How To Overcome Past Memories That Keep Coming Back To You

Published by Paul Harrison on

You have the power to change your memories of the past. And in so doing you can create a brighter and happier tomorrow. Here’s how to overcome past memories that keep coming back to you.

Everyone in the world has at least one painful memory from the past.

But if you’re reliving painful past memories over and over again, it is time to stop the vicious cycle. You need to overcome bad memories. You need to remember happy memories instead. 

You may think that your painful memories are karma and that maybe you did something bad in the past. If that sounds like you, you should probably read my ultimate guide to karma.

It’s not karma, it’s just memories. And you can change them, even if it seems hard.  

Trust me, I know what it’s like.

When my father died I was left with painful memories. Most of those memories stopped eventually, but a few particularly painful memories kept coming back to me.

Painful memories like the ones that haunted me are said to be ruminating.

And I needed to work out how to overcome past memories that kept coming back all the time, haunting me. 

Why Ruminating Memories Will Cut You Up 

Rumination is a major cause of anxiety and depression.

Thankfully we can use meditation to stop depression, and you can stop anxiety too

But if painful past memories keep coming back and upsetting you, you will definitely want to change them right away.

Painful memories (like my father’s drinking) keep harming the mind, and that repeated injury can lead to permanent damage. 

Truly traumatic memories that ruminate in the mind can even cause PTSD [1]. 

Here’s why painful memories keep coming back to you

There is a reason why repressed memories keep coming back. 

It’s because you’re stuck in one way of thinking. 

When we are depressed or anxious, for instance, we get stuck on thinking negatively. Because of neural networking, when we feel a specific way we think about other times we felt the same way. So if you feel sad you will think of other times when you felt sad. 

If you are feeling sad now you will bring to mind sad times from the past. This is why painful memories keep coming back to you. 

For instance, if you are sad because someone has past away you will likely think of many sad experiences that happened with that person. And this can cause grief  (read: meditating on grief)

Complex emotions like these are a challenge.

But we can fight through them. You can stop painful memories from coming back to you. And I will show you how in a moment. 

 

Why You Need To Overcome Your Past Memories

There comes a time in life when you need to let go and move on

But it can be hard. Because we feel so attached to our past. 

Do you feel like you are a victim of your past?

Does it feel as though life has conspired to deal you a bad deck?

Do you dwell on painful memories from the past even though you know you’d be far happier if you could move on?

What if you could overcome your past, and thereby live a happier tomorrow?

Well here’s the good news: 

  • Your past is contained in your memory. And your memory is within you today.

Because your memory exists in your mind now, you can change it now.

So you are not stuck with bad memories of the past. You can change your past today.

Buddhism teaches us that our thoughts and memories are existing now (a fact that is obvious yet oh so easily forgotten).

And if you want to change your memories of the past, you need to start seeing those memories as something that is tangible, something that is real, something that is happening now.

Buddhist view on painful memories

There are so many wonderful things to learn from Buddhism

Buddhism offers us many ways how to overcome past memories.

Even the Dalai Lama says he has some painful memories he is stuck with.

In The Art Of Happiness [AMAZON], the Dalai Lama says:

 “It’s still there [the memory]. But even though that feeling of regret is still there, it isn’t associated with a feeling of heaviness or a quality of pulling me back.”

To Buddhists this idea of being “pulled back” means being attached to something from the past.

One of the main Buddhist wisdoms is the idea of letting go and accepting things as they are.

When we are too attached to one idea, one perspective, or one memory, the mind is hindered.

To overcome painful memories, Buddhists advocate being mindful of the memory, seeing it for what it is, not judging but just accepting. Should the painful memory create physiological responses (a tight throat, heavy chest etc) be mindful of that feeling too. As we observe these feelings and memories we come to accept them, and accepting helps us let go.

“You shouldn’t chase after the past or place expectations on the future. What is past is left behind. The future is as yet unreached. Whatever quality is present you clearly see right there, right there. Not taken in, unshaken, that’s how you develop the heart.”—Buddha

To overcome bad memories, you must see them as an actual part of the present moment.  

You do not want to live in painful memories, you want to live in the moment right now.

One of the biggest weaknesses of the mind is that most people think of the past and future as things that are not now.

  • When you think of the past the only thing that actually exists is the thought of the past. And the thought of the past exists now.
  • When we think the past is gone, we cannot change it.
  • When we realise that the past (the ideas, the memories, and the thoughts of the past) are now, we can change them.
  • So the best way how to overcome past memories is to be mindful of them in the present moment. 

How To Overcome Past Memories That Keep Coming Back To You

Here are five ways how to overcome past memories.

1. Free your mind by harnessing the present moment.

You don’t want to live in bad memories. You want to live in the moment right now.

If you want to know how to overcome your past, start by focusing on the present moment, on now.

Don’t let your mind dwell on the past.

Don’t let thoughts take away your power.

Live now.

Focus on the present moment by practicing mindfulness.

Research proves that practicing mindfulness will beat depression. Just by focusing on the moment you will boost your happiness levels and greatly increase your productivity and personal effectiveness.

However, you should not ignore your painful memories.

Repressed painful memories can have serious psychological consequences and can even cause amnesia [2].

Nor should you try to prevent yourself from reliving painful memories.

Writing for Nature Communications [3], Justin C. Hulbert, Richard N. Henson & Michael C. Anderson say:

 “If you are motivated to try to prevent yourself from reliving a flashback of that initial trauma, anything that you experience around the period of time of suppression tends to get sucked up into this black hole as well.”

Instead, accept your painful memories of the past and recognise that your memories are alive now.

The mental process that is your memory is happening now, even though that bad “memory” is about the past.

When we realise that our memories are occurring now we give them a present-moment reality and this empower us to change them. This is one of the best ways how to overcome past memories.

2. Replace painful past memories with new memories

If you want to change your memories of the past, you need to change your beliefs about yourself. 

Because your memories exist only to substantiate your personal beliefs. If you believe you are a victim, you will constantly see memories of times when you were victimized. 

Change your perspective. 

Yes, you remember your past. Vividly. But you only remember specific moments of your past. You focus on yesterday, but not all of yesterday.

Specifically, you focus on specific aspects of yesterday that conform to your beliefs about yourself. This occurs due to confirmation bias.

In psychology, confirmation bias is the mental phenomena through which we think, recall, and search for things that confirm our beliefs.

In other words, if you believe you are a victim you will focus on memories of times in the past when you felt like a victim.

This is why when women who have experienced sexual abuse go to therapy sessions, one of the main aims is to overcome victim mentality. [4

You can overcome victim mentality (and other residual issues from painful memories).

You can choose to focus on memories that show your past in a different light.

Choose to focus on memories that build positive beliefs.

If you want to feel loved, bring to mind memories of times when you felt true and powerful love. This will naturally boost your ability to perceive the love around you and in your life.

Note: Make sure you do this with a professional counselor.

Be wise.

Don’t permit yourself to focus on negative memories. Direct your mind to focus on positive memories that generate positive beliefs. This is one of the most positive ways how to overcome past memories.

3. Bring back good memories by reconnecting with old friends

One of the best reasons to stop bad memories is that they often skew your opinion of the past.

The mind builds associations based on commonalities. So if you focus on one painful memory you will bring up a million other memories throughout your life that are similar to the painful memory. This is why one traumatic memory from the past can distort our other memories [5].

Sounds devastating.

But there’s good news:

You can start to remember more of the good times by focusing on moments of profound happiness. When you do this you will stop painful memories and start to build happy memories instead. 

When were you at your happiest?

I’ll throw my chips on the table and say that at those great times in your life there were great people around you.

Reconnect with those great people.

But maybe your relationships have changed. Maybe people used to be great, but time has soured your relationships.

It is never too late to change your relationships.

Be the bigger person.

Make the moves you need to make in order to rebuild lost relationships. Trust me, the people you want back in your life probably want you back in their life too. Make that happen.

When you reconnect with the positive people from your past, you will remember more of the good memories and less of the bad memories.

4. Build good memories by restarting your old hobbies

One of the mistakes people make in life is that they abandon everything.

Perhaps you were in a relationship in which you were always out socialising and did lots of exercise. But the relationship ended and with the relationship you also abandoned those old hobbies that used to make you so happy.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

Just because part of the past turned sour doesn’t mean it all did.

You can still continue to do all the things that made you happy. When you do this you will remember more happy memories and stop the bad memories. 

Don’t let one little hiccup become a disease.

Don’t let one bad memory prevent you from doing what you love.

Go through your past. Ask yourself “What mattered?” “What did I really love?” “What made me happy back then?” Pick those things back up. Reconnect with the positive aspects of your past. And don’t let anything prevent you from doing what makes you happy. This is a surprisingly powerful way how to overcome past memories.

5: If you have bad memories of people, tell them, but be willing to listen

If you truly want to stop bad memories of people, you need to learn to forgive them.

Yes there are legitimate reasons why we have bad memories of people. 

Bad times happen.

It is inevitable that we will all gather a few painful memories through the years—like that time the beautiful girl in the year above me at school laughed when I asked her out… sigh

And yeah, that thing that happened to you probably sucked total balls. It probably made you so freaking angry that you never want to talk to that person again.

That’s natural. And of course you do have some bad memories of people. But you should also have good memories about the people in your life too.  

To stop bad memories of people and remember more positive memories, talk to the other person.

If people were brave enough to step up and say “You hurt me. And I want to tell you,” everyone would be happier.

Because you know what? Odds are that person who hurt you isn’t a bad person (obviously there are exceptions, but for the most part, people are generally decent). If they hurt you, and they’re an okay person, they will welcome the opportunity to say “I messed up and I am sorry”.

But you know what? You hurt people too.

Yeah, you did.

We all do.

That’s just part of the raw deal, right? We hurt each other.

So if that person comes back to you and says “You hurt me too,” be strong and do the right thing. Listen to them. Give them the opportunity to overcome their bad memories of you

Nothing changes a bad memory like openly discussing it with the other person. That’s why in Restorative Justice victims of crimes feel better after chatting to the perpetrator. Because it puts a fresh perspective on a traumatic event. And even if no new perspective can be gleaned, the victim gets closure. [6]

Most painful memories are caused not by crime or true evil but by moments of good ol’ all-too-human balls-ups.

We all make mistakes.

We all hurt people from time to time.

We don’t mean to, but we do.

Problem is, we don’t own it. We get into the bullshit “So what if I hurt you, you hurt me first”. Shots get fired. Nothing gets healed.

Forgive people.

Go up to the person that hurt you. Tell them. And if they say that you hurt them too, have the gonads to listen and to own it, and apologise.

I promise when you do this you will stop the bad memories of that person and you will start to remember positive, happy memories of them instead. 

You know what the beautiful thing about this process is?

If the two of you own your sh*t and admit your wrongs, and you mutually apologise, you’re going to end up being in a much stronger relationship than you ever had before.

This is a painful but cathartic way to overcome past memories. 

Painful memories live in us today.

They are tangible. They are changeable. We are not their victims. We are their masters.

The past is putty in your hands, my friend. Shape it into what you want. You can totally overcome your past. And when you do, you will to start to remember happier memories of your past.

So that’s how to overcome past memories And remember the good times. But dont forget, the past is your best teacher

So we’ve looked at how to overcome past memories. But it’s good to remember the reasons why we have bad memories. It’s because they teach us things.  

We all know that we’re supposed to have no regrets, right? But if you have no regrets, what are you going to learn from? Instead of pretending that everything is perfect, be brave and admit what was wrong with today, then you will know how to be different tomorrow. 

We all have regrets.

We all know those people who tell us that they have no regrets. But do you believe them? Can there really be a single person on God’s green Earth that doesn’t wish that at least one thing had gone differently for them?

You know what I think?

I think those people who say they no regrets are actually just lying. And not just lying to you and me. They’re lying to themselves. They’re in denial. And being in denial is one of the worst places you can be. I think they remember their painful memories and regrets all too well. I think they just struggle to accept those less-than-perfect times of their lives.

If you cannot accept something, you cannot change it.

Put your hands up right now and say with me, “I do have regrets in my life”.

Done it?

Great.

Because here is the truth. The best way how to be different tomorrow is to admit what went wrong today.

What do you wish you had done differently today?

What regrets do you have from today?

Me? Now, I am not perfect. I am a happy person. Very happy, overall. In fact, my friends often tell me I am the happiest person they know (at which I suggest they look up Matthieu Ricard, the happiest person alive).

I’m not perfect.

And looking back on today, I wish I had done things a little bit differently.

Now you are probably wondering, what did I do today that I wish my day had been different?

Woke up. Worked. Worked… worked… And now, at 8:15, I’m writing this (which… ermmm…. is work, but with my readers, who are my family, so it’s good work).

Yes, I spent literally all day working. And I didn’t even step outside once today.

And I do regret it.

I regret that the sun rose, lit up the day with its glory, and then descended, all while I stayed penned up inside, away from those golden rays.

I am going to be different tomorrow.

We have negative emotions like regret for a reason. Your negative feelings say, “This is wrong. This is something I am going to change”.

It’s only when you face those negative feelings head-on that you can learn from them.

Let’s stop being blind. Let’s see the truth in the negative. And let’s learn from it. Let’s see the light in the dark.

You have regrets from today. Even if you had the best day ever it still wasn’t perfect. So, let me ask you; what was wrong today that could be right tomorrow? Answer that question now. Maybe right down your answers. Because those answers will tell you how to be different tomorrow. 

 

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Paul Harrison

Paul Harrison is a meditation teacher, author and journalist based in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Paul has helped thousands of people to discover their true potential. Don’t miss Paul’s inspirational and enlightening book: Your Best Meditation