“The amount of happiness that you have depends on the amount of freedom you have in your heart.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
Nine years ago my heart was in a million little pieces that formed the basis for a million regrets.
I had my first serious relationship in college, when all my insecurities came to a head. My ex-boyfriend had to juggle multiple roles, from therapist to cheerleader to babysitter.
The whole relationship revolved around holding me up. I realized this soon after it ended—that I spent three years expecting someone else to love me when I didn’t love myself. The guilt and shame kept me single for almost a decade.
I dated, but it was always casual. I’d start getting close to someone and then find a way to sabotage it.
Long after I let go of the man, feelings about the relationship held me back. I was afraid of being vulnerable. I was afraid of being hurt. But mostly I was afraid of hurting someone else again and having to live with that.
If you’ve been holding onto an old relationship, now is the perfect time to let go. Here’s how you can start moving on:
1. Practice releasing regrets.
When a relationship ends, it’s tempting to dwell on what you did wrong or what you could have done differently. This might seem productive—like you can somehow change things by rehashing it. You can’t.
All dwelling does is cause you to suffer. When you start revisiting the past in your head, pull yourself into the moment. Focus on the good things in your current situation: the friends who are there for you and the lessons you’ve learned that will help you with future relationships.
It might help to tell your friends to only let you vent for 10 minutes at a time. That way you’re free to express your feelings, but not drown in them.
2. Work on forgiving yourself.
You might think you made the biggest mistake of your life, and if only you didn’t do it you wouldn’t be in pain right now. Don’t go down that road—there’s nothing good down there!
Instead, keep reminding yourself that you are human. You’re entitled to make mistakes; everyone does. And you will learn from them and use those lessons to improve your life.
Also, keep in mind: if you want to feel love again in the future, the first step is to prepare yourself to give and receive it. You can only do that if you feel love toward yourself; and that means forgiving yourself.
3. Don’t think about any time as lost.
If I looked at that unhealthy relationship or the following decade as time lost, I’d underestimate all the amazing things I did in that time. True, I was single throughout my 20s, but that made it easier to travel and devote myself to different passions.
If you’ve been clinging to the past for a while and now feel you’ve missed out, shift the focus to everything you’ve gained. Maybe you’ve built great friendships or made great progress in your career.
When you focus on the positive, it’s easier to move on because you’ll feel empowered and not victimized (by your ex, by yourself, or by time.) Whatever happened in the past, it prepared you for now—and now is full of opportunities for growth, peace, and happiness.
4. Remember the bad as well as the good.
Brain scientists suggest nearly 20 percent of us suffer from “complicated grief”—a persistent sense of longing for someone we lost with romanticized memories of the relationship. Scientists also suggest this is a biological occurrence; that the longing can have an addictive quality to it, actually rooted in our brain chemistry.
As a result, we tend to remember everything with reverie, as if it was all sunshine and roses. If your ex broke up with you, it may be even more tempting to imagine she or he was perfect and you weren’t. In all reality, you both have strengths and weaknesses and you both made mistakes.
Remember them now. As I mentioned in the post 40 Ways to Let Go and Feel Less Pain, it’s easier to let go of a human than a hero.
5. Reconnect with who you are outside a relationship.
Unless you hop from relationship to relationship, odds are you lived a fulfilling single life before you got into this one. You were strong, satisfied and happy—at least on the whole.
Remember that person now. Reconnect with any people or interests that may have received less attention while you were attached.
The strong, happy, passionate person you were attracted your ex. That person will get you through this loss and attract someone equally amazing in the future when the time is right. Not a sad, depressed, guilt-ridden person clutching to what once was. If you can’t remember who you are, get to know yourself now. What do you love about life?
6. Create separation.
Hope can be a terrible thing if it keeps you stuck in the past. It’s not easy to end all contact when you feel attached to someone. Breaking off the friendship might feel like ruining your chances at knowing love again.
It’s helped me to change my hopes to broader terms. So instead of wanting a specific person to re-enter your life, want love and happiness—whatever that may look like.
You will know love again. You won’t spend the rest of your life alone. In one way or another, you will meet all kinds of people and create all kinds of possibilities for relationships—if you forgive yourself, let go, and open yourself up, that is.
7. Let yourself feel.
Losing a relationship can feel like a mini-death, complete with a grieving process.
First you’re shocked and in denial. You don’t believe it’s over and you hold out hope. Next you feel hurt and guilty. You should have done things differently. If you did you wouldn’t be in this pain.
Then you feel angry and maybe even start bargaining. It would be different if you gave it a second go. You wouldn’t be so insecure, defensive, or demanding. Then you might feel depressed and lonely as it hits you how much you’ve lost.
Eventually you start accepting what happened and shift your focus from the past to the future.
You have to go through the feelings as they come, but you can help yourself get through them faster. For example, if you’re dwelling in guilt, make forgiving yourself a daily practice. Read books on it, meditate about it or write about it in a journal.
8. Remember the benefits of moving on.
When you let go, you give yourself peace.
Everything about holding on is torturous. You regret, you feel ashamed and guilty, you rehash, you obsess—it’s all an exercise in suffering. The only way to feel peace is to quiet the thoughts that threaten it.
Letting go opens you up to new possibilities.
When you’re holding onto something, you’re less open to giving and receiving anything else.
If you had your arms wrapped around a huge bucket of water, you wouldn’t be able to give anything other than that bucket, or grab anything else that came your way. You might even struggle breathing because you’re clutching something so all-encompassing with so much effort.
You have to give to receive. Give love to get love, share joy to feel joy. It’s only possible if you’re open and receptive.
9. Recognize and replace fearful thoughts.
When you’re holding onto a relationship, it’s usually more about attachment than love. Love wants for the other person’s happiness. Fear wants to hold onto whatever appears to make you happy so you don’t have to feel the alternative.
You might not recognize these types of fearful thoughts because they become habitual. Some examples include: I’ll never feel loved again. I’ll always feel lonely. I am completely powerless. Replace those thoughts with: All pain passes eventually. It will be easier if I help them pass by being mindful. I can’t always control what happens to me, but I can control how I respond to it.
10. Embrace impermanence.
Nothing in life lasts forever. Every experience and relationship eventually runs its course.
The best way to embrace impermanence is to translate it into action. Treat each day as a life unto itself. Appreciate the people in front of you as if it were their last day on earth. Find little things to gain in every moment instead of dwelling on what you lost.
When I feel like clinging to experiences and people, I remind myself the unknown can be a curse or an adventure. It’s up to me whether or not I’m strong and positive enough to see it as the latter.
It took me eight years to work through my feelings about relationships and letting go; but I am happy to report I am 15 months into a healthy relationship, standing firmly on my own two feet. In fact, last night he flew from California to Boston, where I’ve been visiting for the last two weeks, to spend time with me and my family.
I don’t regret the time when I was single, but I know now I could have hurt less and created even more possibilities for myself if I put more effort into completely letting go. I hope you’ll make that choice.
Update: As you can see from the comment section, I have received many requests for advice, and I have done my best to offer guidance and support. However, I feel a responsibility to express that this post presents my own personal experiences and lessons. I am not an expert on relationships, and I hold no formal training in psychology or counseling. If you are in a physically or emotionally abusive or otherwise unhealthy relationship, I highly recommend you consult a qualified professional.
Update #2: Due to the high volume of requests for advice, on this and other posts, I may not be able to respond to your comment. However, you are more than welcome to share your experiences! Someone within the community may be able to offer their insights.