This Is Why You Can't Move On From Your Last Relationship

Photo: Lauren Naefe

For years, I found comfort in my identity as a giver. I saw myself as a nurturer. I didn’t need help, because I could take care of myself and everyone else. This was my badge of honor. But I eventually realized that this was just a mask for how I truly felt. I didn’t believe that I deserved to be loved, to be cared for, so instead, I took it upon myself to love everyone and convince myself that I didn’t need anything in return.

It’s no surprise that I fell in love with the opposite of my overeager, overgiving self. I gave too eagerly; he took too eagerly.

All breakups have challenges, but the shame that comes from realizing you spent months or years of your life abandoning your values, your boundaries, and yourself can take a long time to move through. For a long time, I couldn’t see myself as anything other than pathetic.

But I couldn’t live like that forever. Even when I wasn’t consciously thinking about it, the negativity was bubbling away under the surface, and it was exhausting me, draining the life out of me. How could I get back to being the bright, confident girl I used to be? How could I learn to see my own value again?

I tried everything I could think of—therapists, healers, shopping, dating, travel, wine—to get out of the doldrums and start living again. I tried everything except the one thing that would let me move on. It’s always the last thing you try that solves the problem. There’s no two ways about that.

When I’d thrown away so much money, time, and energy that I had to try something else, I finally got really honest with myself. I stared the cold, hard truth right in the face.

I had to forgive the bastard. I knew it. And I knew that would mean digging up the pain, the shame, and the heartbreak of that experience. That’s why I’d tried everything else I could before I hacked into the nitty-gritty. But facing my shadow—doing the hardest thing I could possibly imagine—was the only thing that could prove to me that I deserved better.

Here’s the process that finally helped me heal and move on:

1. I wrote down every charged memory of him I had—and there were a lot.

Yes, I do mean every memory that had even the smallest hint of pain, shame, or resentment. Not just a few of them. All of them. There was the time he didn’t call before or after my surgery. I wrote that down. There was the time he said my boss only liked me because I’m pretty. I wrote that down, too. If you can’t move on, this may be worth your time. But it will take time—and lots of it. Don’t be surprised if you get to page 11 and you’re not even halfway done. Nothing is too insignificant, if it hurt you at the time. If it’s got a negative charge, write it down.

2. Once you've written them all down (it might even take several days of writing; be patient with yourself), go through this process with every single memory.

Say, "I forgive you." "Thank you." "I love you."

Why these phrases? They’re not empty; they’re not random. You’re forgiving your ex for hurting you. You’re thanking the memory for what it has to teach you. And you’re acknowledging your appreciation for this experience that has shaped you—it is in the process of helping you to become someone who sticks to their boundaries because they value themselves. This pain, and the lessons you’re taking from it, will make you the person you are meant to be.

It will be emotionally exhausting. You might not be able to do all of this in one day. Just stick with it. And repeat the process over and over—five times, 10 times, 50 times—until the pain associated with each memory begins to fade.

Some will take more time to budge than others. And no, you may not mean it at first. I certainly didn’t. And yes, my hands were clenched for most of the first time through. And the second. But over time, the emotional weight will lighten. And you’ll know when you’re really free of it. You’ll feel it. If you’re not sure, you’re not there yet.

The last step is the most crucial, but it doesn’t work unless you’ve done the other two.

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3. Go back through every memory you wrote down and forgive yourself for witnessing it without action.

Every time your ex made you feel small, and you did nothing about it? Forgive yourself for that. Every time you knew you deserved better but stayed silent, acknowledge and forgive yourself for each one. And the times you questioned whether you deserved better at all? Forgive yourself for those, too.

Then thank yourself for acknowledging it now—for changing the pattern now. Thank yourself for demanding better from now on. And verbally acknowledge your love for yourself over and over. Again here, you may not believe yourself at first. But keep doing it until you do.

Narcissists, like the one I was with—as well as all kinds of emotional abusers—have a subtle way of making you feel inadequate while insisting that they love you more than anyone else ever could. The web of manipulation slowly traps you. It’s like the frog and the frying pan. It’s almost impossible to recognize before it’s too late, unless you take things really slowly, lead with your values, and bounce your impressions of your core group of most trusted advisers.

You might've heard the expression, "If you’re going through hell, keep going." The hardest thing was to get out of the relationship at all. You’ve done that. That’s how you know you can handle this. While you’re processing this painful part of your life, be gentle and compassionate toward yourself. You’re doing the work. That is enough for now. Don’t pressure yourself to heal faster or to feel less pain.

Instead, nurture yourself with self-care of every nature. Spend time with people who love you. Set daily intentions for self-love and patience. Carry talismans if they make you feel more powerful. Declutter your living space to rejuvenate your mental and emotional space. Let all of these things support you as you become this stronger, wiser version of yourself. You can only get better.

Want more insight into your relationships? Find out the two types of passion (and which one is good for your sex life), then learn what the number of sexual partners you've had actually says about you.

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