Do you find yourself lingering on painful memories? Do you replay scenes from your past in your mind over and over again wondering how it could have unfolded differently? Do you ever feel haunted by regret? If so, you’re not alone.
There’s no point dwelling in the past, and yet, so many of us do it. You can’t change what has already happened, but you can choose not to let it define you or your future. Most of us know this, but leaving the past behind is a lot easier said than done. While it’s fun to reminisce about the good times, your past shouldn’t hold you back from being fully present in your life.
Unburdening yourself from your past may feel impossible at times, but it can be done. In this article, I’ll explore reasons not to dwell in the past, why you should strive to live in the present moment instead, and a myriad of strategies for putting your past behind you.
Why you shouldn’t dwell in the past
Until the day that someone invents a functioning time machine, you can’t go back and change the past. Time and energy spent ruminating on past events is ultimately futile. While you should absolutely feel your negative emotions and take the time to process any trauma or devastation that happens to you, it does no good to linger over it forever.
Studies found that dwelling on our past mistakes can negatively affect our present behavior. When we focus on our faults, we start to believe a self-defeating narrative about ourselves. Mistakes are a natural part of being human. Instead of torturing yourself by mentally replaying your errors on repeat, rewrite the perspective of the story. View every mistake as a valuable lesson. Learn from it instead of letting it hold you back.
Research shows that our thoughts about the future are based on past experiences, but it’s important to let go of the past to make room for new possibilities. Those who struggle with an inability to move beyond past events often get stuck. They are unable to imagine a better future for themselves.
A study on mood and mind-wandering found that the sad episodes tend to be past-oriented. Most of the time, when our mind wanders back to the past, we do it with sadness.
However, revisiting the past isn’t always a bad thing. Remembering positive memories from time to time can actually be beneficial for us.
Why it’s okay to cherish the past sometimes
Recalling past experiences is a normal part of life. In fact, studies show that remembering the past is actually crucial to our memory functions. Memories are a core element of our sense of self. They provide meaning to our lives and the opportunity to learn from our experiences.
Revisiting the past can even be therapeutic sometimes. Reminiscence therapy has been used in geriatric mental health care for over three decades. It is often used to help patients suffering from dementia and depression. Older adults who reminisce about moments of happiness tend to mentally adapt better to old age.
It’s no secret that our happy memories can help us in times of stress and difficulty. According to this 2017 study, positive reminiscence evokes positive emotions that have a restorative and protective effect on our brain in the face of stress. Those who recall happy memories tend to be more resilient against exposure to stress.
The importance of being present
Although reminiscing about happy times can enhance our well-being, this doesn’t mean you should live in the past. Time doesn’t stop because you can’t leave your past behind. If you spend all of your time in a recurring loop of past events, life will continue to pass you by. Since time waits for no one, it’s essential to stay firmly rooted in the present.
Being mindful of the present moment is widely believed to contribute to happiness and overall well-being. A clinical study of cancer patients reveals that an increase in mindfulness minimizes the effects of stress and reduces mood disturbance.
Similarly, a study found that being fully present for life’s experiences generates positive emotions and improves our psychological health. To enjoy life to the fullest, you actually have to be present for it.
How to leave the past behind
I’m not going to sugarcoat this for you. Leaving the past behind is hard–especially when it’s tinged with pain and regret. Nonetheless, you can’t let your past determine the rest of your life. Here are a few strategies to help you move forward instead of backward.
1. Cry it out
Never underestimate the power of a good breakdown. If hurtful memories from your past relentlessly haunt you, it might be helpful to allow yourself to fully and openly feel any emotions attached to them. In the same way that suppressing negative emotions is harmful to you, suppressing negative memories just amplifies the pain.
Crying, on the other hand, is extremely cathartic. As someone who cries all the time and advocates for others to freely cry, I can confirm that it helps tremendously to ease the pain. And science agrees. Researchers have confirmed that crying releases feel-good chemicals such as oxytocin that ease emotional and physical pain.
Contrary to societal belief, crying is not a sign of weakness. A good cry is nothing to be ashamed of. Real men do cry, and with all these benefits, they definitely should.
2. Take responsibility for your healing
If someone has hurt you in the past, it can be difficult to move on. Though you absolutely have the right to be angry and hurt, it’s important to not let that terrible moment define you. You are so much more than the bad things that have happened to you.
You are responsible for your life. You can’t keep blaming somebody else for your dysfunction. Life is really about moving on.Oprah Winfrey
You are not responsible for the actions of others, but you are responsible for their impact on you. You’re responsible for your own healing, and the actions you take after someone wrongs you. You, alone, have the power to move on from your pain. It may be difficult, but don’t you think you owe it to yourself to at least try?
3. Embrace your mistakes
Unless you’re some sort of perfect human being, chances are, you’ve probably hurt someone in the past. It may or may not have been intentional, but you’re human. We’re a species that learns by trial and error. We’re bound to mess up every once in a while.
Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.Maya Angelou
There’s no use in reliving your mistakes over and over again in your mind. It does nothing to alleviate the pain you may have caused someone else. The fact is you cannot change what happened, but you can choose to accept it and learn from it. To embrace your mistakes, you could try to:
- Focus on the next best step. If you hurt someone else, ask them for forgiveness, and ask if there’s anything you can do to remedy the situation.
- Look for the lesson. Mistakes are the best teachers. Learn from them and avoid repeating the same ones in the future.
- Forgive yourself.
- You might even learn to laugh about yourself.
4. Try something new
An effective way to let go of the past is to focus on the new. Specifically, focus on creating new, positive memories. There is an endless variety of experiences to try in this world. Instead of spending your time stuck in the past, spend it on trying to make new, amazing memories.
Here are a few memorable activities to try:
- Go on an adventure somewhere you’ve never been.
- Learn how to cook a new recipe.
- Sign up for a lesson for a hobby you’ve always wanted to try.
- Learn a new language and travel to a country with its native speakers.
- Try a new cuisine.
If you want more, here is an entire article about trying something new with its many benefits. Remember to relish every moment of pure bliss that finds you. In the face of a new, wonderful memory in the making, slow down. Take a deep breath, and take it all in.
5. Forgive those who hurt you
If someone said unspeakable words to you, cheated on you, or abused you, the last thing on your mind is forgiveness. The idea of forgiving someone who hurt you deeply might sound ridiculous. Forgiving them doesn’t make what they did to you okay. It doesn’t necessarily mean they deserve your forgiveness either.
But try your best to forgive them anyway. Forgive them for yourself. Your health literally depends on it. Forgiveness offers numerous benefits for your physical health. Studies have found that the act of forgiving someone can:
- Reduce pain, blood pressure, anxiety, depression, stress, and the risk of a heart attack
- Improve cholesterol levels and sleep quality
Forgiving isn’t something you do for someone else. It’s something you do for yourself. It’s saying, ‘You’re not important enough to have a stronghold on me.’ It’s saying, ‘You don’t get to trap me in the past. I am worthy of a future.Jodi Picoult
Last but not least, forgive yourself. Forgive yourself for every wrong and every fault. Forgive yourself again and again. You deserve your own forgiveness as much as anyone else does.
Here's another article specifically about how to practice forgiveness daily.
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Your past belongs in the past. There’s no point in dwelling there as your life continues on without your complete presence. While reminiscing about happy moments is beneficial for humans, recalling hurtful or shame-ridden memories has the opposite effect. To experience life to its fullest potential, it’s best to leave your past behind and focus on the present moment. You know what they say, there’s no time like the present.
What do you think? Do you find it hard to leave the past behind and move forward? Or do you want to share a specific tip that has helped you in the past? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!