Whether you find yourself living in constant regret of the past or a positive-feeling nostalgia, learning how to stop living in the past is the key to unlocking a fulfilling life and not being dragged down by things you either can’t change or can’t relive again.
The past is a fleeting concept, with each and every moment always quickly turning to the technical “past,” but someone who lives in the past is likely living quite a few years in the past.
Maybe they regret a certain amount of time in their life and wish they could change it, or they are pining over a failed relationship and how it used to be or wishing for their childhood days.
It can impact not only what you think about in the present, but also what you talk about.
If you are someone who is constantly bringing up the past in a negative way to other people or spending a lot of mental energy on things that happened to you or around you, it’s time to think about changing your mindset, getting some help, and embracing the future.
There are some instances when thinking about and discussing the past can be a good thing, of course.
People do this in therapy all of the time to try and root out some of their biggest current challenges and fix present mindsets.
You can also reminisce fondly, for instance.
But someone who “lives” in the past is there in their mind quite a lot of the time, to the point that it’s clouding out the present or getting excited about the future.
This is a dangerous mindset to be in, and it’s important to learn how to stop living in the past as soon as you realize you are (or someone tells you you are, which can often be the case because people are so blinded by their obsession with the past that they don’t even realize it!).
1. Find a Mission in the Present
If you’re so wrapped up in the past that you feel like you’re living in it, that’s a good sign that you’ve got nothing much going in the present.
People who are active in their lives and have goals typically don’t have problems living in the past because why would you want to live in the past when you have so much to do in the present?
It doesn’t have to be career goals, either. It could be that your mission is to make new friends, or maybe you set your sights on moving to a new place.
You could even make it a mission to take up a hobby or start volunteering or any number of things that are going to give your current life meaning and purpose.
The word “mission” is often better to use than “goals,” because goals can feel like something your boss says you have to have at the weekly meeting, while a “mission” is all yours.
You’re on a quest, for meaning, to improve your life, and to catapult yourself into the present and future.
For some people, a larger mission might make more sense and keep you engaged in the present, like writing a novel, while other people might want to focus on daily missions like “make one new friend today at the social gathering” or “learn one new recipe today.”
The focus is really on the “new,” and on the growing.
The more you grow and the more new things you learn, the harder it will be to live in the past.
2. Use CBT to Retrain Your Brain
Often, “living in the past” is made up of a bunch of thoughts, not actions.
We live in the past in our minds, not actually through how we dress or what we do during the day.
Because of this, we need to change our thought patterns, and one of the best ways to do that is to use CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) techniques in order to practice switching our brain over to current life and the future whenever it drifts towards dwelling on the past (by the way, “dwelling” is a great word to use because many people need to learn how to stop dwelling on the past, not just stop living in it!)
Check out this list of CBT techniques to decide on which ones to try out.
There are lots of logical fallacies that we make in our heads and CBT helps combat these.
In essence, CBT is challenging your thoughts, so even if you don’t want to research the actual techniques behind it, try to challenge yourself to move back into the present whenever you start dwelling on the past.
3. Make a List of the Pros and Cons of Living in the Past
If you’re so attached to the past, I want you to sit down and make a lit of pros and cons of dwelling on the past.
Seriously, sit down with a pen and paper and make that list.
What are the benefits to focusing on or living in the past?
There are a few, like learning new things about yourself from past experiences, so write them down!
Then write down all of the negatives.
Things like not living your current life.
Pushing friends and family away.
Spending time dwelling on something you can’t change.
At the end of the exercise, take a look at the list.
There’s a good chance that the cons are going to outweigh the pros, and you might have a realization of how draining it is to spend all of your time in the past for the few benefits it provides.
Some people feel living in the past is inevitable, whether due to regret or because they just feel stuck.
But it’s not inevitable, and in fact it’s usually a pretty negative mindset and behavior, so once you lay it all out to see how bad it really is for you, you might feel more inclined to work to stop.
4. See a Therapist
In many of our guides, we always include seeing a therapist to help you through these issues because seeing a therapist is awesome and normal and not just for people who are struggling with severe mental health issues.
A therapist can help you work through your thoughts and feelings in a way that no internet article can, and their continued work with you can really help unlock some different ways of thinking and help you understand yourself better, which is a great first step.
Different therapists have different modalities, with some focusing on the past in their work (this is a Freudian approach).
If you already have struggles with spending too much time focusing on the past, you may want to choose a therapist who specializes in something like CBT which is present-based.
Alternatively, you could look at it like you need to work through some things in the past in order to overcome them, which is also valid and lends itself more to a talk therapy approach.
Whatever you decide, know that you can try out different therapists and keep going until you find the right one.
And even if you function well on a daily basis or are not in serious crisis, know that therapy is there for you too! It’s like keeping your mind and mental health fit, a gym for your brain!
5. Have a Symbolic Ceremony
If the past is weighing you down, many people find it helpful to have a symbolic ceremony to rid yourself of it and move on.
This could take a lot of different forms, but let’s talk about the easiest way first.
For many people, this symbolic move into the present/future can be done by moving to a new place or new house or apartment, changing your wardrobe, changing your hair, getting rid of the belongings of someone in the past like an ex that is weighing you down, changing cars, or even changing your route to work.
You’re not necessarily sitting at a lake throwing some rocks in or crashing plates on the side of the house, but you are changing your environment or getting rid of the things that you associate with the past that keeps you tied down (for instance if every time you look at that sweater you think of your ex, then it’s time to donate it to Goodwill).
The other type of ceremony is a bit more woo-woo, where people do things like writing down all of the things they want to let go off on a rock and throwing it into the river or doing the same with breaking plates or other items they have symbolically put their past into.
You could burn paperwork from your old life that you don’t need anymore or come up with your own unique way to try and send the past back into the past.
6. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is one of the most accessible techniques to learn to keep your mind trained on the present.
Many people think of mindfulness as meditation, which sparks thoughts of sitting with your legs crossed and chanting things, but it’s not like that at all (well, it can be if you want it, but doesn’t have to be).
For many people, practicing mindfulness is just a 5 to 10 minute mental exercise each day where you put on a mindfulness app like Calm or Headspace and practice being present with your thoughts.
It allows you to enhance your focus and concentration, and to accept your thoughts as they come and go into your brain without dwelling on them.
The better you get at it, the better you will get at being in control of your mind and how you deal with your thoughts, which is perfect for someone who has problems with constantly dwelling on the past.
If you don’t want to download an app, simply take 10 minutes and find a quiet place.
Set an alarm, and for those 10 minutes, practice bringing your mind back to present thoughts every time it wanders off to the past.
Even if it’s 100 times, the practice of it will make it easier and easier for you to direct your mind where you want it to go.
7. Focus on One New Thing Each Day
As we mentioned before, focusing on learning new things is a great way to keep yourself grounded in the present.
Whether it’s learning how to cook a new recipe, learning a new language, or focusing on making a new contact or friend each day, you’d be surprised how quickly all of this newness helps reinvigorate your excitement for the future and takes away your need to dwell on the past.