Don’t Dwell On Yesterday: 14 Ways To Stop Living In The Past

Have you ever made a mistake that you just can’t stop thinking about?

Maybe you bombed an interview for the dream job you’ve always wanted.

Or you decided to call it quits with your partner, and you’re stuck replaying all the things you did wrong in your relationship.

Whatever your situation may be, dwelling on the past is a waste of your energy.

At the end of the day, what’s done is done, and the best thing you can do is move forward.

What Does Living in the Past Mean? 

Past experiences mold our behavioral patterns, thoughts, and instincts. There's no escaping it. It's how the human mind works.

However, living in the past can harm your mind, body, and soul.

But what does that mean, exactly? After all, lessons from previous mistakes and situations fuel growth. 

Essentially, when you “live in the past,” you cut yourself off from the present and waste time agonizing over what you “could and should have” done. Ultimately, dwelling on bygones robs you of fulfillment and productivity and prevents you from making and reaching goals. 

So how can you tell if you're engaging in healthy nostalgia or stuck in a state of arrested development? Consider the following points. 

  • Rumination: Constantly going over events from the past in your head is maddening, and it's a surefire sign that you're stuck. 
  • Poor Mental Health: People who spend too much time thinking about the past may suffer from various mental health obstacles, including anxiety and depression. It's also possible to develop problematic conditions like narcissism and delusional disorder.
  • Poor Physical Health: Are you feeling sluggish? Or maybe you've developed physical ailments. Wherever you are on the spectrum, if you're feeling bad and can't get better, it may result from emotional turmoil brought on by unaddressed traumas from the past.

Is It Possible to Stop Living in the Past?

If you find yourself constantly stuck in the past, you may feel like it’s impossible to adjust your focus.

Perhaps you are naturally anxious and dislike change, so you find comfort in the past.

Breaking bad habits is never easy, but it is possible to manage your thoughts on past events and focus your sights on the future.

To stop living in the past, you first need to accept that it isn’t healthy and figure out why you are stuck ruminating on it.

What Causes Someone to Live in the Past?

Living in the past is a common cause of mental health issues. People get stuck in ruts, making their brain chemistry sad, mad, and stagnant. So what are the primary reasons individuals dwell in the past? Let’s look at a few culprits.

  • Trauma: Unaddressed trauma is a literal killer. It sucks people of joy and motivation and can make it difficult to regulate emotions. Individuals who live in the past are often freighted with 
  • Grief: Losing loved ones or seeing the death of a long-held dream can shake a person’s world. Some folks get stuck in that moment and start living the moment on repeat.
  • Regret: Some folks say regret is a wasted emotion. Regardless, it’s real as rain, and wishing it away does nothing. Self-disappointment is a powerful emotion that erects emotional obstacles, and those barriers often trap people in the moment of their perceived mistake. In other words, regret can chain you to the past if you let it. 
  • Shame: Shame is a toxic mix of public scorn and internal self-abnegation. It’s also a potent fear people aim to avoid at all costs. When it creeps into someone’s soul or thought patterns, shame has the power to trap folks in destructive psychological tornadoes, keeping them wound tight and stuck in the perpetual presence of their mortification.

How to Stop Living in the Past: 14 Actions to Let It Go and Live in the Now

If you wonder how to stop living in the past, you first need to change your mindset. It takes time and patience to train your mind to focus on the present, so be kind to yourself throughout the process.

Here are 14 actions you can take to let go of your past and start living in the here and now.

1. Take responsibility for your mistakes

Maybe you made mistakes in your past that caused your life to take a different turn. Perhaps you even hurt others with your actions. If you sweep your mistakes under the rug, you are doing a disservice to not only those you hurt but also yourself.

Acknowledging and accepting that you played a hand in your situation is the first step towards letting go of the past. Maybe that means reaching out to someone you wronged and apologizing or somehow making it up to them.

Once you can take responsibility for your previous faults, you will feel a huge weight lifted off your shoulders.

2. Forgive yourself and others

If you made a mistake in your past, you have probably spent a lot of time ruminating and beating yourself up over it. Maybe your decisions caused hardship in your own life, or you hurt someone you cared about.

As much as you may wish you could, you can’t go back and change it, so the best thing to do is forgive yourself.

If you were the person who got burned, try to forgive the other person. It may be difficult, but it will feel great to rid yourself of the anger you feel.

3. Focus on the things in your control

The past is gone, so as much as you might wish you could change things, cogitating on it is a waste of your time and energy.

The here and now is all you really have. Focus on what’s in your control, which is the present moment. Maybe you messed up in the past, but you can take steps today to right your wrongs and turn your life around.

Your time is much better spent finding ways to improve your current situation. Focus your energy on personal growth and working on the things about yourself that need improvement.

4. Find a healthy outlet for your emotions

Often the reason we ruminate on our past is that we haven’t processed our emotions. When you bottle your feelings, they often appear in not-so-great ways.

Finding an outlet is crucial to process your emotions healthily. Maybe you’re an artist, and you let your thoughts tell a beautiful story on the canvas.

Or you might prefer a more personal approach, such as journaling. Writing down your thoughts is an excellent way to process difficult emotions. You can even burn or tear up the pages afterward as a symbolic way of releasing them.

5. Gain clarity on your attachment to the past

To stop dwelling on your past, you need first to understand why you are so attached to it. People typically get stuck in the past for two reasons: they either had a challenging experience or an amazing one.

If you fall into the first camp, you probably experienced a traumatic situation of some kind, such as an accident or even a breakup. You might be wondering what you could’ve done to change the outcome.

However, you may be thinking of a fantastic experience from your past. If you feel like you’ll never reach that level of happiness again, that could explain why you are so attached to that moment.

6. Identify lessons you took from the experience

Do you find yourself dwelling on what you could have done differently? One way to move on from your past experiences is to identify lessons you learned.

For example, perhaps an ugly breakup taught you what you don’t want in a partner. Now you’re more likely to catch red flags early on.

Or, maybe you screwed up and missed an important deadline and were fired from your job. This challenge taught you an important lesson about time management and setting priorities. Whatever the outcome was, there is bound to be a lesson that you can take away from your past.

7. Let go of your victim mentality

If you experienced abuse in your past, whether physical, mental, or emotional, there is no doubt that you were a victim. However, as painful as those experiences were, it can be helpful to view them from a different perspective.

Instead of thinking of yourself as a victim, think of yourself as a survivor of your circumstances. Acknowledging the strength it took to get out of the situation can be an empowering experience.

It will be easier to let go of those difficult emotions once you learn to view your past through this new lens.

8. Express gratitude for the present

When you’re stuck in the past, you neglect the present moment. You can be present when you’re preoccupied. A gratitude practice is a great way to reset your focus. Each morning, write down three things you are thankful for.

Don’t forget to stop and smell the roses now and then! Take in the beauty of the world around you and appreciate the people in your life.

Appreciating your life and enjoying simple pleasures is key to letting go of the past and savoring the here and now.

9. Take off your rose-colored glasses

The truth is, the past was never quite as great as we envision it. Perhaps we are wearing rose-colored glasses that alter our perception of previous events.

Maybe you had a partner that you felt was perfect for you, and now you compare every potential date to them. None of your relationships seem to work out because they don’t meet your expectations.

Once the past is well behind you, you may become sentimental and forget the challenges and difficult emotions you had at the time. Reminding yourself that your past wasn’t as perfect and magical as you might be remembering is crucial to letting go.

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10. Remember that you’re the author of your story

Think of your life as a story and each chapter as a different era of your life. Some chapters will be good, and others will be not-so-good.

You have probably read books with chapters that had a bad ending. However, maybe you read on to the next chapter, and things got much better.

It’s the same with your life – perhaps a chapter in your past didn’t have the outcome you hoped or expected. The only way to move on from it is to turn the page. You have the power to keep writing your story, but not if you continue reading the same page over and over again.

11. Surround yourself with positive people

Surrounding yourself with negative individuals can be harmful in more ways than one. Not only are you more likely to stay stuck in a negative mindset, but you also won’t have the necessary support system to help you build a better future!

Find supportive friends and like to look on the bright side of life. It’s a great feeling to be surrounded by like-minded individuals.

An added benefit is all the wonderful new memories you can create together to take your mind off the past.

12. Grow from your mistakes

It’s one thing to own up to and accept your mistakes – it’s another thing entirely to grow from them.

Use your mistakes as motivation to do better in the future. Examine them and learn from them. Maybe you’ve realized you are always late and need to work on getting your priorities straight, or perhaps you’ve learned you have some toxic traits that you need to eliminate before getting into another romantic relationship.

You are less likely to beat yourself up over past mistakes once you learn to grow from them.

13. Set your sights on the future

When you find yourself stuck in the past, it can be helpful to shift your focus to what lies ahead.

Letting go of the past is easier said than done, but the beautiful thing is that better things await. By releasing emotions that no longer serve you, you make space for new things to enter your life.

However, be careful not to focus too much on your future and ignore the present. That is another unhealthy habit that you want to avoid!

14. Discover a New Life Purpose

We are what we focus on, and people who live in the past spend most of their time ruminating about what was instead of what could be.

So if you can’t break free from your history, try forcing your brain to change directions by finding something you’re passionate about — a new purpose.

Discovering new passions and goals is a lot more difficult than saying you will. But millions of people fall back in love with life daily, and with just 10% more effort, you can too. Think about what fills your soul with joy.

Try new things. Meet new people. Before you know it, a new life purpose will fall into your lap — as if it were cosmically sent.   

Establish New Healthy Routines 

Establishing healthy routines is one of the best things we can do for ourselves. Benefits include:

  1. Good Habits: Routines help people establish good habits that improve physical, mental, and emotional health.
  2. Less Stress and Anxiety: Studies show that healthy routines reduce stress and anxiety by providing structure and predictability.
  3. Better Control: When you have a routine, you’re more in control of your life and daily activities.
  4. Improved Productivity: Routines make people more productive by infusing discipline and focus into one’s thought patterns, eliminating distractions, and staying focused on the task at hand.

These are all things someone who is trying to crawl out of the past need.

But establishing routines is much more difficult than talking about them. Moreover, you will almost certainly fail if you try to change everything at once. Success comes by starting slow and small and working your way up.

What are a few examples of daily routines and tasks you could incorporate into your life that could help you overcome the past?

  • Mindfulness Routine: Making room for meditation, yoga, and journaling has helped millions lead more fulfilling and satisfying lives.
  • Healthy Eating: Fueling your body with the right stuff will get you on the right track and help you feel physically better.
  • Exercising: Movement — especially movement that gets the heart pumping — improves cognitive function and floods your brain with feel-good hormones.
  • Morning and Night Routines: Morning and night routines add much-needed structure to our lives and help us stay disciplined. Plus, they ensure we tend to basic hygiene needs that can guard against depression.

Benefits of Letting Go of the Past 

There are few greater gifts to give yourself than leaving the past behind; the benefits are numerous and include the following:

  • Increased Productivity: When your mind is dialed into the past, you essentially live there. Instead of focusing on the present and its wealth of possibilities, you’re trapped in a damaging cycle of “what ifs” and “woe is mes.” Resultantly, you don’t have the energy, discipline, or focus needed to be productive. Letting go cleanses your thought patterns and allows you to climb back atop your life and get going.   
  • Good Mental Health: Living in the past erodes mental health. The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. Scientists are still discovering its wonders. And while they have miles to go, researchers have determined that getting stuck in ruts changes brain chemistry for the worst, which can trigger various mental health conditions. When people untangle themselves from traumatic histories, their neurotransmitters better align, leading to a healthier mind.
  • Stronger Friendships: When you release the past, you make room for the present and future. Moreover, you become unburdened with the stress associated with personal historical traumas. We build and maintain better friendships when we’re less stressed and more open.
  • Better Physical Health: Living in the past leads to mental stress, which triggers fight-or-flight hormones that can tax our bodies. 

Why Should We Stop Living in the Past?

No matter why you find yourself pondering the past, it’s not a healthy habit to have. Finding a way to move on is important for your well-being and emotional state.

The following are a few reasons why you should stop living in the past:

  • By living in the past, you prevent yourself from soaking in and enjoying the present moment.
  • You cannot change the past, so it’s a waste of your mental energy to think about it too much.
  • Being too harsh on yourself for past decisions can lower your confidence and feelings of self-worth.
  • You will be forcing yourself to re-live negative emotions such as sadness, anger, and grief.
  • It isn’t fair to the people in your life currently if you are constantly stuck reminiscing on the past.

Why Am I Stuck Living in the Past?

Maybe you find yourself constantly dwelling on the past, and you’re not sure why. If you want to stop living in the past, it’s crucial to understand why you’re so trapped by it.

This unhealthy habit can stem from a variety of reasons, such as:

  • You haven’t entirely accepted a situation and wonder how it could have gone differently.
  • You made a bad decision that you feel ashamed about, or you fear will happen again.
  • You experienced a traumatic event such as a divorce or car accident and are unsure how to move on from it.
  • You feel that you peaked in your past, so the present pales in comparison.
  • You are viewing your past through rose-tinted glasses, and it is preventing you from remembering the difficult moments too.

How Do I Stop Living in the Past in My Relationships?

Maybe you and your partner argued, and you are replaying the events over and over in your head. Perhaps you recently went through a breakup that left you wondering: How could I have handled the situation better?

Here are some ways you can put a stop to this mindset and refocus on the present:

  • Accept your mistakes – you did the best you could with what you had at the time.
  • Recognize that no one is perfect, and beating yourself up over the situation serves no useful purpose.
  • Apologize and make amends if necessary. Is there any way you can make it up to them?
  • Feel your emotions and then let them go.
  • Forgive yourself and the other person and make a vow to do better moving forward.

No matter what regrets you may have, it’s possible to stop dwelling on the past. All you need is a mindset shift and determination to move forward. Instead of ruminating on what’s gone, look toward the future and the beautiful experiences ahead for you.