Letting Go of The Past: Is It Possible?

Dr. Dawn Ferrara
Mar 28th, 2023

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Life is full of beginnings and endings, some happy, some sad. It’s the rhythm of life. It’s what keeps life moving forward. Every experience you have has meaning but not every one of them will occupy your thoughts. You let some things go. 

The fact is, you experience and let go of things every day. Someone cuts you off in traffic. You’re upset in the moment but by lunchtime, you’ve forgotten all about it. 

Other times, letting go of something is hard. You find yourself stuck there, replaying it over and over. It’s like watching an episode of your life on repeat…you know the outcome, and it hurts, but you just can’t stop.

Why can’t you just let it go?

How can something that sounds so easy be so hard? And just how do you let go of the past when it still occupies so much of your present?

The answer lies in why we get attached and how we process experiences. Letting go of the past is more than “just letting it go” like letting a balloon fly away. It’s a process of unraveling the emotions attached to those experiences. You can do it and here are some tips for letting go in healthy ways.

What Does Letting Go of the Past Really Mean?

In its simplest terms, letting go is being able to stop thinking about or being upset about someone or something that happened in the past. Psychologically, letting go of the past is a process of mentally and emotionally releasing your emotional attachments to someone or something instead of holding on to what was or could have been. Letting go is coming to accept what is or what needs to happen and dealing with those feelings. As you resolve and release them, you can then move forward in healthy ways.

It is important to note that letting go of the past is not “forgetting” or “excusing” the past or anything that happened. However, the past does not have to control your present or be a weight you are destined to carry. Letting go is about recognizing the past that happened, accepting what is, and releasing those feelings and attachments that don’t serve you.

Why Do We Hold on to the Past?

You might be wondering what letting go of the past has to do with hair pulling. Actually, more than you might think. Emotional avoidance is a key factor hair pulling. Hair pulling is thought to serve as a way to manage feelings of distress. They may be feelings you’re not ready to deal with.

Part of the reason why we hold on to the past can be found in how we form attachments to people, places, and even things. Just why someone might have difficulty letting go of the past can happen for many reasons:

  • Trauma – Trauma is a psychological wounding that is the result of a significant emotionally distressing event. Even though the experience may be over, strong emotions, memories and bonds to people, places, or things may remain. Letting go means releasing parts of the past and that can be difficult. BFRBs are also associated with trauma, although not everyone living with a BFRB has experienced trauma.


  • Rumination – Rumination is a tendency to think about the same thing over and over. Some studies have found an association between rumination, trauma, and other mental health issues including depression. Anxiety, a key component in BFRBs, can present as ruminating behavior.


Rumination also seems to be related to how we process experiences. Our brains have something called a negativity bias. It’s hard-wired to look out for the bad stuff and when it finds it, it zeros in on it. This bias makes it hard to learn from our positive experiences, even though that’s the optimal way of learning. This tendency to focus on the negative has been described as “our brain is Teflon for the positive and Velcro for the negative.”  It’s like watching that same sad situation on repeat. You want to turn it off, but it’s hard.


  • The Past is Familiar – Holding on to the past, even if it was negative, can feel safe. You know the past. Facing the present reality and the unknown can be what’s scary. Even pleasant past experiences can be hard to let go of. You may have a strong emotional attachment to who you were then or people and places from that time. The past may remind you of happier times. You had hope. The idea of saying good-bye is hard.

Learning to Let Go

Can you really learn to let go of the past? Yes, you can.

1. Get Ready

The first step to letting go is deciding that you’re ready and why.

  • Maybe you’re ready for something more.
  • Maybe the consequences of not letting go are holding you back from what you want now.
  • Maybe, you’re just tired of being stuck.

Take your time. Listen to what your inner voice is telling you. If you’re hesitating, think about why that is. Where is that resistance coming from? It’s ok to take all the time you need.

2. Train Your Brain

You can’t change how your brain works but you can change how you think about things. How? By reframing your relationship with the past. Reframing helps you to see your past in a different way and not letting it or others define you, letting go of unhealthy attachments. You can also learn how to not let things “stick”.

This process is often referred to as building a “Teflon Mind”. Recognizing how “sticky” the mind can be and what it tries to hold on to, it is learning to let experiences, thoughts, and feelings enter your mind and then slip away rather than getting stuck there. You can experience them, acknowledge them, and then let them slide away, like a “non-stick” pan. It takes practice but it can be learned.

3. Dealing with Feelings

Letting go is very much about releasing yourself from the emotional attachments of the past and resolving those emotions:

Emotions are the bearers of information about us and our world. For example:

  • Guilt says, “I shouldn’t have done that.” It let’s us know we’ve violated some rule, norm, or boundary.
  • Regret says, “I wish things could have been different.”
  • Anger says, “That’s not fair!” Anger is sometimes referred to as a “masking emotion” meaning that it is often the outward representation of deeper emotions such as hurt, fear, or sadness.

What emotions are you holding on to? What are they telling you?

Working through those emotions is part of letting go - exploring where those feelings come from, what meaning they hold for you, and resolving them if you can. Working though may even involve forgiving yourself and that’s ok too. We all make mistakes. Learning to see them as learning moments can help you release the negative emotions they hold. 

More ways that can help you let go of the past include:

4. Practicing Mindfulness

Mindfulness meditation has been shown to help accept and release negative thoughts. It is also a key component of building the resilient “Teflon” mindset.

5. Journal

Journaling gives you a place to sort out your thoughts and feelings and get them out of your head. Journaling can help you see patterns and gain insight into what you’re thinking and feeling. 

6. Practicing Gratitude

Practicing gratitude is another way to help shift your focus from the negative to the positive. When you’re focused on the past, it’s hard to see the beauty and many gifts that are in your present. An easy way to practice gratitude is to start the day with simply and intentionally naming something you are grateful for in that moment. You can write it in your journal and reflect back on it as you need to.

Letting go of the past isn’t always easy and can bring up some uncomfortable feelings. If you find yourself struggling to let go, a trained therapist can help you through the process. You don’t have to do it alone and healing is possible!


1. Let go. (n.d.). Cambridge Dictionary | English Dictionary, Translations & Thesaurus. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/let-go

2. Law, B. M. (2005, November). Probing the depression-rumination cycle. https://www.apa.org. https://www.apa.org/monitor/nov05/cycle

3. Wetterneck, C., Singh, R. S., & Woods, D. W. (2020). Hair pulling antecedents in trichotillomania: Their relationship with experiential avoidance. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 84(1), 35–52. https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/10.1521/bumc_2020_84_01

4. Özten, E., Sayar, G. H., Eryılmaz, G., Kağan, G., Işık, S., & Karamustafalıoğlu, O. (2015). The relationship of psychological trauma with trichotillomania and skin picking. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 11, 1203–1210. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4440428/

5. Razzetti, G. (2020, February 13). How to Let Go of the Past. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-adaptive-mind/202002/how-let-go-the-past

6. Vaish, A., Grossmann, T., & Woodward, A. (2008). Not all emotions are created equal: the negativity bias in social-emotional development. Psychological bulletin, 134(3), 383–403. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3652533/

7. Neill, C. (2020, October 8). Neuroscience based Habits for Happiness [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZozfQvAJavA

8. Baumgardner, A. H. (1990). To know oneself is to like oneself: Self-certainty and self-affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(6), 1062-1072. https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0022-3514.58.6.1062

9. How to let go of the past and move on. (n.d.). Montreal Psychologist & Therapist - Anxiety & Depression Therapy. https://www.montrealcbtpsychologist.com/how-let-go-past

10. Davis, T. (n.d.). Letting go: How to put the past, anger, & fear behind you. The Berkeley Well-Being Institute. https://www.berkeleywellbeing.com/letting-go.html

Dr. Dawn Ferrara


With over 25 years of clinical practice, Dawn brings experience, education and a passion for educating others about mental health issues to her writing. She holds a Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Counseling, a Doctorate in Psychology and is a Board-Certified Telemental Health Provider. Practicing as a Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Dawn worked with teens and adults, specializing in anxiety disorders, work-life issues, and family therapy. Living in Hurricane Alley, she also has a special interest and training in disaster and critical incident response. She now writes full-time, exclusively in the mental health area, and provides consulting services for other mental health professionals. When she’s not working, you’ll find her in the gym or walking her Black Lab, Riley.

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