Letting go of the Past: 6 Steps

Holding on to the Past

Boy do I have some regrets in my life. I have failures on top of failures. I also have some hurts. Some of them were deep wounds from my past. At times, it seemed like my past chased me. At other times, I was chasing it. What I finally learned was my past has no real power over my life. I had to choose to let it go.

This was no easy task and I still find myself wrestling with it from time to time. I am a professional ruminator. I can easily get stuck thinking about the past. I can go through all of the would haves, should haves, and wish I would haves over and over.

I did this constantly until I decided to let it go. And by the way, since we are always creating a new past, we have to do this again and again. When I think about my own process, I came up with these 6 steps.

Accept the Past

It seems so simple. We have to accept the past. Yet, we spend so much time and energy ruminating about what happened. We want the past to change. Of course, that is impossible.

As simple as it sounds, accepting the past can be difficult. To do so, we have to accept that whatever was done to us has already happened. It also means that we understand that we do not have to continue in that pain.

Accepting the past also means that I cannot change anything I have done wrong. As much as we all regret some things, they are done. We have to accept those things are gone and there’s nothing we can do about it. We also have to accept that we may be dealing with the consequences of our past actions.

Decide to Let it Go

Do you really want to be free from the past? As much as you want to answer, “YES!” to that question, consider a few issues.

Becoming free from the past means a change in thinking. Sometimes that change is dramatic! It will mean that you stop seeing yourself as a victim or perpetrator. Often, when we are holding onto the past, we are holding on to that victim or perpetrator (or both) identity.

Becoming free from the past also means accepting responsibility for the future. It means we stop looking backwards for the reasons we are having difficulty. Instead, we look at ourselves and accept responsibility both for where we are and where we are going.

In deciding to let go of the past, you are deciding to change.

Express Your Pain and Responsibility

You were hurt. People have caused you pain. Until you acknowledge that pain, you will hold on to those hurts. We sometimes make excuses or say it doesn’t matter anymore. The truth is, doing this allows that pain to linger. It will return if we don’t express it. Your hurt was and is real. It is okay and even necessary to acknowledge it.

You also have responsibility in your wrongdoings. As there are no adequate excuses for others, neither are there any for me. I have to accept responsibility with excusing, minimizing, or justifying. Just to be clear, here are some examples:

  1. Excusing. If you hadn’t done X, I wouldn’t have done Y.

  2. Minimizing. I know I did X, but at least I didn’t do Y.

  3. Justifying. Well, I know I did wrong but he deserved it.

As hard as this is, we also have to accept responsibility for some of our pain. Often, we take on the identity of “victim” or “perpetrator.” Those identities come from what we believe about ourselves. We are the owners of those beliefs. If we are going to be free from the past, we have to be willing to think differently about ourselves and others.

Stop Being a Victim

You were a victim in the past. You may be in the future. However, you and I have to stop seeing ourselves as a perpetual victim. We have to understand that all of those hurts have already occurred and we are choosing to carry them around. We have to see ourselves as someone who has lived through hurts.

I’m not talking about convincing ourselves of something positive. I am not talking about avoiding pain. What I am saying is you made it through. You’re still here. You know more than you used to and you can overcome those hurts.

Stop Being a Perpetrator

If your past wrongs are the things you hold onto the most, you may have taken on the identity of “perpetrator.” You tend to see yourself negatively no matter what the circumstances. You may be spending a lot of time and effort – even decades – trying to make up for things you have done wrong.

Some of us were told we didn’t measure up to the point we believed we will always fail. We disappoint and harm others by not being good enough to meet some arbitrary, irrational standard. My wife really helped me with this a great deal. Several years ago, she looked at me and said, “You know, Jason. You might have been told you’re a failure, or can’t make it, or whatever by a lot of different people, but none of them are here. Stop seeing me as one of them.”

She may not even remember saying those words to me, but she was right. I had taken on that “perpetrator of failure” identity. No matter what you have done, or haven’t done, you have new opportunities ahead of you. You can do things differently now.


Forgive others and yourself. Forgiveness is a difficult thing at times. It is so necessary. Resentment and bitterness will keep us stuck in the past more than anything else.

Forgiving someone means I discharge their debt to me. It means I understand I cannot be repaid and I stop seeking payment. That’s the simple meaning of forgiveness (see Matthew 6 and 18).

Forgiving myself means I stop trying to pay for my own sins. Whether those sins were against God or others, I can never pay for them. I can apologize. I can even reconcile. But I can never repay. How does someone pay back betrayal? Broken trust? Abuse? How would I ever repay those things? We can’t. No human being can.

Let go of your past. It does not have hands that are holding you. You are holding it. Change the way you see yourself and others. Forgive. Be free.

Skyler Barnhart