How do I let go of past hurts?

RELATIONSHIP QUESTIONS (#14 in a series)
To access previous posts in the series, use the “Relationship Questions” link under “Categories” and the “Older Posts” button. 

How do I let go of past relationship hurts so I can move forward feeling renewed for future relationships?

At root here is an issue of trust. We’ve all been hurt at one time or another by people we trusted. If it happens too severely or too often, we may become gun-shy, reluctant to get too close to someone lest we be hurt again. And because we need to be in trustworthy relationships in order to heal from the untrustworthy ones, our fear may become self-sustaining by keeping us from getting closer to people who may actually be worth our trust.

Sound familiar?

Let’s start by recognizing that the memory of pain exists for a reason: it warns us away from things that may be bad for us. As human beings, we have what psychologists call a negativity bias, meaning that we are affected more deeply and for a longer time by negative events than by positive ones. As Roy Baumeister once put it, we’ll stew longer over losing a $50 bill than we spend rejoicing over finding one. That fact about ourselves may not be pleasant, but it helps us survive in a world full of potential threats.

Thus, the memory traces of past hurts are not intrinsically bad, and by themselves, may take time to fade in significance (though they may be reactivated by new experiences that reminds us of the old). We cannot simply will painful memories out of existence, nor should we. But we can choose how to respond to them when they occur.

What often happens is this: when the memory of a past hurt gets triggered, we’re flooded with negative emotions. Those emotions may make us acutely sensitive to threats in the environment, as when we begin to obsess over what someone “really meant” by some innocent comment (which is not to say that all comments are “innocent”!). We respond negatively, which puts the other person off. They respond negatively in turn, confirming that we were right to not trust them in the first place. On it goes, ad nauseam.

Again, sound familiar?

The more we’ve been hurt, the more this is likely to happen. That’s how we’re wired. Part of the way forward is learning to recognize and communicate about how what’s happening right now in a relationship is opening old wounds. In other words, we need to learn to distinguish between “your stuff” and “my stuff,” and to be able to talk about it. That takes time, patience, and often, professional help.

But we can also work on gaining some emotional distance from those past hurts, which can help us avoid falling into that downward spiral when old memories spring up. Try this writing exercise, based on the work of James Pennebaker:

  • Think of a hurtful relationship event from your past. In your mind’s eye, go back to that time and place.
  • But this time, don’t relive the event. Instead, step back and take the stance of a neutral observer: in other words, imagine that you are an invisible third person, watching yourself from the outside. Watch the scene play out as if you were seeing yourself on TV.
  • Try to understand what that person (the past you) is feeling. What is s/he feeling, and why?
  • Write about what you’ve observed for 15 minutes, then put your writing aside and go on with your day.
  • Do this once a day for three or four days in a row.

That’s it. Researchers have found that people who do this simple exercise typically succeed in gaining some emotional distance from the event, so that it doesn’t have as strong a hold on them.

We can’t erase painful memories from the past. But we can be proactive by working on how we remember them, making them less likely to get in the way of our present relationships.

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