How to Let Go of Painful Memories

Life is a series of little and big moments. Many of these moments make for good memories, but some are painful. And some of these painful memories are just hard to shake off. The can affect us long after the moment has passed to the point of of being debilitating. We replay the details over and over again making it almost impossible for the wound to heal. 
 
Letting go of these painful memories is an essential step in moving forward. Constantly looking back is a risk factor for depression and dulls the joy of living in the moment.
 
Here are five approaches that can help the process of reconciling the past and looking forward to the future.

1. Express your Feelings

The first (and most difficult) step in letting go of a painful memory is to get in touch with your feelings around what happened. People often avoid thinking about these painful experiences for obvious reasons. Re-living the pain is an intimidating exercise that many people avoid. The "elephant in the room" that they know is there but choose to ignore.
 
By avoiding the confrontation with your own negative thoughts, the pain can live on for a very long time. Rather than fade with time, it can build in intensity and become more powerful. 
 
Talking with someone you trust, a friend or a professional, can open up a path to exploring your feelings surrounding the painful situation. If you do not feel comfortable discussing it, writing about your experience is also an excellent way to explore and come to terms with what happened.

2. Be Present

Painful memories can interfere with our enjoyment of our present lives long after they are gone. Life occurs in the present. Learning to live in the moment can help free you from this pain.
 
Adopting a practice of gratitude is great first step. Have you noticed that gratitude is so much easier when things are going well? Gratitude is harder when you are not feeling good about how things have turned out, or you are going through tough times. But this "hard gratitude", being thankful for hard lessons, is even more important.
 
You can also use your 5 senses to bring yourself back to the present moment. Adopt a philosophy of noticing and experiencing what is around you. Take a minute to notice what is around you – what do you see, smell, hear, taste, and touch? By focusing on what we are experiencing, we can force our brains to process what is happening right now.
 
It may also be helpful to develop a personal mantra that you can repeat when you need to in order to ground yourself, like “Be Here Now”. This reminder can help identify when you are slipping from the present moment and re-centre yourself by disrupting negative thought patterns that you unconsciously fall into. 

3. Practice Forgiveness

The idea of forgiveness, especially when we have been wronged, can be a tough notion. If someone hurt you badly, why should you forgive them for what they did?  Doesn’t that give them a “free pass”?
 
Forgiveness is more nuanced than that. When you forgive someone, it does not absolve that person for their actions. Rather, you are giving yourself permission to let go of the anger that you have held towards that person or situation.  By saying “I forgive you”, you are really saying “I will not forget what happened, but I will not let this situation control me any longer”.
 
"When you forgive, you in no way change the past - but you sure do change the future." Bernard Meltzer

4. Reach out for Help 

Seeing a counsellor can be helpful if the painful memories are negatively impacting your ability to move on. You may also seek help from friends or support groups.  Other activities that practice mindfulness may be useful, like meditation or yoga.  
 
There is no shame in needing help and it is not a sign of weakness. Even the best business leaders and athletes have coaches. You may just a need someone in your corner to help you resolve the issue.

5. Letting go is a Journey

Even if you have moved beyond the event and accepted what has happened, old feelings can easily re-surface.  If feelings reappear, you have not failed. It just means that there is more to explore. Do not get angry at yourself if you thought you were beyond it.
 
Memories and human psychology are complex and you may experience triggers that surface past events. Be mindful of this and know that it is common. The most severe form may be related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you feel that you are suffering from PTSD symptoms, please seek the help of a professional.

Conclusion

We all experience painful memories in our lives. Understanding that negative experiences and memories are part of life, and adopting approaches to move on, will help us more fully enjoy the present. If you are struggling to find the tools or energy to move on by yourself, we encourage you to find strength from those that care about you or from a professional.