The past is behind you for a reason. If you’re sick of living in the past, you have to take steps forward. The past may be part of your reality and you don’t need to forget about it, but getting stuck there can keep you from feeling peaceful inside. You don’t need to fight that battle anymore.
The first steps forward can feel strange, even exhausting. Change takes work and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the process. You developed habits that are keeping you stuck, but they didn’t show up overnight.
Take your time and relax your grip on the past. Let it gently slip through your hand as you turn toward your future. Use this guide to help you find ways to start living life to the fullest.
1. Stir Your Creativity
Old thoughts, old habits, and old feelings will keep you stuck in the past. Instead of beating over the same path again, wake up your world and stir up your creativity.
Try a new kind of expressive activity, and do it with a friend so you’ll stick with it. Create some simple art or complete an easy do-it-yourself project. Learn a new skill like repairing things around your home or painting a room.
It may not seem like these activities have much to do with letting go of the past. But it’s important to experience learning new things. Start with something fun like horseback riding lessons, or useful like learning to repair a flat tire. Once you get used to the awkward moments when you’re learning new things, you can more easily face other uncomfortable situations in your life.
2. Take Off the Rose-Colored Glasses
Nostalgia is a mix of emotions, memories, and a desire to re-experience them. No matter how real they may feel, memories are an inaccurate record of your past. Memories can get fuzzy over time, and these changes can be hard to detect.
Your memories are tinted with nostalgia and may be cherry-picked to represent an overly positive picture. Even if you had a pretty good childhood, it wasn’t perfect. Things were confusing, scary, surprising, and pretty dull sometimes. Those golden memory moments may come from real events, but they don’t represent the majority of what happened.
3. Name the Emotions That Trouble You
Painful feelings can feel like a tangled mass of raw nerves. Instead of letting them lurk in the dark corners of your mind and body, bring them out into the light. When you can call them what they are, your emotions may not feel as intimidating or powerful. Naming your troubling emotions can allow you to choose a helpful response more easily.
Shame is a particularly uncomfortable emotion to confront, but you can move through the pain and learn to cope with it in safe ways. It’s much easier to do so when you can understand shame better and how it works, and to know that others have managed shame before. When it bubbles up inside, you can respond in a way that helps instead of hurts.
4. Feel Emotion From Past Wounds
When you remember that pang of embarrassment or the stab of betrayal from your past, you may be tempted to shut that feeling down. It’s understandable and normal to want to run away from something painful like that, and who wouldn’t?
Unfortunately, the problem with this approach is that you keep having to run away over and over for it to work. You may end up causing more problems by trying to escape or cover up upsetting feelings, even perhaps turning to substances or risky behavior to keep yourself distracted.
Facing emotions doesn’t always feel good. It may feel like you’re walking right into the fire by allowing your emotions to hang around for longer. But once you express and feel them for a while, you can step back again and soothe yourself. By experiencing your emotions again, you can learn new things and take a different perspective. These new experiences can help you move through your difficult experiences of the past, but it doesn’t work if you close the door on them.
5. Move Away From Martyrdom
If you let the past hold you prisoner, your mindset can be tainted with martyrdom. You become the victim of events that can never be undone. If you get too comfortable with this mindset, you can struggle to find contentment. You may find yourself looking for situations that allow you to be a victim instead of pushing through difficulty.
Instead, acknowledge that something from your past hurts. Name the feeling that you keep experiencing and how it comforts you to feel like a victim for a moment. It’s important to understand why you are drawn to this mindset before you can empower yourself to move away from it.
Perhaps being a victim allows you to seek attention or reconnect with someone. Maybe you feel loved when someone tries to make you feel better. Learn what motivates you about this mindset and identify healthier ways to get attention, reconnect, and feel loved.
6. Allow Negative Thoughts to Flow By
When negativity takes over your mind, your thoughts can flow like a raging river. You can get swept up and overwhelmed without much warning. While it’s not realistic to control all the thoughts in your mind, you can learn to step out of their way for a while. When you’re calm, try the exercise below for a minute or two.
Close your eyes and visualize your thoughts as an actual raging river. Watch your thoughts turn and tumble as they flow by in front of you. As you continue visualizing this scene, create some mental separation between you and your stream of thoughts. Don’t try to block or interrupt the flow, just observe. If a negative thought tries to stick in your mind, acknowledge it and let it go like catch-and-release fishing.
7. Learn How to Appreciate the Present Moment
When your mind’s eye is focused on the past, you might be overlooking countless opportunities in the present moment. Don’t live in the past, because you may miss moments of happiness all around you. Comparing today to what could or should have been in the past can blind you to what is currently around. At times when you don’t know what to do or are caught in a negative cycle of thoughts, it can be helpful to pay attention to the present and what is around you.
Start small by taking notice of nature. Find a patch of plants or trees near your home and pay attention to the details. Make yourself look beyond what you normally see. You can also try being more present by breathing slowly for a few minutes. Listen to your breath and focus on what your body feels like. The more practice you get being in the moment, the more easily you can break away from old mental traps.
8. Accept the Events From Your Past
Fighting against your past can put you at odds with reality. You may struggle to accept what happened because you aren’t ready to believe it. By trying to move on from traumatic loss or shameful abuse, you may have to be prepared to accept the truth. Looking at the past as simply the past also requires you to step out of any comforting fantasies.
Accepting events from the past can be a long and emotionally difficult process. With the support of family and friends, you can face reality and embrace it. You may feel overcome with a flood of emotion at first. But in time, you may find your feelings are easier to live with. You’ll feel at peace more often than not, and you can release yourself from the grip of your past.
9. Focus on Things You Can Influence or Control
Being in control feels empowering, but you need to know your limits. People often make the mistake of trying to control things that aren’t under their command. They get the illusion that they have more power than they really do. So when something inevitably goes wrong, they get upset and try desperately to put the illusion back in place. This can become a vicious cycle, which can drain precious emotional and physical energy.
The key is to focus on what you can control and let go of the things you can’t. It’s a simple idea, but it can be so challenging to pull off. Here are two lists to help you get started.
Things you can influence or control:
- Your choices
- Your body (sometimes)
- Your thoughts
- Your feelings
- Your focus
- Your priorities
- Your energy
- Your attitude
- Your commitment
- Your things (such as sentimental items that connect your past)
Things you might influence, but can't control:
- Other people’s choices
- Other people’s thoughts
- Other people’s feelings
- Other people’s priorities
- Other people’s attitudes
- Other people’s behaviors
- The economy
- The weather/earth
- Random events in the world
Move Forward and Live in the Present
Not sure what to do when you’re stuck in the past? It’s normal to feel confused or frustrated when you know you aren’t fully living your life.
Take a breath and your first step forward. If you feel like you can’t move quite yet, find some songs about moving forward to inspire you. Loosen the chains of the past and learn to live in the present moment.
If you're looking for more ways you can start living in the present, read our guides on how to start living in the moment if you're feeling anxious and how to write your life story.
- Moon, Mandy. “Hindsight Isn’t Always 20/20: The Dark Side Of Nostalgia.” Reporter, December 29, 2015, reporter.rit.edu/views/hindsight-isnt-always-2020-dark-side-nostalgia