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I need an idiom to express the action of voluntarily cutting off from the past in a way that you cannot return to that former way of life even if you wanted to. Like an addict voluntarily cuts with his past in order to survive.

I would prefer it to be formal, even literary or outdated, but I would accept any accurate idiom there is. I need it for the context of a man who wants to leave his country for a foreign land to start a new life with no connection with his past, not because he is in danger, but because he wants to change and avoid every connection with his past way of life. He leaves everything behind.

Context:

He left behind all the values of his past: career, family and material goods, wanting to __________ (idiom).

I thought of break free from the past, but the connotation of voluntarily leaving behind things is weak. It's not like his past was a prison, he just wants to change his life, so the idea of escaping is not the best for what I need.

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  • 1
    break free from the past isn't an idiom as it's discernible from the words themselves. Whereas e.g., move on ("start doing something new or making progress") is more like an idiom, but it's actually a phrasal verb. However, that's still what belongs in the blank IMO.
    – Mazura
    Jan 28, 2023 at 2:19

15 Answers 15

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burn one's bridges has the sense of making a drastic change so you can't go back. It often implies doing something drastic or so bad you can never go back, but this isn't essential

Farlex Free Dictionaries says:

  1. Literally, to destroy a bridge or path behind oneself, so that others cannot follow. This usage is often related to military action.
  2. To do something that cannot be easily undone or reversed in the future (often because one has behaved offensively or unfavorably).

A related idiom, often confused with it, is to burn one's boats: this relates to the practice of people arriving on a new land of burning the boats so they cannot retreat or sail away and must advance: it is often said to originate with the conquistador Hernán Cortés. See Wiktionary. "To Burn One's Boats or to Burn One's Bridges?", Winston A. Reynolds, American Speech, Vol. 34, No. 2 (May, 1959), pp. 95-100 (6 pages), https://www.jstor.org/stable/454373.

The original difference is that burning bridges stops others following, but burning boats stops yourself from going back, but these precise meanings are often not respected (as in Farlex def 2), and burning bridges is a more common idiom for both situations.

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    "It often implies doing something drastic or so bad you can never go back, but this isn't essential" -- I disagree with this assertion. Every time I have used this idiom, or heard it used, "burning bridges" has been associated with a purposeful malicious act of destruction. There was always an element of harm being done to someone else (as well as yourself). Jan 26, 2023 at 15:33
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    @GregBurghardt I disagree. You can burn your bridges so that you have no choice but go forward, and that for a positive purpose.
    – fev
    Jan 26, 2023 at 17:59
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    I have always seen this expression used as something unintentional and never beneficial, a side-effect that should be avoided. For instance "When you change quit your job, be careful not to burn bridges." Which basically means "Try to leave your job gracefully, and don't tell your old boss how much you hated them."
    – Stef
    Jan 26, 2023 at 19:57
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    I agree with Greg and Stef: burning bridges is not a good thing. Burning your boat is not used nearly as often, but it has precisely the meaning the OP wants.
    – Marthaª
    Jan 26, 2023 at 21:49
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    @Stef (and @GregBurghardt) Sure, but that's because "cutting yourself off from a former life so you can never go back" is usually a bad thing. But in the rare cases when you want to do that, for a good reason, it's still called "burning your bridges". Jan 27, 2023 at 1:25
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You could use:

turn the page:

to make a new start after a period of difficulties.

(Collins Dictionary)

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  • Good one, although the idea of difficulties is not necessarily present in my context. But I guess one can "turn the page" just because one simply wants a radical change, even if it is not because of difficulties.
    – fev
    Jan 26, 2023 at 9:17
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    Well, I think it can be applied to all sorts of contexts whenever you want a radical change from what you’ve done before.
    – Gio
    Jan 26, 2023 at 9:19
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Perhaps make a sea change

a complete change in someone's attitudes or behaviour

Supermarkets have a huge influence on what we eat and will continue to do so until there is a sea change in political thinking on food.

The term appears to be used more literally in Australia.

A sea change is moving away from the hustle and bustle of city life, to a much quieter and relaxed coastal town by the sea. A tree change is moving inland to live in a country town or a place by the mountains.

An Australian career advice blog suggests

A sea change (or tree change) is a drastic change from a city lifestyle and is really about evaluating what’s important to you then improving your lifestyle to achieve a healthier, less stressful environment. It’s about living life to the full and enjoying a more peaceful or meaningful existence. It doesn’t really matter where you go and is often more about downsizing (your house, your income, your expectations, your workload).

Similar to turn the page, one can turn over a new leaf. According to Collins dictionary

If you say that you are going to turn over a new leaf, you mean that you are going to start to behave in a better or more acceptable way.

He realized he was in the wrong and promised to turn over a new leaf.

Alternatively, one can wipe the slate clean

to forget all the things that have happened or been done and start doing something again : to start again from the very beginning

She wishes she could wipe the slate clean and start over in a different career.

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  • "Lock the door behind you and throw away the key"

It's also the title of a song. The meaning is pretty clear: close a door, make sure that you cannot open it again and forget about it.

  • "Walk away without looking back"

This one could work, but is a bit ambiguous and might mean "without regrets".

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  • The first is a decent suggestion! Very accurate for the meaning I need for my context.
    – fev
    Jan 26, 2023 at 20:04
  • "Lock the door behind you and throw away the key" - is this a phrase people use? I haven't really heard anyone say it.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jan 27, 2023 at 11:40
  • Reinventing yourself.
    – Xanne
    Jan 27, 2023 at 11:43
  • @NotThatGuy Perhaps without "behind you"
    – Stef
    Jan 27, 2023 at 14:15
  • @Stef Still not sure about this one, but I have commonly heard "lock up and throw away the key" (to refer to locking someone in prison).
    – NotThatGuy
    Jan 27, 2023 at 14:21
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"...wanting to make a clean break."

According to MacMillan:

A sudden complete end to something such as a relationship or a period of time spent in a place

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    – Community Bot
    Jan 27, 2023 at 7:24
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  • to break with one's past

break with something phrasal verb

to stop intentionally doing something that is normal, expected, or traditional

  • He left behind all the values of his past: career, family and material goods, wanting to break with it.
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There are multiple different phrases that would apply to different parts of the question. No phrase perfectly fits everything mentioned.

"Break free from the past" suggests the person is very actively choosing to change their life, generally in the face of some obstacles preventing them from doing so. This does, to some degree, imply changes that cannot easily be undone.

This would be most fitting to describe an addict moving past their addiction by getting over the obstacles of the physical addiction as well as any negative influences.

This may also refer to "breaking free" from the obstacle of simply being in a rut, or something else that isn't all that extreme.

"Burn bridges" suggests that one makes destructive and generally negative changes (generally by destroying relationships) that would prevent one from returning to how things used to be. This is generally done on purpose, but could also be accidental.

"Cut ties with [the past / everyone I used to know]" refers specifically to ending relationships and cutting off contact, not in a particularly destructive way, but generally in a way one cannot trivially undo.

"Turn over a new leaf" means one is putting most of the past behind you and trying to have a "fresh start" without any elements from your past (or just without the unwanted elements). One could "turn over a new leaf" in a relationship by changing how you interact with the other person, or it may involve moving to a different country, ending relationships, changing jobs, etc. This does not refer simply to making a big change in one's life, but more to changing your perspective or outlook on life (possibly as a result of a big change to one's life).

This does not generally imply that one would be unable to return to how things used to be, but rather that one doesn't want to return.

This seems most fitting for someone moving to a new country to start a new life with no connection with his past, simply because they want to change.


If I wanted to describe the situation in question completely, I might combined two idioms, e.g. "Turn over a new leaf and cut ties with everyone I used to know". Or possibly "Break free from the past to [start a new life / make a fresh start]".

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Sounds like he's trying for a Fresh Start. According to Macmillan:

a complete change in your way of life or the way that you do things, especially after you have previously been unsuccessful

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"Reborn", implying one's old self and life are dead to them, never to be resurrected, yet avoiding any connotations of "born again".

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There's lots of great suggestions here, but you could also consider

put the past behind you

It's a fairly direct and literal description of what you're asking for, but it is in common usage and would be understood.

You could also replace 'the past' with a specific thing that's being left in the past. So to use your example:

He wanted to leave the values of his past: career, family, and material goods behind him.

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He wanted to reinvent himself. OED definition:

reinvent, v.

  1. transitive. To adopt a new image or identity for (a person or thing). Usually reflexive: to adopt a new image or identity for oneself; to change one's behaviour in order to respond to a change in environment or react to opportunity.

This could be intensified with completely or totally if desired, to emphasize the profound break with his former life.

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I don't see it here, but what came to my mind was "crossing the Rubicon":

The phrase "crossing the Rubicon" is an idiom that means "passing a point of no return".1 Its meaning comes from allusion to the crossing of the river Rubicon by Julius Caesar in early January 49 BC.

You said:

I need it for the context of a man who wants to leave his country for a foreign land to start a new life with no connection with his past, not because he is in danger, but because he wants to change and avoid every connection with his past way of life. He leaves everything behind.

Julius Caesar went from being a servant of Rome to becoming Rome itself and assuming the mantle of imperialism by declaring himself emperor. He, with a great deal of resolve, fundamentally transformed himself, Rome, and world history. After this event, the notion of the Republic of Rome would never be the same.

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He left behind all the values of his past: career, family and material goods, wanting to __________ (idiom).

I would fill in the blank with start from scratch, given its connotations: starting over; self-made, not pre-made; a starting point with no head start, advantage, or handicap; a beginning without benefit of the past.

"Scratching the Surface of ‘From Scratch’: Out of nothing comes something."
Word History [M-W]

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wanting to ... "start a new chapter in his life's story, maybe even a whole new book."

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  • This is only half of the meaning I need. It lacks the voluntarily leaving everything behind bit. But your suggestion helps me think of different options.
    – fev
    Jan 26, 2023 at 18:06
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One possibility is cut the cord. John Ayto, Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, third edition (2009) has this entry for the idiom:

cut the cord cease to rely on someone or something influential or supportive and begin to act independently. | The image here is of the cutting of a baby's umbilical cord at birth.

A somewhat similar phrase—but one with less of a sense of prior dependence—is cut all ties [with the past], where the image is of severing threads or other connecting materials that bind a person to someone or something else (in this case, figuratively, the past).

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  • Thanks for getting it! The imagery of "cutting" is very welcome.
    – fev
    Jan 26, 2023 at 21:14

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