4 ways living in the past is holding you back, according to psychology

Are there moments where you wish you could just time travel to change the outcome of a situation? A different decision in a relationship or choosing to pursue your career over settling down could have altered the trajectory of your life. 

The thing is, we all get caught up in thinking about the past, and that’s okay, but when you get stuck on repeat, that’s when it becomes toxic. That’s because you drift away from reality and become consumed by the emotions you’ve attached to these experiences. 

Rather than live a confident life where you can make good choices, you focus on anger, resentment, and sadness, which are self-limiting behaviors. 

If you feel like you’re stuck or failing to achieve your goals, there are 4 ways living in the past is holding you back, according to psychology. By recognizing these signs, you can stop fixating on the things you cannot change and start taking your life back by focusing on your present and future. 

Let’s stop looking back and start moving forward by exploring these signs together. 

1) You avoid making healthy decisions

Most of us have experienced hurt or disappointment in the past. Whether someone’s betrayed us or we’ve gone through something traumatic, certain experiences stick with us no matter how much time passes. 

So, when you feel anxious or uncomfortable, rather than breathe deeply and deal with the situation or conversation, you completely avoid it. You feel like running away or pretending that it doesn’t exist. The concept of psychological avoidance can explain this behavior. 

Avoiding your reality by ignoring it or getting defensive about it offers short-term relief from the anxiety that it creates. This sense of relief reinforces your avoidance every time a challenging or uncomfortable situation occurs. 

You could see it as defaulting to fight or flight mode and always choosing flight. It’s as if your mind and body develop a biological reaction to avoid discomfort. 

It’s a vicious cycle that eventually controls your life and stops you from pursuing new opportunities or making important decisions. 

For example, you could find yourself stuck in a bad relationship because you’d rather avoid making the hard decisions than accept that you need to move on. 

Not only does avoidance, which stems from your past, hurt your present, but it also hinders your future. 

If you find yourself stuck in a loop of avoidant behavior, it’s time to confront those difficult feelings. Whether you need a friend’s shoulder to lean on or the professional guidance of a therapist, take control of your choices and live a more fulfilling and happy life

2) You become mentally and emotionally trapped

Have you ever felt like the walls were closing in on you? Maybe you feel like you’re drowning, and all you’re doing is keeping your head above water. 

Feeling trapped happens when you become overwhelmed. 

According to psychology, you feel trapped when you reach your emotional threshold. Feeling frustrated, angry, anxious, or sad without healthy or constructive ways to deal with it can leave you under immense pressure that you can’t escape. 

Perhaps you can’t leave a job you despise for financial reasons or your needs aren’t being met in a relationship, regardless of voicing your concerns. You feel backed into a corner with little hope of your situation changing. 

But how does feeling trapped hold you back

This overwhelming emotional response is connected to a former traumatic event or negative experience where you couldn’t express your feelings or failed to cope with the circumstances. 

In your present, instead of dealing with emotional triggers that hurt or upset you, you allow them to build up until they get to a point of no return. That’s because you don’t know how to deal with them, so you bottle everything up, which is emotionally crippling. 

Being so overwhelmed without a safe outlet for your feelings crushes your spirit and holds you back. 

If you’re emotionally and mentally trapped, look at triggers from your past and learn how to express and deal with tough emotions before they become so overwhelming that you feel stuck. 

3) You self-sabotage

man low self worth 4 ways living in the past is holding you back, according to psychology

One of the major signs that living in the past is holding you back, based on psychology, is self-sabotage

Self-sabotage is exactly what it says. You do unhelpful and destructive things, attempting to cope with or escape from unpleasant emotions that lead you away from your values. 

It can happen when a trigger from your past reminds you of a time you were hurt, scared, or anxious. Nobody wants to relive painful emotions, so you find ways of making these feelings disappear through avoidance, self-medicating, and other destructive behaviors. 

Because these destructive behaviors provide temporary relief from those uncomfortable emotions, they reinforce the maladaptive coping mechanisms you use to self-soothe. 

The reason that I’m using the term “temporary” is because negative ways of coping, such as self-medicating and avoidance, are band-aids that don’t get to the root of the problem. 

Self-sabotage is best explained by looking at an example. If you had an upbringing where you felt emotionally neglected or abandoned, you might subconsciously pursue relationships in which you need someone to fix you. This could lead to a pattern of failed relationships because you constantly align yourself with incompatible partners. 

Simply put, self-sabotage affects your happiness and prevents you from moving forward. 

These poor or ineffective coping skills will create chaotic relationships and stop you from reaching personal and professional success. 

4) You replay events in your mind

You’re definitely living in the past when you find yourself reliving difficult or confusing experiences. Trauma, conflict in a relationship, or criticism from your boss are a few scenarios that people obsess about. 

In psychology, the more you replay negative events in your mind, the more you strengthen the memory and the emotions attached to that event. You reinforce the negative experience. 

Repeatedly focusing on what was said or how things played out is a toxic trait because you cannot move on. You focus on what you could have done to change the outcome, which only leads to self-doubt and criticism

If this is something that you find yourself getting caught up in, I can relate. 

In my case, I’ve sat for days replaying conversations that I’ve had with someone in my head, and all it did was create anger and frustration. 

Why is it that we replay these troublesome experiences from our past and hold onto the emotions as if they happened yesterday? 

When you experience something upsetting or traumatic, it’s hard to let go. Feeling betrayed or humiliated has a lasting impact on your life. By replaying these events, you find relief by trying to justify a decision you made or didn’t make. It’s about trying to regain control. 

Unfortunately, instead of regaining control, you become stuck in a loop of replaying unhelpful memories that always hold you back. 

If you find yourself spending too much time focusing on past conflict or hurt, switch gears by listening to music, talking to a trusted friend, or participating in a hobby. Force yourself to think about something positive and stop reinforcing those bad memories.


Your past may shape who you are, but it doesn’t have to dictate the way you live your life. Remember this, the more time you dedicate to things that you cannot change, the more you are missing out on your present. 

You know the phrase, “Hindsight is the best sight?” Well, rather than allow an experience to have so much power and control over you, what can you learn from it? 

Think about it this way: if you keep looking back, it will hurt your mental, emotional, and physical health. 

It’s simply not worth it. 

Start making helpful changes by recognizing the ways living in the past is holding you back from embracing your present. Making small changes and reaching out for support will go a long way toward restoring your happiness and confidence and achieving your goals. 

Picture of Marcel Deer

Marcel Deer

Marcel is a journalist, gamer, and entrepreneur. When not obsessing over his man cave or the latest tech, he’s failing helplessly at training his obnoxious rescue dog ‘Boogies’.

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