Mental & Emotional Health

5 Ways to Break Free From Your Past & Embrace Your Future

I used to think I was the one with a past. You know, “a past.” A past that set me apart from everyone else and that had, pretty much, damaged me beyond hope. I was raised in a religious cult by one parent, while my other parent’s religion was sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Two contrasting, competing, diametrically opposed, weird – if not harmful – worlds.

I’ve come to realize that my past may be different from most others, but I’m not that different.  I’ve certainly come to realize that I’m not damaged. Or at least not irreparably damaged. I’ve come to realize that there are so many of us who have a past that haunts us, and keeps us from moving on to a life of joy.

By the grace of something, I was also able to grasp that being shackled by our past is not okay. That not being able to find a future – and present – of joy and love is not okay. So, I decided to do my best to break free from my past. Here is some of what I learned.

  • Get help – Believe it or not, my first step was realizing – admitting – that something was wrong. Wrong with me. Wrong with my life. Wrong with the way I was raised.  Wrong with the way I was living my life. I don’t mean to be hard on myself, but by the time I admitted I needed help, I was engaged to a man who drank – hard. And who was mean when he drank, at least to me. I crawled into rooms of people who were in similar situations, and yet who seemed hopeful. I heard them say how grateful they were for their alcoholics, and I thought they were crazy. Or pathetic. I heard them talk about their low self-esteem, and I pitied them. I didn’t realize I had no self-esteem. Pretty much none.

I began to look at the anguish within me, and I grasped that my childhood was not just weird, but it was bad. Not as bad as many people’s, but bad enough to affect me. I began to reach out more. To ask for help more. To admit I couldn’t make it alone more. To see that leaning on others was not a weakness, but was instead a strength. I’d learned not to do these things when I was a kid, and yet these steps began to save me. The more I asked for help, the more help I got. And the better I felt.

  • Accept and integrate – Many years ago, a therapist told me that I had to integrate my childhood in a cult into my present day life. She seemed to think that in order to heal from my past I had to admit it had happened and let it be a part of me. I told her she was crazy

I’ve come to realize the truth in what she said. I’ve come to learn that “Acceptance is the answer to all my problems.” I’ve found that when I push against my past, or even against whatever is happening in my present, that which I’m pushing against only seems to get stronger. When I accept what is as it is, and what was as it was, it loses at least some of its power to haunt and overwhelm me.


When I proudly own my past – the good and bad of it – it loses its power to define me. It becomes part of me but not all of me.

  • Embrace the dark side – I firmly believe that many, if not all, of my worst “scars” from my childhood are simply results of a young child trying to stay safe and make sense of an insane situation. My irrational thought patterns and fears. My timidity and my aggressiveness. My fight, flight, or freeze reaction. These are often a too-easily triggered response to something that some part of me views as dangerous.

Something sets me off. Something elicits that adrenaline rush. Something somehow reminds me of an unsafe situation – or person – from my childhood. My “dark side” – my less than pretty behaviors and thought patterns – kick in to never let anything bad happen to me again. They think they’re protecting me. They think I need them to keep me safe. I learned an acronym for fear – False Evidence Appearing Real.

When I can accept my dark side, when I can hold it close to me and thank it for its protection (while reassuring it that I don’t need its protection) my fear eases at least a little bit. When I can breathe my way through and allow that part of me that only wants to protect me, I calm and quiet. When I can embrace that part of me I break free.

  • Build self-compassion and self-care habits – Nothing has eased my soul more, I think, than building countless self-care habits. I’ve incorporated massage, long walks, yoga, meditation, cups of tea, snuggling on the couch with a good book, calling a friend, sitting in nature…the list goes on and on. I’ve learned to reflect and question, “What would I say to my best friend if they were going through this?” and to (try) and treat myself accordingly. I’ve learned to put a hand on my heart, to breathe deep, and to allow the peace of the universe to flow into (and out of) me.
  • Choose joy – It is always a choice. At least for me. Or at least it helps to think it’s always a choice. When I feel sad, I look for something to distract myself and ease my heart. When I face a new transgression and am enraged, I allow my rage (since I allowed myself no anger when I was young) and look for something to distract myself and ease my heart. I ask for a hug from a friend. I look at the trees against the sky and the beauty of the world. I find something – anything – that brings me joy.

I by no means mean to imply that awful things don’t happen or that we should gloss over them. I’ve learned to take the hit and feel the feelings (because I’ve learned that feelings can’t kill me, even when it feels like they can). I’ve learned to ask for help, to accept, to embrace, and to put my hand on my heart and say, “Ah sweetie, that hurts. Now what would ease your pain?” And to do whatever it is that I’ve identified as what I need next.

I’ve learned – at least for me and at least for now – that my past will always be a part of me and that I may always have psychological and emotional scars because of it. And I’ve learned that that’s okay. My five ways are a strong part of how I’ve broken free from my past and allowed (and continue to allow) a more joy-filled present and future.
Lisa Kohn is an accomplished leadership consultant, executive coach, author, and keynote speaker with a strong business background and a creative approach. She has over 20 years of experience partnering with Fortune 500 clients in areas of leadership, communication styles, managing change, interpersonal and team dynamics, and strategy, as well as life balance and fulfillment.

By emphasizing the importance of thoughtful, intentional leadership, Lisa helps clients to not only uncover issues to implement real changes, but also to successfully address their own inner challenges and effectively connect with others to ensure the changes stick.

Lisa earned her BA in psychology from Cornell University and her MBA from Columbia University’s Executive Program. She has taught as an adjunct professor at Columbia University and New York University’s Stern School of Business, and has been featured in several professional publications addressing topics on management, leadership, and communications. She has been awarded the designation of Professional Certified Coach by the International Coach Federation. Lisa is an Accredited Facilitator for Everything DiSC®, The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™, The Leadership Circle™, and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®. Lisa is the co-author of The Power of Thoughtful Leadership: 101 Minutes to Being the Leader You Want to Be. A native New Yorker, she currently resides in Wayne, Pennsylvania with her family.

Connect with Lisa Kohn on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Learn more about Lisa Kohn and To the Moon and Back at and

To the Moon and Back: A Childhood Under the Influence will be available for purchase in September 2018.

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