How to Let Go of the Past

Train your mind to let sad experiences slip.

Posted Feb 13, 2020

How often do you feel that you can't move on? No matter how hard you try, you are living in the past. Like you are carrying a heavy burden that gets you stuck. 

"Let go," your friends tell you. It sounds so simple, yet feels so hard. You can't stop holding to a grudge or a betrayal. Every time you want to move on, the past captures your undivided attention

Rumination is a curious habit. It's like binge-watching bad movies on Netflix. That's what happens when we can let go of the past. We make sad stories play nonstop. The more we watch our life's movie, the more it hurts.

What if I tell you that it's possible to stop the rumination process? But, first, let's understand why we get stuck. 

Stop Losing Yourself into the Past

If we can't change the past, why do we continue to live it? 

According to neuroscience, the brain handles negative and positive information differently. Negative experiences require more thinking and, thus, are processed more thoroughly. This causes our brains to become better at remembering adverse events. 

Reliving sad memories makes us feel like a hamster in the wheel — no matter how hard we try, we can't move forward.

You can't change how your brain works. But you can train yourself to get off of the hamster wheel. That requires cutting the emotional attachment we have with the past, especially negative experiences. 

We usually have a hard time accepting that someone hurt us. Recognizing an unhappy ending makes us feel weak and embarrassed. 

Eckhart Tolle -the most popular spiritual author in the United States, according to the New York Times- once said, "There is a fine balance between honoring the past and losing yourself in it. You can acknowledge and learn from the mistakes you made and then move on. It's called forgiving yourself."

You get the point. To move on, you have to reframe your relationship with the past.

How to Stop Ruminating

1. Stop trying to be the hero of your story

We've all been hurt. It's sad and embarrassing — no-one wants to look weak. That's why we construct our idealized version of the past. And blame others instead of taking ownership for what happened. 

Everything in life has a beginning and an ending. You don't need to continue rehashing your past to keep it alive. Make peace with the end, especially if it was ugly, and move on. 

2. Don't let others define who you are

Blaming others when things go wrong makes us lose control. We are letting them define the terms of how we live. 

You can't control what other people do, but you can control how you react. Focusing on what people did (to you) is a distraction. Regain control of what you can manage and choose to live life on your own terms, not someone else's. 

3. Learn to forgive yourself

When something goes wrong, we tend to blame ourselves, too. We have a hard time accepting that we make mistakes and let our perfectionist mindset take over

Did you make a mistake? Fine, we all do. Learn to forgive yourself. Errors can be corrected. Mistakes are not a final destination but a stop that prepares us for the journey. We must learn from them and continue moving forward.

4. Don't let your problems define you

When we get so stuck in a problem, it becomes hard to separate the event from who we are. According to Eckhart Tolle, we also create and maintain problems because they give us a sense of identity

Your stories shape you but don't define your identity. Don't let a bitter experience become who you are. Letting go of a past story makes space for new ones. Focus on the here and now and become at peace with yourself

5. Build a Teflon mind

All our struggles stem from attachment. We are so in love with someone that we can't separate the 'me' from the 'we.' We are so passionate about our careers that we let our job titles define our identity. 

There's nothing wrong with loving someone or our jobs. The problem is when we are so attached to them that the fear of losing them doesn't allow us to enjoy them today. 

Ajahn Brahm explains the idea of "Teflon Mind" in this humorous and inspirational talk. The British-Australian Buddhist monk advises that the best way to let go of something that hurts is not to let it stick first. 

Letting go of the past is not forgetting what happened, but to let go of our expectations. We don't suffer because a relationship ended. We suffer because we wanted it to last forever. 

Instead of letting broken expectations get stuck in your mind, honor the positive experiences-- both past and present.

Let go of attachment

Most people can't let go of the past because they don't appreciate their present. Reframing our relationship with our past requires us to stop thinking of how things should be and accept them for what they are.

As Dalai Lama said, "Attachment is the origin, the root of suffering; hence it is the cause of suffering."

Letting go of the past doesn't mean that things weren't good while they lasted. It's about remembering the good moments instead of allowing an unhappy ending cloud the whole experience. 

Want to let go of the past? Start by appreciating what you have here and now: your present.