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8 Ways to Release the Ghosts of the Past and Be Happy in the Present

release the past

It’s time to let go of the ghosts of the past.

Most of us are haunted by the ghosts of our past: that opportunity that we let slip by; those kids who bullied us in the playground; that love interest who treated us badly; that professor who graded us unfairly; and so on.

As we move through our days we hear our past rattling chains and moaning eerily; we see the shadows of our past mistakes lurking in the corners; and our past failures creep up behind us and startle us at every turn. A fearful past that is not dealt with causes a fearful future. In addition, in order to be happy in the present, we need to release the ghosts of the past. In this post you’ll discover 8 ways to release the ghosts of the past so that you can be happy in the present and in the future.

8 Ways to Release the Past

I won’t lie to you: releasing the past is hard. Nonetheless, it can be done. Here’s what to do:

1. Learn to Live In the Present.

There’s no better way to release the past than to refuse to dwell on it. And the best way to refrain from dwelling on the past is to keep your attention firmly focused on the present. When you find yourself thinking about the past, ask yourself the following question: “Where am I right now?” This will bring your attention back to the present moment.

The only reason that your past is still haunting you is because you keep it alive in your mind by thinking about it. However, if your mind is filled with the present, there’s no room left in it for the past.

2. Change the Past.

If you don’t like something about your past, change it. Right now you may be thinking: “But it already happened, there’s nothing that I can do to change it.” Although it’s true that you can’t change what happened in the past, you can change how you interpret the past. Ask yourself questions such as the following:

  • What happened?
  • What evidence am I relying on to reach this interpretation?
  • What assumptions am I making?
  • Is there another equally believable interpretation of what happened?
  • How would someone who loves me interpret this situation?
  • What’s a better, healthier way to interpret this?

I once saw a “Cathy” comic strip in which Cathy’s mother runs into a group of women she had gone to high school with. The women were comparing notes about high school, and they told Cathy’s mother that they had always been intimidated by her since she was beautiful and got good grades. Cathy’s mother had always thought that they just didn’t like her.

In the last square of the strip, Cathy’s mother says something along the following lines: “All this time I’ve been basing my self-image on the wrong interpretation.” Look for ways to interpret the past in a way that helps you, instead of interpreting it in ways that harm you.

3. Realize That You’re No Longer the Same Person.

Let’s say that you’ve always wanted to take up pottery, and you finally decide to take a class. A few months later you’re creating beautiful vases, bowls, and so on. Then you take a look at what you created during your first week of class. You’ll probably be embarrassed by how bad the stuff that you created during that first week is, and you’ll want to throw it out.

A lot of the time we judge what we’ve done in the past through the eyes of who we are in the present. However, our present selves wouldn’t act in the way we did back then, because we’ve grown and matured, and we’re now wiser. So cut your past self some slack. As Maya Angelou once said: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

4. Let Go Through Ritual.

The human race has been using rituals since its very beginnings. Create a ceremony for a symbolic release of toxic emotions. The only requisite is that the ceremony has to have meaning for you. Fire has long been a part of ritual, and one ritual you can consider trying is to write down the stories from the past which are still haunting you, and then burn the piece of paper.

5. Make Room For the New.

One of the best ways to release the past is to make room for the future. What do you do when you’re expecting a baby? You clear out a room of the house in order to prepare a nursery. Then, you fill the nursery with all of the things that the baby will need once it’s born.

Do the same thing in order to prepare for your new future. Ask yourself the following:

The future that you want is on its way. Make room for it by clearing out all those things from your past that are not in line with your future vision. In addition, use the time and energy that you were devoting to dwelling on the past in order to do what needs to be done to prepare for your vision of the future.

6. Learn to Fail Forward.

For most of us, past mistakes play a starring role in the film we play in our minds. However, instead of giving our mistakes the role of antagonists, we can start viewing them as guides that help show us the way toward creating the future that we want for ourselves. We can do this by learning to fail forward.

In his book, “Failing Forward: Transforming Mistakes Into Success”, John C. Maxwell explains that we can learn to fail forward by doing the following:

  • Take responsibility for your setbacks, but don’t take failure personally.
  • View failure as temporary.
  • Have realistic expectations. A lot of the time we set our expectations so high, we’re basically setting ourselves up to fail. Make sure that the goals that you set for yourself are realistic.
  • Vary your approach. When you fail you’ve learned something about what doesn’t work. Now, try something else.
  • Learn from your mistakes and move on.

7. Ask Yourself What You Need to Do To Release The Past.

A while ago I purchased a system called “The Sedona Method”, which is basically a method for releasing negative emotions and beliefs. The Sedona Method teaches that in order to release the past you need to ask yourself the following three questions:

  • Could I let go of this?
  • Would I let go of this?
  • If so, when?

When you ask yourself the question, “Could I let go of this?”, sometimes the answer will be “no”. If this is the case, ask yourself: “What do I need to do in order to be able to let go of this?”  As an illustration, maybe you need to confront someone who’s hurt you, or maybe you need to ask forgiveness from someone whom you’ve harmed in some way.

When I was in law school in Washington, DC, a friend of mine went through a difficult break up from a man she was very much in love with. She couldn’t let him go. For months, he was all she would talk about (frankly, she started to sound like a broken record). She kept insisting that they were both very much in love, and that she just couldn’t understand why he had left her.

This woman had a job offer from a law firm in Washington, DC. However, her ex-boyfriend worked and lived in DC. So, when she received a job offer from a law firm in Argentina, she accepted.  The only way in which my friend could move on from her ex was to leave the city–and even the country–in which he lived.

If there’s something from your past that you just can’t let go of, ask yourself what you need to do in order to release it. Then, do it.

8. Give Yourself a Challenge.

As you work, have a piece of paper next to you. Divide the paper into thirty-minute chunks. Each time that you find yourself thinking about something in the past, stop and put a check mark on the piece of paper.

Make a note of how many times you allow your mind to shift to the past during each thirty minute period. Then, resolve to do better the next day. Do this day after day until you’ve achieved enough control over where you place your attention that there are only a few marks on the page.


Live your best life by releasing the ghosts of the past with the 8 methods described above. By doing so, you’ll be much happier in the present.


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  • Patti Hall September 17, 2013, 6:03 am

    I shared this post all over the place. Love the article and love visiting your site.

  • Elisabeth September 17, 2013, 7:55 am

    Great post Patti. I like #6 Fail Forward – I think we sometimes block ourselves by our fear of failure. Trial and error is the one way we truly learn and progress. It reminds me of some great words a mentor once said “Perfect is the opposite of good” It is hard to live with regret, but once it is turned into a ‘learning experience’ it draws us back to the present. Of course this is harder to do with personal relationships – but the concept is the same. Thank you for getting me thinking today 🙂

  • Elisabeth September 17, 2013, 7:57 am

    Marelisa – thank you for your thoughts. I am so glad Patti shared this 🙂

  • Marelisa September 17, 2013, 12:26 pm

    Hi Patti: Thank you for sharing the post, and I’m glad that you enjoyed it. 🙂

  • Marelisa September 17, 2013, 12:28 pm

    Hi Elisabeth: I’m glad that you found your way here today. And you’re absolutely right: our past should be a teacher, and not something that holds us back from trying in the now.

  • Lisa September 17, 2013, 5:06 pm

    Thanks for your post. I like #2. It’s hard not to focus on the negative especially if you felt hurt. Changing one’s interpretation/perception of the experience and focusing on the positives is a great idea!

  • Marelisa September 17, 2013, 6:13 pm

    Hi Lisa: When I sit down to analyze past events I realize that I misinterpreted a lot of the things that happened to me growing up. It is very helpful to re-interpret past events. Thank you for stopping by and commenting.

  • Mary Ann Muller January 5, 2014, 12:33 pm

    Thank you, Marelisa for your very helpful and relevant post.
    Faith M. Davis writes about living in the present moment in her book, “Letting Go Get in the Flow”. Faith writes that most of us don’t live in the present moment; we anticipate the future or dwell in the past. You don’t find yourself by going into the past, you find yourself by coming into the present. The journey of life is the real gift. Having learned this, you can be okay no matter what happens. By learning to living in the present moment, you can release the past and learn to increase flow, a gentle, loving, and powerful force that can guide us through life.