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:
“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.
- Meet your brain
- Learn how the grooves in your brain keep the obsession alive
- 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.
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.