So there you are, frustrated and in agony, wondering “How can I forget about my ex?” You’re marinating in the “what if’s.” Your head is filled with “could’ve’s, would’ve’s, and should’ve’s.” And everything around you reminds you of them and your old life, the life you’ve lost. “Seriously,” you ask, “How the hell can I erase my ex from my stream of consciousness?”
Right of the bat, let me tell you that you’ll never be able to forget about your ex. So don’t even try. Even when you fully recover and let them go, and perhaps even move on to someone new, you’ll still occasionally think about them. It’s normal, even healthy. So accept it — accept that you will never forget your ex.
That being said, what you can do, and what this article will focus on, is how you can better manage your unwanted intrusive thoughts regarding your ex, stop obsessively thinking about them, and thus, feel more at ease. Here’s how it will go down.
Below are 10 tips that will help you take control of your thoughts. The first three give a general understanding of unwanted intrusive thoughts, the next four explore short-term solutions for surmounting them, and the last three, the long-term ones.
1. Distinguish healthy rumination from the unhealthy kind
Unhealthy rumination is when you overanalyze and obsess over your past relationship to such a destructive degree that you can’t sleep, or eat, or focus anymore, and it’s causing your personal and professional life to dwindle. It’s like a speeding train on fire and without working breaks, heading straight to hell.
On the flip side, healthy rumination, or rumination, is when you’re going over a past experience (or experiences) in a productive way — one that’s goal is understanding, lesson extraction, and ultimately, personal growth.
Without a doubt, there is a thin line between healthy and unhealthy rumination. And the way you can accurately differentiate between the two is by observing two characteristics: intention and amplitude.
Intention: While a person’s intention behind healthy rumination is primarily one of growth, self-discovery, and self-expansion, the one behind unhealthy rumination is blurred. You simply do it because you can’t help but not to do it.
Moreover, healthy rumination is based on the desire to become better and has a clear intent; unhealthy rumination, on the other hand, is based on fear, anxiety, and insecurity and has no clear intention.
Amplitude: By amplitude, I’m referring to the speed at which intrusive thoughts meteorite your brain and their intensity.
When engaging in healthy rumination, your mind gets blasted with only a few thoughts of not much intensity, but when engaging in unhealthy rumination, it’s the other way around. Your mind gets drowned in a small ocean of thoughts of great intensity.
2. Recognize that obsessively thinking about your ex is a devastating problem
Across our population, many skeptics find the whole rumination thing overrated; as in, not a big deal. However, I disagree with them. I beleive it is a big deal — a huge one — especially when you dig into where succumbing to intrusive thoughts leads.
Specific forms of intrusive thoughts, like when you keep imagining that make-up sex with your ex, do feel good in the short term but still have disastrous consequences in the long. (1)
One of these is chronic stress — a.k.a., hypertension, which then further impacts all areas of your life. When you’re under heavy stress, your work performance, productivity, and focus drop, your well-being diminishes, you feel less inclined to care about personal hygiene, your diet gets fucked, and your sleep schedule gets muddled.
2. Mental Meltdowns and Panic
When you get locked in an unswerving stream of intrusive thoughts, you often begin to overestimate risk, indulge in black and white/all-or-nothing thinking, fall prey to regular mood alterations and lower self-esteem, form consistent doubts and pessimistic biases, and grow in anxiety.
Talking of anxiety…
3. Anxiety And Depression
Rumination and anxiety are really two sides of the same coin. While rumination is all about overthinking the past, anxiety is all about overthinking the future.
This means you can quickly move from obsessing about your old relationship to worrying about getting your ex back and, thus, becoming anxious. At worst, that anxiety then transpires into self-belittlement, self-criticism, self-berating, which eventually leads to depression. (4)
4. Sabotaging behaviors
It’s no surprise that obsessing over an ex leads to idiotic and unattractive behaviors like spamming your ex’s phone, professing your unyielding love, or begging them to give you another shot while they want nothing to do with you. You can probably guess that those things don’t lead to a swift reconciliation.
3. Identify Why You’re Constantly thinking about your ex
Sure, the main reason why you’re thinking about your ex is because you at some point loved them, and they mean a lot to you. Perhaps, you still love them and even want another chance with them, or you at least miss them.
Nonetheless, those are only surface reasons for your rumination. We can go way deeper. The underlying reason you’re ruminating is because through that rumination, you’re meeting a specific set of emotional needs that then make you feel better about yourself.
Below are the top three needs most breakup survivors subconsciously or consciously keep meeting while they’re thinking about their ex.
1. The need for control
When you break up with someone, you can’t do much. Especially if your ex doesn’t want you back. So, you start to feel helpless, perhaps even hopeless.
And because helplessness is such a discomforting feeling, you run into the hands of rumination to alleviate it and make you feel as if you’re in control again — while in reality, you’re not. You just feel that you are.
2. The need for closure and certainty
It’s only natural to want closure and the ability to predict what will happen in the future after a breakup. And rumination helps you with that by making it easy to delude yourself.
But here’s the deal: Getting closure from someone else is impossible. The only way to get it is to find it within yourself. And predicting what the future will bring is… well, it’s equally impossible. The only thing you can know for sure is that you can never know what the future will bring.
3. The need for connection
Sometimes, you want to feel connected, close, and valuable to your ex even though you aren’t together anymore, even though they may want nothing to do with you.
So you run to your thoughts and reminisce the golden years, the best times you had, and you actually can find solace in that thought space. However, as you probably guessed, the whole thing is just another delusion you’re making yourself go through to feel better.
4. Eliminate reminders and triggers
“Out of sight; out of mind” is a peculiar saying floating around western culture, yet as cliche and overused as it is, it still packs a fundamental truth.
The more reminders of something you’re surrounded with, the higher the likelihood of getting reminded about that something. In your case, the more reminders of your ex you’re surrounded with, the higher the likelihood of thinking about them.
So, one powerful way you can think less of your ex — or at certain points and ONLY for a limited time even forget them entirely — is by detaching yourself from them and anything that has to do with them.
In other words, go no contact.
No contact is a well-known breakup recovery technique, where you end all communication with your ex for a certain period. You don’t text, call, or communicate with them whatsoever. Hopefully, your circumstances allow this. Otherwise, keep your communication business-like and straight to the point.
The lenght of the no contact period is indefinite. The only time you’ll contact your ex is when they contact you first. And if you just want to move on and don’t care about getting them back, feel free to block them and cut them out of your life forever.
And if you’re feeling extra ballsy, there’s another layer of protection you can add on top of no contact to forget about your ex even faster. It’s called the social media detox, and it involves four simple steps:
- Unfriend and unfollow your ex on all your social media apps
- Unfriend and unfollow everyone else whose posts may remind you of your ex.
- If your life circumstances allow, delete all the social media apps from your phone and computer. If not, limit them with software like Cold Turkey or Screen Time.
- Set a goal for how long you’ll be doing the social media detox and stick to it. At best, make it your lifestyle, and like with no contact, indefinite.
5. Distract yourself from your thoughts
When it comes to distracting yourself, your best bet is to follow the proven Three M’s Formula, coined by Nick Wignall.
“The basic idea is that three of the best ways to change your thoughts and break free of difficult emotions in the short term are to move your body physically, make or fix something, and meet or interact with someone else socially.” (5)
Move: Moving refers to hitting the gym, going for a walk, doing weight lifting exercises, dancing, indulging in yoga, etc. Just do something that involves movement. For movement will be the remedy to getting out of your head — where your ex resides —and into your body.
Make: Making refers to cooking, creating artwork, writing a blog post, fixing a leaking sink, taking up photography, etc. Just doing something — even if it’s a tiny activity — that’s either productive or creative is often a great way to free yourself of the thoughts of your ex.
Meet: Meeting refers to calling a friend, shooting a text to a family member, or meeting a cousin or acquaintance for coffee. Humans are social creatures. Even if you’re introverted, you’ll still benefit from the right kind of social interaction, especially when it comes to loneliness. And, perhaps more importantly, that interaction will help you forget all about your ex for a time.
6. Set Scheduled time to feel sad, angry, etc
Go somewhere you won’t be bothered, set a timer for anywhere between 10 minutes and one hour, and then, during that period, let yourself feel the depth of your emotions. That’s it.
If you’re angry, scream. If you’re sad, cry. If you’re frustrated…er, masturbate? Knock yourself out.
After this period, you should feel much better, and chances are, the thoughts of your ex aren’t so rapid and intense anymore.
However, this effect will only last for a limited time. Therefore, whenever you feel smothered by your rumination again, repeat this exercise.
Another variation of this exercise is that instead of scheduling time to feel your emotions and think of your ex, you schedule a time to do nothing involving your ex or the emotions surrounding the breakup. Here’s how it would go:
Let’s say you’re out shopping, and while you’re picking between the clothes to buy, the thoughts of your ex keep popping inside your mind. At some point, say to yourself something like, “I will not think about my ex for the next 5 minutes.” Then refrain from thinking about them.
And when you get the hang of the 5-minute timeframe, feel free to increase it to 10, 15, or even 30 minutes.
A great way of cementing this habit even further is by rewarding yourself whenever you’re successful at the exercise. So if you say to yourself how you’re not going to think about your ex for 10 minutes, and you pull through, reward yourself.
This reward can be anything: a tasty meal, a youtube video, or a time exclusively reserved for crying out your worries. Be creative. Find something that resonates with you.
7. Think about your ex — the Worst Thoughts possible — but with a humorous Twist
The idea of this exercise is to invite a painful thought of your ex to your awareness in a slightly altered way. When you do this, stay connected to that thought (or thoughts) while accepting and allowing the feelings around it to remain.
Here are some ways that you can practice observing your most painful thoughts of your ex with a bit of change. And remember, humor is your best ally.
- Think about your ex while drawing or painting your thoughts.
- Sing about your ex in the tune of “Happy Birthday.”
- Write your thoughts on sticky notes and paste them all over the rooms of your home.
- Think about your ex out loud and record your thoughts. Then play them back at yourself.
- Write down the thoughts of your ex over and over until you can’t write anymore.
- Songify your thoughts.
- Translate your thoughts into another language.
- Stand in front of a mirror and speak your thoughts thought out loud over and over.
8. Practice mindfulness
At its most basic, mindfulness is nothing more than being aware of the present moment in a calm, non-judgmental state. Research shows that mindfulness reduces stress, anxiety, and depression and increases positive moods, self-awareness, productivity, and focus. (6)(7)(8)
But perhaps most importantly, mindfulness keeps intrusive thoughts at bay and helps you live your life with a clearer mind.
The practice can take many forms. You can practice mindfulness via meditation, journaling, qi-gong, breathing exercises, long evening and morning walks, and even therapy.
Let’s unpack three of the most beneficial and widely adopted practices:
Sit comfortably in a chair or lie down. Make yourself feel relaxed, yet still alert — a.k.a., relaxed but not so relaxed that you’ll fall asleep. Place one hand on your tummy and the other on your chest. Breathe normally. Notice how your tummy expands at the inhale and contracts at the exhale.
Now, as you inhale, try to fill your tummy with as much air as possible. As you exhale, feel it go up your chest and out through your mouth. If done correctly, the hand on your tummy should expand on the inhale while the hand on your chest falls or stays the same.
Keep inhaling and exhaling for about 10 minutes. If you still find yourself thinking about your ex after, consider extending the time frame of the practice to whatever feels reasonable. Or, of course, change the practice altogether.
Focusing on the present moment
This exercise is way less technical than the previous. For starters, go on a little walk — no phone or any electronics whatsoever allowed. As you’re on this walk, hopefully somewhere in nature, put your five senses to the test. Try to notice and feel everything around you.
What can you see? What do you smell? Can you taste anything? What do you hear? And of course, what do you feel? Observe everything without judgment, without thinking about what will happen, how stupid it feels or what has happened. Let it go. Let it all go.
Meditation is the holy grail for reducing your intrusive thoughts and for dealing with breakup recovery in general. And while there are 1001 ways you can go about it, here’s how I recommend you start:
- Set your timer, either a phone or a clock, for 10 minutes.
- Sit in a comfortable position. You may want to sit on the floor with your legs crossed or in a comfortable chair.
- Cup your hands in your lap or put them gently on your knees.
- Close your eyes.
- Take three initial deep breaths: in through the nose until your chest is full, then slowly exhale out through your mouth. Then breath normally.
- Keep your focus on your breath. Think of nothing but your breath and how it feels when it goes in and out of your body.
- As you breathe, focus your attention on your thoughts. Watch them float through your mind as you would cloud in the sky. Again, don’t judge. Then focus on the breath again.
- Keep doing this over and over again until your timer rings.
If you get stuck on a thought along the way, don’t fret. Simply notice it and let it go. The point isn’t to “try not to think.” The point is to bring your awareness back to the present moment whenever it gets focused on a thought.
While all of this may sound like new-age fluff, beleive me, it’s not. Meditation has heaps and haps of empirical data behind it and is proven to work and benefit you in many ways.
In fact, as I’ve said before, all three of the above practices — and mindfulness in general — are heavily backed by science. So, I encourage you to try at least one of the aforementioned practices and stick with it for about a month.
9. RJAFTP Method
The RJAFTP method was coined by Sally Winston and Martin Seif, the authors of the global bestseller, A CBT-Based Guide to Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts.
According to the RJAFTP method, there are six essential steps for coping and managing each unwanted intrusive thought.
- R: Recognize.
- J: Just thoughts.
- A: Accept and allow.
- F: Float and feel.
- T: Let time pass.
- P: Proceed.
Let’s go over each in turn.
Recognize: When you think about your ex, pause and name the thought. Then, tell yourself, “I am having a thought that intrudes into my awareness — an intrusive thought. Now ask yourself, “What emotions does the thought make me feel? What sensations make up the feeling that supplements the intrusion?” Attempt to remain as mindful and non-judgemental as possible.
Just thoughts: Grow aware of the information you already know —that your thoughts are automatic, and you can safely leave them alone. Tell yourself, “These thoughts are automatic and are best left alone.” Simply stating these facts gently to yourself helps to disentangle yourself from your thoughts. Remember: your current thoughts and feelings are not you.
Accept and allow: This means that you actively allow your thoughts to be where they are. You don’t wish you didn’t have them, you don’t try to rid yourself of them, you don’t try to suppress them or deem them wrong; you simply let them float inside your mind. They are unimportant. You are bigger than your thoughts.
Float and feel: These two terms refer to allowing the feelings tied to your thoughts — good or bad — stay where they are. This heavily ties with our previous point on mindfulness. Whenever you notice you’re out of the present and in the future or past somewhere, try to feel into that, and bring yourself back to the present. Surrender the struggle.
Let time pass: Give yourself time. Don’t urge it on. Observe the anxiety or worry your thoughts are making you feel from a curious mentality. Do not keep checking to see if this method is working; just let your thoughts be there. They are thoughts. There is no hurry. Remember: patiently letting time pass is not only one of the most important skills to stop thinking about your ex; it’s also one of the most important skills for recovering after a breakup and showing yourself how you love yourself.
Proceed: Proceeding refers to continuing with whatever you were doing despite the intrusive thoughts that keep blasting in your skull. This is the most effective way to rob them of power.
10. Forgive your ex
Many breakup survivors get stuck obsessing over their ex because they can’t forgive them. Years or even decades go by, and some still can seem to let them go or move on from whatever has happened between them.
They keep festering their resentment and hate, and this is a huge problem. Because as long as they keep festering it, the chances that they’ll stop thinking about their ex and recover are low. Therefore forgiveness is a must.
However, here’s where a lot of people get stuck. Their either think forgiveness is a decision, or they think it’s a process that unravels by itself. In reality, forgiveness is both.
Forgiveness is something that starts with a decision and is followed by a long and grueling process of not changing your mind about that decision. And for all the skeptics out there, forgiveness does not mean forgetting or endorsing.
First, you’ll never forget your ex, what they’ve done, and what you created and had at some point. Even when you forgive them, those thoughts will not change or hide in your subconscious. As I’ve said in the beginning, this is normal.
Second, you’ll never be okay with the fact that your ex wronged you in a way, whether you forgive them or not. In fact, forgiveness is not about your ex or what they did; forgiveness is about you and how you want to spend your time and energy going forward.
So how do you forgive? Well, it’s simple.
Just decide to forgive. It can take months or even years to feel ready to forgive your ex. That’s fine. Take your time. Then, once you forgive them, you’ll have to purposefully remind yourself to keep them forgiven over and over. That is, until you become automatically indifferent to them without trying to be indifferent.
Don’t Force Yourself To Forget Your Ex
You have undoubtedly noticed something very strange and frustrating about your intrusive thoughts: the harder you try not to think them, the more powerful and insistent they get. This is called “paradoxical effort.”
A great way to illustrate it is with a Chinese finger trap. You’ve probably played with it as a kid. It’s a woven bamboo-shaped tube with two holes on each side. You stick your finger in those two holes or ends, and then then it happens: the harder you pull, the more stuck you get. The “not-so-secret secret” of how to get your finger unstuck is to push it farther in the tube as opposed to pulling it out with full force.
Another example could be saving yourself from quicksand. The way to do it is to lie still, head and torso turned upwards towards the sky instead of flailing around and trying to claw, punch and force your way out. The former saves your life; the latter makes you only sink faster.
Yet another illustration: At a certain threshold, when you’ve been working on something for, let’s say, over four hours straight, an interesting phenomenon occurs. From that point onward, the harder you work at that something, the less likely it is to achieve the goal. This is the paradoxical effort at work.
The same principles described above apply when you’re trying to forget your ex or stop thinking about them. As I’ve said, the more obsessive you become of cleansing your mind of your ex, the more powerful and insistent the thoughts about your ex will become.
Therefore, don’t be too harsh on yourself when you’re trying to manage and deal with your intrusive thoughts. Take it bit by bit. Don’t overeat on self-help material. Don’t start feverishly doing all the above exercises at once. Don’t wear yourself out. Relax. You’ll get to a place where you won’t think of your ex as much if you can just be patient. So yeah, be patient. You’ll get there.
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