How to Let Go of Emotional Baggage from Past Relationships

By Angela Tague in Healthy Feeling

What if I had said... Maybe I should have... We all have these nagging thoughts we ruminate over. Often they're linked to emotional baggage from past relationships and our human desire for a do-over.

Processing emotions requires heavy mental lifting. You don't have to do it alone. I recommend working with a mental health professional. Consult the National Register of Health Service Psychologists for contact information.

During my own sessions, I've learned ways to acknowledge, process, accept, and let go of emotional baggage stemming from difficult work partnerships, family dysfunction, a failed long-term relationship, and strained friendships. I'd love to share a few of them with you.

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Steps to Help You Overcome Emotional Baggage

Being aware of my thoughts and where they come from has helped me obtain an elevated level of resilience. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as one's ability to "bounce back" from difficult experiences, and this trait is something each and every one of us is capable of achieving.

To start on your path toward mindfulness and emotional resilience, walk through these steps to identify, process, and let go of your overwhelming or negative thoughts.

1. Identify Your Feelings

We often push our feelings aside, only to face them when they resurface as tears, sadness, or outbursts against others. When flashbacks from a past relationship surface, pause. Go into the restroom for a quick break or take a short walk outside. Notice what thoughts pop up and how you feel physically. Don't judge, analyze, or condemn yourself. Just notice. After you've identified your feelings and emotions, it's time to process and find acceptance.

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2. Process and Accept Your Emotions

There are lessons to learn from our challenges—patience, self-respect, or empathy to name a few—that nurture mental health. Here are three practices you can do on your own to process your thoughts in a healthy way.

  • HEAL method: Think about the past relationship, focus on a positive aspect, and merge it with a current positive stimulus to rewire your brain's perceptions. Personally, I like Dr. Rick Hanson's HEAL Method (Have, Enrich, Absorb, and Link). For example, when I walked past a cafe and the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee immediately flooded my mind with memories from my honeymoon (and my failed marriage), I paused and let all my senses engage to take in the atmosphere, linking a current positive moment with a happy memory from the past. Now whenever I smell coffee brewing, I have good thoughts from a joyful time in a past relationship, even though we are no longer together.
  • Guided imagery: The Cleveland Clinic explains that guided imagery helps create harmony in our minds and bodies, moving attention away from worry and stress. By creating mental images that evoke peace, or by listening to soothing music, you build a mental escape that helps you cope. Try visualizing a difficult scenario from the past relationship and give it a new ending. Say what you need to in the imagined moment. This will help rewrite your memory and give you closure subconsciously, even if the real-life ending isn't ideal.
  • Grounding in nature: Being outside and feeling the sun on our skin can instantly shift our mood and help us process difficult feelings. Some people call this process "earthing" or "forest bathing." The Association of Nature & Forest Therapy is a research-based organization that supports wellness through immersion in forests and other natural environments. Their methods are based on the Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku. Time outdoors benefits the cardiovascular and immune systems, as well as improves mood and cognition, according to the association. Going for a walk in your neighborhood, looking at photos of nature scenes, visiting a park, or looking out a window at trees can help clear your mind.

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3. Let Go of It All

Thank your difficult thoughts for their lessons—and then stop giving them conscious energy and attention.

When I started seeing a mental health therapist to process grief, she recommended I read "The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma" by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk to understand unprocessed emotions. A shift to intentional thinking—and the daily work to maintain this flow—can help us let go of lingering thoughts.

Eventually, the emotional baggage from past relationships becomes lighter. Your thoughts stop dabbling in the past and you gain the ability to bounce back from negative feelings faster. My therapist recently asked when I had last cried over a particular topic. I was shocked to find I wasn't sure, when previously it caused daily tears. This was proof that I was releasing the heaviness of a past situation, which felt freeing and healing.

Making time for mental health practices each day can leave you feeling more confident, more in love with yourself, and more stable in your mental well-being. This healthy head space then radiates out to others, including your loved ones and colleagues, nurturing better relationships.

Above all, treat yourself with kindness and compassion when sifting through emotional situations. Approach each thought with kindness for yourself and empathy for others.

Do you have a favorite practice to process your feelings? Check out the Yoga and Mindfulness board from @tomsofmaine on Pinterest for some ideas on daily techniques that support mental well-being.

Image Sources: Pexels | Angela Tague | Angela Tague | Angela Tague

The views and opinions expressed in any guest post featured on our site are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Tom's of Maine.

Why It's Good

Improve your mental health by shedding layers of emotional baggage. Whether it's a long-standing grudge against a coworker or a failed romantic partnership, holding onto sadness, anger, or confusion steals your energy and joy. Commit to a daily practice of processing how you feel so you can find acceptance regarding difficult situations and finally let them go.