Do you often find yourself dwelling on past mistakes? Or regularly think about negative past experiences, feeling all those emotions that you did at the time? You might be living in the past, so to speak.
Many people find it hard to let go of the past and find themselves holding onto situations, people, or mistakes. It’s human nature to focus on the negatives sometimes. This is often called rumination.
Rumination means dwelling on negative thoughts and experiences, sort of like getting stuck in a pattern of overthinking. An article from the American Psychological Association explains that rumination can lead to issues with thinking clearly, problem-solving, mood, and can even cause problems in relationships with others.
When you’re living in the past, it means you aren’t fully enjoying your life. You aren’t making the most of what’s happening in the present and enjoying new experiences. You can’t progress if you are ‘stuck’.
So, what can you do about it? There are lots of ways you can free yourself from the past and move forward.
1. Face Your Feelings
Before you can move forward, you first need to face your feelings. This can be difficult, and as a result a lot of people bottle up their feelings or avoid fully addressing difficult memories. Unfortunately, avoiding them stops you from healing and getting on with your life.
It’s time to acknowledge and accept what’s happened so you can process it properly. Your feelings are valid, but you need to really feel them before you can overcome them.
If you are struggling with past trauma or just don’t feel you can do this alone, you might need the help of someone else to process things. You could turn to someone you trust or seek professional help. There are lots of types of therapy that can be beneficial.
2. Deal With Unresolved Problems
If you’ve been avoiding problems from the past and they are still left resolved, you might be able to resolve them. This won’t be possible for all situations, but if you can, proactively resolve problems so you can move on.
You might be able to communicate with people who are still in your life to resolve any issues between you, for example. You may be able to apologize to someone you’ve wronged or correct a mistake you made.
Don’t worry if this isn’t possible for your situation: you can still move forward. We’ll talk about that later on.
3. Focus On What You Can Change
There’s no point dwelling on things you can’t change (although that’s easier said than done). Instead, try to let go of what you can’t change, and focus on what you can have an influence over.
Be proactive in changing things in your life that you aren’t happy with. Work towards what you want your future to be. Work on yourself and be the best version of yourself.
4. Forgive Yourself
We all make mistakes, it’s part of being human. There’s no one on this earth who hasn’t made a mistake in their life. It doesn’t make you a bad person, or a failure.
Holding onto a sense of guilt or being harsh with yourself for getting something wrong isn’t productive. It only makes you feel worse and keeps you stuck in the past.
Try to forgive yourself for past mistakes. Accept that you aren’t perfect, and that’s ok. Understand that making mistakes is how we learn and grow as people.
5. Forgive Others
Some people find it difficult to forgive others for how they’ve hurt them or wronged them in the past. You might find you’re holding onto a grudge, or find yourself feeling angry, hurt, or betrayed when you think about what they did.
While these feelings are valid, once you’ve processed them it’s time to let them go. If you can, work on forgiving the people who wronged you. You could speak to them directly or if it’s more practical, just choose to forgive them in your mind.
Forgiving them doesn’t mean that you understand what they did or that you feel sorry for them. It doesn’t mean that they were in the right.
Instead, it frees you to move forward, rather than continuing to allow their negative actions to affect your life.
This article from John M. Grohol, Psy.D. explains that: “forgiveness isn’t saying, “I agree with what you did.” Instead, it’s saying, “I don’t agree with what you did, but I forgive you anyway.”
6. Give Yourself Closure
On a similar note, so often people are stuck in the past because they didn’t get the closure they needed. A relationship or situation may not have ended the way you expected or wanted, and you find yourself waiting for that closure.
Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to get closure from another person. They may no longer be around, or they may not be in an emotional place to give you what you need. So, instead, it’s time to give yourself the closure you need.
Accept in your mind that this situation is over: it wasn’t perfect but that’s ok. You can move forward with this acceptance, and allow yourself to ‘close the door’ on the situation.
John M. Grohol, Psy.D. states that: “Making the conscious decision to let it go also means accepting you have a choice to let it go.” He goes on to explain that realizing you have this choice is empowering and allows you to take back control.
7. Take Lessons With You
Even negative experiences and mistakes can have an upside: they can teach us lessons. They can teach us what to avoid, what we don’t want to do, and how to improve our life moving forward.
Try to look for the lessons from the past and take them with you, using them to shape your life moving forward. Take your good memories and the happy times with you, and leave the rest behind you.
8. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is all about being present in the moment, so it makes sense that it can help you to let go of the past and focus on what’s happening right now.
Research shows that mindfulness can help people to be more present, reducing rumination and helping them to be kinder to themselves.
There are lots of ways to engage in mindfulness, for example, meditation, visualization, breathing exercises, mindful eating, mindful movement, and more! It has so many benefits, which you can read more about here.
You don’t need any fancy equipment to get started, and you don’t have to set aside a ton of time each day to gain the benefits of mindfulness. Even five or ten minutes of mindfulness a day can be helpful.
9. Be True to Yourself
You can work on being true to who you are right now, in the present. Build your confidence and work on being the best version of yourself.
Learn and grow as a person, so you can be proud of who you are. This is far more productive than spending time feeling negative about ‘who you were’ in the past.
10. Make the Present Count
Make your present somewhere you want to be! Make it count by doing things that make you happy and surrounding yourself with positive people. Find purpose, for example, a job or a hobby that you feel passionately about.
Treat people as you would want to be treated and act in ways that you are proud of. Try to take care of your health, prioritizing both your physical and mental health. Have new experiences and step outside of your comfort zone.
All of these things can make your sure your present is filled with joy and makes you proud, ensuring it’s far more worthy of your attention than the past.
11. Set Goals for the Future
It’s not just the present that counts, you can also plan for your future. Setting clear goals gives you something to aim for, helping to motivate you and keep you focused on moving forward. It can also give you something to look forward to, which helps with a positive mindset.
Leslie Riopel, MSc. explains that setting goals for your future: “helps trigger new behaviors, helps guide your focus and helps you sustain that momentum in life.”
12. Tackle Negative Thoughts
When you find yourself thinking negatively, work on actively stopping those thoughts and gently bringing your attention back to the present. You could use some simple mindfulness exercises, such as grounding techniques to help you focus on the present moment.
Here’s a fantastic, quick grounding technique that can be useful:
If you find yourself focused on a negative memory, something that I find helpful is thinking about how far you’ve come since then. You can also try to find something positive that came out of that situation, for example, something you learned from it. Another option is actively thinking about a positive memory instead.
By consistently tackling negative thoughts you can train your brain to stop focusing on negatives and be more present.
13. Build Confidence
Building your confidence can help you to be happy with who you are now. There are lots of ways you can do this, including using positive affirmations, dressing in a way that reflects your personality, and being around people who build you up. Check out our article on how to improve your self-confidence for more guidance.
14. Empower Yourself
Remind yourself that it’s your life and you are in control. You can decide what you want your life to be and shape your future. If there are things in your life you aren’t happy with, you have the power to change them.
Life coach Stephanie Eissinger explains: “Self-empowerment in its simplest form means taking charge of your own life through the decisions you make every day.”
15. Be Patient With Yourself
Understand that the journey to stop living in the past isn’t linear. You might have setbacks and you might struggle at times, but that is completely valid. Keep trying your best and be patient with yourself, and you’ll get there. Be kind and gentle with yourself along the way.
You Can Stop Living in the Past
Although it’s hard, you can stop living in the past and instead, fully enjoy your life in the present! Don’t miss out on precious moments because you’re so busy dwelling on memories. Life has so much to offer you!
1. Bridget Murray Law, (2005), “Probing the depression-rumination cycle”. American Psychological Association, Monitor Staff, November 2005, Vol 36, No. 10.
2. John M. Grohol, Psy.D., (2014), “Learning to Let Go of Past Hurts: 5 Ways to Move On”. Psych Central.
3. Jayne Leonard, (2021), “How to let go of the past”. Medical News Today.
4. Leslie Riopel, MSc., (2021), “The Importance, Benefits, and Value of Goal Setting”.
5. Stephanie Eissinger, (2015), “What Does Being Self-Empowered Really Mean?”