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Holding on to something that no longer serves you is like straddling two different times. One foot’s in the present as you try to live your day-to-day life, and the other foot is stuck somewhere else. It can make it hard to feel whole.
If this sounds familiar, start with being gentle on yourself. Our brains are literally wired to hold on to echoes of the past — remembering people, places, and events is designed to keep us safe. And it won’t help to pile guilt on top of all the other sticky feelings.
Secondly, know that you’re totally capable of letting go and finding peace. With the help of licensed mental health counselor, and co-founder of Viva Wellness, Rachel Gersten, we put together this list of tools and tips to help you hold these recollections without being burdened by attachment.
An ending of any kind of relationship can feel shocking. Whether it’s a breakup, a falling out, or the passing of someone close, the pain is real and not to be minimized.
Give yourself time and space to process
According to a 2013 study, allowing yourself to feel the bad feelings along with the good, or “taking the good with the bad,” as they put it, might actually be beneficial for overall health.
The study, which surveyed a total of 312 people of diverse ages and backgrounds, found those who experienced frequent mixed emotions also had better long-term physical health.
Acknowledging that the healing process is universally hard — rather than thinking there’s something “wrong” with you — can make it easier to get through the struggle, adds Gersten.
Try to get closure
Since closure means something different to everyone, Gersten recommends first getting specific about what closure looks and feels like for you. Then, take tangible action to close the metaphorical door.
Putting pen to paper is one way to release pent-up feelings and say all the unsaid things that keep you up at night. You don’t have to send it (and you may not even have that option). But if you do, make it clear that this is goodbye, and not an attempt to get back in touch.
You might also consider performing a ritual. This may sound over the top, but it can be a meaningful, concrete way of celebrating the good of what once was, before closing the door and moving on. Like this woman, who threw a closing ceremony to get over an important relationship.
Get rid of reminders
We probably all know that ache of scrolling onto a photo that unearths old memories. Sometimes it can even trigger feelings long after we’ve scrolled past. Think of deleting old photos and unfollowing on social media as a way of creating distance. If letting go is hard for you, it may a necessary step.
But, Gersten suggests waiting until you’re ready. “Doing all of that at once is a really big shock to your system,” she says. Remember that you’re also mourning what you thought your life would be, she says.
While emotions are a perfectly normal part of life, when they become powerful or all-consuming, they can become burdensome. Here are some ideas for making peace with a strong emotion.
Sit with the feeling
Not doing anything can be really difficult for most of us, says Gersten, but sometimes that’s exactly what we need to do. The trick is to let the feelings wash over you without reacting or passing judgement.
You may recognize this as a core tenant of meditation. This article has a bunch of really helpful information for summoning inner calm by incorporating meditation into your everyday life.
Release the energy
All emotions really are is energy, and releasing that energy can be liberating. Sometimes it’s helpful to name it and just yell out loud “I’m anxious!” Gersten says. (In privacy, that is.)
Or you can try taking a walk, or splashing cold water on your face, she suggests.
We also put together this guide of creative ways to squash anxiety by getting physical.
Engage a different part of your brain
While it’s important to feel your feelings, you should also avoid overthinking or runimating. If you’ve spent time reflecting on this doozy of an emotion, and the pain isn’t getting better, it may be time to direct your attention elsewhere.
Call a friend to chat. Start a creative project. Learn to bake bread (it’s really never too late). Doing things that bring you joy is what self-care is all about — you deserve a little emotional vacay.
The need for control is, essentially, a survival instinct. We hold on because somewhere in our subconscious we believe letting go equals our demise. But needing to be in control is exhausting work. When we learn to find balance instead, we access a more open part of ourselves.
Notice when you’re holding on
Sometimes the impulse for control is so deep, we don’t even know that’s what’s motivating us. So, recognition is the first step. Why does it send little ripples of anger when your partner texts that they stayed after work for drinks? Why are you perpetually checking in on your coworkers progress on that project?
Once you notice, then you can start loosening your grip.
Stop — and breathe
We know, we know — not always as easy as it sounds. But when you feel that surge rise up inside you of needing to take control (you know the one), take a minute and try a breathing exercise to help down-regulate your nervous system and fight-or-flight reflex.
You can’t always step out of a situation, but if you can, it’s probably the fastest more fool-proof way of not letting those control urges take the reigns. No shame in the game of stepping away from something that is unhealthy for you and setting healthy boundaries for yourself.
Whether it’s the Facebook memories of a seemingly better time that are haunting you, or just comparing yourself to who you (think) you used to be, letting go of the past is way easier said than done.
Put yourself in a forward-thinking mindset
In order to do this, Gersten says it’s important to find what is still unresolved about the past. Many of the earlier pieces of advice in this article — giving yourself time and space to process, getting closure, getting rid of reminders — apply here.
Once you’ve gone through those steps, then it’s time to put intentional energy toward thinking about what’s next for you. This can be as small as organizing your dresser or as large as starting a new business.
The point is to toss yourself buoys for the future, rather than being weighed down by anchors in the past.
Start a mindfulness practice
If thinking of the future still seems like a big pill to swallow, how about just trying to stay present? Mindfulness is a researched-backed way of coping with negative emotions.
In one study, people practiced in mindfulness reported the same number of negative feelings but they also found these emotions to be more controllable and less intrusive than the folks who did not practice mindfulness.
Some apps to help you get started: Calm, Headspace and Insight Timer. Each of these are free apps with subscription options for more content.
If you find your struggles to let go are interfering with your daily life — you can’t focus at work, you’re sleep is being disturbed, you feel hopeless about the future — it’s time to think about therapy.
“If you had a headache that made it difficult to be at work for more than a day, you’d go see a healthcare professional — you wouldn’t try to figure it out on your own,” says Gersten.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of therapy that focuses on recognizing the thoughts that drive your behaviors to help you shift into more helpful thoughts and behaviors. A therapist can also help you build out a treatment plan that’s unique to you, including a referrals to a psychiatrist should you need medication.
Know that if you feel like you’re having a hard time letting go, you are not alone — and you won’t always feel this way.