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Feeling stuck in the past? Here’s how to move on

Letting go can be difficult, and we all find ourselves fixating on the past sometimes.

Whether it’s a relationship, a recurring thought, or a negative experience, learning how to move on is the only way to let go of the past and embrace the possibilities of the present.

Here’s our advice on how to let go, to help you find closure and make a fresh start.

Hand on windowsill behind a window while it's raining outside

Identify the unresolved issue

How to let go of something or someone that makes you feel bad is one thing, but the reason why you’re struggling is another. What is it about that conversation you keep replaying in your head or that hurtful thing your schoolmate said ten years ago that keeps you up at night?

Try the five whys technique to get started. The method is simple: when thinking about the unresolved issue, ask yourself “why” five times. You’re looking for the reason it’s still bothering you. This method will help you drill down to the root of the problem.

For example, if you keep thinking about that time you got laid off five years ago:

  1. Why does it bother me? Because that felt unfair.

  2. Why does it bother me? Because I didn’t expect it.

  3. Why does it bother me? Because I thought I was doing a good job.

  4. Why does it bother me? Because I feel like I should have known they were unhappy with my work.

  5. Why does it bother me? Because that means that I’m not good enough and it really hurts.

You might find out that the situation or person you’re struggling to let go of really triggered something inside you. Maybe, it appeared to confirm a fear you have about yourself or made you feel judged by other people.

Knowing what the real issue is here can help you to move on.

Allow yourself to feel

If you’re struggling to get past something, you can’t just pretend it doesn’t exist. Bottling things up is the best way to stay stuck in the past.

If you hide the mess away from view, it doesn’t just “go away”! It’s still stuck in there somewhere, cluttering your mind. Plus, it’s guaranteed to find ways to get back at you through more or less conscious behavior – be it mood swings or a big outburst.

We can’t stop experiencing negative thoughts and emotions, it’s all part of this crazy thing we call life. In fact, trying not to have negative thoughts can make someone think about them even more, and leave them feeling much worse.

Give yourself the space and time to feel it all. Facing your emotions will help you constructively deal with them, and better understand yourself and your triggers. It can be a painful step, but it’s a helpful one toward healing.

Talk about it

Expressing yourself is one of the most effective ways to let go – especially if you’re wondering how to stop ruminating. Talk to someone you trust about your experience, be it a friend or a mental health professional. You can also share with a trustworthy community like TalkLife.

Why should you talk about it? It will help you look at the issue from a different perspective and think about it more objectively. Others might have gone through a similar thing, too. Plus, when you put words on the problem, it also allows you to clarify it and better understand yourself and what you need.

Confront the issue if you can

Try to ask yourself whether there is actually a problem here that needs solving. Is there still bad blood after an argument with a friend or family member, or do you need closure from that relationship that ended so abruptly? If you feel you need to confront those issues to move on, they do so!

If there is nothing you can do, it might be helpful to really think about the costs and benefits of ruminating on what’s happened. You might want to consider -

  • Has ruminating ever helped to make anything better?

  • What are you getting out of it?

  • Does it solve the problem?

  • Are there any benefits to it at all?

If you find that ruminating isn’t something that’s helpful, try to notice when you are doing it and distract yourself. You could take a walk around the block, put some music on or make yourself something nice to eat. It’s important to remember that while we can’t stop negative thoughts from popping into our minds, we can choose how we respond to them.

Use catharsis

Catharsis comes from the ancient Greek word for “cleansing” or “purification”. It referred to purging emotions through art. Nowadays, it’s also used to talk about releasing repressed emotions.

Creativity can be a way to “exorcise” negative thoughts about the past. Channel them into something positive. If you have an artistic practice like drawing, writing, or playing an instrument, you can utilize it to fight your demons. Why not paint your experience, or write a poem about the feelings it sparked? Is there a song that reflects your thoughts about it?

Train your brain

Humans naturally tend to linger on negative experiences. This is called the negativity bias and it refers to our brain’s tendency to register negative stimuli more readily but also to dwell on these events.

The good news is that you can grow your positivity muscles. How does that work? Well, it’s all based on our brain’s love of patterns and habits. You can train your mind to curb ruminating thoughts and instill positive reflexes that change your perspective for the better. Here are some examples of things you can do to “think positive”.

Find balance

Balance every negative thought with a positive one. They don’t have to be related. The whole exercise is about showing your brain that negativity isn’t the only component of your life. It might not feel particularly comforting at the moment, but it can help you build a more positive outlook on life.

Practice gratitude

Stuck in the past? Let’s make the present count. Write down, or simply acknowledge five things you’re thankful for every day. You can do it before bed to end the day on a positive note.

Repeat positive affirmations

It might feel silly at first, but repeating positive statements to yourself in the mirror can help you let go of the past and stop ruminating. For example, you could say:

  • I live in the present

  • I am proud of the person I’ve become

  • I am writing my own story

  • I am healing every day

  • I am free from the past

  • I am at peace with the past

  • I will not let regret, shame, or guilt hold me back

  • My future is bright

Be patient

This one’s frustrating, but only patience can really teach you how to let things go in the end. Time heals, and so does the knowledge that your future is yet to write.

Some experiences are more difficult than others, and some people need more time to get over them – and that’s ok. Try not to get frustrated with yourself if you’re struggling to move on.

Just remember that while memories are part of us, they don’t define us. With time, you’ll find it easier to make your peace with the past.

Wondering how to let go of the past? Talking to a supportive community is a good start. Connect with the TalkLife community to share your healing journey and support others.


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