Letting go and moving on from past experiences, relationships, events, and memories isn’t easy. Our brains are wired to ruminate on negative thoughts and experiences rather than positive ones. From an evolutionary perspective, this way of thinking allows us to avoid danger and respond to crises quickly. But once the danger has passed, how can we move on?
Some people struggle to let go of painful memories or relationships or to move on from past experiences because they believe that whatever has happened to them is part of their identity. But ruminating on the past won’t change it and holding onto pain won’t help relieve that pain.
How you go about learning to let things go is going to depend on who you are, what the thing is that you’re wanting to process or move on from, or who the person is that you’re trying to move on from, but here are some tips to get you started that can work for almost anyone.
First, set some expectations around how much time you might want or need to feel the pain, grief, or discomfort before you graduate to acceptance and moving on
You might ask yourself, how could I possibly know how much time I’ll need when I haven’t even started processing yet? Well, how much time would be ideal for you? If you’re plagued by a bad memory that you’d like to let go, maybe an hour of really processing it is enough to help you do so. If you’re working through a breakup, maybe you can see yourself taking a month to rest, reflect, and be with yourself before you’d consider yourself to have moved on. If you’re dealing with the loss of a loved one, maybe you’d like to feel some sense of comfort by the next holiday you would have spent together or on the anniversary of their passing. If you’re dealing with past trauma, how long you might want or need to sit with it can vary.
Thinking about how much time you want to sit with these feelings might also make you realize just how meaningful (or not!) something is to you. Maybe you’ll realize that something was holding more weight in your mind or heart that you want to afford it, or maybe you’ll realize that something or someone was even more meaningful to you than you thought, and you’ll actually need some more time to process and better ways to cope as you do.
There’s no one set timeframe for everyone and every situation; it’s really up to you. But you won’t know what’s right for you until you start to think about it!
Figure out how you are going to process and reflect upon what you would like to move on from
Whether it’s through journaling, talking to a friend or family member, or working with a therapist or coach, it’s important to process the thing or person you want to let go before you’re actually able to do so. If you decide to start processing on your own through some form of journaling, you can write by hand or on your computer or phone or use a voice recorder and talk to yourself out loud. Studies have shown that people who journal about significant events report more satisfaction with their lives and better mental health over those that did not, but whatever way works best for you is the right way. Here are some prompts to consider:
What happened that you want to move on from?
Was there an event, a person, a memory, or something else? Do a brain dump and freewrite or talk about what exactly happened that you want to move on from. Get everything out on paper or in your conversation. You can do it in more than one session if that feels right. Notice how you feel before and after you get everything out of your head and onto the page or into the air. Then read what you wrote, listen to what you said, or ask whoever you’re talking to what they’re hearing in what you’re saying. Start to see if any patterns emerge or if any additional feelings come up and make a note of those as well.
What have you learned from the thing or person you want to let go and how have you changed?
You might not know the answer to this, and that’s okay. Just see where your mind takes you. How were things before the event or relationship that you want to move on from and how are things now? If some time has already passed, have there been any changes in you since whatever you’re trying to move on from happened and how do you feel about those changes? What impact does his event or person still have on you?
Just because you want to move on doesn’t mean you need to leave everything behind. Also think about whether there is anything that you want to hold onto or carry with you. This can include lessons learned or aspects of yourself that have grown and become stronger.
What are the actual things you want to let go of?
Actually taking the time to name what you want to let go of can really help you process. Are they emotions, opinions or particular ways that you feel about a situation or person, things that you’ve done or ways you’ve made other people feel, or the way your environment has changed or evolved around you?
What might it look like or feel like to let this thing or person go?
Visualize what it will look, feel, or sound like for you when you have moved on. What will you present like? What will your relationships be like? What will your work or personal life be like? Because this is a visualization exercise, really start to flesh out what this looks like for you. It can be in any form that works; a narrative, bullet points, word clouds, even illustrations.
If you’re talking out loud to yourself or someone else or recording what you’re saying, you can describe what an ideal day looks like for you once you have moved on or the emotions you can see yourself feeling once you have let this thing or person go.
The more your visualization begins to take shape, the more you’ll start to feel like you’ll be able to really embody this transformation.
Plan what actions you are going to take to start moving on
First, figure out the differences between your visualization and where you are now, and think about what steps you can take to bridge the gap. What actions would get you from where you are now to where you would be if you moved on? Are there some small actions you can take to get started with your process of letting go? What would you want to do today, this week, this month, or this year to get from where you are now to where you are in your visualization?
Also think about what kinds of support you’ll need to do so. What kinds of relationships would best support you? Are there friends or family you can lean into or would rather distance from? Would working with a therapist or coach help you process? Are there other professional services you can access? Maybe there are changes in your daily life, habits, or communication that you’d like to start working on as well.
Taking the time to process before you let things go and move on is important
Really articulating what happened, what you learned and how you changed, what you actually want to let go, and what it will look like for you when you do will help you gather the tools you need to put your plan to let go into action.
Processing things or people that you want to move on from is hard! It takes courage to face memories, thoughts, and emotions that might be painful or difficult, but sitting with the discomfort and taking the time to process and create a strong plan to move forward can be the most supportive way for you to let go. And if you need more guidance, match with a therapist who will be with you every step of the way.
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about the author:
Caitlin is MyWellbeing’s Content Lead, a coach, a writer, a communication and organizational culture consultant, and the founder of Commcoterie (a communication consultancy with a free peer coaching community) who is passionate about all things communication, whole-self development, and storytelling. Her mission is to help people communicate and collaborate effectively so they can strengthen their communities and reach their goals.