Letting go of the past can be challenging. However, accepting your feelings, including anger, and making a commitment to let go are among the steps that can help. Counseling can often provide a safe space in which to do this.
Events that people found difficult can have a significant influence on their daily life, from their beliefs to the decisions they make. Some examples of past events that can be difficult to let go of include:
- intimate relationships
- perceived successes or failures
- mistakes or regrets
- events that were upsetting or disturbing
However, there are ways to address the lingering effects of past experiences. This may involve practicing self-compassion, trying mindfulness as a way of focusing on the present moment, or seeking therapy to explore unresolved feelings.
This article will look at how people can let go of past traumas and hurts, why doing this can be difficult, and some tips for specific situations.
Life experiences affect people in a variety of ways. Some people find it easy to move on after a difficult experience, while others find that these experiences have a lasting impact on their mental health.
People who struggle to let go of specific events from the past may have experienced trauma. Trauma is a kind of psychological wound that can result from any distressing experience, such as loss, danger, or deep embarrassment.
Often, people associate trauma with being involved in a violent event, such as war. However, it can affect anyone. The distress it causes can also change how people think.
Some people experience rumination, or a tendency to think excessively about the same things. According to an article in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology, people who ruminate often have a history of trauma and believe that ruminating helps them gain insight.
However, rumination may actually make it more difficult to solve problems, thereby preventing people from moving forward. It is a common feature of depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
People can also hold onto the past for other reasons. For example, they may long for positive experiences that are now over or dwell on past events because of an unconscious desire to avoid being hurt in the future.
The following steps may help people begin to move on from troubling memories, such as past mistakes or regrets.
Make a commitment to let go
The first step toward letting go is realizing that it is necessary and feeling ready to do so. This can happen at different times for different people, but once someone makes this decision, it can be empowering.
Feel the feelings
Memories of past events can bring up complex or strong emotions. Allowing oneself to feel those feelings unconditionally, without trying to fight or fix them, is an important step toward processing what happened.
This can be difficult, so it may help to express these feelings in a safe place, such as in a journal, with a trusted friend, or with a therapist.
If relevant, it can help people who feel guilt, embarrassment, or shame about the past to take responsibility for their role in the event. This does not mean blaming oneself, but simply acknowledging what happened and taking ownership of past actions.
This can help people feel less helpless and feel that if they can take responsibility for the past, they can do the same for the future.
Mindfulness is a skill that encourages people to focus on what is happening in the present. This can help people who struggle with rumination.
One 2016 paper suggests that people who are more mindful experience less rumination and are more likely to be compassionate toward themselves.
Some ways to practice mindfulness include:
- noticing small joys, such as the taste of a delicious meal or the warmth of the sun on the skin
- spending time in nature, bringing attention back to the environment whenever the mind wanders
- engaging in mindful, creative hobbies, such as drawing or playing musical instruments
- practicing mindfulness meditation
There are many ways to meditate. Beginners trying mindfulness meditation can try:
- sitting somewhere quiet, with no distractions
- closing the eyes and taking several deep breaths
- focusing on inhaling and exhaling
- when thoughts of the past come up, simply allowing them for a moment before returning the focus to breathing
This continual process of returning to the present is the basis of mindfulness. Some may find it helpful to visualize their thoughts floating away, while others may prefer to repeat a phrase that reminds them of the present.
Self-compassion involves treating oneself with kindness, care, and forgiveness.
People can practice self-compassion by changing their self-talk. This involves noticing when their thoughts become critical and replacing them with more forgiving alternatives. Keeping a self-compassion journal can be a good way to practice this skill.
It can be particularly difficult to let go of relationships, as humans form deep attachments with each another.
In addition to the above tips, people can take additional steps to let go of a relationship, such as:
- temporarily or permanently limiting contact with ex-partners
- reducing reminders of them, such as by hiding them on social media
- setting and respecting boundaries
- spending time on self-care and personal growth
- focusing on what is possible outside of the relationship
According to psychologist Dr. Gary W. Lewandowski, Jr., older research suggests that thinking about positive aspects of a breakup may help minimize feelings of loss. For example, after a relationship ends, some people may be able to pursue new goals, such as traveling, getting a pet, or finding a new career.
People who have been in unhealthy or abusive relationships may require additional support with letting go, as trauma bonding can occur. Trauma bonding refers to having an unhealthy attachment to a person who has treated someone abusively.
Feelings of unresolved anger, betrayal, and resentment are common among those who struggle to let go of a past event. Anger and resentment can also occur in the aftermath of trauma or as an associated feature of PTSD.
Some additional steps to take to manage this emotion include:
Expressing anger in a safe way
Some people feel hesitant about expressing anger. However, psychologist Dr. Howard Kassinove states that anger and aggression are not the same. While anger is a feeling and physiological state, aggression involves taking action on those feelings — often in a way that causes harm.
It is possible to express anger in a safe way. For example, people can try:
- writing about their feelings on paper and then throwing it away
- expressing their feelings through art, music, or other creative hobbies
- engaging in exercise or sports, such as running
People with anger as a result of trauma or PTSD may benefit from additional trauma therapies.
Being open to forgiveness
The topic of forgiveness is controversial among people who have experienced wrongdoing, such as betrayal, injustice, or abuse.
However, the National Domestic Violence Hotline emphasize that forgiveness does not mean condoning the harmful actions of others or accepting their apologies.
Instead, forgiveness can mean accepting that someone’s actions were damaging while also letting go of anger in order to benefit one’s own well-being.
It can take time to work toward forgiving others or forgiving oneself. It may involve processing emotional pain, understanding what caused it, and thinking about what it would take to forgive.
Those who feel the need to control many aspects of their lives may do so because they struggle to trust themselves or others. They may have had adverse experiences that created a fear of uncertainty, causing them to feel that the only solution is to control events as much as possible.
Learning to let go of control may involve:
- identifying why the need for control exists and exploring beliefs surrounding what happens if one “loses” control
- identifying feelings or events that trigger the need for control and thinking of ways to cope with them in a healthier way
- practicing letting go of control in small, manageable steps, such as by delegating a task to somebody else
- beginning to make decisions based on love, rather than fear
Over time, this may help people prove to themselves that they do not need to control things in order to be happy or to solve problems.
If letting go of the past is proving challenging and negative thoughts and emotions persist for weeks or months, people can consider seeing a therapist.
There are many types of therapy, including some low cost options for people who need them. Some common forms of therapy include:
- acceptance and commitment therapy
- cognitive behavioral therapy
- mindfulness-based stress reduction
People with experiences of trauma or PTSD may also benefit from therapies such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.
Letting go of the past is not always easy, particularly if a person has experienced emotional pain that is unresolved. However, there are ways to move on from the past and improve one’s mental health in the process.
This could include finding a safe space to process difficult feelings, cultivating self-compassion, and practicing mindfulness in order to be more present in the moment.
With time, memories from the past can become easier to deal with.