The idea of ‘letting go’ is so crucial to our mental — and physical — health
In a perfect world, all would go just as we wanted — from the outcome of our relationships to our career moves and everything else in-between. But, of course, real life can totally eff with what is important to us, from a quick fling to a long-term love, the perfect job, and the delicate balance of our friendships. As a result, sometimes anything emotional — from anger to resentment and low self-esteem — can infiltrate all unrelated aspects of our lives, too.
“When it comes to the idea of ‘getting over’ something, people often think of it as the equivalent of forgive and forget,” says Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of A Happy You. “But, really, while there is the forgive aspect, it’s not about forgetting — it doesn’t mean that you condone what has happened or that it doesn’t hurt — it means that you are releasing the anger, sadness, and resentment that goes along with it.” And you know what else comes out of letting go of a grudge? The negative health aftermath — including legit muscle pain, stomach issues, even migraine headaches — that is sure to be only a few baby steps behind it.
And, while it’s easy to get all hung up on whatever it is that has you bummed — a breakup, the job you didn’t get, a fight with a friend — Lombardo says that once these things happen, really, they aren’t what’s got you feeling down. “What hurts after the fact is not the event itself,” she says. “It’s the present interpretation of the event — ‘I didn’t get the job I wanted last year, so I took a job I hate, and now I’m miserable because I didn’t get the job in the past.’ It’s the perception of what that event meant at the time, but also what it means right now.” This blame game could hold us back from actually getting what we want. “We put a lot of blame on events, but really, how do we know that that’s true? We make this assumption and we can’t change the past, so then we remain stuck in an emotional pattern caused by that event.”
So, how do you break the can’t-get-past-it BS that could be the actual thing standing in your emotional way? “Ask yourself: How helpful is feeling this way for me?” says Lombardo. “Instead of thinking that you didn’t get that job because you aren’t any good, really look at the situation and what happened. Maybe you and the interviewer had bad chemistry, or you went in unprepared, or you didn’t really understand the position — really look into the ingredients that contributed to the outcome.”
Seems easy, right? Well, not if you suffer from what most people do — a love of what Lombardo refers to as global generalization. “Instinctually, we want to make sense of stuff, and that can lead us to making sweeping generalizations that act as a defense mechanism,” she says. If you think “I’m never going to meet anyone now that we broke up,” then may be you don’t go out or meet new people, and make it so that is, in fact, the result. “Sometimes, it’s easier to think negatively, and then when that negativity manifests, say, ‘See, I was right!’” she says. “But if you’re going to make an assumption, why not let it be positive?”
Kathy Andersen, a well-being coach and author of Change Your Shoes, Live Your Greatest Life, suggests coming up with replacement feelings. “If you don’t have anything to replace the grief, anger, abandonment with, then you might hold onto them longer than you need or want to,” she says. Whatever negative emotion you have, think about the opposite emotion that you want to have, and one thing that you can do to feel it. So, for example, if you’re lonely, may be you could go for a walk in the park, volunteer, or call a friend. “Once you start with one experience and one feeling, you can bring it into your life more fully and more consistently, and let go of the emotions tied to the event that you don’t want in your life any longer,” says Andersen, who notes that aiming for 15 minutes every day for a month is enough. “The transformation this brings about automatically brings you to the next step.”
And, it turns out, not being able to ‘get over it’ is what can actually lead to guilt, too. “When we can’t move on, we often feel disheartened, because the concept feels like you need to forget about it — but it remains with you, and then you start to wonder what is wrong with you,” says Andersen. “So, many people say, ‘Oh, move on!’ and then we hear that and it doesn’t compute.”
Yet, the idea of ‘letting go’ is so crucial to our mental — and physical — health. “It can affect our psychological health, how we view ourselves, and behavior,” says Lombardo. “If, after a breakup, you feel like you’ll never meet anyone, then you don’t even try to put yourself out there to meet anyone; plus, research shows that holding on to negative feelings can put a huge stress on our bodies, leading to chronic pain and aches, insomnia, and even weight gain.”
While it might sound all new-age-y, experts agree that it all comes down to your view and current perception. This is known as the Law of Attraction, when thoughts come to fruition because your behavior (even unconsciously) reflects that belief (good or bad), causing us to behave differently toward people and vice versa. One of the best ways to move on, according to Lombardo, is to ask yourself what you can learn from this. “We can learn from every single thing — be objective, instead of personalizing,” she says.
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Experts also say that visualizing what you do want is essential. “We are so focused on what we don’t want, and then that’s what we often get,” says Lombardo. “Your brain literally thinks, ‘I guess being miserable for the rest of her life is what she wants, because she says she will be!’” So, basically, mind trick yourself: Andersen suggests first closing your eyes and picturing the perfect job, significant other, apartment, or whatever it is, and experience the positive emotions you feel from that — over time, that can help be the catalyst to get what you do want.
Then, pick up a piece of paper and literally write down how or why you would benefit from getting over x, y, or z. And, accept that the thing you want to get over happened. “Again, it doesn’t mean that you agree, or that you’re necessarily happy with the situation that occurred, but it means that you are accepting that these are the cards that you were dealt, and you can either be pissed about it or decide that you are going to play the best darn game that I can with them.”
How do you know when you may need a pro to help you talk through it? First, simple enough, if that is what comes to mind that you might need, well, then you probably should. But there are other I-could-cope-better red flags: “If you aren’t functioning the way that you used to; if the situation has affected your physical health, like you aren’t sleeping well; or you’re argumentative with friends or loved ones, then you should seek out a professional’s help,” says Lombardo. “Mourn the loss, but if negative behavior after is consistent, then seek out a professional to talk it out.”