How to Let Go and Move On

Sometimes hanging in there actually means you’re just hanging on … and on. It’s hard to hold onto old hurts. But it’s even harder to let them go. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers five tips to kick-start the process of moving on.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
3-minute read
Episode #102

Advice about moving on and letting go often gets metaphorical, even existential. But I’m a pragmatist and as they say, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Today we’ll focus on those first steps. Here are five in-the-moment, concrete tips for when you suddenly realize your gaze is focused squarely on your navel.  

Tip #1: Make a decision to move on. Realizing you get to choose whether or not to dwell is empowering. When that gray cloud starts to settle above your head, say out loud: “I choose not to let this bring me down,” or “I have more important things to do.” You can even stand up and brush that dirt off your shoulder. Then re-engage in whatever you were doing. Make this decision as many times as necessary.

Tip #2: Think of the good things in life. I know this sounds totally cliche, but hear me out. A study in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that when study participants were induced to ruminate, their memories of other old hurts were magnified. The researchers asked participants to judge how often twenty different life experiences happened to them, from the bad, like “You have an argument with a friend,” or “You receive unfair treatment,” to the good, like “Your parents showed love,” or “You got a grade that was higher than you expected.”  The result? Rumination—specifically rumination when the participants already felt lousy—led the ruminators to see bad things in their life as frequent and good things as few and far between.  

So when you notice yourself slipping into rumination, use Tip #1 to turn your mind, and then remind yourself of the good things in your life right then and there. Scroll through happy photos on your smartphone, give your dog a tummy rub, or look forward to that weekend getaway.

Tip #3: Play 54321.  Both a grounding and mindfulness technique, this little exercise will get your brain out of the past or future and into the present.  Here’s how to do it: work through your five senses. Look around and name five things you can see right now. Then listen and name four things you can hear right now. Then comes three things you can touch, and two things you can smell. Get up and go smell your coffee, your laundry, or the cat’s litter box if you have to. Finally, if there’s something available for you to taste, do it. But if there’s not, you can substitute saying one nice thing about yourself (and don’t let yourself discount that nice thought with “But there was that one time I…”)

This exercise give you two things: first, the counting and keeping track offers a cognitive distraction that pokes a stick in the spinning wheel of your ruminating mind, and second, forcing yourself to focus on your senses gets you out of your head and back into the real world.

Tip #4: Do something nice for someone else. This is similar to Tip #2—think of the good things—but focused on others.  When you’re feeling sorry for yourself, take incompatible action: buy a homeless guy a sandwich, sending an “I love you” text to your partner, even just let someone in traffic merge in front of you. Rumination focuses our mind squarely on the negative, which is incompatible with a generous gesture.

Tip #5: Summarize what happened in one sentence. Rumination is thorough to say the least: it not only looks at old hurts over and over, but does it in different lighting and from different angles.  But what happens if you keep it short and summarize what happened in one sentence? 

So rather than obsessing over every word of a hurtful conversation, take a step back.  Summarize what happened.  Your answer might be something along the lines of:

This person...

...was hurt and lashed out at me

...was scared and reacted badly

...was stressed and made a lousy decision

...was insecure and took a power trip

Whatever your quick summary finds, it might remind you that those old hurts mean less about you and more about the other person.

To wrap up, these are all just starting points.  I know scrolling through vacation photos, playing 54321, or buying coffee for your officemate won’t fix your problems, but they will nudge you toward feeling a tiny bit more present, empowered, and in control, all of which are crucial to deciding to let go and move on.

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.