7 Strategies to Put the Past Behind You
Learning to let go of the past in order to live into your future.
“Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance.” —Beryl Markham
We all live in the past from time to time, especially when memories of the past are sweet and satisfying. But sometimes, we live in the past in an effort to “re-do” what has happened to us, especially when the experience was not a good one. When all is said and done, it’s safe to say that try as we might, we simply cannot “do-over” what has already happened. We have a choice. We can continue to “live” in the past in a way that is not helpful to us, and even detrimental, since living in the past prevents us from being in the here and now and creating an ongoing future. Obsessing about “shoulda, woulda, coulda” is ultimately a waste of our time, energy, and emotions.
Instead, we can choose to learn from our experiences, so that our future is free of making the same mistakes, and the choices and decisions we make are better ones. When you put the past behind you, you accept what happened and are willing to let go of what once was.
Here are seven strategies for closing the door on the past:
1. Consciously decide to put the past behind you.
You may think this statement is obvious, but it isn’t. Consciously means being aware of what has happened to you and understanding how you are affected by it. You are not just mired in blind emotions. Making a decision means that you have weighed your choices and have elected to pursue a course of awareness and insight.
2. Take complete responsibility for yourself.
It’s ultimately up to you to take the necessary actions to help move you forward. Ask yourself: What or who are you holding onto, and why? How does holding on to the past make you feel? Does it feel better to live in the memory of the past, in the fantasy of what could have been, rather than to face the reality of a situation? Is it easier, more soothing, to hang on to a situation the way it once was, or the way you wish it had been, instead of how it actually turned out? Are you using this “holding on” as an excuse to remain in limbo?
In other words, is dwelling in the past taking you away from moving toward the future? Are you trying to avoid dealing with loss and the void that loss creates? What do you believe will happen to you if you let go of the past? Being as honest as you can be will pay off in the long run. The pain, hurt, anger, and disappointment will diminish once you’ve cleared the way to a better, more realistic understanding of the situation.
3. Accept the past as it is.
Think of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief as a model for dealing with putting the past behind us. Of course, her model refers to the grief and loss over the death of a person, a loved one. There are times, however, when past events feel like a loss, and when grief is an appropriate emotion to mourn that loss. In Kubler-Ross’s model, the stages of grief preceding acceptance are denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. Ultimately, the goal is acceptance of the past as it is, not as you wish it had been. It’s an acceptance of the fact that the way things were is no longer sustainable. When you accept that reality, it opens the possibility of new things, different perspectives, and, perhaps, of expanded consciousness.
4. Make a plan for your immediate future.
Determine what’s most important for you in the here and now, and moving forward. You may have no idea what your future will look like, but taking even small steps will help move you into your future. Perhaps you can reorder your priorities, so you can explore different possibilities and opportunities. Try something new and out of your comfort zone. It only matters that you tried, even if it doesn’t work out. If you can’t see a clear path ahead of you, make one.
5. Gather your strengths.
What are your positive aspects? What are your talents, gifts, and assets? Where can you make a positive change in your life? Again, very small changes are all that is needed. What can you change now? What actions can you take immediately? Determine what you need, what makes you happy, what empowers you, rather than putting others first and/or trying to please others before yourself. Surround yourself with people who have your best interests at heart, those who understand who you are and support and encourage you.
6. Forgive yourself and others.
Forgiveness allows you to accept past actions even while you may still have questions and concerns about them. Often, people do what they do for themselves without intending to cause hurt or harm to someone else. Remaining mired in past events and the emotions surrounding them keeps you stuck and angry. Instead of spending an undue amount of time and energy trying to make sense of what you may never find answers to and/or trying to rewrite or reimagine the past, it may be far healthier to allow yourself to forgive past events and people and move on to another phase of your life. Likewise, forgive yourself for your actions and involvement. You may have done the very best you could, and that may not have been enough. Or, the circumstances did not allow for the results to happen the way you wanted them to, or you may not have understood the reality of the situation and/or the intention of those involved. Don’t beat yourself up for what you didn’t know or understand.
7. Learn lessons from the past.
As with anything that happens to us in life, there are always new things to learn about ourselves. It’s ironic, but true that the events and relationships that seem to hit us the hardest are those that didn’t work out. The emotions of anger, hurt, disappointment, and sadness are hard to deal with.
When things don’t work out for us, we feel deprived of what we so desperately wanted. We may feel rejected; our self-esteem may feel under attack. We may feel like the floor is falling out from under us, like we no longer control our destiny.
But life lessons are good—if you heed them. If you can wait long enough to get the message, there’s so much room for growth and, ultimately, for making better and better choices about the life you want to have.