Pasts. We all have one.
Sometimes there are things from our past that we wish to hold on to. Memories we cherish. Moments we wish we could have all over again.
Then there are things from our past that we wish to let go of. Memories we’d like to banish. Moments we wish had never happened.
Since you’re reading this, you’re looking for help with the latter. You want to let go of the past – or some part of it.
You’ve tried already without much luck, and now you seek some guidance on how to release a burden from your life so far.
Fair warning: this process is not always quick or easy. It takes effort and persistence.
But, by following the tips below, you can maintain forward momentum in the right direction as you slowly loosen the past’s grip on you and your life.
There are two sides of this process. Firstly, you have to know what NOT to do.
Many people opt for one of a few approaches that create the illusion of dealing with the past when in fact you are doing nothing of the sorts.
These have to be avoided at all costs.
Secondly, you have to utilize a variety of mental tools to help you actually work through your past.
Let’s begin with the DON’Ts:
1. Don’t Repress It
Imagine you’ve put a painful experience from the past into a box. Then you’ve hidden that box in the deepest, darkest corner of a cupboard, never to be seen again.
You essentially push the memories of that experience and all the feelings associated with it way down into your unconscious.
The problem is that whilst repressed memories may not directly enter your conscious thoughts, they can still influence your mood and behavior.
And repressed thoughts often find a way to re-emerge into the conscious mind at a later date, causing untold turmoil when they do.
One challenge with repressed thoughts and feelings is that you aren’t aware you have them. So speaking to a certified mental health professional is often required to deal with them (more on that later).
2. Don’t Avoid It
Avoidance is similar in many ways to repression, but this time the past is still accessible to the conscious mind.
It’s like having that box with the memory inside and just leaving it by the back door to be dealt with later.
You know it’s there, but you walk past it every time. You don’t stop to open it.
But avoiding the past will not allow you to let go of it.
All it does is delay the inevitable. Sooner or later, you’ll have to open that box and deal with what’s inside.
3. Don’t Try To Forget About It
Again, this is similar to repression, but you don’t block out the past completely; you simply hope that time will eventually allow you to forget about it.
The problem with this approach is that if there is pain or trauma attached to the past, you’ll never fully forget it.
And each time you remember it, you bring that pain or trauma back into your life.
Sure, the techniques that follow later in the article will help you reduce the impact of the memory, but rarely do we forget about things that have resulted in a high emotional state.
4. Don’t Try To Change It
Another poor strategy to let go of the past is to alter your memory of it.
You may try to lie to yourself about what happened so that the emotions attached to the experience seem unjustified, but you can never fool yourself completely.
You will know the real truth, even if you don’t admit it to yourself or others.
So it’s not worth the effort to fabricate a new story in your head.
5. Detach Your Emotions From Your Memory
Now that we’ve told you what not to do, let’s start looking at what you should do.
This point is very much an overriding theme that weaves in and out of all those that follow.
You see, letting go of the past actually means letting go of the past’s direct influence over your present.
And the past can only exert control through your emotional response to it.
A memory itself is made up of two parts: the sensations you experienced and the thoughts/feelings you had.
The sensations – the result of your five senses – are things such as a visual representation of what happened, the smells and sounds around you, and the physical feelings you had.
This is the full extent of many memories. You might remember walking to the shops yesterday, but only in the sense of the things you saw and heard, etc.
Then there is the combination of the thoughts and feelings you had during and after an experience.
These could be positive (the overwhelming joy of seeing/hearing your child for the first time) or negative (the sadness, anger, and bitterness when an ex-partner broke up with you).
But since you want to let go of the past, we’ll assume they are negative.
Separating your emotions of a memory from the sensations of a memory allows you to work on those emotions without having to repress, avoid, forget, or change the sensation part of the memory.
Many of the points that follow will help you achieve this.
6. Take Control Of Your Thoughts
We’re not suggesting that you stop thinking about the past event every time it pops into your head – that’s the avoidance we spoke about earlier.
What we are suggesting is that you limit the amount of time you allow your mind to dwell on the past in any one instance.
You do need to remember the past in order to work through it, but you don’t need to do it all in one go.
So when you find your thoughts stuck on that experience you wish to let go of, tell yourself that you can only think about it for 5 minutes (or whatever length of time you are comfortable with).
After that time is up, you should divert your conscious mind to something else. Preferably something positive, but even the mundanity of day-to-day living will do.
Controlling your thoughts in this way prevents unhealthy rumination.
It also gives you a chance to feel and express the emotions attached to the past without letting them grow too intense.
You deal with the hurt and pain one bit at a time so that it is manageable.
7. Resist Thinking About The “What-ifs”
One thing you can safely block from your mind is those thoughts that drift into the realms of fantasy – the “what-ifs.”
When we experience pain or trauma, it is common for us to ask ourselves what we could have done differently to prevent such an experience.
What if you had treated your partner differently; would they have still been unfaithful?
What if you had watched your child more closely; would they have still had that accident?
What if you had taken a different route home that night; would you have still been robbed at knifepoint?
In truth, you’ll never know what the outcome might have been had you acted differently in a situation.
You did what you did. Other people did what they did. The event occurred.
No amount of thinking will ever be able to change that.
All it does it cause further emotional pain by weighing you down with the burden of blame and guilt.
You may also like (article continues below):
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- How To Let Go Of Anger: The 7 Stages From Rage To Release
- 16 Quotes To Help You Let Go Of The Past
- Life Isn’t Fair – Get Over It Or Get Frustrated. It’s Your Choice.
- How To Trust Again: Learning To Let Someone In Despite Past Hurt
- How To Stop Feeling Guilty For Past Mistakes And Things You’ve Done Wrong
8. Learn Any Lessons From The Event
This is going to sound confusing at first, but ask what lessons you can learn from the past.
You may be wondering how this differs from the “what-ifs” we told you to avoid above.
Well, lessons don’t seek to change the past. Lessons seek to improve your future.
You can look at the events you want to let go of and ask what you would do differently in future situations that are similar.
What could you do to avoid getting into financial difficulty again?
What could you do to not upset someone like you upset a close friend recently?
What could you do to prevent getting fired from a future job?
These are all examples of the next point…
9. Focus On The Positives That Came Out Of Past Negatives
When you look at who you are as a person today, you’ll see how the events from your past have shaped you.
Even those events that you wish had not happened.
Life is a struggle sometimes, and bad things do happen to people. That adversity can leave mental and even physical scars, but it can also leave you changed in ways that you might now be able to see as positive.
The shock of losing a life partner– especially if they died young – can be devastating, but it can also show you how strong and capable you are.
The stress of being made redundant at short notice and having a family to look after can be overwhelming, but it might have led you to reconsider your career choice and pursue something more in tune with your passions.
An illness or injury might have left you with long term health complications, but it might also have positively changed the way you view life and how you prioritize things.
Not all negatives will have a positive, but where they do exist, it’s worth looking for them and reminding yourself of them regularly.
10. Identify When Past Emotions Influence Present Actions
Learning lessons and identifying positives are two healthy ways to allow the past to influence the way you behave in the present.
What’s unhealthy, however, is to give past events the power to exert emotional control over your present mindset.
Let’s explain this with the help of an example.
Imagine your ex-partner dumped you out of the blue. It was hard to take because you loved them and you didn’t see any problems with the relationship.
Now, however, you have found love again with a new partner. But you are letting the shock and hurt from that past event impact your thoughts about this new relationship.
You start to believe that, in order to prevent getting hurt again, you should break things off before your new partner has a chance to.
Now, rationally, you can see that your new partner is a different person altogether and should not be treated as if they were the same as your ex.
But emotionally, you struggle to separate the past event from the present and a potential future where you get dumped again.
And so you allow those past emotions to influence the choices you make in the present.
The key is to identify where your thoughts, behavior, and choices are coming from.
Be honest: does the past have anything to do with it?
If you can say, hand on heart, that it doesn’t, you can either carry on with what you are doing or look for other reasons and assess them in isolation.
If you think there is even the slightest chance that the hurt and pain from your past is directly influencing how you think and feel right now, stop, take a deep breath, and reconsider what you are about to do.
This doesn’t mean you have to question every decision you make – that’s a problem in itself – but you should be watchful of any situation that has similarities with the past you are trying to let go of.
It is these situations where unresolved emotions can rear their heads and impact what you do.
11. Change Your Story
We all have a story that we tell ourselves and that we directly and indirectly tell others.
This is a story of who we are, how we came to be this person, and what our futures may hold.
Stories can be positive:
I’m strong, I’ve fought hard to get where I am, and I have big things ahead of me.
Or they can be negative:
I’m useless, life is against me, and there is no happy ending for me.
Pain and hurt from your past can lead you to create a negative story. It can define how you see yourself and your life.
But you have control over the story you wish to tell.
You don’t have to accept the story you’ve been telling yourself for all those months or years.
Your story is your mental projection of who you are and who you want to be. It’s up to you what that story is.
So to let go of the past, it helps to let go of the story that resulted from those past events.
Write something new; something positive and empowering.
12. Learn How To Forgive
Often, though not always, a painful experience from our past is caused, in part, by the actions of another person.
And while forgiveness is not always easy, it is an important part of letting go of the past.
Forgiveness is a process. It takes time.
But the benefits of forgiveness are not felt by the person being forgiven, but by you, the person doing the forgiving.
We go into much greater detail in our article on how to forgive someone, so check it out.
And keep this quote by Lewis B. Smedes in mind:
Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future.
13. Make New, Happy Memories
Often, our lives are dominated by just a handful of emotions that arise due to our present and our past.
If something from your past had a large and negative emotional impact, those emotions can linger for a long time.
One way to shift the emotional balance to something more positive is to make new memories that are happy.
These new memories allow you to look back with fondness rather than the sadness or anger or whatever it is you feel now.
Whilst new memories can’t erase old ones, they can create a more level playing field in terms of the emotional influence the past has on your present.
They can dilute the negativity associated with those parts of the past you’d like to let go of and help you to detach your emotions from those experiences as we discussed earlier.
14. Learn To Live In The Present
Remember that, in letting go of the past, we aren’t seeking to forget what happened. We just wish to reduce the impact it has on you today.
Maintaining your attention as best you can on the present moment is an effective way of doing this.
This is not the avoidance we warned against previously, but rather a tool to prevent the past from bleeding into your present.
You can still deal with past events in the present moment, but you do so objectively and with your thoughts and senses grounded in what is going on here and now.
In fact, focussing on how you are safe and well in the here and now can allow you to approach difficult memories more effectively.
In essence, you create a safe space for yourself to unpack that box and deal with whatever’s inside.
15. Make Plans For The Future
One way to prevent the emotional load of past events from dictating your life is to have one eye on a future that you’d like to come true.
By making positive plans for your future, you give yourself something to get excited about in the present.
More than that, you can consciously choose not to allow past events to influence your goals and dreams in a negative way.
They may still have an influence, but it can be one of positivity if you allow it to be.
For example, your past experiences of depression and other mental health issues could drive you to setup a charity to help others who suffer similar challenges.
Or, if you suffered neglect as a child, this could drive you into a career caring for people or animals who have no one else to look after them.
These plans don’t erase the hurt you experienced, but they can help to shift the way you view those events.
16. Speak To A Mental Health Professional
Some hurts from our past are too difficult to tackle on our own. Some hurts require the specialized knowledge of someone trained in the techniques used to work through them.
If you have tried and tried to let go of the past, but haven’t yet had much success, you ought to at least consider getting professional help.
They may be able to provide a more structured approach to addressing past trauma and assist you in working through it.
Even if you think the past experience is not something that should require this sort of help, don’t rule it out.
Most people could benefit from talking to a professional and if there is something from your past hanging over you, no matter how insignificant it may seem, getting help is a healthy choice.