How to let go
Staying in bed all day and avoiding friends and loved ones makes letting go and moving on that much more difficult. Start your day with an empowering morning ritual that includes activities like priming , meditation, yoga or journaling, then get up and get involved. Join groups, volunteer for a new project at work or meet a friend for lunch or drinks. Staying busy will help take your mind off the breakup and allow your wounds to start healing.
R ecently, my wife and I passed by the spot of one of our first dates. For the next few minutes, we smiled and reminisced and rehashed a small happy sliver of our shared story. That date had been absolutely magical. One of those nights you dream about when you’re an awkward teenager, but as a single young adult, you begin to believe it might never happen.
And with that realization, to my surprise, I began to experience a faint sort of sadness. I grieved over a tiny loss of myself—that cocky, self-assured 27-year-old who walked into that restaurant having no idea what lay before him. The infinite potential that lay before us. The intensity of emotions that I didn’t know what to do with.
There was a sweet, cocky ignorance to my younger self that has been irrevocably lost. And despite being lost for the best reasons, it still made me sad. For a few moments, I silently mourned my past the way one mourns a distant relative’s death.
I’m no stranger to loss. I don’t think any of us are. I’ve watched family members and friends die. I’ve had romantic relationships end in a spectacular explosion and I’ve had them end in a long, drawn out silence. I’ve lost friendships, jobs, cities, and communities. I’ve lost beliefs—in both myself and others.
Coping with loss always involves the same dynamics. In every case—whether it’s the loss of a friendship, a career, a limb, whatever—we are forced to reckon with the fact that we will never experience something or someone again. We are forced to feel an internal emptiness and to accept our pain. We are forced to confront that horrible, horrible word: “Never.”
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Every Loss Is a Partial Loss of Who You Are
One of the most common emails I get from readers is from people who want to get their ex back. Some of them word it more nicely than that—they say they want to “make things up” or “fix things,” but really it comes down to, “He/she left my ass and it hurts. What do I say or do to get them back?”
This question never made sense to me. For one, if there was a tried-and-true way to get an ex back, we would have a) figured it out a long time ago and b) break up or divorce would not exist. The world would be flooded with happily married couples. And I’d probably be out of a job.
But more importantly, trying to “win” back an ex is impossible because even if “it works,” the reformed relationship will never perfectly resemble the one of the past: it will be a fragile, contrived affair, composed of two wholly different and skeptical individuals, replaying the same problems and dramas over and over, while being constantly reminded of why things failed in the first place.
We’ve all been through breakups before. And we’ve all, in our moments of weakness, pined for our exes, written embarrassing emails/text messages, drank too much vodka on a Tuesday night, and silently cried to that one 80s song that reminds us of them.
But why do breakups hurt so bad? And why do we find ourselves feeling so lost and helpless in their wake? This article will be covering coping with all loss, but because the loss of intimate relationships (partners and family members) is by far the most painful form of loss, we will primarily be using those as examples throughout.
- To be healthy, functioning individuals, we need to feel good about ourselves. To feel good about ourselves, we need to feel that our time and energy is spent meaningfully. Meaning is the fuel of our minds. 3 When you run out of it, everything else stops working.
- The primary way we generate meaning is through relationships. 4 Note that I’ll be using the term “relationship” loosely throughout this article. We don’t just have relationships with other people (although those relationships tend to be the most meaningful to us), we also have relationships with our career, with our community, with groups and ideas that we identify with5 , activities we engage in, and so on. All of these relationships can potentially give our lives meaning and, therefore, make us feel good about ourselves.
- Our relationships don’t just give our lives meaning, they also define our understanding of ourselves. I am a writer because of my relationship with writing. I am a son because of my relationship with my parents. I aman American because of my relationship with my country. 6 If any of these things get taken from me—like, let’s say I get shipped to North Korea by accident (oops) and can’t write anymore—it will throw me into a mini identity crisis because the activity that has given my life so much meaning the past decade will no longer be available to me (that and, you know, being stuck in North Korea).
- When one of these relationships is destroyed, that part of our identity is destroyed along with it. Consequently, the more meaning the relationship added to my life, the more significant its role in my identity, the more crippling the loss will be if/when I lose it. Since personal relationships generally give us the most meaning (and therefore, happiness), these are the relationships that hurt the most when lost.
- When we lose a relationship, that meaning is stripped away from us. Suddenly this thing that created so much meaning in our life no longer exists. As a result, we will feel a sense of emptiness where that meaning used to be. We will start to question ourselves, to ask whether we really know ourselves, whether we made the right decision. In extreme circumstances, this questioning will become existential. We will ask whether our life is actually meaningful at all. Or if we’re just wasting everybody’s oxygen. 7
- This feeling of emptiness—or more accurately, this lack of meaning—is more commonly known as depression. Most people believe that depression is a deep sadness. This is mistaken. While depression and sadness often occur together, they are not the same thing. Sadness occurs when something feels bad. Depression occurs when something feels meaningless. 8 When something feels bad, at least it has meaning. In depression, everything becomes a big blank void. And the deeper the depression, the deeper the lack of meaning, the deeper the pointlessness of any action, to the point where a person will struggle to get up in the morning, to shower, to speak to other people, to eat food, etc.
- The healthy response to loss is to slowly but surely construct new relationships and bring new meaning into one’s life. We often come to refer to these post-loss periods as “a fresh start,” or “a new me,” and this is, in a literal sense, true. You are constructing a “new you” by adopting new relationships to replace the old. 9
- The unhealthy response to loss is to refuse to admit that part of you is dead and gone. It’s to cling to the past and desperately try to recover it or relive it in some way. People do this because their entire identity and self-respect was wrapped up in that missing relationship. They feel that they are incapable or unworthy of loving and meaningful relationships with someone or something else going forward.
- Ironically, the fact that many people are not able to love or respect themselves is almost always the reason their relationship failed in the first place.
Why is letting go so hard?
Why do we have so much trouble learning how to let go of someone we love ? We like to hold on to things, situations and especially people because it fulfills our need for certainty . Certainty is one of the six human needs that drive every decision we make. Letting go and moving on from a relationship often entails a large amount of uncertainty. Even if your relationship had reached its conclusion or one or both of you were very unhappy, there was still an amount of certainty there that was comforting.
Sometimes we use the past to justify our current decisions , and that’s why we can’t figure out how to let go . Remember when you were rejected by several potential mates in high school or college? Those instances could make you hold on to a partner – even one who is not good for you – because you are afraid you won’t find anyone else. Those memories justify everything for you. When you’re unable to let go, those memories become a part of your “story” and work against you.
How to let go of someone
1. Recognize when it’s time
Learning when it’s time to let go is often the most difficult part of this process. But in many cases it’s necessary to let go in order to unlock the life you deserve . Though each relationship is different, most find it’s time to end things when the relationship causes them more pain than pleasure or when trust has eroded to the point where the romance cannot be rekindled . Deciding how to let go becomes easier when you are certain the time has come and that your future happiness depends on a new start.
2. Identify limiting beliefs
Do thoughts like “I could never be alone” or “I’ll never find someone else who loves me” constantly run through your mind ? Understand that these are not facts – they are limiting beliefs , and while beliefs have the power to create your world, you have the power to transform them. Replace them with empowering beliefs like, “I am open to what the universe has in store for me” and “I love myself and deserve the best.” You may feel silly at first, but when you use these positive incantations as part of your daily routine, you will see results.
3. Change your story
Your story is what you tell yourself to justify your decisions and is based on your limiting beliefs . For example, you tell yourself you can’t have a successful relationship because of how you grew up. Your parents argued in front of you all the time and eventually divorced. You can’t let go of the belief that all relationships are bound to fail, and this is why you can’t maintain a healthy romantic relationship . You use this past experience to justify your current life state – but you can change your story so that your past empowers you instead of holding you back. Your past is not your future unless you live there.
4. Stop the blame game
Letting go of someone you love doesn’t mean you have to negate the truth , but don’t let it influence your current path. It is human nature to point the finger at someone else or a past incident instead of ourselves. This is why you blame your significant other at the end of a relationship or another person for something terrible that happened to you. Yet even when the facts are terrible or heartbreaking, you cannot let bad experiences dictate your future. Instead, use your experiences as a tool to push you to learn and grow so you can create a healthy relationship with someone else.
5. Embrace the “F” word
Going your separate ways does not have to be an experience filled with anger or judgment. When you recognize that the person is preventing you from growing or achieving your dreams, you can forgive them and also forgive yourself for any pain the separation may cause and wish them the best for the future. Remind yourself that to create space for a new, healthy relationship, you must learn how to let go of the old one. Practicing forgiveness is a chance to grow and live in the mystery of what’s next.
6. Master your emotions
When a relationship ends, it’s common to feel incredible amounts of anger and resentment – especially if you were not the one who decided to end it. Maybe at first you felt righteous about it, like the anger was helping you move forward. However, after some time has passed, you start to see that it’s unhealthy for you, and you’re not sure how to let go of someone you love and move on with your life.
Negative feelings take a toll on your emotional and physical health – anger is even associated with heart disease – and will affect your future relationships. Recognizing this behavior as unhealthy is the first step in the process of letting go. If you’re looking for an answer regarding how to move on , you are already on the right path. The good news is that in the process of learning how to let go , you can also learn how to control your emotions .
7. Practice empathy
Learning how to move on from a relationship that once brought you joy can be very difficult. When you’re letting go of someone, it’s helpful to think of both sides of the story and see the situation from their point of view . Look at this person from the same place of compassion and empathy that you did when you were happy together. Yes, your ex may have hurt you, but they likely did not do it out of malice. They felt their needs weren’t being met in your relationship and they decided to take action in order to improve their own emotional state.
Video: The Power of Letting Go
The thing we probably have the hardest time letting go of is the past. We might be going through a hard time and wish that we were in previous good times. This might mean longing for someone we loved to be in our lives again, missing a good friend that we drifted away from, or even wishing an important person was still alive and with us today.
Here’s another example from my own life. My partner was struggling with this recently—he’s having a hard time letting go of who I used to be. I got really sick a few years ago and even though I am mostly recovered, I can’t do everything I used to do. I’m not as strong so I’m less able to go on wild adventures. I’m more careful about what I put into my body so I don’t really party much anymore. I’m not quite the same friend or partner that I used to be. But his struggle with letting go makes it harder for him to enjoy who I am now, and it makes it harder for me to accept who I am now. This is just one example of how failure to let go can complicate life and lead to some pretty unpleasant emotions.
How to truly let go of someone you love:
1. Make sure you’re safe.
As much as you might love this person, it’s important to think realistically about the situation. If there’s any abuse present in this relationship, the first thing to think about when letting this person go is your own safety.
“If you have any safety concerns, make sure you tell your partner in a public setting if you choose to break up face to face or consider letting them know by phone or text. Breakups can stir up big emotions, so if your partner is volatile, prioritize your safety above all else,” Leeds says.
You might even have to be discreet in your getaway, Neo adds. You’ll also want to make sure you have any necessary documents (if this will involve legal matters), a strong support system present, and even think about changing your passwords, she says. (Here’s our full guide to leaving an abusive relationship.)
2. Open up a dialogue.
If you want to speak with this person about your decision, you can take steps to open up the dialogue. “Once you’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time to move on, consider how you’d like to let your partner know. If no safety issues are present, communicating the news in person is best,” Leeds tells mbg, adding, “Ideally, you will have already communicated your concerns to your partner well before choosing to break up.”
3. Hold your boundaries firmly.
Leeds and Neo both note that having a script of sorts can help if you’re worried you might back down in a face-to-face conversation. Stand firm in the breakup, and hold your boundaries. “Make sure that you stay rock solid like a mountain. Do not move,” Neo adds.
4. Be direct but also compassionate.
During the breakup, Leeds advises clearly and compassionately explaining that you’d like to go your separate ways. If they ask you why, you can give a few concrete reasons as to what feels off to you. “Take ownership for what isn’t working whenever possible using ‘I’ statements like, ‘I feel on edge during our fights, and lately, we’ve been arguing so much that it’s hard for me to feel at peace,’ or ‘I’ve realized I want to be with a partner who shares my vision of living abroad together.'”
This avoids drawing out the breakup or unnecessarily hurting your partner, she explains, and you don’t have to go into excruciating detail about every little thing you don’t like about them, instead sticking to the big picture.
5. Go no-contact if you can.
Once the breakup is said and done, the real work of letting go is maintaining it. In most cases, going no-contact will be the quickest and healthiest road to recovery, and you’ll need to communicate that expectation to this person.
“Remember that it’s not your job to get your partner through the pain of the breakup. Trying to help an ex-partner heal from the relationship is next to impossible because every time you’re there for them, it gives a mixed signal and risks rehooking them into the relationship,” Leeds explains.
6. Know that you’re worthy of love.
According to psychotherapist and relationship expert Ken Page, LCSW, reminding yourself of your own self-worth, and further, acknowledging that you’re worthy of the love you desire, is so important when letting go of someone. He explains that we often convince ourselves that something about us is stopping us from receiving love, but “this myth that we hold dear to our hearts causes us to enact cycles of pain for ourselves and others,” he says, adding, “And that gets terribly triggered by people who cannot accept us and love us for who we are.”
7. Reconnect to the other parts of your life.
Use the time post-breakup as an opportunity to focus on your own recovery and try to lean into the other relationships in your life, Leeds suggests, such as with friends and family. “Recommit to your hobbies and interests, and allow yourself time to heal and move forward in your life,” she adds.
8. Remind yourself why it didn’t work out.
Letting someone go is a process, and you may have moments when you start to romanticize the past. But as sex and relationship therapist Stephen Snyder, M.D., previously told mbg, it’s important to remind yourself why things didn’t work out when this happens. “Most often, we idealize the people we miss,” he says, adding, “We overlook the fact that the meanings we attached to the relationship weren’t always gratified as much as we would have liked.”
9. Give yourself plenty of self-care.
Lastly, give yourself plenty of time and energy to focus on yourself. “Take time for yourself. When you spend a considerable amount of time with someone and that person leaves, that is a big change, and change is often uncomfortable,” licensed therapist LeNaya Smith Crawford, LMFT, previously explained to mbg.
She notes you can look for joy in doing things without a significant other, like catching up with close friends, meditation, or therapy. “Do what you need to nourish your soul as you process the breakup and start the journey of getting over them,” she adds.