How To Move On: Letting Go Of The Past To Prepare For The Future

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated October 10, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is having suicidal thoughts, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. Free support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

In an interview with The New York Times, Anne Wilson, a psychologist at Wilfrid Laurier University, states that memory can be reconstructed and prone to bias, which may cause individuals to romanticize or cling to the past, even if it wasn't ideal. In addition, memories associated with adverse past experiences often fade more quickly than those associated with positive events. This subconscious process might help individuals cope with painful emotions. 

You might also hold onto the past due to non-accomplished expectations, missing another person, or wanting to change what you cannot control. In these cases, moving on from the past may benefit your mental and physical well-being. Attaching to situations that no longer serve you or work in your favor might cause you to miss out on positive and joyful moments in the future.

Letting Go Can Be Possible With Professional Guidance

What Does "Moving On" Mean? 

Moving on can have different meanings for each person. However, it often involves an element of acceptance and a willingness to seek other stimuli, situations, beliefs, or people to attach to. 

For example, if you've lost a job you care about profoundly, you might get down on yourself about why it ended. In this case, holding onto unwanted thoughts motivated by anxiety, sadness, or dread might cause you to believe you are unworthy of a job or not enough to get hired elsewhere. These cognitive distortions might impede your ability to look for new positions or consider a better job. When you see the end of an old phase as the start of a new one, you may feel better suited to finding a position that works for you and turning a challenge into resilience through problem-solving. 

Moving on can mean choosing to face discomfort and planning to move forward instead of moving backward. There are many ways to avoid these thoughts and urges, so continue practicing your coping mechanisms until they stick. You're not alone in your feelings, but holding on to the past might be doing more harm than you can initially notice. 

Why Is Moving Away From The Past Constructive?

Below are a few reasons why moving on from the past might be constructive and in your favor. 

You May Feel More Motivated For The Future

A survey from Forbes found that people who imagine their goals in detail and look toward the future are more likely to achieve them than people who don't. If you're stuck in your memories or fantasies about the past, you might not be focused on what you want to accomplish in the future. Motivation is one potential benefit of moving on. As you start to accept your possibilities, you can feel confident knowing your situation can work out, even if it's difficult right now. 

You Can Start To Heal Painful Emotions

According to psychologist Joseph Ciarrochi, letting go of the past through practices like non-attachment can improve mental health. Although emotional responses to loss or difficulty can be healthy and offer lessons, holding onto these painful emotions in the long-term might be unhealthy. Chronic and lasting stress can be associated with diseases or distressing physical symptoms. As you learn to cope with these feelings, you can compassionately let them pass, acknowledging that they occurred and that you're ready to move on. 

You Can Reduce Fantasies Of What Could Have Been

Another way people may hold onto memories is by fantasizing about how the past could've been different. However, believing that you may have been able to "fix" or "save” what was lost can be unhealthy. The past is often unchangeable, and fantasies about the future might cause you to remain stuck in ideas that do not serve you. For example, after a breakup, holding onto the idea that an ex-partner will return could cause pain if they never do.


How To Move Forward

Moving on might seem more straightforward in theory than it is in practice. However, you can use a few techniques to get started, including the following. 

Practice Radical Acceptance

Radical acceptance is a coping skill from the distress tolerance module in the dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) workbook. It involves accepting situations that cannot or should not change, including those from the past. To practice radical acceptance, consider these steps from the DBT worksheet:
  1. Observe how you might be questioning or fighting your reality.
  2. Remind yourself that your reality cannot or would not be healthy to be changed in this situation.
  3. Try to note any causes for the reality. For example, you can note that the loss may have been out of your control due to someone else's decisions. 
  4. Practice acceptance with your mind, body, and spirit. Use positive self-talk to tell yourself you are willing to accept this situation, even if it is difficult.
  5. List all the behaviors you'd partake in if you already accepted this situation. Then act this way until you find it aligns with your reality.
  6. Cope ahead by thinking of ways to accept the situation if it worsens.
  7. Attend to your body sensations using mindfulness or meditation to connect with yourself.
  8. Allow disappointment, sadness, grief, or anger to arise if they do. Note them and do not act on them. Give them the space to exist.
  9. Acknowledge that life can be worth living, even when there is pain.
  10. Create a pros and cons list if you are resisting acceptance further.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text 988 to talk to a crisis provider over SMS. They are available 24/7 to offer support. 988 also offers an online chat for those with an internet connection.

Take Healthy Risks

Many people feel "stuck" in the past and struggle to take new life paths. For example, someone who went through the loss of a teaching position at a university might not try to apply to another school, dispute the occurrence, or look for new ways to teach. They may stay stagnant, reminding themselves of how they might have struggled or what led to the end of their teaching career at the school. 

Instead of focusing on these areas, it can be healthy to take a risk by reaching out for new opportunities. If you lost a job, apply to new jobs, including the ones you feel you might not be 100% qualified for. If you lost a relationship, look for new ways to connect with others by joining a club or attending a social event you might not have considered before. If you were diagnosed with a terminal illness, consider ways to value your goals, even if they might have to be accommodated in new ways. No matter what you're struggling with from your past, there may be ways to take healthy risks to change your outlook on your current situation.  

Create A Gratitude Journal

Studies on gratitude have found that writing about what you're grateful for can increase your optimism and hope for the future. Consider buying a journal and writing five to ten areas of your life you are grateful for each day or week. A few examples could include: 

  • Spending time with your pet
  • Receiving a free coffee from your boss
  • Going on a beautiful walk in the morning
  • Loving your partner
  • Feeling excited when your paycheck arrives
  • Enjoying the feeling of a cool breeze on a hot day
  • Having a tasty meal 
  • Connecting positively with a stranger

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of focusing on your present moment, sensory awareness, and thoughts. Research has also confirmed the effectiveness of this practice in improving mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and stress. There are many ways to practice mindfulness, and you can consider a guided audio if you're unsure how to start. One widespread practice involves deep breathing and focusing on your five senses. Follow the steps to get started: 

  1. Start by sitting or lying down in a comfortable location with limited distractions. 
  2. Focus your breathing by breathing through your nose for a count of five and filling your diaphragm. Then, breathe out through your mouth for a count of eight. 
  3. Focus on what you see around you. Can you identify which color is most prominent in your environment? 
  4. Next, focus on what you hear. Are there cars outside or the ticking of a clock in the room you're in? 
  5. Move to your sense of smell next. Ask yourself if you can identify one pleasant scent in the room. 
  6. Afterward, experience the tactile sensations around you. Can you feel yourself sitting or lying down? What do your clothes feel like on your body? 
  7. Finally, experience taste by eating a treat or drinking a drink mindfully. You can process the taste in your mouth by taking a moment before you swallow. 

Reframe How You Look At The Past  

Another way to move away from the past is to reframe your thoughts. Resilience is a concept that may support you in this process. People who identify with resilience may look at challenging past situations as areas for growth instead of failures. For example, if you lose a relationship due to unhealthy behaviors, you can use your knowledge that these behaviors were unhealthy to make healthier choices in your future relationships, even if you can't repair what you did with your ex-partner, friend, or family member. 

Distract Yourself 

Distraction may also help some individuals move forward. To practice distraction, try to stay busy with healthy and active activities, events, or responsibilities. A few activities that might occupy your mind and improve your mental health could include: 

  • Regular aerobic exercise, like running or going to the gym 
  • Specialized forms of exercise like dancing, swimming, or martial arts
  • Yoga and mindfulness practice
  • Quality time with healthy friends and family
  • Focused work on a DIY project 
  • Art creation 
  • Goal-oriented journaling 
  • Play with your pets or daily walks with your dog 
  • Local events 
  • Being a "tourist" in your town by visiting popular tourist attractions
  • Going out to eat 
Getty/Luis Alvarez
Letting Go Can Be Possible With Professional Guidance

Consider Professional Support

Although you can use many coping skills independently to let go of the past, these skills might not be entirely effective for everyone. In some cases, difficulty moving forward might be a symptom of an underlying mental health condition. In addition, some people learn better with professional guidance. 

If you're feeling depressed, anxious, or stressed, leaving home can be challenging. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can try therapy from home through phone, video, or chat sessions with a therapist matched to your preferences. In addition, as you can attend sessions from home, your therapist can be with you through your device as you practice skills in a familiar environment. 

Studies show that online therapy is significantly effective in treating chronic stress, especially in those living with adjustment challenges. If moving forward causes you chronic stress or it's difficult to feel unattached from the past, consider using an internet-based platform to practice cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), DBT, or another therapeutic modality to receive the benefits of counseling from home. 


Whether you're trying to move on from a relationship, a period in your life, a job, or another area of your past, you're not alone. Tactics like mindfulness, radical acceptance, and gratitude journaling may help you start to make changes that benefit your future. However, if you're struggling to get started or would like personalized guidance, you can also contact a therapist online or in your area for further support.

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