We all want to learn how to let go of the past and feel happy. But sometimes the life experiences that cause us the most pain are the hardest to put behind us.
As a counselor, I meet many people who have made terrible mistakes that they regret every day. Others have lived through trauma that is still alive for them and impacting how they think and feel. Others are stuck in grief or loss, or holding on to old anger that feels like it’s consuming them.
Understandably, these clients want to know how to let go of the past, to finally put it behind them so they can stop feeling haunted by it. I help them make friends with their pasts and the seeds of personal growth in their most difficult experiences — because that is the true path to healing and moving forward.
In this article, I’m sharing why letting go of the past feels hard and what you can do if you’re stuck. I hope that it resonates with you and that you can put this information to good use in your life. If you would prefer to listen to this one, I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on letting go of the past. You can find it on this page (player below), or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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Why Can’t I Let Go of the Past?
When you’re ruminating about bad things that have happened to you, beating yourself up for past decisions, or stewing in angry feelings that won’t go away, it hurts. It keeps you from being fully present in your life as it is today. It makes it harder to dust yourself off, learn from your mistakes, and start a new chapter of redemption and growth. It keeps you feeling like a victim of someone else’s misdeeds, rather than connected to your potential to make good things happen in your life.
Of course, none of this is voluntary. No one would choose to live this way. In my experience working with people who are struggling to let go of the past, there are a few emotional “hooks” that dig their way into your heart and mind when you don’t know what to do with a difficult life experience. They don’t come out on their own, but they can be worked out and healed with the right support.
The path to letting go of the past depends on the life experience that has led you to feel stuck. Here are the experiences that I see most often. If you are struggling to let go of the past, you might identify with one or more of these:
- Regret and Letting Go of the Past
One “hook” that will keep you stuck in the past is regret. We all have regrets, but some of the people I meet have made big, irreparable mistakes that they struggle to live with. Mistakes that caused them to lose their health, their families, their careers, or their futures. Even mistakes that caused the death of someone else.
Because of these mistakes, they hate themselves. They no longer feel worthy of love and respect. They believe their lives are over, or that they will never be the same. Even more ordinary regrets — like choosing the “wrong” career, or ending a relationship rather than working on it — can eat away at you if you don’t know how to deal with regret and move forward.
Regret can also be fueled by betrayal, of yourself or of someone you care about. Maybe you stayed in a toxic relationship that eroded your self-esteem. Maybe you cheated on your partner and it devastated them. Maybe you didn’t protect your children when they needed you.
The path to healing from regret is processing the feelings of guilt, shame, remorse, and anger toward yourself. This is difficult, because your tendency will be to push those feelings away. You may avoid talking about your regrets, or get defensive when you do discuss what happened, but this will only keep you stuck. A good therapist can help you manage defensiveness so that it can’t stunt your growth any longer.
When you can tolerate the painful feelings of regret, they’ll hold less power over you. You will have an opportunity to write a new story about what happened and why, one that is self-compassionate without abdicating responsibility.
An important part of this new story will be the seed of growth that you found in the rubble of your mistakes. Because of regret, there are things you understand that you did not understand before. You’ve learned something about your values and how you want to live your life every day going forward. If there is an action you can take to repair some of the damage from your mistake, taking that action can be an important part of healing.
This is how you make friends with regret — you build your awareness of the ways you have grown because of it, and you commit to your continued personal growth. You decide how your life, relationships, values, and ways of being in the world will be transformed positively as a result of this experience, and then you bring that transformation to fruition.
This process doesn’t make regret disappear, but it makes it useful to you, and it allows you to let go of the past and move forward.
- Unresolved Trauma and Letting Go of the Past
PTSD is very real. It can happen if you’ve experienced physical harm, been the victim of a crime, lived through abuse, or if you’ve experienced the trauma of betrayal by someone you trusted, to name a few common causes. Any experience that makes you feel overwhelmed, terrified, or powerless can have a lasting traumatic impact on your mental and emotional health.
One of the symptoms of PTSD is intrusive thoughts and feelings about the trauma, which can keep you feeling stuck in the past. These intrusive thoughts can be triggered by anything that even remotely resembles the traumatic experience (like a song that makes you think of your abusive Ex, or a cologne that reminds of your partner having an affair), and people who are suffering from PTSD often jump through a lot of hoops to avoid anything that could trigger these painful thoughts and feelings.
The path to healing from trauma is not to avoid your triggers. It’s to safely reprocess the traumatic memories through evidence-based, trauma-informed therapy. If you suspect you’re experiencing PTSD symptoms, it’s really important that you get professional help, from someone who knows what they are doing. Connecting with the wrong therapist, or god forbid an unlicensed life coach, could actually make your symptoms worse. But the right help for trauma can be very effective and can provide life changing relief that helps you let go of the past.
For more guidance on getting the right kind of help, see my article on how to find a good therapist.
- How to Let Go of the Past after Grief and Loss
Often when we don’t know how to let go of the past, it’s because we’re experiencing grief or loss that we haven’t been able to resolve yet.
Life after the loss of someone you love is a foreign territory that you have to learn how to live inside of. The process of grief helps you to do that, but sometimes people get stuck in their grieving process. This could be because they haven’t been able to release control and allow the waves of grief wash over them — which is totally understandable. Grief not only hurts, it’s scary. It can feel like it’s throwing you down a dark well that has no bottom. The natural impulse is to push those feelings away, but when we do that, we’re only kicking the can down the road. The grief doesn’t go anywhere; it is still waiting for you, and it will sneak up on you when you’re too tired or otherwise vulnerable to continue fighting against it.
Until you are able to roll with the waves of grief, it can feel like you’re stuck in the past, unable to let go of your loved one and move forward with your life. You may feel like there’s something wrong with you because your grief doesn’t seem to be changing or becoming more tolerable. If anything, you may feel like it’s getting worse.
Getting stuck in grief is not a sign that there’s something wrong with you; it just means that you have unfinished emotional business with the past, and you can take care of it by intentionally engaging in the work of grief. The only way out of grief is through it, and once you are able to move through your grief, you will begin to feel it shifting. At the end of this process, you will be able to remember your loved one and feel the warmth, love, and appreciation you have for them, rather than only feeling the pain of their loss.
It is always a good idea to get support with grief, but this is especially true if you feel like your grief is not resolving. A good therapist can help you stay in the ring with your feelings, process the loss, find closure, and develop a new relationship with your person that will be yours to keep forever.
- Letting Go of Unresolved Anger
Anger is your friend, but when you don’t know what to do with anger it can keep you from letting go of the past.
There are a couple of reasons that people struggle to let go of anger, in my experience. The first scenario is what I think of as a “psychological splinter.” This is like a shard that’s lodged in your psyche, generating emotional pain that you’re experiencing as anger. This could be because someone hurt you in the past, or because you lived through trauma. It could also be that you’re living in fear that something awful might happen to you or to the people you love.
Difficult life experiences can lead people to adopt highly negative mindsets that generate anger. It can also happen when you’re exposed to people who struggled to manage their own anger and you’re “infected” by their emotional climate.
When unresolved anger is caused by a “psychological splinter,” it’s important to get help. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Experiential Therapy, and Narrative Therapy have all been shown to be effective treatments. A good therapist can help you identify the thoughts, associations, life experiences, and the meaning you’re making out of them that is generating anger inside of you. This process helps you validate your anger, while also finding forgiveness and shifting into more helpful mindsets. Therapy can also help you manage angry feelings when they do arise so that you can redirect yourself and stop letting anger control you.
There is a second scenario that can keep you feeling stuck in anger — when something is legitimately wrong in your life and you need to do something about it.
Anger is not meant to metastasize and become a stable fixture of our personalities. It’s meant to serve an immediate purpose; to tell us when our values, needs, rights, and boundaries are being encroached upon so that we can take action.
If, for example, someone is living with an abuser, they will feel angry a lot of the time. They may feel bad about their anger, or even like the fact that they’re getting angry is what’s causing the abuse. The unfortunate victim in this scenario does not need to learn how to take a deep breath and let go of their anger. They need to listen to what their anger is trying to tell them, decide that they do not deserve to be mistreated and that they won’t accept it any longer, and then get the heck out of there. Once they take action and then heal from the trauma, their anger will resolve, because they don’t need it anymore.
Sometimes anger is your emotional guidance system alerting you that something needs to change, whether it’s a toxic relationship, an exploitative job, or other situations that tread all over your dignity and autonomy. Until you make the change, it can feel like you “can’t let go of the past” because you can’t stop thinking about the violation you’ve experienced. It requires emotional intelligence and sometimes professional support to figure out whether anger needs to be managed, or obeyed.
Support for Letting Go of the Past
If you’re having a hard time figuring out how to let go of the past, you are not alone. This is one of the most common reasons that people get involved in therapy or coaching, and I hope that you will consider seeking support if you need it.
You can’t change the past, but you can change your relationship with the past, and that will make a positive difference in how you feel in the present. If you would like to do this valuable work with a clinician on my team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
P.S. — For more advice on healing from painful experiences, feeling happier, and moving forward, check out my “Emotional Wellness” collection of articles and podcasts. I’ve made it all to support you.
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How to Let Go of the Past
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Music in this episode is by Dead Ghosts with their song “Rocky Said.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://deadghosts.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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