painful memories mindfulness

You have the power to change your memories of the past. And in so doing you can create a brighter and happier tomorrow. In this guide, I’ll show you 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 and remember happy ones instead.

You may think that your painful memories are karma and that perhaps you did something terrible in the past to deserve these recurring visions. But in reality it probably has nothing to do with karma; it is simply reflections of earlier times in your life. The good news is that you can change those recollections, even if it seems hard.

Trust me; I know how it feels.

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

Hurtful reflections, like the ones that haunted me, are said to be ruminating. Ruminating thoughts are ones you keep thinking over and over, and these can have a detrimental impact on mental health.

For your mental wellbeing, it is imperative to learn how to overcome past memories that kept coming back all the time.

Why Thinking About Past Memories Will Cut You Up

Rumination is a significant cause of anxiety and depression.

Thankfully we can use meditation to stop depression and to overcome anxiety.

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

Painful reflections (like my father’s drinking) can gradually wear down your mind, chipping away at you until you develop a mental health condition [1].

For health and happiness it is essential to overcome painful memories of the past. But before we look at the how, let’s look at the why.

man thinking about painful memories
man thinking about painful memories

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 down 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 when 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. Being stuck in one emotion will cause you to continually bring up recollections of other times when you felt the same way.

For instance, if you are sad because someone has passed away, you will likely think of many bitter 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 and can stop painful memories coming back.

 

Why You Need To Overcome Your Past Memories

There comes a time in life when we need to let go and move on. But it can be challenging because we feel so attached to our pasts.

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?

The key to overcoming your past is realising that your memories exist in your mind now and so even though you cannot change what happened, you can change the way you feel about it and the things you choose to remember.    

Buddhism teaches us that our thoughts and memories exist in the present moment (a fact that is obvious, yet oh so quickly forgotten). This is vital because if you want to change your memories of the past, you need to start seeing them as something tangible, something that is real, something that is happening now.

Buddhist view

Buddhism offers many ways how to overcome past memories.

Even the Dalai Lama says he has some painful memories that are trapped in his mind.

In The Art Of Happiness, 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 pearls of wisdom 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 them, seeing them for what they are, not judging them 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 mental visions, 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 then. 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.

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

looking through family photobook
looking through family photobook

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 practising mindfulness. Just by focusing on the moment, you will boost your happiness levels and significantly increase your productivity and personal effectiveness.

However, you should not ignore your painful memories. Repressed painful memories can have severe psychological consequences.

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 empowers us to change them. This is one of the best ways how to overcome past memories.

2: Replace painful past memories with new ones

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

Memories occur to substantiate our personal beliefs, so if you believe you are a victim, you will continuously see memories of times when you were victimised.

Change your perspective.

Yes, you remember your past. Vividly. But you only remember specific moments of your history. 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.

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 counsellor.

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: Reconnect 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. This is why one painful memory from the past can distort our other recollections.

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 ones 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 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 ones.

4: Restart 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 exercises. 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 bathwater.

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

You can 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 painful memory prevent you from doing what you love.

Go through your past. Ask yourself “What mattered?” “What did I 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 genuinely 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.

Inevitably, 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 of 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? The odds are that the 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. Allow them 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.

Most painful memories are caused not by crime or true evil but by moments of good old’ 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 you that if 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 and 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 moments of your life.

old man looking at old photos from the past
old man looking at old photos from the past

 6: But don’t 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 yesterday, then you will know how to be different tomorrow.

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.

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 20:15, I’m writing this (which… ermmm…. is work, but with my readers, who are my family, so it’s good work).

Yes, I spent 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.

Conclusion

We have to accept negative emotions and learn from them all the while we are changing bad memories of the past. We need to learn the lesson that regret is teaching us, use it as motivation for tomorrow, and at the same time learn to recall happier moments from our lives.

Ask what your painful memories are teaching you, learn the lesson, and then start to build more positive recollections.

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About Paul Harrison

Paul Harrison is a qualified meditation teacher and writer with more than 15 years experience in meditation and mindfulness. He studied meditation in Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University. Paul has helped thousands of people to discover their true potential through mindfulness, yoga and meditation.

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