Letting go of the past isn’t easy – especially when we are hardwired to hold on to certainty – but doing so isn’t helpful. Psychologist Stanislava Puač Jovanović explores nine ways you can learn how to let go of the past for good and move forward with your life.
Letting go of the past is one of the toughest challenges most of us face at one point or another. Sometimes we hold on to relationships that are long gone. We miss our loved ones who have passed away and cannot accept the fact that they are now our past. Other times, we might cling to our previous successes and fail to see that we are no longer at the top of our game. Very often, we cannot let go of grudges and past hurts.
If you once had a dream, an ambition, a plan that now does not seem to be realistic, you know how hard it is to let it go.
However, holding on to the past — be it bad or good — makes you unable to live in the now. It limits your possibilities for growth and transformation. So, how can you let go of the past — and why should you?
Why can we not let go of the past?
You’ve probably had your share of letting go of the past. We are inevitably exposed to losses as time and events pass. We do not want to — and often do not know how to — let go of the past. Yet, the reality of living forces us to.
Among all the material and immaterial things I had to let go of, I found the hardest thing to give up was my past Self. When I was 28, I made a surgically-precise cut from my life (for the wrong reason). I simply removed myself from absolutely everything that once comprised my existence; I sold my apartment and all my stuff, moved to another country, cut ties with all my friends, quit my hobbies, abandoned ambitions and interests, changed my habits. I bestowed my thoughts and memories to a person who crudely distorted them and imposed a foreign perspective into my mind.
Long story short, seven years later, I have found that I cannot get all that back. Little of my old life could be restored for one reason or another. Most importantly, I have changed. And I have realised that I painfully miss some parts of my old Self.
After that realisation, I spent another year sorely yearning to feel like I once used to. I felt that letting go of the past at that point would mean that I had forsaken any chance of feeling like myself again.
What I experienced is backed up by scientific findings. Research confirms that we tend to hold on to things because they feel like parts of our identities. If we let them go, we might lose ourselves. I know I have feared this option often.
In a series of experiments back in 1990, Baumgardner, a known psychologist, revealed that the more we know ourselves, the more we like ourselves. So, maybe you know yourself as a person who is in a relationship with a certain person. Or, you might define yourself as someone who has ‘that’ specific job — even if you hate it. Then, if you let go of those things, who will you be, who are you? And will you like yourself?
In other words, no matter how horrible an experience we may be living, it is something we know about ourselves. For this reason, we usually do not know how to let go of the past. Indeed, we are wired to cling. It feels familiar. It feels safe. Humans need certainty, and much of our institutions, tradition, religion and interaction revolves around this need. This is why the art of letting go is so difficult to master.
How to let go of the past: nine tips
When you decide it is time to refresh your mind and embrace letting go of the past, you might find yourself short of skills to do so. Where to begin? How to let go effectively? Here are nine tips to help you master letting go of the past and making it your new life philosophy.
1. Journal or talk to someone
Sometimes we are too much in our heads to be able to let go. I have often found that things I hold on to remain powerful because I keep them in my mind in some intangible form. As soon as I talk about them or write them down, they begin to lose the control they have over me.
When we try to give our emotions enough structure to be communicated or written down, we start analysing them using higher cognitive processes. We take them out of a purely affective area. Often this is enough to help you see the clearer picture and recognise that you are ready to release the past and move on.
2. Abandon the need to be the rightful hero
When we get hurt by someone (or wronged by life’s unfairness), we might ruminate about it for months, years even. And when we mull over the insult repeatedly, we strengthen its effect on us. It becomes more important — a part of who we are. We put the hurt at the centre of our experience. As a result, we expose ourselves to the risk of becoming depressed, as brain imaging studies have determined.
“We are wired to cling. It feels familiar. It feels safe. Humans need certainty. This is why the art of letting go is so difficult to master.”
Therefore, letting go of the past means stopping the efforts at being the hero, the rightful one. Yes, you were mistreated. Make peace with it and move on.
3. Do not let others define you
We sometimes do not know how to let go of the past because we feel that others did something to us. So, we expect others to fix it, too.
However, the art of letting go is, at the same time, the art of regaining control. You can choose how you react, no matter what others do and what happens to you. You decide when it is enough and when you will move on.
4. Become an optimist
Research has found that humans are more inclined to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive. Furthermore, the more we focus on something, the more it becomes our habit of thinking and seeing it in ourselves.
Stay optimistic for the future shutterstock/asife
So, it follows that it’s more beneficial to develop an optimistic outlook. Use the Pygmalion effect and start creating an appealing future for yourself. It will make letting go of the past much easier, because you will have something better to move towards.
5. Forgive yourself
One of the hardest obstacles when letting go of the past is forgiving yourself. Even when you manage to release grudges against others, a residual self-blame might stop you from truly moving on.
So, you made a mistake — picked the unsuitable person as a spouse, chose an unfulfilling career, misjudged situations and took the wrong path. That is all right — we all err. Accept it and move on. Because the one mistake you are making right now is not letting go of the past. And that is one thing you can change right now.
6. Build the capacity to be present
Practising mindfulness, or being present in the moment, is a vital skill, especially when it comes to releasing the past. However, at the same time it is one idea many of us find difficult to build. That’s because lots of people are focused either on the past or the future.
Build your ability to be mindfully present in the now. With time and practice, your mind will acquire the habit of recognising where (and when) your life truly occurs and the past will stay where it belongs.
7. Create distance from the past
Letting go of the past might seem impossible simply because you remain too closely involved with its reminders. My father used to compare similar situations to having your hand stuck in a meat grinder while all you do is take painkillers; until you remove your hand out of what is causing the pain, you are not really doing anything to solve the problem!
Therefore, whenever possible, consider ways to create a psychological or physical distance from the past events, relationships or situations you need to let go of. Perhaps you need to move away from an area to avoid a past lover or estranged family member. Or maybe stop going to that bar you used to love hanging out in with your (ex) best friend. Not being taken back to that place all the time will help you let go of the past.
Create distance from your past and move on shutterstock/24Novembers
8. Recognise that letting go of the past means growth
When I was having a hard time letting go of the past, it was because I feared losing myself. I practically deleted my life and lived that way for years. After I was done with that, understandably so, I had a strong need to get my old Self back.
“Letting go of the past might seem impossible because you remain too closely involved with its reminders. Consider ways to create a psychological or physical distance from the past events, relationships or situations you need to let go of.”
However, after some time, I realised: my old Self had disappeared. And this is all right. Some parts did survive and resurfaced after I recovered. They make up my psychological core. Others are forever gone. Still, I ought not to mourn them forever. Nothing ever stays the same — nor do we.
So, instead of sticking to the past and grieving, embrace change as growth. Take your experiences and transform them into something greater than who you were before.
9. Create empowering rituals
When you are learning how to let go of the past, creating empowering, healthy rituals can help you. Engage in self-care. Eat healthily, sleep well, exercise, read, meditate. Love and praise yourself. By doing so, you are building your confidence and a sense of being deserving of good things coming your way. You will start living mindfully and looking forward to the future with confidence and curiosity — instead of being stuck in past experiences.
Letting go of the past to embrace the future
Learning how to let go of the past is not an easy task. Prepare to be challenged every time you face the necessity to do so. Indeed, your inborn psychological make-up will probably strongly oppose letting go of the past. That’s because we like to hold on to things, experiences, and people — even when they are undoubtedly bad for us.
However, when you manage to rewire your mind and learn to surrender the past when the time comes to do so, you learn to live life to the fullest. How? By opening yourself up to the opportunities. To what comes next. To growth. So, start today. What have you been latching onto that needs to be set free? •
Main image: shutterstock/Song_about_summer
Written by Stanislava Puač Jovanović
Stanislava Puač Jovanović has a master’s degree in psychology and works as a freelance writer and researcher in this area. Her primary focus is on questions relating to mental health, stress-management, self-development and well-being.