Do you ever have a hard time moving on with life because you miss the past so much (learning to let go)

Nostalgia and the art of learning to let go.

For many of us most of our days are filled with specific routines that have become almost second nature, I hate to say that they’re insignificant but that’s what they can feel like sometimes.

You’re probably so use to doing them that it requires very little energy or thought to accomplish them. 

  • the drive to work
  • the food you eat
  • how you get your kids ready
  • the tasks you perform throughout the day
  • daily interactions with other people or your significant other
  • preparation for bed.

To break up these routines you may spend some time reminiscing with friends or alone as a way to remind yourself that life is meaningful and worthwhile.

Looking back on past experiences is something I’ve always done as a way to boost my morale, create bursts of excitement and passion, strengthen social relationships, and enhance my mood. Music in particular is one way that I have found can dramatically alter my mood in any given moment.

The word Nostalgia comes from the Greek word nostoswhich means homecoming or return to, and algoswhich refers to pain or ache. So essentially the word means “a return to pain.”

I found this to be extremely interesting as I feel most of us associate the word with “the good old days.” With that being said, certain memories, thoughts, songs, people, food, and experiences can force us into nostalgia that is more fitting with the traditional sense of the word.

You probably don’t have a tough time reminiscing about “the good ol’days,” but what about when those certain moments pop up that create angst, fear, uncertainty, self-doubt, or attachment?

How can the art of learning to let go help not only with past memories and experiences but also help you to build a more confident, strong, determined, and healthier version of yourself in the future – a person that spends more time living there authentic self?


Turn to your right, or left, or just lift your head up so that you can see another person. If there is no one around picture someone else mentally. You and that person; hell all of us want the same thing – to feel better. It’s in your nature as a human being and is rooted into your primal DNA code to want to be safe, secure, successful, and respected and to avoid failure, pain, uncertainty, and rejection. All of us want to be:

  • healthier
  • happier
  • more successful
  • have better relationships
  • be more creative
  • have more exciting experiences

Fill in what you want more of right here _________________, I’m sure the majority of us want that too.

Sometimes, in order to do this you may revisit past experiences (I do myself quite a bit). At the heart of it, there is nothing wrong with this, nostalgia is important because it can make you feel better almost in an instant. It’s when holding on to certain memories, thoughts, feelings, or items that produce pain, stress, or make you feel bad that the concept of learning to let go or refraining from attachment comes into play.

Nostalgia shouldn’t be revisited in order to avoid the present, which is something many of us do (myself included). One way in which you may do this is through constant worrying.

  • worrying about what you ate
  • your job, your relationships
  • your finances

We worry to avoid future discomfort, and in a sense, if we worry enough, or create enough problems, stress, or suffering for ourselves it gives us identity. This is why you may replay mistakes, shame, or identify so strongly with regrets.


Polaroids and cemera

If you truly want to be successful you have to be optimistic and relentless about pursuing your future. You can’t waste any time or energy on the shoulda-coulda-woulda’s of the world. If you’re not happy something in the world doesn’t need to change, you need to change. This is when it’s time to let go of all the:

  • Not worthy enough
  • Saying yes to everything
  • Keeping promises that you’ve outgrown
  • Standards and the status quo
  • Trap of validation
  • Regrets
  • Uncertainties

It’s time to let go of behaviors, people, and possessions that may have worked in the past for you but are no longer working for you in the present. As we get older it seems that this gets more and more difficult and we hold on to more and more. This tends to happen at some point in our twenties to early thirties, and many psychologists and philosophers have contributed it to the major changes that most of us experience during this time.

  • Choosing our major or what we are going to do with the rest of our life
  • Serious relationships and breakups
  • The end of our careers as full-time students and the pressures of the “real world”
  • First “real job”
  • First purchases (car, home, pet, etc…)
  • Marriage for many and kids for some

Adulthood gets real pretty damn fast, schedules, appointments, and responsibilities take over and almost seem like they consume us.

Attachment sets in and it gets hard to let go because time has helped us to build strong memories and emotional connections with people and possessions, the money we’ve spent on things causes an endowment effect, the concept of “more is better” has been ingrained in us, and we become afraid to let anything go because we’ve convinced ourselves that we will use it or need it in the future.

The truth is that Walkman you’ve been holding on to is not going to get used today, tomorrow, or anytime in the foreseeable future. When we’ve consumed something, wether it be people, food, a purchase, or memory it gets hard to move on, a bond has been permanently created with it and we have somehow created a sense of identity with it.

We want what we want, and once we have it, we want it to stay the same.


In a study conducted by Bar-Hillel & Neter, in 1996 it was shown just how much the possibility of regret can affect our decision-making.

“…In this study participants were given lottery tickets—not real ones, but organized by the researchers so that one person could win. Then they were asked if they would be willing to exchange them for another one which had an identical chance of winning (Bar-Hillel & Neter, 1996). To encourage them to switch tickets, they were offered a tasty truffle. Even though there was no difference between the tickets and there was a treat as an incentive, less than 50% of participants agreed.

Then the experiment was repeated with different participants, except this time, instead of lottery tickets, participants were given pens. As before they were offered a small incentive to make the switch. In this condition 90% of participants agreed to the swap.

Why the huge difference?

What is going on is that a pen is just a pen, but a lottery ticket is not just a lottery ticket. No matter what, all the pens are identical, but only one lottery ticket will actually win, although before the draw they all have the same chance of winning. What this means is that we can start using our imaginations, projecting ourselves forward into the future, and thinking about possible consequences.

What if we decide to swap our lottery ticket and then it turns out to be the winning one? How will we feel then? It’s this anticipation of regret that stops people swapping their tickets…” adapted from psyblog

Why is this study important and what does regret have to do with learning to let go? Well, I think it has everything to do with it because we tend to view regret backward. Typically regret is seen as an emotion related to the past – you may regret past decisions, actions, or choices – but really regret is a forward-thinking emotion as it affects your behavior in the present, right here, and right now. When you anticipate feelings of regret you’ll do anything and everything to avoid feeling that way – you become paralyzed, freeze, no action is taken, nothing gets done, and you’re right back where you started.

The what-ifs set in:

The I’ll be _____________ when ______________ shows up

It’s your security blanket.

Passion and excitement that you may have been feeling start to wear off as you think about previous decisions you have made.

Everything starts to feel so permanent, experiences, places, people, choices, but the only thing that is ever permanent is impermanence. Everything is changing, you, me, your best friend, jobs, relationships, feelings, emotions, attitudes, desires, the kitchen sink – life evolves and if you don’t keep up with it you’ll be left behind.


You know something, we’re all on the same team. There’s no competition, we all want exactly the same damn things out of this world – to reduce pain and suffering and to increase happiness and constantly be improving as human beings. Part of that evolution of getting better at being human is learning to let go every once in a while. You don’t need to let go of everything but often your life can get filled with clutter and distractions, not only with possessions but with emotions and people as well.

1. Take photos: Instead of holding on to physical items, people, etc… take photos and store them at places like Flickr or Picassa.

2. Start journaling: One of the most beneficial things I have ever done is to start journaling. Take 5-10 minutes each night to just review your day. What went right, what went wrong, how can you improve on these things in the future, what cool people did you connect with, or what things do you want to remember? The written word lasts a lifetime.

3. Specifically for: Keep a box, drawer, or single closet for things you want to hold onto. That’s it, just the one and no more, whatever you can fit in here you’re allowed to keep. If it gets full it’s time to go through it and evaluate what needs to stay and what needs to go.

4. Half-hearted people: It’s hard to let go of personal relationships, with lovers, friends, or family members. Emotions can really cloud your judgment and make it difficult to make decisions that are almost as clear as day. If people in your life are energy zappers it’s time to set them free.

5. You’re smarter than you think: Human intuition is a powerful thing, take it seriously. If you feel it in your gut take the time to listen. How important will this thing, person, place, whatever be to you in an hour, 3 months from now, a year from now, five years from now, forever from now :)?

It’s important to hold on to certain memories, feelings, people, and things but it’s just as important to remember that you’ll be creating new memories, and feelings, meeting new people, and experiencing new things almost daily – new will replace the old and as a constantly evolving person there’s only room for so much.

Let yourself experience growth by making room for it, and perform a little personal inventory, what are you holding onto that is keeping you from becoming the person you’ve always wanted to be?


PS: Learning to let go may take a while. But it’s worth the investment. 



Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash