How to Stop Obsessing About What Happened in the Past

You know your obsession is a waste of time and energy, but you don’t know how to stop. Obsessing about what happened in the past is more common than you realize! The past is ingrained in our present and affects our future. Even so, we can learn how to stop obsessive thinking and heal from the damage it caused.

First, the good news: When you learn how to stop obsessing about your past failures, regrets and bad choices, you’ll won’t keep repeating the same old relationship mistakes. Your obsession has an upside: it’s teaching you that you can and will learn from what happened in your past. If you let it, of course. Some people stay stuck in their obsession about past mistakes and failures, and never move on. But you’re not one of those people.

Now the bad news: There isn’t one set of fixed tips or hacks on how to stop obsessing about the past. Why? Because it depends on what you’re obsessing about, why, and how long you’ve been fixed in that spot. Sometimes you need an external perspective, an objective counselor or therapist. Sometimes reading the right book at the right time or joining the right group of women helps. Or, you might need help finding yourself physically because you’ve gained too much weight and are literally weighed down.

One of the most valuable things I’ve learned about stopping an obsession with what happened – or with a person from the past – is the idea of “active grieving.” I used to think that time healed all wounds. Eventually, I’d get over my recurring thoughts about the mistakes I made and the losses I’ve suffered. But I was wrong. The truth is that learning how to stop obsessing about what happened requires ACTION on our part. With that in mind, here’s what I know about stopping an obsession with what happened in the past…

How Do You Get Rid of an Obsession?

Here’s what life coach Martha Beck says:

How to Stop Obsessing About the Past
Why It’s So Hard to Stop Obsessing About the Past

“Most often, heartbroken people are unknowingly grieving a loss or trauma rooted in childhood or adolescence. That’s because we tend to fall in love with people who remind us of those who cared for us—even badly—when we were young and totally vulnerable. We become childlike when we feel securely adored, letting go of all inhibition. The failure of adult relationships is often caused by the dysfunctions we internalized as children, and the devastation we endure when we’re rejected almost always opens ancient wounds, making us feel as bereft as an abandoned little kid.” – from Martha Beck’s Guide to Learning From Love and Loss.

You may be obsessing about the past because of something that happened even further in the past. Do you need to forgive someone who hurt or betrayed you, such as an ex boyfriend or husband? If you feel wronged or victimized, you’ll have a hard time letting go of your obsession. It’s difficult – perhaps impossible – to stop obsessing about what happened in the past when you’re clinging to anger, bitterness, or a “victim” mentality.

3 Cognitive Steps on How to Stop Obsessive Thinking

Your obsession started and is continuing in your brain; it’s a brain rut that you can’t break free from. Since you started obsessing in your brain, the logical place to learn how to stop the obsession is to learn how your brain functions.

  1. Meet your brain
  2. Learn how the grooves in your brain keep the obsession alive
  3. Decide what new grooves you want to create in your brain

Before we start taking those steps down the garden path, however, there is one preliminary thing I need you to think about. Let’s call it “putting on our gardening shoes”…

But first – learn you’re actually obsessing about

Before you can put any of my tips on how to stop obsessing about what happened into actual practice, you need to get clear on the root of your obsession.

Don’t jump to the obvious. For example, I once thought I was obsessing about an ex boyfriend because I thought about him all the time. When I thought about it more carefully, however, I realized that it wasn’t HIM I was obsessed with…it was the idea of him. Once I figured out that I was obsessed with the idea of having a smart, professional, tall boyfriend, I was able to let go of the recurring thought patterns that were driving me crazy.

What are you actually obsessing about? Write down THREE things that occur to you. Don’t just write “I’m obsessing about what happened with my ex.” I want you to be specific and thorough.

1. Meet your brain – she’s smart, but not in control

So, your brain is made up of grooves and depressions, fissures and convolutions, sulci and gyri. Your brain is amazing and fascinating – it’s like a whole gray universe unto itself. It’s a world, a solar system, a galaxy. A culture. A system.

Your brain has the power to make or break your whole life. The good news is that even though you can’t control the thoughts and emotions that randomly pop into your brain, you CAN control your responses and actions.

This is brilliant news, actually! It means that you are not at the mercy of your experiences or your past – and that you can actually learn how to free yourself from obsessive thoughts.

2. Learn how the grooves in your brain keep the obsession alive

The more you think about something – such as your ex, or the mistakes you made in a past relationship, or how helpless you are in your marriage – the deeper those grooves get in your brain. It’s like a rut. Say you have a big red Hummer and you keep driving over the same soft road in the same place all the time…those ruts would get pretty deep, wouldn’t they?

Whatever you’re obsessing about is making a deep groove in your brain. That’s why your thoughts keep returning to that idea, because it’s well-worn, easy, and automatic. Those Hummer tires of your brain slip right back into the rut because they don’t know any differently. And your brain is efficient, which means it tries to exert minimal effort for maximum results.

The grooves in your brain are making it too easy for you to obsessively think about what happened in the past.

3. Decide what new grooves you want to create in your brain

How do you want your groovy brain to make you feel? If you want to feel peaceful, then think peaceful thoughts. If you want more joy in your life, choose to focus on ideas that bring you joy. If you want action and adventure, use your brain! Create the life you want.

It really is as simple as that. But it’s not easy. It takes effort.

How to Stop Obsessing About What Happened
How to Stop Obsessing About What Happened

I tend to obsess about what happened in the past – which is why I wrote my blog post called How to Let Go of Someone You Love about 10 years ago. I then wrote an ebook of the same name because SO many readers asked for help on how to stop obsessing about what happened to them.

I spent the last two days updating and revising How to Let Go of Someone You Love: 3 Powerful Secrets and 75 Tips for Healing Your Heart. I originally wrote it in 2010, and have been adding to it for the past six years…but I’ve wanted to do a more complete revision for several months. I really wanted to add three secrets I recently discovered on how to stop obsessing about what happened in the past.

When I revised and updated this ebook, I realized that I really have come a long way. I had a bad experience – I lost someone I loved very much – and that prompted me to write about loss. I couldn’t let her go, which is why I write about finding freedom and peace in relationships.

Bonus idea: Would you still obsess if you were planning a safari to Africa?

When I lived in Africa, I learned that the word “safari” is Swahili for journey. Winter is the dry season in Africa – and the best season for a safari. Going on safari means that you’re leaving the comfort and safety of your world, and venturing into the wilderness to see what you can see.

You take risks when you go on a safari. You risk losing yourself, and you risk having to rely on yourself. Your goal is not just survival, but living the best, biggest life you couldn’t even begin to imagine! You’ll see endless vistas of plains and wee river valleys. You’ll see rhinos, lions, cheetahs, elephants, giraffes, and kudu. You’ll see carcasses of animals, with vultures or hyenas still munching. You’ll marvel at the ruthlessness of the animal kingdom, and you’ll see your own life much differently.

Will a massive journey help you stop obsessing about the past? You’ll only know if you try it! A massive journey doesn’t have to be a literal trip to Africa. You can do something new, fresh and exciting with your life right here.

What might you start in your life?

How I learned how to stop obsessing about the past

I got tired of being at the mercy of my obsessive thinking. It doesn’t add value to my life, it doesn’t make me happy, and it drains my energy and creativity.

So, I learned how to stop obsessing about what happened by refocusing my thought patterns. This means that when those sad, negative, hand-wringing thoughts arise I simply replace them with stuff I’d rather think about. God. Chocolate. My dogs. My blogs. Lunch. The moon. Shark Tank. Blossom.

And guess what? I just realized that I don’t even want to write about what happened anymore. I’ve come to the point of not wanting to relive it. I don’t want to go back there. It’s done, I’m finished with it.

Questions for you

  • What do you keep obsessively thinking about? Go beyond the simple answer, such as “I can’t stop thinking about my ex.” Try to figure out what about him – or the relationship, or the breakup – is driving your obsession.
  • Tell me in the comments section below what you would rather be thinking about. What do you want your life to be about? Who do you want to become? How will you get there? What do you love thinking about – that adds value, energy, and beauty to your life?
  • Do you believe you can learn how to stop obsessing about what happened?

Write your answers to these questions in the comments below, or your private journal. You may find answers you didn’t even know you had…and insights you never would’ve found simply by thinking!

Your brain is smart, but she doesn’t have all the answers. Your intuition or spirit, on the other hand, knows more than you think.


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17 thoughts on “How to Stop Obsessing About What Happened in the Past”

  1. I was in love with my ex girlfriend of 3 and a half years. The past year or so I’ve been so unhappy while trying so desperately to keep my girlfriend happy and when I realized how unhappy it was making me I ended the relationship. I feel that the reason it hurts me so badly right now is because it was such a blindside to her. That she wasn’t seeing what the relationship was doing to us, and didn’t expect the relationship to ever end. I care so much about her that I feel such awful regret about talking so casually about marriage and kids and I know she’d had some assumptions that we would be spending the rest of our lives together. I really am obsessing about the past and how I treated her.

    She’s told me that she didn’t think she could live without me before, and once even explicitly said that she would kill herself if I ever left her. Right now that is the biggest fear I have. I feel so miserable because I know it’s best not to contact her for a while but I just want to make sure that she’s ok and that she’ll be able to seek help in some type of social circle of hers or get some professional help. This girl was the first person I’d ever fallen in love with and I know it was for the best but the emotional pain I feel right now is far worse than anything I’ve ever felt before. I can’t stop the obsessive thinking.

    I’ll try your tips, it’s cognitive behavioral therapy, but I’m pretty wrecked.

  2. I want to be thinking about a new career path and planning my finances. I also would rather be thinking about my best friend coming to visit and all the fun things I can plan to do with her. I want to think about making my room and basement pretty. I want to think about getting an ipod and going for a run. I want to make the flow of my day easier. It is emotionally EXHAUSTING thinking about my ex. I can feel myself about to go on and on, spiraling out of control defending my point of view in an argument. I go over the breakup and explaining the breakup. And it plays in my mind how he would likely respond in a unforgiving and arrogant way. I want to stop. I would rather have faith in God’s Mercy and forgiveness. I would rather be forgiving of it all. I am sorry he disappointed me and I want to forgive him of that.

  3. It’s been a year. It was an agreed upon breakup. She took off in a rebound in four weeks. She is a love addict but so am I. I am having a hard time accepting after 6 years of telling me I was the one now she flew off with a WOMAN in a few weeks. She is damaged. I know butt I am jealous. Want her to fail and get better then obsess again. Tried all sorts of remedies. Joined SLAA. I don’t contact her and never have but having a hard time not responding when she calls. I said something negative about her to her best friend by accident now I am afraid it got back to her and she hates me although I don’t know for sure. I have such a Great life and hers is becoming an enmeshed mess but that doesn’t seem to help. I feel bad about what I said and now worrying badly she will hate me. I can’t seem to stop obsessing about what happened. Sounds like bargaining to me but man oh man. It’s been a YEAR !!!

  4. It’s been a year and I still can’t stop obsessing. It was an agreed upon breakup. She took off in a rebound in four weeks. She is a love addict but so am I. I am having a hard time accepting after 6 years of reeling me I was the one now she flew off with a WOMAN in a few weeks. She is damaged. I know butt I am jealous. Want her to fail and get better then obsess again. Tried all sorts of remedies. Joined SLAA. I don’t contact her and never have but having a hard time not responding when she calls. I said something negative about her to her best friend by accident now I am afraid it got back to her and she hates me although I don’t know for sure. I have such a Great life and hers is becoming an enmeshed mess but that doesn’t seem to help. I feel bad about what I said and now worrying badly she will hate me. Sounds like bargaining to me but man oh man. It’s been a YEAR !!!

  5. Great article~
    I keep obsessing over the fact that he has moved on fast and he even told me how he has gotten down in the bed room with his new woman. This made me very angry. I was doing fine and even happy he moved on because our relationship was abusive. However once he told me how he thinks she is better than me etc….that made me go crazy, and everyday I fight with demons concerning these thoughts. I can’t take it anymore.

  6. I think a lot what I sure have said or did to the persons who have injured me emotionally and physically but I felt weak and scared to face them because I was scared they wouldn’t liked me anymore. How twisted that sounds but growing up in atmosphere filled with hostile words and alcoholic codependency in me. I didn’t feel I had the right to stand up for myself or defend myself but the wrong that was directly toward me.

  7. Yes, to all the hope and love in these comments. And to this post author – thank God for you. Thank you so much for pulling together so much careful thought and wisdom and for sharing it in your loving way.
    Wow, I knew I wasn’t alone, but it does help a little bit to see my very own issues addressed and discussed.
    Wow, intimacy with another human being is so profound. We need each other, and when there is damage, and connection is broken, there nothing I know as painful – it’s so debilitating.
    So again, thank you for speaking simply, with such confident and true affirmation of the resilience of our spirit, and the hope and certainty that we can heal and replenish our love again.

  8. I can not stop obsessing and crying and thinking what i could have done wrong to lose him or why i was not good enough. Been together little over a year…. talked every single day on the phone… i thought we were good, and happy. He say to me all the time how much he loved me and that he woukd never let me go. …. and then all of a sudden out of no where he breaks up with me and there is no explination…. no closure… it went from 1 day loving me with all your heart and soul…. planning to be together forever to nothing… no calls, no more my love…. i just can not understand or conprehend why or what happened….. when i beg and cry all he says is sorry…. No he isnt married because i can still see his media page and apparently is starting to comment to another girl that she is his love so yea yippie good for him… but how and why???? Like a whole year i have been told that i was his life and love and now its gone ?? And already has found a new love and so fast ?? I guess he never really loved me then …. though why would he waiste a whole year of my life ?? All i know was i really thought it was real. Hearing his voice every day. It felt so real and sincere i really thought he loved me with all his heart. Now feels like i am having withdrawals from being so used to him writing and calling every day. I just want to be happy. It has been 3 months since he broke up with me. And still cry every day wondering what happened. Dont know how to stop thinking about him

    1. Hi. Similar to mine but we were together SIX YEARS !
      She left with a woman.
      Your ex sounds like a borderline and or narcissist mix. Like my ex they may mean what they say then hop off. They are damaged and emotionally immature. I too obsess and for me it’s been a f….g year! I am with you in this. Of course by the time you get this you are likely over it. Me? Still stuck

  9. You are really smart and wise; relationships are important, yes, I believe we (including me) put too much stock in them and as women take on so much of the responsibility. It is very kind of you to point out and deal with this “obsession” issues- people feeling this way likely feel alone and ashamed. Sometimes even well meaning friends get tired of it….Empowering folks with tools as you have done is inspirational.
    The only means for my obsessions, all of them, is pouring it into my writing; a therapist even told me to do so….

  10. We will definitely get past this. Your supportive kind words mean more then you’ll ever know. I remember I told my ex that my best wasn’t good enough. I always felt like I could never win with him. I think therapy and meds would’ve helped but first he needed to believe he caused pain. Often abusers think they are right and as long as they see nothing wrong with what they do there can never be change. I remember some good times but never will they outweigh the bad. Stay strong. We are thrivers! Feel free to email me.

  11. I wrote in a previous blog about my relationship. Right now I can’t stop obsessing about thinking that his feelings changed and why he wouldn’t be honest. I keep obsessing why he won’t talk to me about the break up. I keep obsessing about obsessing why it seemed I was so much more invested than he was. I have also obsessed about whether or not he was honest about the reasons he couldn’t move to where I lived. I have always had a nagging feeling in the back of my mind he was not always honest. I would RATHER be thinking about the positive things about the relationship and see it for what it is and move on. I’d RATHER wake up tomorrow and feel a little less pain. I’d rather be thinking about ways to get to know myself better. I’d rather be thinking of how wonderful it is to be alone. I want to go on trips. I want to make new friends. I want to stop beating myself up for mistakes I have made. I want to learn what it is to really love me, like me and just be with me.

    1. I know exactly how you feel. You’ll get there. I’m getting there. It takes time but I wish I could just snap my finger and all the obsessing and feelings I had and have be gone. The pain does subside though. Time does help. Be patient. If you love you someone will love you just the way you are. I know the best is yet to come. The best thing about learning how to be happy on your own means your less likely to settle. You deserve the best!

      1. Thanks Melissa for your words. I was the one who initiated the break up because yea, I don’t want to settle for someone who can’t or won’t meet all of my needs. I brought this to his attention a few times and he’d be okay for a few days then revert back to old ways. I have to tell myself everyday that it’s good I saw things earlier rather than later. But doesn’t always make it any easier. Lol, I can say I am baffled that he won’t even talk to me about it. It’s making me realize that he wasn’t who I thought he was. And I know that in time I’ll be relieved that I made the decision I did. Obviously if he hasn’t said anything I wasn’t completely wrong? I may never know. I know some people just don’t know how to communicate. Thanks again! Time is our best friend, as my mom has always told me. ;)

  12. My relationship was one that involved emotional verbal and the occasional physical abuse. I don’t know why I occasionally go back to obsessive thinking I don’t even think it’s because I’m in love with my ex I think it’s because I gave up so many years believing he could be the man I saw glimpses of during the good times. Maybe the first step is admitting I still have feelings for him. I’m just confused on what they are. I can’t believe it would be love because after he cheated on me I gave him a second chance and a month later he left and went back to her saying she didn’t know his past and liked it that way. I wish I didn’t know his past myself but sadly I lived it and our kids lived it. He left me feeling like a fool and our boys abandoned. Why would I feel anything for him. I think I’m trying to figure that out. I obsess about why I would obsess about someone who would blatantly treat anyone the way he did. How I would still have any feelings for this person. Why I wish he would’ve came back and been the person he said he was going to be knowing for 17 years I was happy confused miserable sad happy intimidated…walking on egg shells never really had true peace. I should only be happy he’s gone that I finally have peace. And my mind occasionally wonders back to the what ifs. Maybe it’s because I see him as broken and he had a troubled childhood and I’ve taken on the opinion that if he could just let it go he’d be ok but it’s not my burden anymore. And carrying that burden only meant that me and my kids paid a price because of me thinking my love was going to fix him. I guess I obsesses because I feel like a fool who should’ve called the cops and let them take him instead of sending them away thus starting a cycle where he thought I’d put up with anything and never leave. But when he got a abusive toward the kids I had to take a stand. I obsess about the discard and what makes her better and I know that I shouldn’t I deserved better. It’s better but sometimes I slip back and I don’t want to. I’m
    living a good life. I’m happier without him and I know it. How do you align your heart and mind? I wish I could just forget him completely. I know it takes time and it’s only been 9 months but I don’t want to obsess anymore ever. I know my worth I know I deserved better my boys deserved better. And we are now living a peaceful life. I don’t want to look back and no more what ifs. No more obsessing or assessing myself trying to figure out what was wrong with me and better about her… I know he’s the same person because he hasn’t healed himself. I know I don’t want to be with him the way he is. I need my heart to catch up with my mind.

    1. I was in a marriage exactly like this. That’s why I thought this new relationship was so different. It is slowly sinking in that I tend to gravitate towards abusive relationships, whether mental or physical. My marriage was the first time I’d ever been with anyone that physically would hurt me and he was just like the person you were with. I know it’s hard. I took him back so many times thinking the same things. Feeling sorry for him because of his childhood, thinking somehow I would be a good influence for him. At the end of the day I just came to the conclusion that absolutely nothing I did was going to make a difference. I’ve learned the hard way you cannot, in any way shape or form control what another person does. This woman he is with is not better than you! He just made a choice and from what I’ve read you had nothing to do with that. The one thing that got me through getting past that relationship was the peace I felt. To no longer have to live in fear. To not have to yell or be yelled at. To know that my children were safe. To hear quiet instead of drama. I held on to those things. It does get easier. Just like I know, even though again, I thought this new relationship was different, I will get past it too. We have to just take our time. Live each day and think about what’s good in our lives. Take note of what we do have verses what we don’t. And for me, learning to love me because I know I don’t and I do admit I look for it in others. We will get past this!!