11 Steps To Let Go Of The Past & Actually Move Forward
We all have a past, and sometimes, things that happened in the past have a way of sticking with us—and hold us back from moving forward.
If you're struggling to move on, here's what mental health experts recommend in order to leave the past behind once and for all.
The psychology of letting go.
Whether you want to let go of a past relationship, a past mistake, or a past trauma, it can be incredibly difficult to disentangle yourself from whatever it is you've gone through—but the good news is, the urge you feel to move forward is actually guiding you in the right direction.
As psychology expert Megan Hale, M.A., previously wrote for mindbodygreen, "The reason most of us feel guilt or shame for our past actions is because those actions were not in line with our current morals and values. In this way, our previous wrongdoings can actually clue us in to what we hold now important."
But that doesn't mean it's easy, of course. According to marriage and family therapist Shelly Bullard, MFT, once your heart is deeply connected to something, whether it's a person or experience for better or worse, it can be very difficult to let it go. "Even if you know [it's not right] for you, you still hang on because the depth of connection is so strong," she explains.
While letting go of the past won't be a cakewalk, licensed marriage and family therapist Jessi Leader, LMFT, previously told mindbodygreen, "It is your job to be curious and explore why it happened and process feelings associated with the hurt," adding that it isn't so much about letting go but rather "having a better relationship with this part of you."
11 tips for letting go of the past, from therapists:
As you realize you're stuck in the past, you may have a realization that something needs to change in order for you to move forward. Personal growth and progress always starts with an intention—a wanting and a willingness to do something differently in order to get a different result. As psychotherapist Babita Spinelli, L.P., tells mindbodygreen, the first step to letting go of the past is choosing with intention to do so. "Make that commitment to let go," she says.
Take the time to process your thoughts and emotions.
Understand that healing is not linear, and letting go takes time. After all, we can't change the past, and we may never be the same—but that doesn't mean we have to stay stuck.
As somatic psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist Holly Richmond, Ph.D., LMFT, tells mindbodygreen, "Stepping away from the past is often more of a process of moving through rather than letting go. We can't just let go and forget, but rather we often need to sit with the feelings, process them, and move through them to states where we feel more calm, centered, and empowered rather than feeling triggered by a past event."
She adds that when we can separate a past experience from our current reality, we tend to be able to more solidly move into future possibility and hopefulness. As Spinelli puts it, "Acknowledge the past event or experience and process the feelings—owning your part and the emotions that come with it."
Work with an affirmation or mantra.
Affirmations and mantras can be a powerful tool to help "rewire" negative thought loops, priming the brain to look for and believe in what it is you're telling yourself, which is why Richmond recommends them for letting go of the past.
She notes that her all-time favorite and go-to mantra is, That was then, this is now. "I use this frequently with survivors of trauma, as a daily reminder that they are safe now and that they are here now," she explains.
Here's a quick list of mantras and affirmations for letting go of the past:
- I choose to let go of the past.
- I look forward to my future.
- I am fully present in this moment.
- I can't change what's happened, but I can change how I move through it.
- I am resilient.
- I am ready to move on.
- I am grateful for who I am today.
- I am more than what has happened to me.
- I give myself patience and grace.
- I embrace new beginnings.
We may not even realize we're stuck in the past if we aren't consciously aware of the thoughts that run amok in our minds. As such, Spinelli says, mindfulness is an important practice for letting go of the past. "Take more time with mindfulness—focusing on the present and what is instead of what was," she says.
And according to Richmond, mindfulness can involve your grounding into body as well, whether you take up yoga or spend more time walking through nature. "Helping people ground in the present moment helps them separate the past from present, and settle more firmly into what is actually happening in this moment, not what happened in the past," she tells mindbodygreen.
Meditate and visualize.
Speaking of mindfulness, Spinelli is a big proponent of meditation and visualization for letting things go as well. Even if you don't regularly visualize or meditate, spend some time focusing on or visualizing what letting go would truly look like for you. As you do this, Spinelli says, notice the feelings that come up for you, and tap into the lightness and relief that arise as letting go starts to feel real in your body.
Practice radical acceptance.
Radical acceptance is exactly what it sounds like: Accepting what has happened, even if it requires a radical change in thinking on your part. As therapist Megan Bruneau, M.A., previously told mindbodygreen, this doesn't mean you wanted or are grateful for what's happened but rather, "you're choosing to allow it to be there when you can't change it in that moment."
When we reject, resist, or otherwise struggle against our pain, she adds, we only create undue suffering. So "give yourself permission to be as you are, feel what you feel, or have experienced what you've experienced without creating unproductive shame or anxiety. The pain might still be there, but some of the suffering will be alleviated," Bruneau notes.
Forgive yourself and others.
According to Spinelli, sometimes letting go requires leaning into forgiveness, whether that's forgiveness toward yourself or another person. It's like the old saying goes: Holding resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. "Recognize that it's toxic for you to hold on to it," Spinelli says.
If you're struggling to forgive, here's our guide to forgiving yourself, as well as our guide to forgiving others, to help you get started.
Try inner child and/or shadow work.
It might seem counterintuitive to dissect your past with inner child and/or shadow work, but when it comes to letting go of the past, sometimes the only way out is through.
As clinical psychologist Trish Phillips, Psy.D., previously told mindbodygreen, inner child work helps to "remind ourselves that we're not wrong or bad [and] heal the shame that comes with just having feelings."
Meanwhile, neuroscientist Tara Swart, Ph.D., previously explained that in order to become the best version of yourself, "you need to know what the bad bits are that are holding you back or are hidden," and that's where the shadow work comes in.
Reconnect to yourself.
When we're living in the past, we're missing out on who we can be in the present, and this can lead to feeling disconnected from your passions, goals, and even your body. As licensed marriage and family therapist Tiana Leeds, M.A., LMFT, previously told mindbodygreen, moving on involves focusing on yourself and cultivating the areas of your life you care about. "Recommit to your hobbies and interests, and allow yourself time to heal and move forward in your life," she explains.
Reconnect with your body.
Tying back to the previous point, but specifically focusing on the body, you may find success in letting go of the past when you can get your body involved. As James S. Gordon, M.D., psychiatrist and author of The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma, previously told mindbodygreen, "Everything that happens to us emotionally or psychologically happens to our bodies as well. It's all connected."
And while there's no surefire proof that bodywork like acupuncture, massage, or tapping (aka Emotional Freedom Technique) can help you move through past experiences, anecdotal evidence suggests this may be possible. In fact, research on tapping1, which involves the manual stimulation or "tapping" of acupuncture points along the body, has been shown in studies2 to help alleviate some symptoms of PTSD.
Give yourself grace.
Last but certainly not least, be patient with yourself as you learn to let go. Again, we can't take back what's happened, but we can change how we move forward. Without diminishing the gravity of your experiences, sometimes it can be helpful to try to make meaning out of what's happened to you. This doesn't mean you have to like it, but if you're able to reframe the way you think about your experiences, you can better integrate the things that have happened to you.
And if you've tried and tried and continue to struggle with letting go of the past, it may be worthwhile to enlist the help of a mental health professional. There are a ton of online resources available today that make therapy more accessible than ever, and indeed, we should never have to struggle alone.
How to let go of the past in relationships.
Sometimes we have to get over a breakup, and other times, we have to forgive ourselves or our partner for something that's transpired within the relationship, such as infidelity, to keep the relationship afloat. And the first step is forgiveness.
According to Leader, "If you find yourself doubting your partner's commitment, ability, or intent—consider how you might be activated by past hurt," Leader says, adding, "Then compare this to current evidence from your partner's actions. Maybe you find that your partner is showing up in many ways, but your hurt from the past relationship is blinding your ability to see it."
And if you're getting over a breakup, Leeds says, even if it was your decision, it's still an open wound that will take time to heal. "If you loved this person deeply, you may always love them, but their role in your life has changed," licensed therapist LeNaya Smith Crawford, LMFT, previously told mindbodygreen. "You can absolutely love them from afar [but] the most important thing is to give yourself grace, honor your emotions day by day, and give yourself the space to process for as long as you need."
Whether you're going through a breakup or you and your partner are going through a rough patch, Smith Crawford recommends starting a daily meditation practice to help you visualize a beautiful future. "It is important to remember that you are a whole and powerful being, and you do not need a relationship to validate that. Oftentimes, we get so caught up in a relationship that we lose sight of the things that make us, the individual, feel good," she explains.
Here are our full guides to how to forgive someone and how to let go of someone for more tips.
How to let go of past mistakes and forgive yourself.
Guilt and shame are very real feelings that virtually always relate to something that we've done in the past. But what if today, right now, we truly had a blank slate? As licensed behavioral counselor Cindy Saleeby Goulding, M.S., LPC, previously wrote for mindbodygreen, one of the biggest hurdles is letting go of your inner critic.
"Focusing on the I should do this or I should have done that sets you up for being self-critical. When you 'should' on yourself, you are judging yourself," she explains, adding, "When you judge yourself, you are limiting all of your potential to grow and think openly."
Instead of judging, she says, we can learn from our past and use those experiences as tools for change. "Instead of getting caught up in the 'shoulds,' think of ways that you can learn to adjust your way of thinking," Saleeby Goulding explains, recommending to start by letting go of the thoughts that may not even be beneficial to you.
Here's our full guide to letting go of guilt for more information.
How to let go of past trauma.
If you've experienced a trauma, or even have post-traumatic stress disorder, letting go of the past is going to be a bit more of a difficult task that includes a lot of emotional unpacking.
Letting go of past trauma is an involved process that includes a number of different methods and practices and is best done with the help of a mental health professional. Some recommendations to get you started include EFT (tapping), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and practicing radical acceptance.
But again, because this is deep work that will take time and energy, you would be best served to get outside support from someone who specializes in trauma and/or abuse and who can help guide you through it.
Why is it so hard to let go of the past?
It's hard to let go of the past because, even when we think we're conscious of our limiting beliefs, traumas, and past experiences, there's likely a lot more going on under the surface in the subconscious mind, and this takes time and practice to unlearn and reprogram.
How do I stop thinking about the past?
There are a number of ways to stop thinking about the past, including working with a mental health professional, releasing judgment of your past mistakes, letting go of old relationships and other baggage, and focusing on yourself and your future.
How do I let go of past heartbreak?
To let go of past heartbreak, remember that you are still a whole and complete person, even without this relationship in your life. Focus on yourself, your goals, and your interests, and surround yourself with a supportive network of friends and family. Consider working with a therapist if you're really struggling to let go.
The most important thing to remember when letting go of the past is that it will take time and likely won't be a linear process. We can't undo the things that have happened, but with intentionality, patience, and potentially the help of a professional, it is possible to come to terms with your past so you can move into your future.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.