How to stop living in the past and be in the present moment.

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10 ways to stop living in the past.

Have you ever been caught in a web of memories that suddenly turned into an endless loop of stories in your head and left you yearning for the "good old days"?  While harmless, this type of behavior not only leaves you in the past, but you can be stuck with possibly new, undesirable behaviors.  Let's take a look at the dangers of living in the past, how to stop living in the past, and ways to move forward so you can go with the flow of life.

Woman walking on the beach to stop living in the past.

What does it mean to live in the past?

We fall back into the past, we jump ahead into the future, and in this we lose our entire lives. - Thich Nhat Hanh

Living in the past is rehashing old memories.

It can happen spontaneously or can be triggered by something in particular, like hearing a certain sound or smelling a distinct scent.  Or you purposely want to go there simply to relive the experience.

As I go about my day, I can catch myself thinking about my memories at least a dozen times.

For instance, I'll be loading up my clothes washer or preparing a meal in my kitchen, then a memory flashes in my brain.  Then I entertain that memory, which fills my head with stories from the past, which intertwines with other stories and creates a story loop in my brain.  The cycle begins and ends over again until I can catch myself.

I personally was unaware that I was repeatedly reliving my past until I suffered anxiety partly due to ruminating over thoughts from the past.

What are the dangers of living in the past?

Letting yesterday affect today will only destroy the excitement of tomorrow. - Michelle Cruz Rosado

Not all memories of the past are bad and not all of them lead you down dangerous territory.  I remember one morning waking up to a song in my head from the 80's.

It was the song, "Digital Display" by the group Ready for the World.  All kinds of memories from my childhood came flooding back, leaving me nostalgic for my childhood days.  I played the song on my phone until my husband walked into the room and then I replayed it for him.

We both started reminiscing about a time that felt more free, fun, and innocent.  Then I started playing more songs from that era and even danced to them before I had my morning coffee.

Dwelling on the past, depending on the scenario, can induce beautiful memories or trigger deeply negative emotions.

If negative thoughts are constantly ruminating through your mind, you run the risk of being stuck in unpleasant emotions, or worse.

Studies have shown that rumination is one factor that can lead to the onset of anxiety and depression.  My habit of replaying bad memories was what led to rumination, which led to my feelings of anxiety.

It became more than a minor nuisance, a pesky fly that I couldn't just lightly brush off.

I eventually had to seek help because it interfered with my daily life and I couldn't turn away from it anymore.  Plus, I didn't want my past to continue to control me any longer.

I'm not sharing this part of my past to scare you.  I only wanted to shed light on how reliving living the past can lead to maladaptive behaviors and consequences.  We can begin to heal and move forward into the future by recognizing how our past limits and defines our present.

How do I stop living the past and move forward?

Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. - Albert Einstein

Moving forward doesn't mean you're ignoring your past.  It means you no longer have to be a victim of it or allow it to dictate your present life.  Moving on from your past is not always easy, though.

It takes a lot of inner work, patience, and self-compassion to face a past that was troubling.  Sometimes it feels like you're taking a step forward and two steps back, not gaining any traction whatsoever.

However, going back to face a troubled past can:

  • help you recognize the unhelpful patterns in your life so you can break free.
  • help you heal from possibly destructive thought patterns and behaviors.
  • create inner resources that will make you more resilient.
  • allow you to drop limiting beliefs and behaviors.
  • liberate you from the chains of your past.

Once you feel ready to reconnect with your past so you can finally stop reliving and repeating it, you can start to let it go.  The following is a list of 10 ways to stop living in the past so you can create a future that is in alignment with your values.

Over time, you may notice subtle or sudden changes in the way you experience your life.

Just remember not to judge whatever comes up for you because it is your unique point of view and experience.

10 ways to stop living in the past.

Look to this day, for yesterday is but a dream, and tomorrow is only a vision, but today, well lived, makes yesterday a dream of happiness, and every tomorrow a vision of hope.  Look well, therefore, to this day. - Ancient Sanskrit poem

1.  Accept your past mistakes.

Mistakes are often equated with failure.  It's the reason why some choose not to pursue something because they're scared.  It's also the reason why people are afraid to face their past because it can be painful.

Accepting your past mistakes is akin to forgiving yourself.  You're not really erasing what happened, rather, you're absolving yourself from the negative feelings that may be attached to those past mistakes.

You can take this a step further and allow yourself to make mistakes in the first place.  Change your perception around the notion that mistakes are inherently bad and think of past mistakes as a learning experience instead.

2. Forgive your past mistakes.

Have you ever made a mistake, felt foolish, and then replayed the scene over and over again?  This keeps you in the past, because it reinforces the idea that the mistake was bad, and you might be identifying with this belief.

When you're stuck in your past because you're dwelling on past mistakes, it show yourself some compassion.  Self-compassion is acknowledging, accepting, and forgiving yourself of your past mistakes.

This will take some time and patience, which, when mixed in with time and patience, can help you sever the difficult emotions that may be tied in with your past.

This doesn't mean that you're forgetting what happened, or saying that what was done to you was right.  It's about setting yourself free from the past so you can start living in the present.

3. Stop living in your head.

Sometimes the noise in your head can be so loud that it can get in the way of your ability to think clearly.  This is especially true if you're constantly recycling stories in your mind over and over.

One way to stop this is to practice meditation.  If meditating sounds intimidating or far fetched, no need to fret.  There are different types of meditation that don't require you to sit down and spend hours doing it.

You can meditate for a few minutes a day, and you can also meditate as you eat, walk, or drive your car.  It takes practice to get the hang of it, but doing just a little each day can bring noticeable transformation over time.

4. Let go of anger and resentment.

When you attach anger to a memory from the past and can't let go of it, you anchor in your mind, body, & soul and create resentment.  There is a quote from Nelson Mandela that says,

"Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies."

The longer it lingers, the more spreads and settles into your system, and the harder it will be to release.

It can take days, weeks, or even years to let go of anger and resentment from the past.

You may even need help from someone you know or possibly from a professional.

Yet letting go of anger and resentment can liberate you from the chains of the past.  You don't have to be friends with whoever or whatever caused you harm.  You're just releasing them from the grip that they once had on you.

5. Let go of old relationships.

Letting go of a relationship from the past is tricky.  That person may be someone you are close to, someone you work with, or even someone you're related to.

People say not to burn bridges, but if you're the one holding up the bridge and it's causing you pain and suffering, then maybe it's time to rethink the relationship.

Recognizing that the relationship is no longer serving you can be a hard pill to swallow.

I wish I could tell you that there is a magic formula for letting go of past relationships that are harming you or are no longer serving you.  We humans as a species survived and evolved because of our relationships with others, so it almost seems ingrained into our DNA.  However, in the modern world, we don't have to hang onto a toxic relationship because it feels comfortable and familiar.

Here are some simple ideas you can ponder and questions to ask yourself to assess your past relationships.

  • Think about how your relationship has affected you in the past.
  • Remember the way you reacted when you interacted with the other person.
  • Are you putting in more effort into the relationship?
  • Are you the one who always initiates?
  • How does it make you feel when you think about the relationship?

6. Live in the present moment.

It's easy to say, just go and live in the present moment, right?  What if I don't like my present circumstances? And what does letting go of the past have to do with being in the present moment?

If you're living in the past, you're in a different world mentally than where your physical body is.

Constantly replaying past moments can make you lose out on your present experience.  You might miss something awesome or overlook a tiny detail that may be the answer to life's problems.  So how do you live in the present moment so you can savor the flavors of life?  The simplest way is to observe your breath, which is a mindfulness technique.

If you get sidetracked with this technique, gently but firmly bring your attention back to your breath and into the present moment.  You might think that you're doing it a thousand times (aka "monkey mind") and that's normal.

This takes a lot of training and discipline, so don't feel bad if you're unsure if you're doing it right or can't master it right away.  Like everything else, it will take time and lots of patience.

7.  Turn toward difficult emotions.

Turning toward difficult emotions seems counterintuitive when you're trying to deal with unpleasant situations from your past.  On top of that can be layers of unresolved emotions from the past.

But what happens when you turn away from a past memory that's emotionally upsetting?

It turns into something scarier each time you decide not to turn toward it.

I know that's what happens to me when I don't want to deal with something difficult from my past.

It can be hard to decipher where difficult emotions are coming from and that is okay.

One thing you can do is acknowledge the emotion you are currently feeling.

Facing something that may be emotionally triggering is never easy, which is why acknowledging that there is an emotional thread that connects you to a difficult past is a small, but significant step.

8.  Face your fears.

Who hasn't had a fear from their past that they would rather lock up and throw away the key?  Fears, like difficult emotions, can be hard to face.

Except, how many times did you ever wonder, what if I just looked my fear in the face?  Or how many times did you think there was something scary lurking in the dark but it turned out to be a figment of your imagination?

Sometimes the fear that is recreated in the mind feels bigger and scarier than the actual thing.

My fear of public speaking was so bad that I almost always sat in the back of the classroom so the teacher wouldn't call on me.  I also avoided taking on leadership roles because I knew it would involve speaking to the public.

I am slowly facing my fear of public speaking, which has gotten easier over time.  When I look back though, I sometimes ask myself, what if?

Although fear was an emotion that was created to protect you, it can also be limiting if it prevents you from experiencing new things.  Even stories from the past that are no longer relevant can affect your present and future.

Once you recognize this, you can begin the journey of letting go of your past.  You may need some help along the way to face your fears and overcome them, and you might run into roadblocks, but remember to show yourself some compassion as you slowly face your fears so you can stop living in the past.

9. Discover your purpose in life.

When I suffered from undiagnosed anxiety and postpartum depression, I decided to follow my bliss.  I embarked on a self-discovery journey that led me to find my purpose in life.

I knew deep down that having a sense of purpose in life would be essential to helping me get better and getting me unstuck from my past that was controlling my present situation.

Studies have shown that life crafting as a way to help one take control of, and find purpose in life, can bring a person more meaning and happiness in life.

Life crafting is knowing your beliefs and values, creating goals that are in alignment with them, and then telling someone about your goals and plans to keep you accountable so you can see them through.

People with a purpose in life are more likely to make decisions that positively impact their health, thus experience better health outcomes than those who do not.  When we're stuck in our past, it can interfere with how we function in life.  Knowing your purpose in life is not meant to make you ignore your past, or distract you from your present, but may help you during times that become difficult or distracting.

10. Seek help.

If you find yourself stuck in your past and feel like you can't get out no matter how hard you try, it may be time to seek some help.  There is no shame in asking for help, although it can be difficult.

I for one, used to think it was weak to ask people for help.  It was a belief and a perception that was ingrained into me since I was a child.  It took over 40 years for me to overcome with this belief, and I'm still working on it.  Asking for help is not a sign of weakness.  It requires courage and strength to ask someone for help.

You can be picky about who you go to for help, so take your time with this.

If you have the means and you want to try, you can ask a professional to help you stop living in the past, such as a doctor or a licensed therapist.  You may be able to gain more insight and ease the process of letting go of the past with someone else's help.

Living in the past is something that everyone does.  You might even be doing it right now without realizing it and that is okay.  It becomes a problem if you are stuck there and it interferes with your wellbeing and how you function in your daily life.

Although it's not easy to stop living in the past, you don't have to continue to be a victim of it.  If your past is affecting you in a negative way, being aware of this fact is a powerful step toward letting go of a past that doesn't serve you any more.  Once you recognize the problem, you can take action, like facing your fears, accepting your mistakes, & seeking help, to live life with more presence and meaning.

What are some ways that you were able to let go of the past so you can be more present?  I'd love to read your tips and stories.  Thanks and please share in the comments or let me know what you think!

Hi! I'm the author of this post and the creator of Third Bliss. I love sharing my tips on how to nurture your mind, body, and spirit so you can enjoy what matters most.

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