Letting go of the past, including people who hurt you, may involve accepting what you can’t control, taking accountability, and focusing on the lessons. Seeking help is also important.
Most people have, at some point, wondered how to let go of a hurtful past. It’s natural to feel that your current emotional pain is forever linked to what you experienced before. But, even if the past caused it, letting go of the pain starts with focusing on today.
How to let go of the past may mean different things to different people. It may also depend on your situation.
Maybe you think letting go is about being able to remember events or people without experiencing the pain. Perhaps you feel it’s about forgetting altogether. Or, it may mean you want to move on despite not having forgotten or forgiven yet.
Whatever it means to you, it’s possible to release what weighs heavy on your heart and mind. You can heal, and these tips may help.
Sometimes when you’ve hurt long enough, you may get used to the emotional pain. Maybe it feels safe and familiar. Maybe you’ve internalized it as part of your identity. Perhaps staying angry at that person is comfortable because you can keep a distance.
Growing pains can be real. Getting away from the things you’ve felt and thought about for a long time may be uncomfortable. But healing, joy, and peace of mind may be on the other side of letting go.
It may not be the case for everyone, but if you ask yourself “why can’t I let go?” these questions may help you start releasing your past:
- Are there any secondary gains from keeping yourself focused on what hurts?
- Is thinking about the past keeping you from trying new relationships or situations?
- Do you avoid resolving emotional pain because this would mean facing it first?
- How would your life be if you left the past in the past?
- What would happen if you adopted a different role in the situation?
Sometimes, to heal, you first need to feel it. Bottling up your thoughts and emotions may hurt you more in the long run and make it hard to let go, particularly if you keep thinking about the past and what harmed you.
Ruminating on the same negative thoughts may affect your mood, relationships, and even your ability to be productive and creative.
Try to find ways to express how you feel healthily. Releasing the emotional charge may help you stop ruminating.
Consider engaging in activities that provide a safe space for you to let it all out. For example:
- journaling with prompts
- writing a letter to the person who hurt you (sending it is optional)
- expressing your pain through art or play if writing or talking is difficult for you
- finding a trusted friend, relative, or therapist to share your experiences and feelings
Taking accountability doesn’t mean you have to blame yourself for things that happened to you in the past. It’s more about realizing how much energy you’re spending on remembering or feeling things that are no longer your present. It’s also choosing to focus your attention elsewhere.
When you hold on to your pain, resentment, or hurtful memories, you’re reliving the painful experience again and again. This may keep you stuck in the past, which is something you can no longer change.
Taking accountability is also about claiming your power and deciding others will not control how you feel or live your life.
Maybe you didn’t have a say in what hurt you in the past, but you have a say now. You can choose where you put your mind and heart today.
It’s natural and valid to feel this is a difficult task. Maybe the pain is so intense that you can’t help but focus on it, or perhaps you have to live with the consequences. But healing is still possible.
Consider reaching out to a mental health professional to explore how you can develop effective coping mechanisms that may make releasing the past easier. You deserve it.
Focusing on past events may leave little room in your heart and mind for new experiences, including those that may bring you joy.
Not letting go of the past may make you more prone to miss the good in your life.
Consider these steps to make space for the new and to release the past:
- set personal and professional short-term goals
- cultivate gratitude so you can focus on the present good
- assess the quality of your current relationships and choose those that do you good
- commit to a new hobby or activity every month
- clean and organize your spaces, so you give away or discard items that no longer serve you
- establish new bonds or try to strengthen casual relationships that have the potential to be great friendships
- practice mindfulness, so you learn how to return to the moment when your mind wanders to the past
- commit to one self-care activity every week
- engage in altruistic activities that may boost your mood by helping others
- identify positive leaders and role models who lead with empathy and compassion
Prioritizing yourself is about being intentional with your decisions. This may start with realizing that choosing what’s good for you doesn’t mean you’re being selfish.
Putting yourself first may also mean reclaiming your power by leaving in the past what hurts you and focusing on healing today. It’s about realizing that you matter.
- going to therapy to explore how to let go of the past and hurt you’ve experienced
- setting boundaries with other people who may want to relive or discuss the past when you’re not ready to
- making life decisions that make you feel safe, at peace, or happy, even if others don’t agree
- reframing thoughts that may increase your anxiety or sadness to focus on thoughts that may make you feel hopeful
- engaging in self-compassion and self-respect
Prioritizing yourself may also be about exploring ways to find forgiveness.
Forgiving yourself and others has been associated with higher psychological well-being, including a higher tolerance to uncertainty and a lower tendency to experience anger.
What have you learned about relationships, love, yourself, and life from your hurtful past experiences?
Your first response to this question may be to think of the negatives you may have learned. It’s natural and valid. But try to pause if this is your first reaction and consider focusing on a few positive lessons. For example:
- how strong and resilient you may be
- who showed up for you and proved you can rely on them
- the things you now know you don’t want in your life
- the coping skills you may have developed to face life challenges
- the sense that everything passes and this too shall pass
This isn’t an all-inclusive list and may not necessarily apply to your situation.
The idea is to try to identify whatever strength, skill, knowledge, or clarity you may have gained from a painful event. Focusing on these lessons may make it easier to let go.
One reason you may be ruminating about past events could be a need to revisit past choices or what could have been.
Focusing on the “what ifs” may lead you to repeatedly engage in the same inner conversations and scenarios. But thinking about what happened isn’t going to change it.
It may be difficult to accept, but learning to identify those things you have no control over may help you let go of the past.
The “should haves” or “what ifs” will not change what happened. The “what coulds” and “what wills” may help you move forward and be intentional in daily decisions that will affect your present and future.
Whether you live with trauma, experience anxiety or another mental health disorder, or may be facing relationship resentment, a mental health professional can help you let go and release your emotional pain.
Learning how to let go may depend on your specific situation and understanding of what letting go is about. But it’s possible and healing can be achieved.
Openly expressing how you feel, reclaiming your power, making room for new experiences, and focusing on the lessons are a few ways to let go of emotional pain.
If you’re having a difficult time letting go, consider seeking the help of a mental health professional. They can help you explore the possible causes of your challenges and develop coping skills that work for you.