How To Let Go Of The Past And Live In The Present

By Marie Miguel|Updated April 4, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Lauren Fawley , LPC

Positive and negative experiences help to shape how we make meaning out of our lives. As we go through life, we come into contact with people, events, and situations that shape who we become. Many of us tend to focus on the negative events and situations that have hurt us. When we encounter a situation with similarities to that negative (or positive) past, we have a bias about it based on our own past experience. This focus on the negative can rob us of potential happiness in the present by essentially creating a mental blinder. Spending too much time trying to avoid negativity in the present will only tie up your mental resources and keep you from living. Learning how to let go of the past and live in the present is something we can all benefit from.

How to Let Go of the Past and Live in the Present

There are many events in our past that affect how we live in the present. It is only natural to learn as we experience life as this learning is important to our well-being. So why is it detrimental to look to our past to understand the present? It is not detrimental, it is perfectly normal, the problem occurs when we forget to learn in the present and rely on only the past.

When we forget to learn in the present and rely on the past our education becomes stagnant. We become stuck in repetitive behaviors and thoughts that may no longer have any place in the present. Learning to move forward after a life tragedy, no matter what the misfortune was, allows us to continue learning and growing.

You will never forget the heartbreaks of the past, but it is imperative that you accept tragedy or mistakes for what they are and allow them to live in the past with your other memories while you move forward to create new memories and acquire more knowledge and wisdom. If this feels impossible to you, a good therapist can help you learn to move forward, seeking help and advice from a professional can help you work through the pain of the past. BetterHelp.com is an online counseling platform with licensed mental health professionals that are ready to speak with you from the convenience of your home.

Accepting the Past and Letting Go

The only way to let go of the past and live in the present is to accept the past. There is no use in trying to dissect past problems and look for answers; you do not really need answers. The human brain seeks for understanding when something negative happens by asking questions. We want to make sense of why we are hurting, maybe to try to prevent future pain. But pain cannot be prevented, and sometimes the most healing thing to do is to accept your feelings about what happened. If you knew the how and why of every negative event that occurred in your past there is no guarantee they would never happen again. You cannot change the past, the only productive thing you can do is accept the past and let it go. A helpful question to ask yourself is "what did this teach me?," instead of "how can I change what happened?"; this can help focus you on yourself in the present and on your personal growth.

Practicing Mindfulness

Mindfulness exercises help train your brain to stay in the present moment by focusing your awareness on your senses and not on your thoughts. Mindfulness practices involve focusing your attention on bodily sensations, oftentimes it is the natural act of breathing, or on an object in front of you. The goal is to notice everything about that activity or object, letting the thoughts in your mind float away without attachment to them. It can be difficult at first to let go of thoughts instead of following them, but with practice, it gets easier to refocus your mind on participating in the here and now. If you are not sure where to begin, you can find many mindfulness exercises available on the internet.

Forgiveness

The act of forgiveness can be an important component in letting go of the past. Forgiveness is an action because it involves a conscious choice to forgive yourself for mistakes or another person for the pain they caused you in the past. Forgiveness is a choice that you make for yourself, not to carry the burden of pain any longer. It is not about forgetting what you learned from the past, instead, it is about letting go of painful feelings from the past. This act can seem more complicated than it actually is, and there is no mystical way to decide to forgive. The process involves acknowledging realistically what happened and how you felt about that. Then, deciding to accept that people are flawed and make mistakes. You can choose to forgive yourself or someone else for the hurt that actions in the past caused so that do not have to keep taking up space in your current life.

Stop Distracting

Wanting to not feel pain, or to distract from it, is natural. If we spend too much time distracting from our feelings though, we become disconnected from that part of ourselves that holds valuable information about who we are and who we want to be. How do you know if something you are doing is a healthy way to relax and care for yourself or whether it is a distraction from participating in your life? Usually, when we are doing something much to excess it is serving as a distraction. Examples of distracting behaviors are drinking too much, spending too much time on your phone or on other screens, gambling/spending, and working to excess.

Sometimes life hits us with events we cannot get past on our own. It is always a great idea to seek help when we cannot accept the past and let go. A licensed therapist or psychologist can help; if you just can't accept the past and let go, find a therapist or psychologist who is experienced with these issues.

Living in the Present

Living in the present means you have accepted the past, learned from the past, and moved forward. Living in the present is the only way to enjoy life to its fullest. Experiencing the present moment tends to lead to feelings of appreciation for what it is to be alive. When you are present in the moment you are experiencing your environment and the events taking place as they occur.

When you live in the present -

  • You listen when others speak
  • You are not over-thinking about the future
  • You are not spending too much time with your past memories
  • You notice your environment or surroundings
  • You are not spending too much time in behaviors of distraction
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