Moving on. One (arduous) step at a time. The final step being the one you don’t want to take the most:
When your relationships end, no matter the context in which they collapsed, we enter the natural process of grief. As you cycle through anger, sadness, depression, denial, and feeling okay. But despite how the relationship being over, you continue to wonder “what if?”. Your mind replays the old memories from what seemed to be red flags that it was coming to an end.
Does this sound at all familiar? If so, this post is for you.
The research-based techniques below are tools that can move you from hate, anger, depression, to a place of acceptance, or even, forgiveness.
In my professional practice, I don’t recommend anything I haven’t tried myself. Despite the research suggesting the efficacy of my therapeutic modality (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), there’s nothing quite as telling as first-hand experience and application.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), implies that the human experience consists of the whole spectrum of emotions. This includes that life consists of pain and suffering. And the function of avoiding challenging emotions (pain, sadness, grief, etc.) leads to further suffering.
Feeling down? Having another shot of whisky.
Feeling lonely? Sleeping with a stranger.
Feeling mad? Burying it deep down within, leading to depressive states.
Feeling grief? Avoiding the things that made your life rich, because it reminds you of your relationship.
The incredible notion around ACT is that despite the natural pains of life, with the techniques, you can still live a life that’s rich and meaningful. Instead of “changing your thoughts or feelings” it teaches you to “make space” for them, and learn how to hold them loosely, as opposed to being governed by the difficult experiences. It’s in the space that we can make choices that ultimately move us towards a life that is meaningful.
So how does this apply to the ending of a relationship?
Think about the raw period after a breakup:
- Are they thinking of me?
- Did they move on?
- Do they feel sad?
Our minds become consumed with trying to process the event. At some point, we get frustrated with the process. We try to avoid the thoughts and feelings that come up. But the problem is: The more we try to avoid a thought, the more we actively engage in it.
Here’s an example: Do not think about a purple dinosaur. No matter what, you must not think of a purple dinosaur. You must forget about it right now.
What do you think about? Of course, the dinosaur.
Don’t think about your ex. No matter what, you must forget about them.
The very act of trying to not think about the thing, involves thinking about that very thing.
Here’s why this can lead to long-term damage.
I want you to think about how we train dogs. When a dog does something good we reward it with a treat / praise. Now when a dog does something naughty we punish it with scolding / kennel. Over time, the dog associates the behavior with a consequence (good or bad). We as humans do the exact same thing. For more nerdy explanation, here’s the theory on behaviorism
Now on a neurological level, you are also reinforcing that the thought of “my ex” = “bad, sad, depressing, anger”. What this means, that we are actually strengthening the impact of that thought / feeling. So, overtime, we are actually hurting ourselves more. This is the concept of suffering.
In ACT, we associate the difficult thoughts / feelings associate with grief as “natural” and we engage in behaviors that heal us overtime. By making space for the difficult experiences, we process them and move on with life. By avoiding them we only reinforce their power over us. They get stronger and more painful, which leads to even more avoidance behaviors (drinking more, sleeping around more, isolating entirely, getting more and more angry).
So how does one make space? Well, we already do it more often than not. In fact, it’s estimated that we conjure over 60,000 thoughts per day. 99% of them go completely unnoticed. However, there tends to be 1% of them that grab our attention. I like to use the term hooked. It’s as if we are living our lives the best we can, but difficult thoughts / feelings hook us and tend to drag us away from where we want to go.
Instead of being hooked and controlled by our thoughts / feelings, we can learn to see them for what they really are: Just thoughts.
We learn to become aware of them, observe them non-judgmentally, and let them come and go, just like the other 99% of thoughts our mind generates.
By practicing what I like to call unhooking skills we can do just that.
Unhooking looks like this:
- Place “I am having the thought that” in front of unhelpful thoughts.
- Write out the thought on paper, then changing the font, color, or size.
- Say the thought out loud, over and over again, and notice how the words become meaningless (see the Titchener exercise here)
- Sing the thought out loud, say the thought fast, or slow, change the tone.
Honestly, the crazier you can make the thought, the more impactful the unhook will be.
To make room for difficult emotions (what you feel in your body), I encourage you to notice your emotions like a scientist being curious about them.
- Notice the physical sensation in your body and physicalize it
- Is it Big? Small? deep? Hollow? Dense? Does it have a color? What does it look like from all sides?
- Take deep breathes and imagine the air you inhale going in and around the feeling
- Look down at your hands and imagine the compassion you would give to others if they were in pain, give that compassion to yourself. Literally placing your hands where you feel the emotion
- Guided meditation for acceptance. Here’s my favorite from the legendary Sarah Blondin:
These techniques, are no doubt odd, however, the nature of the mind is, too, odd.
The hardest, but most rewarding part, is the act of forgiveness.
To forgive is to set a prisoner free, but realizing the prisoner was you the entire time.
Forgiveness has many connotations. In this context, forgiveness is the conscious decision to let go of resentment and choose inner-peace. Though the memory will always be a part of your life, it decreases its grip on you, giving you space to breathe and to move on.
The first barrier I typically hear about, and experienced myself, was the thought that when we forgive, we are sending a message that you’re okay with what happened to you. That is 100% not true. Forgiveness is not about excusing them, it’s about choosing peace for your own life.
Personal Story time:
Sometimes I forget that I’m a human too, despite having a knowledge of how to deal with psychological ailments. The last thing I wanted to do, was to forgive someone for the horrible things they had done to me. I could feel the grip of resentment in my life. I tried everything I could to move on, but ultimately discovered I needed a power greater than myself. I needed the support from my friends and family, I needed to understand my short comings, I needed God.
I remember going to church and praying for what felt like an hour: “God, please help me to find a way moving forward.” I got the answer I didn’t want to hear. I felt a prompting that I needed to forgive. I knew that opportunity was going to come soon.
Two days later I saw her for the first time in months. In the moment, I felt all the anger come up. My mind was telling me to “tell her off”, but ultimately knew that God had sent me a message I needed to listen to. I pulled her aside and said: “I need to talk to you, I need to tell you something that’s been on my mind for months.”
I told her the last few months have been the hardest in my life, I told her that despite that, I forgive her. I remember saying that I don’t approve of what happened, and what you did was wrong, however in my heart I want you to be happy, and I want you to know that I forgive you, and I am choosing peace in my life.
That conversation was one of life’s biggest lessons.
“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend” – MLK
There is a spiritual truth to forgiveness. It’s the act to move from suffering to peace.
In order to find this peace, I recommend the following steps:
Identify what needs healing and who needs to be forgiven and for what.
TALK. Get support from a trusted person.
Acknowledge your emotions. Give them space they need to be processed.
Consciously choose to forgive the person who’s offended you. Say out loud to yourself “I forgive you” or “I choose peace” when the difficult thoughts / feelings come up.
And most importantly, move on from the role of victim, to the role of someone with the power to move on, and the believe that you deserve happiness, and so do they.
Forgiveness, like many processes, is a challenging process. If you find yourself getting stuck in the process:
Reflect on times you’ve hurt others and on those who’ve forgiven you.
Write in a journal, pray or use guided meditation — or talk with a person you’ve found to be wise and compassionate, such as a spiritual leader, a mental health provider, or an impartial loved one or friend.
Be aware that forgiveness is a process, and even small hurts may need to be revisited and forgiven over and over again.
When you feel discouraged, remind yourself of your “why”. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s to recover what you had once lost – yourself.
That’s why we call it recovery.
If you’re lost in your forgiveness process, please reach out to me. I’m happy to help walk you in the right direction.
As always – much love to the humans who are reading these posts.