You’ve probably heard the familiar adage that in order to truly move forward in life it's important to let go of the past.
This is much easier said than done.
Letting go of the past involves having command of several things, not the least of which includes immense self compassion, the ability to trust yourself and live in the present moment.
In all reality, letting go of the past is a lot of work. And, it's an ongoing process.
If you’re interested in starting the process and learning how to let go of the past, there are some simple steps you can take to get started.
What Does "Letting Go of the Past" Mean?
For the purposes of our discussion, “letting go” means no longer allowing yourself to dwell on moments in your past that cause you distress or pain.
Letting go of the past is about acknowledging that these memories are uncomfortable or distressing.
It means that instead of focusing on them and letting them influence or consume your present and future thoughts, feelings or actions, you choose instead to release them.
By doing so, you redirect your focus to the present moment and from there, look forward to the future.
Letting go of the past can be as simple as forgiving yourself for a mistake that you made yesterday instead of beating yourself up about it.
Or it can be as hard as letting go of negative thought patterns ingrained in you from a bad relationship in your history.
Why is Letting Go of the Past Important?
Life is uncertain.
On some level we are all fully aware that life is short and that even carefully laid plans can be usurped at any given moment.
All we truly have is the present moment.
In order to be fully present in the now, we must let go of the past.
If you're consumed by your past, it is impossible for you to be fully “present”.
You have probably experienced this at some point— going for a walk in a beautiful place but not really being fully aware of it all because your mind, your attention, was focused elsewhere.
You may have been concerned about something that had happened in the past or worried over some future event.
Ultimately, letting go of past moments that are gone and no longer in your control, instead of maintaining a neverending grasp on them, has the power to transform your life.
Letting go can help you feel happier, allow you to be more focused, and feel more in touch with reality.
You may have heard before of mindfulness techniques.
At the very heart of mindfulness is the idea of immersing yourself in the present moment.
If you find you are having a hard time detaching yourself from something that happened in the past, whether a misfortune such as your car breaking down or a bad breakup, it can be helpful to practice a simple mindfulness exercise to help you.
Check out the exercises at the end of the article for some easy examples to get you started.
What is “Dwelling on the Past”?
Dwelling on the past is the act of focusing on past events, so much so that it colors your current mood and affects your present moment.
Replaying an embarrassing moment from a few weeks ago over and over in your mind, holding a grudge because of something that may have happened years ago, or hearing the negative and destructive voice of a past abuser (even when they are no longer part of your life) are all examples of dwelling in the past.
Dwelling on the past is ultimately harmful because it can make you form limiting beliefs about yourself and your abilities which in turn limits your present and future.
Dwelling on the past takes us out of the present moment and prevents us from living our best life in the here and now.
What is Forgiveness?
Very simplistically, forgiveness is a conscious decision to let go of something that hurt or wronged you in some way.
Ultimately, forgiveness allows you to stop dwelling on the past.
It's not just about repairing relationships, but more importantly it is also about allowing you to move on from something that hurt you.
1. Letting Go of the Past - How to Forgive Others
Letting go of the past is impossible if you don’t forgive others.
But forgiveness is often extremely difficult because of overwhelming feelings of anger that we might have towards those who have wronged us.
There are two main ways to forgive others. The first involves an ongoing open discussion in which the parties in a relationship are aware of and acknowledge that one or the other has been hurt, and decide together how to move forward.
This works best for long-standing friendships and minor, “forgivable” hurts.
This type of forgiveness allows for a continued and often strengthened relationship between those involved.
In many of the hardest situations, this kind of reconciliation is not possible.
You might have betrayals or hurts from years ago that still linger.
In these cases it can be hard to deal with the intense anger when it seems there is nowhere for the anger to go.
You might wonder how it could be possible to forgive someone that harmed you YEARS ago and whom you never see anymore.
You might wonder how it is possible to forgive something truly unforgivable, like a betrayal of trust, breach of privacy or emotional abuse.
This is where the second type of forgiveness comes into play.
In this type of circumstance, you aren’t forgiving to repair a relationship but rather to let go of your own anger and allow yourself to move on.
Forgiveness, especially in this scenario, is ultimately for you, as it allows you to let go of something poisonous and caustic, leave the painful past behind and walk into the future.
You can forgive and still decide that someone should not be in your life.
This method of forgiveness is for past abusers or false friends, or other people who you’ve decided to remove from your life.
This is a much harder type of forgiveness, as it involves letting yourself forgive “unforgivable” offenses, and to close a chapter in your life without the emotional closure that involves acknowledgement or apology from the individual who hurt you.
It is important to allow yourself to reach a point where you can forgive those who have mistreated you, even if that means you will never see them again or never “forget” what they did.
This type of forgiveness allows you to stop dwelling on the past and move on.
One tangible way to work through this type of forgiveness is to write a letter to the person who hurt you.
The intention is not to actually send it, but to allow you to express your feelings and any anger and hurt so that you may truly put it behind you.
It can also be helpful to recognize that forgiveness is a process that often takes some time, especially to forgive some of the worst offenses.
Although it may take a considerable conscious effort, forgiveness is utimately essential in allowing you to let go of the past.
2. Letting Go of the Past - How to Forgive Yourself
You may find it easier to forgive others than to forgive yourself. Surprise.
This is a very common feeling, especially among those of us who are particularly empathetic.
However, forgiveness starts with you.
In order to truly forgive and move forward, you must cultivate a sort of self love that allows you treat yourself as you would a close friend.
Try extending the same kindness to yourself that you would show your best friend.
What would you tell them?
Whatever it is that you are struggling to forgive yourself over, pretend you were consoling a friend struggling with the same guilt.
This is one of the easiest ways to start the process of forgiving yourself.
3. Letting Go of the Past - How to Move Forward
Sometimes the challenges life throws at us seem insurmountable, and moving forward feels utterly impossible.
But nothing is insurmaountable.
From the loss of a loved one to the discovery of a chronic illness to struggling with mental illness, the fact is you are still alive and here on earth no matter what the hardships with which you've dealt.
With God's grace, you are an incredible amalgam of atoms that has gotten through all of this to where you are right now.
But, you must move forward.
Using mindfulness techniques, such as those at the end of this article, can help put you on the path to moving forward and learning how to “be” in the present moment.
If you have suffered a severe trauma, it can be extremely beneficial to seek professional help through therapy.
Therapists can help you move through complicated and difficult times, and figure out how to start the process of moving forward after a life-altering event.
4. Letting Go of the Past - How to Let Go of Past Hurts
Our bodies really do keep the score.
Unless you do the work to actively let go of past hurts, the emotional scars they cause end up being carried with us through life as a result.
And, those emotional scars can and often do manifest themselves in our physical health or lack thereof.
It is important then to recognize the power of corrective experiences in healing trauma.
Corrective experiences are experiences we encounter, and because of things that have happened in the past, we expect those experiences to have a negative outcome.
But what happens is we actually receive a positive outcome.
(I know, it's a little confusing. Let me explain.)
An example would be if you, as a child had always been criticized for singing in the car.
But then, as an audult, you find a friend or have a partner who not only doesn’t mind you singing in the car, but actively enjoys it and comments on it positively.
This would be a corrective experience.
Focusing on these positive experiences in the present moment, that correct the negative experiences of the past, can be exceptionally helpful in letting go of past hurts.
5. How to Reconcile Hurt Feelings
It is extremely important to be open and honest with those you love.
If a close friend or loved one has done something to hurt you, it is vital that you tell them and make them aware of the situation instead of bottling it up.
This can be easier said than done, as this may make for an uncomfortable situation especially for those of us that dislike any possibility of confrontation.
However, in order to foster the kinds of strong and healthy relationships that you truly want, it's important to exert genuiness and honesty and that includes being truthful about your feelings and emotions.
If the person who has hurt you is really worth keeping in your life, they will be willing to recognize and acknowledge your hurt and their part in it even if the hurt happened a long time ago, and should want to make amends.
Sometimes, the best and kindest thing two people can do for each other is realize that a relationship, whether it be friendship or romantic in nature, isn’t going to work out and let the other person go.
6. How to Let Go of the Past in a Relationship
In any relationship, both people involved within it are constantly evolving and changing.
And in a world where no one is perfect, this means that inevitably both people will make mistakes.
Acknowledging this growth and change is key to maintaining a healthy relationship over the long term.
This means that holding things against each other that might have happened years ago is toxic to the relationship and keeps it from flourishing.
If something big has happened, like a betrayal of trust involving cheating or dishonesty, professional help can be sought to start the process of repairing the damage done to the relationship and moving on together from such an event.
If it’s something simpler like a misunderstanding or miscommunication, it may be best to either let those things go or talk them out if something remains that needs to be resolved.
Ultimately, a relationship is one aspect of life that benefits most from you living in the present moment.
Letting go of the past issues, hurts or mistakes is something both members of the relationship need to do in order for the relationship to flourish and grow, be healthy and strong.
7. How to Let Go of the Past and Trust Again
Trust is extremely difficult to rebuild once it's been broken.
If you have had a breach of trust in a relationship, or find it hard to trust a new person after a past toxic relationship, it is important to engage in mindfulness practices to help you to let go of these negative feelings.
Especially with issues of trust, it can be helpful to work through the specifics of how your trust was broken with a counselor or therapist and make a plan for building corrective experiences into your life that will enable you to get to a place where you are comfortable to trust again.
Letting go of the past is difficult, but ultimately vital in helping you live the life you truly want.
Negative feelings about past events that you cannot control simply way you down and keep you from being in the present moment.
Try some of the exercises we've outlined below to jumpstart your journey to letting go of the past.
Exercises for Letting Go of the Past
8. How to Let Go of the Past and Live in the Present
This exercise will help you get in touch with the present moment and gently let go of negative thoughts and fears.
Set aside 5 minutes.
It is helpful to set a timer the first few times so that you can stay fully focused until the timer rings.
Find a comfortable seated position and close your eyes.
Draw your attention to your breath, and the feeling of it entering and exiting your body.
Try to keep your attention with the breath and with the feeling of it coming in and leaving your body.
When you notice your mind start to wander, as it inevitably will, don’t get frustrated and angry with yourself for failing to clear your mind.
Instead, gently let go of that thought by returning your attention to the breath, and thus the present moment.
If you have a particularly hard time focusing on the sensation of the breath, it can sometimes help to repeat a simple mantra to yourself such as “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out” or even something as simple as “in breath, out breath” or even “in, out”.
After the 5 minutes are up, reflect on how you feel in your body.
Does the sensation of your breath feel more vibrant?
Are you feeling calmer?
Simply take note of how you are feeling without passing judgement.
Try repeating this exercise every day for a week and notice how it gets easier.
9. How to Let Go of the Past and Be Happy
Mindfulness can extend to more than just focusing on the breath.
Once you have practiced this idea of gently returning your attention to the breath, you can try a more complicated exercise.
This exercise will help you to find happiness in the present moment by letting yourself explore without judgement or dwelling on the past.
Go for a 15 minute walk around where you live.
Try to focus on the world around you, the sky and the air and the trees.
When your mind starts to wander, return your attention to something around you, whether it is a dog walking by or a particularly tall blade of grass.
Let your attention stay wherever it wants to around you in the physical world.
You will find that you naturally gravitate towards the things that make you happy.
Maybe you will find yourself wandering into a bookshop and stroking the spines of books, or you’ll walk to a dog park and observe the joyous play and activity of the dogs.
Notice how you feel being surrounded by the present moment, and allow happiness to fill you.
If walking isn’t your thing, you can try this exercise in all sorts of spaces— on a train, in the shower, even while commuting to work.
10. Letting Go of the Past - How to Let Go of Anger
It is important to let yourself express your anger in a healthy way.
Bottling up anger causes us to erupt at unfair and inopportune moments, creating conflict.
A good first step when confronting your anger is to give yourself time to evaluate what needs to be done.
Anger is a powerful emotion, and some of us will feel the urge to act immediately.
However, it can sometimes be much more helpful to do something restorative and just let yourself exist with the anger for a bit.
Take 30 minutes for yourself.
Ask yourself what might help diffuse some of the sting of your angry feelings.
You might decide to go to the gym or go for a walk or run.
Or you might try taking a bath or shower to help you relax, give yourself some quiet time to allow your anger to diffuse and give yourself some needed emotional space.
You could try painting, journaling or some other art form to viscerally let out your emotions.
While doing this, try your best to keep your attention on what you are doing.
When your mind wanders to what you are angry about, recognize the anger and then bring your thoughts back to the task at hand.
How do your muscles feel, or how does the paint smell?
Once your body has relaxed a bit from the anger, then you can begin to evaluate whether what you are angry about is something you can control or whether it is something you should simply let go.
If it is something you can control, begin to figure out an action plan for how to reconcile your anger, such as talking with a manager, friend or partner.
If it is something you cannot control, try to focus your energy into the present moment as you have just done in this exercise.
11. How to Let Go of the Past and Forgive Yourself
Think back to a painful mistake you made in your childhood.
Try to pick something that isn’t too raw, but definitely still stirs emotions, such as a painful rejection or a particularly acute failure.
Now imagine that this is happening not to you, but to a small child.
For truly, it did happen to a small child.
That child is you.
Imagine how you might comfort this upset child if she were your own child or the child of friend.
What would you say to her?
How would you comfort and encourage her?
You may even choose to write down the things that you might say in order to comfort the child.
Now, try saying those things to yourself and notice how you feel.
This exercise can help you on the path to cultivating a kind, loving inner voice to soothe and forgive yourself when you need it most.
12. Letting Go of the Past - When all else fails, pray about it.
I firmly believe in the power of prayer.
It has helped me too many times out of too many situations that I thought were insurmountable.
And let's face it...When you're trying to let go of the past, especially when dealing with issues of betrayal and hurt and anger, some of that “stuff” is incredibly hard to deal with, get over, get past and work through.
So I encourage you to try prayer.
It doesn't have to be a long, drawn out, dramatic kind of thing.
Prayer is simply a conversation.
It's just that in this case, you happen to be talking to the Creator of the universe.
I've undergone my share of life situations where I've had to learn to let go of the past.
They were not easy life lessons.
But what I have learned s that letting go of the past allows you to be able to rid yourself of a terrible burden.
The past is often a tremendous weight that we carry around with us for much longer than we were ever meant to.
And when you can finally let go, you wonder why in the world you carried it around so long in the first place.
You feel so much lighter, freer, better.
Let go of the past that's troubling you.
Leave behind the hurt and pain and anger.
Get on with your life and discover the multitude of good things in store for you not only today, but as you move on into your future.
Have you ever had to let go of the past? Tell me about it in the comments.Read More