Whether you can't stop rehashing conversations and arguments that happened last week, or you're always beating yourself up for a mistake you made years ago, dwelling on the past can keep you stuck in that same place of pain.
In my book, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do, I included an entire chapter about the dangers of dwelling on the past. You can't be your strongest self when your brain is preoccupied with prior mistakes, past hurts, and nagging regret.
Being stuck in the past is one of the most common issues I address in my therapy office. While some people have PTSD that makes it hard to move forward, others are simply stuck in rumination mode and they can't let go of something that already happened.
Although a certain amount of self-reflection can of course be healthy for you, sometimes to become your strongest self, you need to be able to focus on the present. Looking backward makes it impossible to enjoy what's going on around you right now, and it prevents you from making the future as good as it can be.
While there are many mental strength exercises that can help you stop dwelling on the past, here are two strategies that can help you move forward:
1. Make peace with your past.
You may need to spend a little time thinking about why you're stuck in the past. Do you feel like you aren't worthy of moving forward? Maybe you hurt someone and you think staying stuck in the past is your punishment.
Are you holding onto a grudge because you think your anger diminishes someone else's life? Maybe someone hurt you, and you're afraid moving on would mean what they did wasn't that bad.
Sometimes, dwelling on the past is an easy way to distract yourself from the present. If you find yourself unhappy now, you might be tempted to romanticize how much happier you were "back then." Perhaps you recall all the good things that happened in a previous relationship, and you filter out all the arguments and problems that led you to break up.
Or maybe you beat yourself up for making "the wrong choice." But the truth is, you never know what life would have had in store for you if you'd made a different choice. Depending on your circumstances, you may just need to give yourself permission to move forward, and then make a conscious effort to stop yourself every time you keep dwelling on the past.
Did something traumatic happen, and you never sought treatment? If something serious or a tragic event is what is causing you to focus on the past, you may benefit from professional help to assist you in healing that old emotional wound. Speaking to a licensed mental health professional could help you finally leave the past behind you.
2. Focus on the lessons you learned.
Thinking about the unfairness or the unpleasantness of an event will keep you stuck. To heal, you may need to spend some time focusing on the facts, not the emotions.
Walk yourself through a painful memory, and think about the facts, not your distress. Remember where you were sitting, what you were doing, who was there, and what happened to you. Then consider the lessons you learned from surviving that painful thing or for enduring that difficult experience. Some of the best life lessons can be learned from the toughest times you've endured.
So whether you write in a journal or you replay the story inside your head, practice going through the details as if you were a narrator who simply recounts the facts. Doing this a few times can help take the emotional sting out of the experience.
Accept Your Past, Embrace Your Present, Plan for Your Future
Refusing to dwell on the past isn't about ignoring the things that happened. Instead, it often means embracing and accepting your experiences so you can live in the present. So recognize the emotional toll that dwelling on something is taking on you, and then give yourself permission to move forward.
If someone has wronged you, this may involve practicing forgiveness. This doesn't mean to "forgive and forget." You may have to stick to your decision to have no contact with the person. But focus on forgiving by letting go of the hurt or anger you feel toward that person.
Your vision of the future should be about who you want to become --not who you used to be. So while you can reflect on the past enough to learn from it, make sure to let go of whatever anger, shame, or guilt is holding you back from moving forward.