How to stop dwelling on the past and move on to a brighter future

Published by Olivier Devroede on

Many people are stuck in a past that was hurtful or wonderful. But just the same, they come back to it time and again without ever moving on.

Dwelling on the past means to revisit the same episode of your life over and over again, each time hoping for a better ending. It reopens all the wounds you have incurred and stops your attempts to move forward in your life. Dwelling on the past makes it almost impossible for something new and positive to show up in your life.

This post guides you through why we keep stuck in the past and how to move beyond it so you too can head to a better future.

Why are we stuck in the past?

As human beings, we are born problem solvers. Our minds are constantly busy solving all kinds of problems needed for our survival. This is, in my mind, the sole thing that made our species so successful on planet earth.

But what if we cannot solve the problem? What if something happened in our past that did not go the way we wanted it to go? We could have been insulted, or yelled upon, or even much worse.

Oftentimes this is what happens to us in a moment that made a big impact on us. It is still bringing up emotions in us that are difficult to deal with.

Is it always bad to dwell on the past? The past also has wonderful things. As long as we do not get engrossed in it. Photo by Vlad Chețan from Pexels

You see, the second thing that makes us great as a species is our ability to recall past events. It allows us to reflect on the event and learn from it. Being able to learn is really our greatest gift from nature.

Now, combining an unresolved problem (negative emotion from being hurt) with our ability to recollect events and our tendency to want closure on all problems in our lives, makes for a great cocktail to start us ruminating.

So what in essence are beautiful qualities in us humans can become hell on earth.

So the essence of the problem of dwelling on the past is that we somehow have a problem that was created some time ago and our solution-seeking mind keeps the problem in memory to solve it.

A true catch 22.

Luckily for us, recognizing these aspects is also the way out of the problem.

Is it really so bad to be dwelling on the past?

Well, for you to be researching this topic means that, at least, it is bothering you to some extend.

If you are like me, it bothers you a lot. And for me, this is more than reason enough to get rid of it. Here is a personal story of how my dwelling on the past ruined part of a retreat I was doing:

In my case, it is often politics that get me started. It does not matter whether I am left or right, the same argument would in any case apply to the opposite party.
But I can disagree so much with what the politician of the opposite side has said or done that I can dwell and ruminate for hours.
I actually did that once during a meditation retreat. For some reason, this mainly happened during walking meditation. No idea why.
But I spent several 45-minute sessions telling the political candidate why he was wrong and I was right. That showed him!
But since I was on a retreat, I could clearly see that this was not helping me. It bothered me. And it bothered me a lot.
Luckily, I was on a retreat. I was actually in the position to tackle the problem as I describe in the rest of this post: trying to be mindful of my tendency to dwell in the past and coming back to the present. Accepting that I did indeed relapse (sigh) and then letting go.
Now, I still occasionally relapse into dwelling on political issues, but far less than before. For all practical purposes, we can say that I quit. What a relief

The other reason you want to avoid dwelling on the past is that research has shown that this is associated with a host of negative consequences in the long term.

Rumination has been linked to both depression and anxiety disorders. This paper from 2011 finds a clear correlation between people ruminating and these two disorders. In their own words:

The current study identified rumination as a transdiagnostic factor responsible for the co-occurrence of symptoms of depression and anxiety in both adolescents and adults. Rumination accounted for a significant proportion of the concurrent overlap in symptoms of depression and anxiety, albeit to a greater degree among adolescents than adults.

Now, this paper is an overview paper, so it means that it has looked at a host of other papers on the subject and combined them to be more statistically relevant.

In any case, researchers think that the reason that meditation is so effective in treating anxiety and depression is because rumination is a common cause in all these patients.

The thing to take away from this is that not only is dwelling on the past bothersome for you, it also makes you more prone to depression and anxiety.

More than enough reason to look at a solution.

The method to stop dwelling on the past

Mindfulness at the rising sun. A photo taken by myself!

Do not dwell in the past,

do not dream of the future,

concentrate the mind on the present moment.

Buddha Shakyamuni

The solution I propose is based on my personal experience AND on recent scientific findings on mindfulness meditation.

Now, before you leave this page thinking that mindfulness and meditation are not for you, and you click away to other sites that only briefly mention meditation, I beg you to read just a few more paragraphs to give me the opportunity to convince you.

What you will find on other pages covering the same topic, are things like: ‘stop pointing fingers’, ‘let go of the past’, ‘stop rehashing’ and ‘think it through’.

And although these are great tips, they lack a clear strategy on how and when to apply them.

I’m sure you told all of these to yourself many times. And vowed to never return to the subject. But again, if you are anything like me, you did return to your dwelling.

And this is where mindfulness comes to the rescue.

I can say this from personal experience: I almost do not ruminate any more (almost, I said 😉 ).

Scientific evidence is mounting that mindfulness indeed helps a lot against dwelling on the past. This study demonstrates this. Here, the scientists clearly see that rumination is reduced by mindfulness training.

They also hypothesize that this is the major reason why mindfulness is such an excellent way of treating both depression and anxiety, but also aggression.

One last argument to put you at ease. You do not need to become a yogi or a lama in order to dwell less on the past. Actually, 10 minutes a day is probably an excellent start.

If you do not know how to meditate, do not fear. There are excellent resources available. This site offers a 10 minute a day course and should be sufficient.
If you want something more, have a look at my curated list of online mindfulness courses.

But read on to learn how mindfulness can help you stop dwelling on the past. I include actionable advice also.

Mindfulness – becoming cognizant of the problem

Do you have any problems? Photo courtesy of Chris Erwin

One of the great problems when dealing with recurring dwelling on the past is that before you notice you are doing it, quite some time can have elapsed.

You are thinking and thinking and rehashing all the same arguments or reliving the scene trying to find new ways to end it in a way that is beneficial for you.

And once we notice, we have the tendency to be annoyed with ourselves or to blame ourselves for not having seen and stopped this thing.

Comes in mindfulness.

In short, mindfulness is awareness that we purposefully direct to whatever is happening right now in our bodies, minds, and emotions. (I have a whole article dedicated to the definition of mindfulness, but for the purpose of this article, it is not necessary to go in such depth).

The important part here is that we purposefully direct our awareness. This in contrast with when we dwell in the past and are just lost in thought.

So in a certain sense, mindfulness is the antithesis of rumination.

Just to reassure you, mindfulness is not about having no thought. Not at all. We can just as well bring our awareness to our thoughts. It is a great practice to think mindfully!

But there is more to mindfulness than that. Mindfulness is also non-judgmental. And by this, we mean that we need to observe whatever happens with curiosity. As if we saw it for the first time. We neither repress nor feed it.

In a sense, it is what a scientist would do. We observe in a neutral fashion and bring interest to the present moment

So how exactly will mindfulness help with our dwelling on the past?

Well, it will help in mainly three ways:

  • First, it will help us to become cognizant of the fact that we are dwelling on the past much faster than before. This will happen because the whole training of mindfulness is aimed just at honing this particular skill.
  • Second, through not being judgmental about our behavior, we stop repressing the rumination. This is a big thing because what we repress tends to come back hard, like a boomerang we did not see coming.
  • Third, since we are now bringing interest to what is happening in our mind, we will start to discover our fundamental tendencies related to the problem at hand. We will, for instance, discover that there are clear triggers that start us dwelling. We can then use these triggers to stop ourselves from dwelling on the past.

As a personal anecdote: a few years ago, when my children were still very young, they tended to make a lot of noise in the car. And all this while I was trying to listen to the news on the radio.
I tended to explode and yell at them to Just Shut Up. The result was that both they and I got a bad feeling.
But since I was training in mindfulness, I was able to spot the pattern. I looked closely at the dynamics at play and I decided that next time, I would ask them calmly to be quieter and to turn the volume of the radio down.
And so it happened. I never got mad at them anymore in the same way. Mindfulness had shown me the way out and had triggered me when the situation reoccurred.

Meditation – to hone your skills

Now, there are two ways to become more mindful. There is the hard way. And there is a very hard way.

Ok, ok, I’m joking.

But there are ways that are easier than others.

Becoming mindful through meditation

As you might know, modern notions of mindfulness come through meditation. Meditation is a quite easy skill te learn, it just takes consistency in doing it every day for some amount of time.

Personally, I meditate half an hour per day on average. But as little as 10 minutes will have its positive effects.

Why do I think meditation is required?

Because in essence, during meditation we practice all the necessary skills to become mindful of the problem at the moment it occurs. Just read the instructions below and you will understand.

Basic mindfulness meditation instructions

  • Start by sitting down comfortably and relaxed. Take an upright posture as this will make sure you will not doze off.
  • Next, move your awareness towards your breathing. You will notice the breath going in and out. It does not matter where you notice this, just be aware of the fact that your are either breathing in or out.
  • As you continue this practice, you will see that your mind will wander. When you notice this, notice what has captured your attention and acknowledge this fact.
  • Now just bring your attention back to the breathing without judging yourself. Just notice that your mind strayed and come back to the breathing.
  • Do this for as long as the meditation continues.

Related: The 3 Minute Breathing Space Exercise Explained

As you can see, this exercise is rather easy and is a preparation for us to notice in our daily life when we are dwelling on the past.

In the beginning, some support in the form of a guided meditation like the one hereunder is welcome. But since sustained effort over a longer period will be needed, you might consider a meditation course. the page I link to also has free options.

Letting Go and Acceptance – applying the solution

1. You must let the pain visit.

2. You must allow it to teach you.

3. You must not allow it to overstay.

Ijeoma Umebinyuo, three routes to healing

The third step in stopping to dwell on the past is applying letting-go and acceptance.

Both are core attitudes of mindfulness.

These 2 attitudes work great together. Once we have become mindful of our rumination, we can now specifically work with what we have at hand.

The first step is to acknowledge that we were taken away to the past in an accepting way. There is no use beating ourselves up as this will only make things worse.

When we put to much pressure on ourselves and we cannot live up to our own expectations, we tend to hide things from ourselves. And we want to avoid this at all costs.

We need to be as honest as possible with ourselves. So just notice you strayed and why you did. Nothing more.

Next, ask yourself if you can let go of this issue. Bring in arguments pro and contra letting go. Do not start thinking again about the problem you were dwelling on. No, think if you can let go or not.

Lastly, decide to just let go. I do it with a sigh. Let go of everything.

Now, this last step is as easy as it looks, but I struggled with it. This article cannot cover this step in-depth, but I highly recommend the Sedona method for this. You can either google it or check out the book at amazon. Hopefully, one day I’ll have the time to write an article on it.

Gratitude – a great supportive practice

Many studies prove that gratitude is something that greatly enhances our well-being.

When we dwell on the past, we are overly concerned with what has gone wrong in our lives and we are attributing enormous importance to the negativity.

What we tend to forget, mostly because of our evolutionary inheritance has predisposed us for this, is that a lot of good things are happening in our lives on a daily basis.

We need to acknowledge this fact in order to start having a better view of what our lives are really like.

I fully understand that some people have much harder lives than others. there is no denying that.

But if we look carefully, we will see that most people’s lives are pretty ok and balanced. Not at all times, but on average they are.

So practicing gratitude re-establishes the balance between the good things in our lives and the less good ones.

So do this exercise every day when you are in bed: Think back on your day and find 5 things for which you are grateful.

If you find it hard to be grateful, just pick things that went well in your day. And see if you can be a little grateful for this.

Do not make the mistake of looking for a major event like getting a present or a promotion. Concentrate more on the little things like a co-worker smiling at you or you were able to finish a tedious task in a timely manner.

You will se that with a little practice, you will find it easier to come up with new things to be grateful for.

Distraction – in times of great need

I do realize that sometimes we can be so caught up in our thought that no amount of mindfulness will be able to help us.

At those times, you need to get your thoughts off the topic you are dwelling on.

You should have a few activities that you love and that engaging enough for you to not start ruminating. Here is a list for you to start with. they are the usual suspects, but they do work

  • Take a walk in nature
  • Hug a tree
  • Go running, cycling, or do another sport you like
  • Listen to music you love
  • Read an uplifting book
  • Do something artistic like drawing or playing music
  • Watch a show that makes you laugh
  • Clean the house

Now, you should be a bit careful with this list. You need to learn from experience which one works for you. In my case, I tend to start ruminating more when I am cleaning.

So pick the one that works best for you, or find your own perfect activity.

Featured image by Nicholas A. Tonelli

Olivier Devroede

Hi, I’m Olivier Devroede and I have been meditating seriously since 2009. Due to the great benefits I have seen in meditating, I decided to become an MBSR trainer myself and start a blog.