How to Let Go of the Past and Move Forward

Posted on January 25th, 2012

Stuck in the past? Caught up in all the wrongs you have done to others and yourself while you were deep in the throes of your addiction? If you can’t seem to shake those depressing and distressing memories, you’re not doing your recovery any favors. Here are some tips on how to let go of the past and move forward.

Tip #1: Everything isn’t a big deal, so don’t make it one.

Even though we all know better, it seems to be human nature to lump all our ills together in one basket and try to carry them forward despite the fact that the burden is just too much for us. We should take heed of the recommendation that many treatment experts offer and that is to stop thinking that everything is a big deal. It really isn’t.

Chances are that many of the unpleasant memories from the past are more in our heads than anyone else’s. Even if we have done bad things before, we cannot undo them. Why not adopt a more proactive attitude about what’s been done and strive to do better in the future, beginning with today?

Psychologically speaking, when we keep mounting things up in our head, we’re not able to fully concentrate on what we should be doing for our recovery in the here and now. If we’re so stuck in the past, how can we begin to see what’s right in front of us? We will miss opportunities by looking backward instead of taking stock of what may be happening now.

Sure, trying to lighten the load and let go of the past by not giving it the status of such a big deal is going to take some time. And it’s not always easy to do. Still, adopting the mind-set that life is precious, it’s short, and there’s really no benefit in wasting it by worrying over things that are over and done with can help us leave that baggage behind and start moving forward.

Tip #2: The only reality is now, so embrace it.

Let’s think about the past for a moment and recognize one unalterable truth: The past isn’t reality. It cannot be, because it is over and done with. While the repercussions of what we may have done in the past may continue, and we definitely need to take responsibility for our actions and atone for them where possible, the past is behind us.

We don’t live in the past. We live in the present. So why should we give so much of our time and effort over to worrying about what happened in the past? If we want to make changes to our life, we do so in the present. Keep this simple truth in mind: The only reality is now. This can help us move away from our focus on the past and jump-start our movement forward. It’s really all up to us and our actions, so embrace the opportunity of what is, here and now.

Tip #3: We can’t change the past, so don’t waste energy trying.

As much as we’d like to obliterate some of our past actions and their consequences, the fact is that none of us is ever going to be able to do so. It simply is not possible to change the past, to rewrite our personal history and do away with the bad things we’ve said and done that cause harm to ourselves and others.

Trying to change the past is a waste of energy. It saps our motivation and stalls our forward momentum in recovery. Of course, it’s easier said than done, since each of us has something in our past that we’d much rather change than acknowledge that we’ve done.

Still, the fact that we’ve got those bad memories is something we have to deal with, so while we can’t change the past, we do have another option. What we can do is to alter our course of behavior today, to make the necessary changes so that we learn from our past mistakes and do better from this day forward.

Tip #4: Ask for help from others who’ve overcome the past.

We certainly don’t have all the answers. Look at what our faulty decision-making has resulted in so far. Thankfully, we are on the path of recovery, so that was one decision we made that proved beneficial. But how are we to get past the quagmire of all the things we’ve done in the past? We’ve tried, but still can’t seem to shake those incessant memories.

When we need help, we should ask for it. This simple truth is as valid for how to let go of the past and move forward as it is for anything else connected with our recovery journey. The first stop should be our sponsor, since this is the person who’s accepted the responsibility to help guide us in the beginning of our recovery journey, learning how to work the steps and make some sense of this new way of life that we have chosen in sobriety.

Naturally, no one person has a solution that works for everyone. But there is also strength in numbers, so another source of help is our fellow members in the 12-step group rooms. We’ve all had to deal with troubling reminders of our past. Listening to how others have handled this recurring problem for so many in recovery may help us figure out a way that works for us to shed the past and get on with the business of recovery.

Tip #5: Learn to celebrate today’s accomplishments.

If we are to get over being hung up on the past, it will pay for us to find something in the present to celebrate. The easiest way to do this is to create small goals that are achievable in the short term, and then diligently work toward completing them to the best of our ability.

When we do achieve our goals, we need to stop and acknowledge our success in the effort. Simply put, we need to learn how to celebrate today’s accomplishments. By so doing, we will be putting more emphasis on the present and on the results of our own actions than on anything that happened in the past.

It doesn’t have to be anything extraordinarily difficult in order to count. The simplest, smallest tasks that we set for ourselves and then complete will do just fine. The more we accomplish, the better we will begin to feel about ourselves and our ability to make progress in recovery. Remember, it is better to take small steps forward than to not try at all. Feeling good about ourselves is an excellent motivator to keep doing the work of recovery.

Tip #6: Make a fresh start.

Who among us couldn’t benefit from a do-over, at least now and then? When it comes to overcoming the burdens of our past, we could all use a new perspective. For some of us, this new perspective may come about by making a fresh start. And this isn’t as tough as it sounds.

Some individuals find that in order to make a fresh start they need to completely divest themselves of all trappings of their past. They may move to a different city, state, or simply a different neighborhood. They may quit an old job where they had a lot of “history” and take a new one in a related or unrelated field.

Giving up old acquaintances that are associated with our past drug and alcohol abuse is another way of making a fresh start, and it’s one that many in recovery know that they need to do but put off as long as possible. Sure, it’s tough to let go of what had seemed comfortable before, but keep in mind that these so-called friends were anything but when it came to our own well-being. If we keep trying to hang onto the past, and them, we’re traveling in very dangerous territory, indeed. It’s a short trip from hanging out with them, trying not to drink or do drugs, just to be social and have a good time, to letting down our defenses and giving into the cravings and urges that still likely plague us.

Strive to make a fresh start, beginning today. It may be that we look for a new goal to challenge us and give us motivation to push harder. It may be that we decide on a course of self-improvement, such as taking a class, going back for a degree or finishing a degree, finding a new hobby or recreational activity to energize us and expose us to healthier lifestyles and potential new friends.

Remember too that every day brings with it the opportunity to make a fresh start.

Tip #7: Build upon what we know and do best.

Let’s face it. Not everything in our past was bad. We each have some strengths and talents that we can build upon. Maybe we were rather ingenious in figuring out ways to hide our drug or alcohol abuse from our loved ones and family members. That trait signifies that we have a great deal of creativity. Why not use this ability to our advantage, instead of our disadvantage, and look for healthier and more productive ways to express our creativity?

Wherever there is a decision to be made, there are always several ways to approach it. By using our creativity, building upon what we know and what we can do best, we will be better able to strategize various solutions. When we have more than one avenue to pursue, we can then weigh and balance and make an informed choice between them.

The good news about building upon what we know is that the more we are successful in doing so, the more self-confident we will feel about our ability to make the right decisions for ourselves in recovery. Success builds upon success.

Tip #8: Map out your goals.

While we’ve talked about goals briefly before, this tip involves taking a look at where you want to be in six months, one year, five years, and ten years from now. Such an exercise is more than just killing time. You need to have some sense of your future. To start, make some short- and long-term goals. Then look at what kind of skills you need to get there. Do you need more training or to finish or get a degree? Put together a plan and work toward achieving these goals each day. Don’t worry that you can’t see how you’ll ever get to your long-term goal. Just concentrate on working toward the short-term ones first, taking them one by one and doing the best you can.

As you complete one goal, even as you’re working toward achieving it, other opportunities will present themselves to you. These may include new people that you meet that open doors for you to possibilities you never knew existed. Don’t limit yourself or your options. Look toward the future with hope and optimism. Never allow someone else’s negativity to influence or shape your life.

Tip #9: Be optimistic and open to change.

Attitude is the key when looking toward your future in recovery. The more optimistic you are, the more you are likely to recognize opportunities and be open to change. One way of looking at this is to think of your spirit as a flowing river, an endless current of positive energy propelling you forward. It’s hard to be stuck when you have such forward momentum.

Likewise, maintain a generosity of spirit. When you give to others, you get so much more back than you can ever imagine. Doing something for another with no expectation of anything in return boosts your feeling of self-confidence, self-worth, and replenishes your feeling of overall self-satisfaction. By giving, you also open yourself up to receive. Being optimistic and open to change will make it easier to let go of the past and move forward.

Tip #10: Keep things in perspective.

When it’s all said and done – literally – what happened in the past is over and done with. It can’t hurt you today unless you let it. Of course, there are some instances when what you’ve done in the past may come back and necessitate some serious reparations. This may include going to jail, being required to make financial restitution, having your reputation tarnished, learning how to move past being estranged from family and loved ones, for example. But the sooner you face it and deal with the ramifications, the better your recovery will be in the long-term.

Keep your life in perspective. Where you were at the lowest point of your addiction is not where you are today. You have made a great effort toward working your recovery. You’ve gained strength and self-confidence along the way, as well as restored or built your sense of self-esteem.

Summing up, there are many ways that we all can learn how to let go of the past and move forward. Some of the tips we’ve mentioned here may work, if we give them a chance. Some may set our minds working to stimulate new and even more creative solutions. The point is that recovery works as we work it. We need to take action, not just sit back and feel sorry for ourselves or wallow in painful memories of the past.

Remember that life is precious. It also presents us with endless opportunities to learn and grow each day. In fact, every day is a new beginning, a fresh start along a path that we chart for ourselves. The past has no business or staying power here, not when we’re moving forward in our recovery. The choice is ours. Live in the present, working our recovery today. Be alive. Be joyful. Be thankful for the gifts we have and those we will receive today.

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