Many people have a hard time letting go of the past. They carry it around with them, ruminate about it constantly, and let it have a big impact on how they live their lives in the present moment.
Of course the past will always be something that influences you to some degree. A lot of who you are and what you’ve learned is the culmination of experiences from your personal history.
However, while the past may influence your future, it doesn’t have to dictate it. And it doesn’t have to be something that always looms over your shoulder wherever you go.
Instead, we can create a space between ourselves and the past that allows us to grow in new ways. We can do this by creating a type of psychological distance, which is the subjective perception of how far away something is from your current reality.
This article covers key guidelines and tools you can use to create more psychological distance between you and your past.
View your past from an outside perspective
One great way to create psychological distance is to imagine yourself looking back at an event from an outside perspective.
Think of a bad experience that happened to you. Now imagine yourself sitting in a movie theater watching this event on the screen. Play with it – rewind it, fast forward it, watch it in reverse, or watch it at a super slow or super fast speed.
Imagine yourself eating popcorn while watching it. Laughing at the things you exaggerated at the time, but aren’t so bad looking back. Or just imagine yourself getting up and walking out of the movie theater. The character on the screen isn’t you anymore.
By doing this, you allow yourself to “disassociate” from the experience. You’re watching it from a third-person perspective rather than remembering it from a first-person perspective. This helps make the memory less intense and less associated with your personal identity.
Change your environment
One easy and practical way to create psychological distance is to change your environment.
Start with the place that most reminds you of your past – your bedroom, living room, office, or wherever. Then work on changing it up – putting up new decorations, adding new pictures, moving the furniture, painting the walls a different color, getting a new rug, etc.
The music you listen to on a daily basis is another part of your environment than you can consider changing. We often associate a particular band, song, or album with a particular “time period” in our life, so seeking new music can create immediate psychological distance.
Sometimes, even something like moving to a new place can be a useful way to create both physical and psychological distance from your past. In general, however, creating a new environment can be symbolic of opening up a new chapter in your life.
Seek new experiences
Actively seeking new experiences is another great way to create psychological distance.
One way we cling to the past is by not trying new things. We’d rather stay in our house, visit the same places, and follow the same routine. This keeps us trapped in the same patterns that remind us of our past.
Instead, go out to new places, make new friends, and be open to new activities. Focus on building new memories for the future, rather than only focusing on the memories you already have.
Often times the best way to go forward is to keep yourself active. It’s just like needing to date new people before you can get over an ex, or achieving a new goal before you can get over a previous failure. Keep moving.
Remind yourself of things that have changed
Most of the change in our lives is slow and gradual. It’s not until we stop and look back 5-10 years that we notice just how different our lives are today.
For this reason, I find it very important to remind yourself of things that have changed. This can help create psychological distance, because it makes you more aware of the “distance” you’ve already covered.
Take 5 minutes and just write down 3 significant ways your life has changed in the past 5 years. Think back to how your life was in the past, and how it is now in the present.
People sometimes say, “Don’t think of how far you have to go, but how far you’ve already traveled.” This is a short and sweet way to create more psychological distance between you and your past.
Imagine yourself walking through a mental door
Psychological distance is based on our subjective perception. It’s a distance that is ultimately created in your mind, not the physical world.
When you want to make a direct change in your mind, it’s often useful to use symbols and metaphors. One symbol for creating psychological distance between you and your past is “walking through a new door.”
I remember a time when I was really clinging to a past relationship. One exercise I started doing to create distance was visualizing myself walking through a new door into a new world.
I would start by visualizing the person I was still attached to. Then I would walk away from the person, enter through a new door and into an open grass field with a beaming sun (this, to me, symbolized “future opportunities”). The whole exercise happens in the first person (you’re looking through your own eyes – this makes it different than the “movie theater” exercise I discussed previously).
You can use whatever symbol you want for “future opportunities.” The main idea is to walk through this mental door and toward your future.
Discover more tools to daily growth in the digital guide The Science of Self Improvement