past

Spring is a time to reflect and clean house in your memory about negative things you've held on to.

Detroit Institute of Arts

Spring is the perfect time of year to assess where you are now and where you will end up if you keep heading in the same direction.

You may have a list of things you want to accomplish in 2010, but I'm talking about something different: a bit of internal housekeeping that can be life-changing.

Cognitive spring-cleaning is the practice of taking a few moments to breathe deeply, stepping to the side of all that mental busyness and observing some of your typical life patterns from a new vantage point.

Most of us carry around a bevy of old beliefs and attitudes we adopted when we were younger. We may not even realize it, but dig deep, and they're there.

Maybe they worked for us when we were 16, 25 or maybe even at 30. But eventually, those well-worn behavioral patterns and beliefs stop producing the desired effect.

How many sleepless nights have you spent revisiting some painful episode from your past? Scenes of old hurts done to you or times you hurt others might replay in your head so vividly, you actually re-experience the original guilt and pain.

Or perhaps, like me, you trot out a favorite old story to share with a good friend, confident she or he will sympathize. That was me -- until a friend kindly asked why I was still talking about my fear that a teacher might confuse me with my troublemaking brother.

Why was I keeping that moment alive? I had to admit to myself that it usually earned sympathy and attention, supporting my self-image as the good girl, the people-pleaser.

After 50 years, I decided it was time to retire that story.

The truth is, we all keep these types of stories alive, long after they should have been allowed to die. We secretly nurture the times loved ones hurt us and tell our stories about these personal slights and grievances, expecting sympathy.

These types of stories can keep us in habitual patterns of unhappiness, victimization or postures of self-righteousness. Telling them over and over again feeds the position we want to hang on to: "I am right and you are wrong" or "You owe me -- look what I have been through."

The longer we cling to these stories, the less space we have inside ourselves for fresh air, new energy or awakening insights.

Examining your stories, especially the well-worn ones, takes courage and honesty.

You have to be willing to admit to yourself that you benefit from the position you put yourself in every time you repeat the story, even if the rehashing keeps you up at night.

Giving them up can sometimes include a sense of loss. "Who will I be when I am not seen as the victim?" "Who am I when I am not convincing myself that they are the bad guy and that I am the good guy?"

But if you can stand still in that uncertainty and space for even just a while, something almost magical begins to happen. You begin to realize that you are now free to embrace something new, something fresh and different.

All of a sudden you have opened up the space to become more present to the moment that is unfolding now, rather than hanging on to a past that no longer applies to your present reality and relationships.

This practice, faithfully repeated, can feel like spring-cleaning the space between you and every other person in your life. You'll at least clear out the dust bunnies that have been collecting in your own mind.

Barbara Rhode is a licensed marriage and family therapist. She is co-author of "Launching: Parenting to College and Beyond," a handbook for parents of adolescents and young adults.