It can be hard to let go of painful memories. There are moments in life that can feel branded in your mind and you don't know how to erase it.
Moments like experiencing a heartache, suffering a loss, or other kinds of emotional pain or suffering. Tragedies like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina.
The emotions can be so intense you feel like your stuck holding on to the past. You get in a cycle of ruminating over and over again.
Neuroscience has discovered in recent years that it's a part of how the brain works. We process negative experiences more than we process positive ones. Perhaps it's the emotion tied to the situation that keeps us dwelling on these bad moments.
As humans, just about all of us are going to deal with being hurt at least once in our lives. While you can’t always forget the things that you’ve seen or heard, you can learn to accept it.
It is possible to be at peace with all of your past circumstances and be able to enjoy the present more. Here's how you can let go of your past and move forward.
Tips for letting the past go
1. Let go of being the hero or the victim
You don't have to create a version of the past that makes you the hero or the victim. People can sometimes think of their past in heroic ways to avoid a sense of weakness about it.
People can also sometimes think of their past in a way that makes them the victim. It can make people feel justified in continuing to look back in anger about things that happened. The better approach is to just acknowledge the facts of what happened and leave it at that.
2. Use positive affirmations
Speaking calming and encouraging affirmations out loud or in your mind can help relieve the burden of your past.
Think of it as programming yourself to see and experience you reality in the way that you desire. A reality where you're not constantly dwelling on past events because you've reached a point of acceptance.
3. Don't be defined by others
There are two ways you should not let others define you. First, don't let others define how you live through constantly blaming them for your problems.
Be a person that takes responsibility for how good your life is regardless of the past hurts you've dealt with. Secondly, don't let others define who you are based on what they know about your past.
Some people will continually dismiss the growth and progress you've made in life. Do your best to focus on the new person you're becoming, and block out the noise of those who are unwilling to see that.
4. Distance yourself
Sometimes there are certain people, places, and things you just need to get away from. Reminders that you need to avoid so you can be able to focus on having a fresh start.
Not being around those things that make you think about the past will make it easier to let it go. As the old saying goes, out of side, out of mind.
5. Don't be defined by your problems
None of us amount to our best moments in life or our worst moments in life. Our story is a totality of good and bad.
You don’t have to let one bad moment in your life be your defining moment. Choose to think of what you’ve done after that bad moment as what defines you. As you do better, you’ll be better able to let go and be grateful for your past.
Related: How to Overcome Anything in 2020
6. Practice regular mindfulness
A part of letting go of the past is choosing to focus more on the present. Being mindful is all about focusing and being aware of the now.
One study in the British Psychological Society found that mindfulness was an effective coping mechanism for workplace rumination. You can learn more about how to be mindful in this article: What is Mindfulness?
7. Recognize everyone makes mistakes and forgive yourself
One reason we can struggle with letting go so much is because of our mistakes. We have a tendency to make the things we’ve done look worse than they actually were. Of course, sometimes we have done really bad things, but still, so many others have as well.
As that old phrase goes, “To err is human, to forgive divine”. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Instead, forgive yourself for your past mistakes. Maybe you can write a letter to yourself apologizing for the choices you made, and that you will commit to making better choices for yourself in the future.
8. Realize it’s not always your fault
Sometimes we blame ourselves unnecessarily for certain events in our past. In particular, with tragic circumstances, it’s very common to get into guilt-ridden thoughts of what ifs.
What if I’d talked to that person more, what if I’d been there sooner, what if it’s my fault. Sometimes things happen that are just outside of our control.
You can let go of any guilt you have about a situation by choosing to conclude it’s not your fault. The tragic events that you didn’t literally make happen are not your fault. You can unload the heavy burden of guilt from your shoulders and let go of your past.
9. Remember it’s not going to change
No matter how often you think about a circumstance in your life you regret, it’s not going to change. You might rerun that moment over and over in your head, but you’re still going to see the same ending.
Perhaps you owe it to yourself not to torture yourself in this way. You’ll never completely forget negative moments in your life.
There are some events in my own life that still appear in my mind to this day. The good thing is, as time passes, it is possible for those memories not to come up as often. In fact, they might even completely fade away.
10. Find perspective and see the bigger picture
It may help you to look at your past in perspective. Maybe you just didn’t know any better when it comes to the negative things that happened. The bigger picture of it all is that you do know better now, and perhaps you’ve even done a lot better.
It could be possible that your current reality wouldn’t have happened if your past was different. Re-framing your circumstances in this way can be really useful to letting go of your past.
11. Do better
You can either let your past discourage you, or you can let it motivate you to do better. Maybe you did make a big mistake in your life.
Take that big mistake and make it fuel your determination to do even better than you’ve ever done before. You can decide in your mind that you’ll do everything you can to never make those mistakes again.
12. Face your demons
In some cases, it can be useful to face your past head on. Perhaps you can go back to the place where the negative event happened.
Think of a way you could create a new positive memory in that place, or maybe just go there and sit for a while. You could meditate and try to feel a sense of peace in that location. It may allow you to look back at that past event with a little more acceptance.
13. Let it all out
Having emotions bottled up can sometimes hold you back from letting go of the past. As painful as some feelings can be, letting them out may give you the release you’ve been needing. There are a number of ways you can let it all out. You can use creative outlets such as playing music or painting.
One emotional exercise I’ve seen on television shows are people shouting or screaming to the top of their lungs. Find some kind of physical act you can do as a way to express or release those emotions you’ve been feeling.
14. Do a symbolic act of letting go
People have used symbolic acts for many years to help them let go. One such example is the balloon release.
You fill up a balloon and hold on to it for a few moments. The balloon represents a negative moment in your past.
When you let the balloon go and float it in the air, it can be a symbolic way you let go of the bad thing that happened. Some people choose to attach notes to the balloons as well, writing out those emotions they’re letting go of.
15. Forgive those who hurt you
Staying mad at someone can really keep you stuck in the past. You’re holding on to that past negative feeling, which prevents you from opening your hand to grab new positive feelings.
Maybe there’s someone that popped into your mind right at this moment as you’re reading this section. Decide now that you’re going to choose to forgive that person for what they did to you. Let go of the anger you once had and choose to move forward with no bitter feelings towards that person.
16. Seek forgiveness from those you hurt
On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you’re holding on to something you did to someone else, seek forgiveness. You may not always get forgiveness from the people you hurt, but if you can offer a heartfelt apologize to them, it can still help you move forward.
You never know if someone maybe holding on to that past hurt you might have caused them. It’s possible in apologizing, you can help them let go too.
17. Accept it’s a part of your life
We don’t always get to write our story exactly the way we want. Unexpected events happen and we’re left wondering why sometimes. You can do what you can to make the best out of the situation after the fact, but ultimately you also have to accept it’s a part of your life.
It’s not all of your life, but it is one part of your story, and that’s okay. Some of the great life stories of our time involved people having very low moments that eventually led to moments of greatness.
18. Plan for the future
The future days and weeks in your life will eventually become a part of your past. If you plan your future and execute it well, you can set yourself up for future moments of happiness that will become positive past moments you’ll cherish.
Letting go of your past isn’t just about not focusing on the negative moments, but trying to focus more on the positive moments. It can be a lot easier to do if you set yourself up to have more of them.
19. Write down your emotions
Writing down your emotions is another useful way of releasing those emotions. You can detail all the thoughts you’re having about those past negative moments.
As you write them out more, those thoughts may decrease in your mind. It can get easier to not dwell on them so much.
20. Have a support group
Whether it’s family, friends, or a local support group, find people to talk about your past with. Everyone’s had a past they’ve had to learn to live with.
Maybe they can offer you some good advice on how they were able to do it. At the very least, they can encourage you to keep trying and be there to support you as you get better at letting go.
21. Talk to a mental health professional
If all else fails, finding a mental health professional to talk to can help you sort out all of your emotions related to the past. They can potentially offer you some tools and exercises that will help you to move forward and enjoy your life more again.
Why is it hard to let go of things?
It’s hard to let go sometimes because some of the emotions associated with them are very painful. All we can do is try our best to soothe those emotions, focus more on the present, and plan for better moments in the future.
How do you let go and live in the present?
You can let go and live in the present through meditation, yoga, or doing other activities that force you to focus on what you’re doing. It might help you get you out of your head.
How do you stop letting the past affect you?
You stop letting the past affect you by learning to accept it and choosing to live a happy life in spite of it. Of course, it’s not always bad to let the past affect you.
The past can affect you in positive ways too. It can cause you to do better and be better. The key thing is to not let the past affect you in a negative way.
Always find a way to make the past affect you in a positive way. Remember that your low moments in life don’t have to cause you to feel guilt and discouragement.
Believe you can find your way to let go of any past hurt. Be determined to find a way to be happier through what you learned from those experiences.