The Psych Central Report

Letting Go of the Haunting Past

by SS8282
September 2005

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Many of us live with a past that constantly haunts us. The past sneaks up by way of memories, our 'automatic' reactions (the way we feel physically or emotionally) to certain triggers, and in a more troublesome form, by way of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD).

Our response to our traumatic past hinders us from enjoying our lives to the fullest, and appreciating what we have NOW. It prevents us from doing what we might do had the 'past' not occurred. For example, a person who was in a car accident refuses to drive again.

Our response to our past restrains us from being free. We are 'prisoners' of our past. We need to let go of the past, so that we can continue on with our lives.

When I use the phrase 'let go of the past', I do not mean forget the past. Traumatic experiences are very difficult to forget, and should not be forgotten. Knowing that you have survived can help you become a stronger person.

I believe that 'fear' is the main reason why our past hurts us for so long. We are afraid that 'it' will happen again. We relive the past over and over, and because of this fear, we avoid doing the 'thing' that got us hurt, or we 'over-react' to a trigger. For instance, a person who was assaulted once receives a tap on her shoulder, while walking down a street. She immediately thinks the person is going to attack her, so she starts screaming and yelling for help, while trying to run away. In reality, the person who tapped her shoulder just wanted to give her back something she dropped.

Fear is not such a negative thing. It can help keep us safe from harm. The hard part is to keep the fear in perspective. If we can control our fear, instead of letting it control us, then we can let go of the past, and enjoy the present.

There are four key exercises that you can do to help you be in more control.

  1. Do not blame yourself. No matter what the other person says, you are not responsible for his or her action. It can take a long time before you believe it, but it is true. Every time you say, 'If I hadn't…' or 'If I was…' then 'it' wouldn't have happened, say 'STOP' to yourself. Tell yourself that it was not your fault, you are not responsible for the other person's actions.

  2. Stay in the present. Focus on what is happening NOW. Do not think what has happened before or what might happen, is going to happen. Keep telling yourself that you are in control, not the fear from the past.

  3. Don't generalize. If, for example, the last time you made a left turn, you got into a car accident, it does not mean that you will get into an accident every time you make a left turn. As long as you are careful and pay attention to what is going on, you will be fine.

  4. Give yourself time. Feel the pain, feel the fear. Eventually, the pain and fear will lessen, and you will start to heal. You can not force yourself to heal, but you will when you are ready.

These four exercises are NOT to replace therapy and medication that you may be on; rather, they are to be used to complement them. These exercises are not easy to do, but with effort and practice, you will get better. In time, you will be able to let go of the past and live a more peaceful and happier life.

Using common sense and taking precautionary measures will also help, such as not going out walking alone at night. If you must go, take a friend with you, or take a taxi or bus to where you need to go.

We have the rest of our lives in front of us. Learning to leave the past in the past, and live in the present will help us have a happier future.

Last updated: 5 Sep 2005
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 5 Sep 2005
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