Our past experiences play a huge role in who we are and what we want. We all go through learning experiences that help us develop happier lives, but we can also be left wounded by losses, injustices, and regrets. If you are unable to let go of your past, you'll struggle to give the future the attention it deserves, and you'll miss out on the joy of living in the present. However, letting go is easier said than done, and you might find your mind constantly pulled back to the past even if you have a genuine desire to move on.
Thankfully, there are concrete techniques you can use to make peace with the past in a healthy, lasting way, without repressing or ignoring its value. In this guide, we'll explore why it's so important to put the past behind you, and offer seven exercises that will help you on your way.
If you'd had difficulty moving on from the past, you're likely aware of all the ways you're being held back.
Here are four of the most compelling reasons why it's important to truly look to the future:
All of the following techniques focus on how you can productively use your past difficulties in order to change and grow as a person. After all, simply denying or repressing feelings about the past doesn't allow you to gain closure. Instead, it just delays the inevitable process of moving on.
As we go through each exercise, we'll look at concrete examples of these techniques in action. Think about which ones might be most applicable to your own life; whether you're trying to move on from grief, an old relationship, a career that didn't work out or an idea of yourself that turned out to be inaccurate.
There's a balance to strike here. Specifically, you want to express negative emotions you have about your past (feelings like sadness, anger, jealousy) without merely wallowing in those emotions in an unending way. There are lots of different ways you can approach this exercise.
For example, you might speak directly to the person or people who played a role in your distress. However, this isn't always possible or appropriate, so consider other methods as well.
You might try writing a letter that you never send, which gives you a sense of speaking to the relevant individual and getting the emotions out of your system.
Keeping a journal or speaking to a trusted friend can also be useful.
As you express your pain, give some thought to the role you played in creating the situation. While you shouldn't blame or punish yourself, it's important to take responsibility for your own contributions so you can learn how to be happier in the future.
When you're still hurting, focusing on the present is easier said than done. There are things you can do to reach this goal, however, like taking up a daily mindfulness meditation habit that encourages you to turn into your current feelings, sensations, and experiences.
In time, this exercise will train your brain to exist more in the present than in the past or the future. In addition, ensuring you live a busy and fulfilling life goes a long way towards helping you to live in the present, as it simply reduces the time you have to even think about the past.
If you consistently find it difficult to stop yourself from dwelling, try designing a mantra or affirmation that can work as a cue (e.g. “That was my past and I am now focused on my present and my future”). When you feel your mind turning back to the past, say those words and anchor yourself in the present.
Letting go of the past is an enormous, complex undertaking. As such, it isn't something you can do alone, and you need to find stable sources of support that will help you along the way.
Above, we discussed the merits of talking to a trusted friend, which will allow you to vent your emotions and explore ideas for moving on. The same goes for close family members, as long as they're not directly involved in the painful situation that you're dealing with (e.g. in cases of relationship breakdowns).
It's also worth looking into specific support groups that cater to people who are undertaking similar goals. For example, you can find groups focused on healing after grief, childhood trauma or infidelity. Further, look into different styles of therapy and what they might be able to offer you. It's common to see several people before making a decision, so take your time to find someone who fits with you.
Obsessing about the past is a bad habit, and all habits take time to break. This means that for a while to come, your mind will periodically return to thoughts of the past, and you'll need a strategy for dealing with these in a healthy way.
One of the most effective things you can do is remind yourself about your current focus, something positive that exists in your life now. This refocusing process could take the form of an affirmation (as discussed above), or you might have a particular object that you touch or look at, something with positive association.
Another technique that will help you battle intrusive thoughts is to conduct a quick inventory (either in your mind or on paper) of 5-10 things that currently make you happy. This will reconnect you with what you like and appreciate about the present, turning your mind away from ruminations about the past.
Sometimes, we struggle to let go of the past because we wish things could go back to the way they were in some respect. We can't imagine being happy or satisfied again in the future, and so we are tempted to live in our memories. If you want to move on, though, you have to allow yourself to believe in the possibility of a happy future. So, how should you approach changing your perspective in this way?
One thing you can do is set concrete goals, and begin to investigate how you can achieve these goals. Similarly, taking up new hobbies can help to occupy your time and energy, as well as giving you concrete evidence that you're developing in positive ways. You might also consider creating a dream board; a visual representation of what you want your future to look like, featuring pictures, inspirational quotes and (if you are so inclined) drawings.
Giving back might not be at the forefront of your mind when you're coping with pain from the past. Nevertheless, doing something beyond yourself (and especially something that embodies your values) is a great way to boost your self-esteem, focus your mind on the present, and encourage you to be less myopic about the world.
There are lots of ways you can give back, including volunteering at a soup kitchen, helping out in a care home and working at an animal shelter. If you're not sure how you want to give back, make a list of your top 5-10 passions and look at altruistic ways to express those passions.
In some cases, you can also give back to people who share your struggles. For example, you can train as a therapist, join the staff at a helpline, or donate money to a charity that revolves around relationship difficulties, addiction or mental health problems.
Finally, forgiveness is a truly crucial part of moving on.
Firstly, you need to extend it to the person or people who wronged you, by accepting their fallibility and reflecting on some of the reasons why they may have behaved as they did. You may not need to let such people back into your life, but carrying hate for them is toxic. One of the best ways to discharge that hate is to adopt a forgiving attitude. Forgiving those who have wronged you also helps you to trust others in the future.
Meanwhile, and perhaps more importantly, you need to learn to forgive yourself for the painful event(s) in your life. Yes, you likely have some responsibility to bear, but this doesn't mean that you are a bad person or that you are undeserving of joy. Learn from your mistakes, offer yourself compassion, and vow to do better in the future.