Regardless of the reason you find yourself "living" in the past (whether due to an extraordinary or traumatic experience), the first thing that can help you break free is accepting how this attitude influences you – becoming aware of how much it harms you.
The past often represents a comfort zone, a safe space that offers beautiful memories, no matter how distorted they may be, a nest where we find solace by reliving everything that was beautiful. Or so we like to believe...
If we had a relationship in which we felt loved, in which our needs and desires were fulfilled, or if we simply had a relationship that stirred the most intense emotions and feelings in us, we tend to go back there so our mind can continue to feed on the memories of those pleasures. We won't focus on what went wrong, on our feelings of sadness, despair, hopelessness, or unhappiness, although sooner or later, inevitably, we will slide in that direction.
Slowly but surely, the beautiful memories will increasingly mix with our regrets, our questions, the "what ifs," feelings of guilt, maybe shame, maybe anger – "why did it all end?", "why couldn't it be different?" Instead of living in the present and making peace with what happened, we channel most of our energy toward the past. Why do we do this?
- because we failed to accept a certain situation and continue to wonder what we could have done differently.
- because we try to obtain a certain emotional comfort viewing the past through rose-colored filters, thus omitting the true real nature of it (both good and bad).
- because it was "better" back then.
- because we failed to overcome a certain suffering (e.g., a divorce) and we just don't know how to continue our life.
- because we are afraid of repeating the same mistakes for which we still feel guilty or ashamed, and so on.
Once our past relationships end for one reason or another, if we fail to detach ourselves and see the big picture, understanding their meaning and significance in our lives, but also internalizing the lessons, the weight of those invisible bonds we continue to nourish can crush our spirit instead of helping us evolve, become more self-aware, and wiser.
How can we free ourselves from the ghosts of past relationships?
First and foremost, to accept and make peace with the fact that a relationship has ended, it's important to try to see that relationship exactly as it was – to be honest with yourself and stop deluding yourself that it was different from what it actually was (much better, in which case any present relationship will never measure up to it, and you'll end up chasing what you can’t touch; or much worse, in which case you'll feed your feeling of helplessness, the feeling of being a victim of a person or a destructive relationship, feelings of guilt, shame, self-punishment, which will inevitably lead to diminished self-confidence and self-esteem).
Then, try to observe what that relationship has taught you – any relationship can be an opportunity for self-discovery and personal growth.
What brought you together, and what made you go separate ways? Sometimes what makes us seek closeness to other people can be our unsatisfied need, our fears, and our wounds. We cry for a relationship, even if it's toxic, without realizing that what brought us into that relationship came from a place of unhealed wounds, our own "toxicity." For example, we are "victims" and unconsciously seek "aggressors," or we have an unconscious belief that we don't deserve to be loved, and we end up seeking those very people who confirm that we indeed don't deserve to be loved.
Other times, what brings us together is what we have in common, we discover that we have similar, compatible beliefs, principles, values, and future plans. However, over time, we may evolve differently, change, and then the "threads" that bound us slowly thin until they break completely. And this simply helps us get to know ourselves better, understand that in that period of our past, that relationship was a perfect fit for the life we were living then.
If we're different now, if we want something else from life, from ourselves, or from those around us, wouldn't it be easier to accept the idea that sometimes relationships naturally run their course, and that doesn't make us bad, selfish, or worthless? Relationships are not fixed and indestructible constructs that remain in the same initial form forever; they, too, change in line with how we evolve and move through life. Maybe what initially connected us (e.g., common passions or compatible "wounds" that have found healing in the meantime) no longer serves either of us, even though it once formed the foundation of that relationship. We've changed, and so has the relationship.
How has that relationship contributed to enriching your life – to a better understanding not only of yourself but also of the world and life? What lessons has it taught you, even by suffering?
Another thing that can help you free yourself from a past relationship is to accept your mistakes and take responsibility for them – if you blame yourself and agonize over what you think you did wrong, consider that you did the best you knew at that time, in line with the information and resources you had at your disposal. If you had known or been able to act differently, you would have. Mistakes can be viewed as opportunities for learning, and by doing so, you actually evolve by learning from your mistakes. However, if you turn a mistake into an opportunity to reinforce your weaknesses ("I'm a fool," "I'm a failure," etc.) and diminish your self-esteem, relating to yourself in a harsh and unfriendly manner, it's no wonder you remain stuck in the past and the "mistakes" of the past.
Confront your emotions – give yourself permission to feel what you are feeling without running away from anger, sadness, disgust, or any other emotion. There's a lot of emotional baggage in painful, unpleasant, or traumatic events from the past. If you don't allow yourself to process those emotions, to release them, they will manifest in other forms. Perhaps you feel hurt, perhaps you feel angry, and it's perfectly okay to feel that way, despite your attempts not to let those emotions surface. For example, maybe your relationship with your mother made you feel unseen or unloved, perhaps you felt wronged, and you've built up a lot of anger, but because you're not allowed to be angry with your parents ("it's not nice," "it's not an acceptable attitude," "you have no reasons"), you repress that emotion, leading to an inner conflict between what you truly feel and what you say or do. You feel bad and don't know why.
Forgive – forgive yourself first and then, if you feel ready, forgive others – forgiveness is, in fact, an individual process that has more to do with our ability to heal certain wounds from the past and free ourselves from them than with the person who wronged us. When we don't forgive, we remain attached to the event or situation from our past, investing our energy in reliving that event in our mind, in reliving the painful emotions from back then, in blame, resentment, and last but not least, self-blame. Forgiveness doesn't mean erasing what we experienced; it doesn't mean denying that yes, we suffered, that we felt hurt. We don't deny our experiences; on the contrary, we acknowledge them, accept them, and integrate them. Forgiveness means awareness and acceptance, understanding, and release.
Start focusing on things that are in your control – the past no longer exists, so no matter how much you wish you could go back and change things, that's no longer possible. Instead of wasting your time and energy by constantly rehashing a past situation, it's better to focus on the present moment, on what you can control now because, yes, regardless of what happened back then, only the present moment offers you the opportunity to change the trajectory of your life based on what you choose to do now. Look for ways to improve your current situation, ways you can grow and develop.
Don't wait for the other person to do something for you to finally move on – perhaps, without realizing it, you're waiting for the other person to heal your pain – you tell yourself that "if he or she comes and apologizes, I'll be able to make peace with what happened and finally move on peacefully," or "if I get the explanations I need, I'll get over it," "if he or she forgives me, I'll overcome this blockage," and so on. In this way, you condition closing that chapter on the actions that the other person may or may not take, but it's not up to someone else for you to heal and move forward; it's entirely up to you, how you relate to that relationship which ended, and what you do during the period when you're not just passively waiting for time to heal your wounds but actively seeking your own healing path, step by step, through your thoughts, attitude, and actions.
When you're on the path to your own healing, you begin to notice that the things (stimuli) that used to trigger strong emotional reactions now start triggering a different kind of response (perhaps less intense, perhaps entirely different responses), and it's important to pay attention to what changes in your perception as time passes.
Getting over a breakup or a loss is not an event that happens suddenly one day if certain conditions are met (as mentioned above, if he or she apologizes or if you receive some answers to accept that situation, etc.). It's a process that takes time and depends primarily on you, on how you rewrite your story, and what you do now for your wellbeing and development.
Dr. Ursula Sandner