As humans, we spend a lot of time talking about “moving on.” Whether it’s getting over a breakup, dealing with the death of a loved one, or finally leaving a toxic work environment—we are encouraged to move on with our lives, rather than dwelling on the past.
But what does that mean, exactly? Regardless of the event, or its severity, there are four main elements to moving on:
Working through the emotional aftermath
Whenever you go through a difficult experience, there are negative emotions you will continue to experience. The first thing to do is to figure out where those emotions are coming from.
When you experience a loss or a traumatic experience, you often have trouble explaining how it happened. The experience has created a tear in your life story. You may find yourself having repeated thoughts about what happened. That pattern (called rumination) reflects that your brain is staying vigilant for information about potential dangers you don’t understand.
One of the best ways to stop the cycle of negative thoughts is through expressive writing. As psychologist Jamie Pennebaker and his colleagues have demonstrated, spending time writing about difficult or traumatic events including a focus on your thoughts and feelings greatly reduces the long-term anxiety you feel from those events. This writing helps to weave the difficult events back into the story of your life in ways that reduce your attention to what happened.
Finding the Lessons
Some difficult experiences are truly random. When I was a kid, the house I lived in got struck by lightning, and there was damage to the house. Thankfully, nobody was hurt, but I was afraid of thunderstorms for several years after that. This was a chance occurrence.
But most other situations in life are ones in which actions you have taken played some role in what happened next. It might have been failing to see warning signs of an impending problem, or it might have been that you actually put yourself in a risky situation. Before you put an event behind you, it is also important to acknowledge whatever role you played so that you can learn lessons that will minimize the chances of it happening again in the future.
In the workplace, moving on may also involve some remedial or disciplinary action. People who knowingly broke rules may need to be punished or fired for their actions. People who were ill-prepared for what happened need to be taught how to react more effectively in the future. It can be painful to hold people accountable for something that happened—particularly if you like the people who caused a problem. But failing to learn lessons from significant negative events increases the chances that they will happen again.
Many professions build this kind of reckoning into the regular workflow. Medical groups hold morbidity and mortality conferences to address negative outcomes from patients. The military routinely holds after-action reviews to determine how missions could have been accomplished more effectively. The aim of these processes is to grapple with things that went wrong to improve future performance.
Forgiving to forget
Once you have explored what went wrong in the past, you have to establish your future relationship with people who were involved in a difficult situation. Punishing people or banishing them from your life is one way to deal with bad actors. When you absolutely cannot trust someone to do the right thing in the future, then cutting ties with them is a wise choice.
If you are going to continue a relationship with someone who has caused you a problem in the past, though, you are going to have to forgive them. The reason why forgiveness is so important is that it can help you to forget the details of what went wrong in the past. Once you have learned lessons from the past, you do not want to be reminded of someone’s past bad actions every time you engage with them. Forgiving them allows you to interact with them in the future without dredging up negative feelings about them every time you are around them.
Focusing on the future
Fundamentally, moving on is a future-facing orientation. When you are unable to move on from something that happened to you, then your past experience is controlling your future actions. It can be difficult to make progress on future goals when your thoughts and emotions are being driven largely by something that happened in the past.
Part of moving on, then, is to make explicit choices to address future challenges. There will be days when you just want to remain angry about what happened in the past or to spend time talking about it or thinking about it. Instead, you can choose to try to focus on whatever needs to be done next.
Initially, you may not be that productive when you take that future-focused approach. Stress and anxiety may make it hard to get any work done. But developing a habit to focus on the future when you are reminded of pain from the past is a way of helping yourself to look forward when it is no longer valuable to look back.