We’ve all heard people go on and on about how life is full of ups and downs and if you want happiness, then you need to go through the sadness. However, what people don’t tell you is how to forget the past and move on with your life. The good things indeed follow the bad, but if you’re still fixated on the sadness, then you won’t be able to enjoy the happy things. So, the big question is how to let go of the past and be happy?
If you’re someone who can’t let go of the past, then you know that the crazy part about being stuck is that you’re self-aware enough to know that you need to move on but you just can’t seem to do it. It feels like you’re in quicksand where you can’t do anything to help yourself and you have to wait for someone else to come and rescue you. Well, we’re here to tell you that this isn’t true.
There are a lot of things you can do. Sometimes bringing about change needs that one push out of your state of inertia. To help you do that, we bring you some actionable tips on how to let go of the past, in consultation with Psychologist Ridhi Golechha (MA Psychology), who specializes in counseling for issues like loveless marriages and breakups.
Why Can’t I Let Go Of The Past?
Before we start to answer the question of how to forget the past and move on with your life, it’s important to understand the root cause of the problem. Let’s first understand why people can’t let go of the past – be it a bad breakup, a divorce, or even an accident? What is it about these sorts of experiences that hook the person’s psyche? Why are these the ones that stay while others fade away?
1. Emotional attachment
Intense emotional experiences create memories that are just as strong. Every time that that specific memory is triggered, you can experience the same emotions that you felt when that incident actually happened. These feelings intern keep the memory fresh. It’s a vicious cycle.
Here’s an example, we drive down so many streets every day without feeling bothered or connected to them. But the moment you get into an accident, then that ordinary street becomes impossible to drive through. It becomes a constant reminder of the event and it keeps triggering all the pain and fear that was attached to the experience.
Both positive and negative emotional memories are capable of making you feel frozen in the past. A positive past experience can make you feel bad about your present. The classic example of this is the “mid-life crisis” that people between the age of 50-60 go through. They become stuck in the good times of their past and try everything that they can to relive it.
Trying an entirely new “younger” look, doing things that they did in their youth, or buying a fancy sports car are just a few examples. They’re trying to be happy but in doing so they’re going against their reality which almost always ends in disaster. So, if you’ve wondered how to let go of your past and why it is so hard to do so, the answer may be hidden in the emotions associated with your past.
Related Reading: 5 Ways Midlife Crisis Affects Your Marriage
2. Nostalgia of the past
You know that annoying song that gets stuck in your head and just won’t leave, a thought loop is the same thing but instead of a song, you have a memory stuck in your head. After a breakup, there’s typically a phase where you recall every romantic gesture and every amazing date you ever had with your ex.
The nostalgia of the past has a way of whitewashing memories that represent the mistakes that we’ve made like an error in judgment or a bad decision. Somehow, the pain and agony of the experience get minimized, and we only focus on happy, vibrant memories. They play on a loop like a broken record which makes answering how to forget the past and move on with your life quite difficult.
This partially stems from our survival instinct. We try to avoid the things that can cause us pain. However, we’re also wired to learn from our mistakes. Sadly, this requires us to remember all of our bad experiences, it’s the only way that we can analyze and learn from them.
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3. Deviation from the plan
A lot of time, memories that are etched into our minds are usually bad, terrifying ones. Like being bullied in school, being scolded by your parents, or even getting lost in the mall. These negative experiences leave their mark because they are tougher to wrap your head around. They are never a part of our plan.
Ridhi says, “People get fixated on the past because they feel like they’ve already created a script in their head about what their life should look like. People like having control and certainty. When they lost that, they struggle with adjusting their idea of “how it should have been” and are not able to let go of that internal controlled dialogue. They’re not able to accept change.”
You remember that one time in school when you were sitting in class just waiting for the bell to ring when suddenly the teacher called on you to answer a question. You just end up standing there stammering while your entire class stared at you until finally your teacher just gave up and told you to sit.
Even though it was just a couple of minutes it probably felt like an eternity. As it so happens my younger sister, Haley, experienced this at the beginning of second grade. Since then, she is terrified of talking in front of a crowd.
Any incident where you got embarrassed is an experience that changes who you are. As a kid, something like what happened to my sister is embarrassing but as you grow up every single decision or opinion has the potential to be an embarrassment. Even something as simple as watching cheesy love movies turns into something that you hide from others. This is because as we grow up our “superego” develops leading us to care more and more about how we come across, as a person, to other people.
Now think if you actually did blunder in your life – like maybe you passed on a job offer that could have changed your life or you chose to date someone who ended up being a not-so-good person – such decisions can make you question your entire life right down to the brand of cereal you like to eat. It is in no way easy to let go of past mistakes and the shame that they make you feel is a huge reason for this.
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How To Let Go Of The Past – 8 Expert Tips
As we’ve understood, getting stuck in the past is pretty complicated. By now you’ve probably understood if and why you’re fixated on a specific part of your past. Before you start healing you need to remember that admitting this in no way makes you weak. Don’t put yourself down with such negative self-perceptions.
All your admission proves is that you could be a meticulous person, a perfectionist, a survivalist, a sensitive, and above all smart person who doesn’t want to repeat past errors. So, the big question now is: how to forget the past and move on with your life? How to let go and be happy again? Here are 8 exercises to let go of the past, as recommended by our expert:
1. Let go of the victim mentality
How to forget the past and move on with your life? Many people who struggle with this question have been through traumatic experiences in their past. They’re tired of the emotional baggage and want to get on with their life but just don’t know how to. This is because they see themselves as victims of bad circumstances. Their go-to idea is that life has dealt them a bad hand and there’s nothing they can do about it.
Letting go of this thought process is your first step to recovery. So, something bad happened to you in the past, you’re still standing, aren’t you? You’re here which means you did something right in your past. That makes you a survivor. The only way to handle tragedy is by growing stronger.
Instead of thinking about the trauma, think about how worse it would have been if you hadn’t done whatever you did back then. You’re not a weak victim who lets things happen to them instead you’re a fighter who stopped things from getting worse. Be proud of your past; it made you who you are today.
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2. Expand your understanding of yourself
The answer to how to let go of the past and be happy lies in understanding yourself. Being someone who can’t let go of the past, it’s likely that you tend to be hard on yourself. You expect more from yourself and that’s why you feel guilty about making mistakes.
Ridhi says, “People need to tell themselves that at the time of their mistake whatever information and resources that they had were all they could use to make a proper decision. Today, when you look back you know more, you have more experience, and only when you retrospect you can find mistakes. You need to go easy on yourself and understand that you did the best you could within the limits that were imposed on you.”
Show yourself some compassion and self-love. After all, you know that the past wasn’t easy and you were young. Expand your view of analysis and see a bigger picture. Instead of just analyzing your own actions take the actions of others and the circumstances into account when you look back.
Related Reading: 7 Signs Self-Hatred Is Ruining Your Relationship
3. Live in the moment
The past can be very gripping sometimes, like a siren’s call. The present is very tough because as you grow, life becomes unpredictable and cruel. In these moments, the memories of happier times can be a welcome relief. A perfect relationship, glory days of fame, or even the memories of a loved one who has passed can feel better than the life you’re leading now. This makes finding an answer to how to let go of the past and be happy very complex because you don’t want to give up the past yet.
This is escapism. Instead of facing your reality the way it is, you’re choosing to run away from it and hide behind fleeting moments of happiness in the past. So then how to forget the past and move on with your life? What you need to do is make your present better by changing your way of life. Remodeling your present where you’ll be dealing with many unknown variables is tough. You never know what will go wrong and when, and that’s scary. But running away from it isn’t the answer.
4. Learn from the past
A bad experience has only two silver linings: one it can be a great story to tell in the future, and two, it can be analyzed so that something similar to it can be prevented in the future.
As we discussed before, learning from our past mistakes is the way we were created. Possibly, the reason you can’t let go of the past is that there is something left for you to learn from it. So, if you’re asking the question of how to forget the past and move on with your life, then the answer may well be to use the past to turn yourself into a better version of who you were.
Ridhi recommends, “Constantly learn new skills in order to learn from the past mistakes. For example, if you’ve made a very bad career decision in the past, then ask yourself what you want your future to look like? The answer obviously will be that you want to steer your life in a different direction.
“Then by incorporating the skills that you didn’t have in the past into your present self will help you make your future different from your past.” Keep developing your skills and make yourself better than you were yesterday.
5. Meditation and visualization
If you’re struggling with how to let go of the past mistakes, you need to focus on getting over errors that you made and stop blaming yourself for the consequences. There’s a chance that you’re fixated on emotions like anger, disappointment, hatred, and regret that came as a result of your actions.
This negativity is what leads to the past resurfacing and you need to find a way to let go of the resentment of your (or someone else’s) actions. Ridhi says, “The worst thing that people do is that they hold on to regret and that is what is not allowing them to make peace with their mistakes.
“The daily habit of meditation, where you are visualizing the mistakes you made, look at them from an observer’s perspective and then allow them to burn away like a piece of paper can be liberating in such circumstances.” This way you can come to terms with the experience and move on in your life.
6. Feel it and forget it
We, humans, are good at rationalizing. When we’re going through a rough patch, we tend to rely on logic to get a better grasp on the situation and shove the emotions aside. These emotions linger until they are acknowledged. Be it sadness, anger, despair, or even fear, your emotions need to be felt.
Logic can help you understand and justify your feelings but it will not make them go away. This is one of the reasons why your past might haunt you, your feelings haven’t gotten closure. Feel the emotions that bubble up to the surface when you think about the past. If you’re angry, then use different methods of catharsis like:
- Screaming into a pillow
Crying works for sadness and fear as well. You can also maintain a journal where you can write your emotions out. The approach you use can vary, depending on your preference, but getting these troubling emotions out of your system is an important step in how to let go of your past.
Related Reading: Here are the issues that cause resentment in a marriage
7. Give back
Getting perspective when you’re at the center of the situation is hard. Because you are in the thick of it, you can never know for sure what needs to be done. Sometimes you bombard yourself with so many solutions that there is no way to choose one. Other times you might know the correct option but you won’t have the courage to implement it. Either way, you’re stuck in your past error which makes moving on from it impossible.
The best way to gain perspective in a situation like this is by helping someone else who is going through something similar. When you help someone by giving them advice, you indirectly help yourself gain perspective on your own problem. Even if you’re not able to resolve your own past, solving theirs will help you gain closure.
8. Get help
After reading all these exercises to let go of the past if you still can’t move on in your life, then seeking professional help might be the correct option for you. Years of repression can make thinking about the past very painful especially in the case of an abusive past.
Having a safe space where you can talk your problem through is very beneficial. You can seek out a Bonobology counselor or licensed therapist who can help you gain a better understanding of your past.
With their training, they will be able to lead you in the right direction on how to let go and be happy again. Remember you are in the eye of the storm and if getting out requires help, then there is nothing wrong with that.
Related Reading: Relationships And Lessons: 4 Things You Can Learn About Yourself From Past Relationships
So, there you have 8 tips on how to let go of the past and be happy from a professional in the field. If you’re the one who’s stuck, then try considering these, and if you’re trying to help out a friend, then encourage them to do the same. Remember you’ve already taken the first big step toward moving on, which is admitting that you’re stuck.
The second big step is to actually want to move on from the past. Accepting what has happened as a part of who you are will help you carry on. We hope this will help you. All the best!
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