“You’ve got to let go,” I told myself for the thousandth time in the few months since my breakup. “You have to leave it all in the past.”
So why was it so freaking hard?
No matter what I did, thoughts of my ex and our relationship still plagued my day-to-day life.
Getting a text from him made me insanely happy; our post-breakup fights brought me down to my knees; I dreamed about him almost every night.
I told myself to let go time and time again, but the truth was… I was doing everything but.
Then I ramped up my detachment game, and I’m now in a completely different – and better – place.
Here’s how you can detach from someone, too.
What is detachment?
Alright, here’s the deal.
Humans are wired for attachment. We literally rely on other people for survival, which means that we learn to form strong emotional bonds with our primary caretakers from a very early age.
Once you’re all grown up, your need for attachment doesn’t go away. It just changes direction.
Since you’re no longer relying on your parents, you build close relationships with your partner and friends, and the more you care about a specific person, the stronger your attachment is likely to be.
But attachments don’t necessarily last forever. If your romantic relationship doesn’t work or if your best friend is no longer good for you, you can put boundaries in place or end the relationship completely.
Once that’s done, the slow process of detachment begins.
Detaching yourself from someone happens when:
- You take a step back from the relationship and re-evaluate it from a distance
- You re-focus on yourself and your own emotions
- Your feelings toward the person lessen in intensity
- You are no longer as easily impacted by the person’s behavior
- You let the person take responsibility for their own choices and don’t worry about them as much anymore
While detachment may sound cold, it is everything but. As the psychotherapist Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW, says:
“Detaching gives us the emotional space we need, so we’re not as reactive and anxious. It helps us to be less controlling and to accept things as they are, rather than trying to force them to be what we want. Detaching doesn’t mean abandoning or that we stop caring.”
In fact, it is possible to detach with love and forgiveness. Letting go of someone doesn’t mean that you no longer love them; it just means that the dynamic isn’t good for you anymore.
So, how do you detach from someone?
Let’s unpack all our 11 steps.
1) Take some space
When I was still in contact with my ex, there was simply no way for me to emotionally detach from him.
The constant chain of text messages kept me hungry for more, and I gravitated toward my past relationship like a moth to a flame – even if it burnt me.
It’s not easy to take space from someone you love. I know that very well. But I can also tell you that it’s a necessary and extremely helpful step in the process of emotional detachment.
If you want to detach from someone you’re still in contact with – for example, if you’re married and still live together or if you want to maintain a surface-level relationship with a family member – try taking at least a few days to yourself.
No face-to-face contact, no calls, no texts.
Then use those days to their maximum – which brings us to step number two.
2) Sit with your emotions
Feelings aren’t always comfortable.
Fear, anger, grief, frustration, resentment, you name it – these emotions all manifest throughout the body in a variety of sensations, be it a tight throat, an ache in your tummy, or sweaty palms.
But if you ignore them, they’ll only burrow themselves deeper into your body and soul, causing even more havoc. I, for example, descend into a spiral of rumination if I don’t acknowledge how I feel.
Which is exactly why I’ve learned to try and sit with my feelings in the safety of my own space.
Embrace the discomfort. Scan your body with your mind to see which sensations are connected to which thoughts. Then try to put a name on how it is you feel.
This exercise helps you separate your own feelings from those of the person you’re trying to let go of – which is all the more helpful if you’re an empath like me. What’s more, it forces you to validate your feelings and therefore admit the truth.
“I’m angry,” I realized when I tried out the exercise. “I feel resentful. I feel contempt. I feel wronged.”
By acknowledging how I felt, all that was left to do… was to take action.
3) Release your feelings
I used to think negative emotions, such as anger or sadness, were bad. I pushed them down thinking that it made me strong or brave, but in reality, I only felt worse in the long term.
And that’s because negative feelings aren’t negative per se. It’s a label humans put on specific emotions that make us feel uncomfortable.
But as the legendary shaman Rudá Iandê says in his free masterclass Free Your Mind, everything we perceive as bad can also be good (for example, going through a breakup can teach you many valuable lessons about yourself), while there also can be too much of a good thing (we all love water, but drinking too much of it is bad for our health).
In other words, “negative” feelings are only negative if you call them that.
I prefer to view them as necessary parts of who I am. And when I feel angry, I no longer suppress my rage. Instead, I find a safe and healthy outlet.
Just last week, I angry-swam for half an hour. It was amazing. I’d never swum this fast before.
When you’re trying to detach from someone, it’s important that you not only acknowledge but also release all your feelings linked to the relationship at hand. Cry your heart out, go to the gym, run around the block, dance in joy and relief, or scream into your pillows in frustration.
You’ll soon find that it feels incredibly liberating to let your feelings out.
And if you want to learn more about accepting your feelings, letting go, and becoming a higher version of yourself, check out Iandê’s free masterclass.
4) Break it down on paper
I don’t know about you, but my thoughts can be an absolute mess. It is only when I write them down that I begin to form a cohesive narrative out of the jungle in my mind.
Personally, an important step on my journey to detachment was to write down facts about the relationship – both good and bad.
I wrote about the ways in which the relationship was good for me, which helped me realize what I wanted in my future partner.
I wrote about the negatives, which forced me to see that the relationship no longer had a place in my life.
I wrote about the false narratives I’d created about my love life and how this relationship had supported or broken them down.
By dissecting my attachment to my ex on paper, I was able to gain a level of clarity I hadn’t had in a very long time. I recommend you do the same.
5) Discuss your feelings with someone you trust
While writing things down on paper can be extremely helpful, it still doesn’t allow for as much objectivity as needed.
Enter… crying your heart out to a person you trust.
No matter if it’s your friend, family member, or therapist, talking to them about the person you’re detaching from and the feelings that bubble up as part of the process can give you a great sense of relief.
What’s more, the person you choose to confide in can usually look at the situation from a comfortable distance, which means that they could offer you some valuable feedback, helping you untangle yourself from the mess of subjectivity.
When you’re speaking to someone you trust about the issue, try to remain self-aware.
- Am I defending the person I want to let go of because I’m still attached to them and feel protective of them?
- Am I truly listening to my friend’s feedback?
- Am I gaining new insights from this conversation?
Don’t underestimate the power of having a support network to fall back on. It is exactly in times like these that we need the help of others the most.
6) Learn about the science of detachment
When you’re having a hard time detaching yourself from someone, the last thing you need is to be harsh on yourself.
I’ve come to understand that my frustration usually stems from a lack of knowledge. Once I learn more about the issue, I’m no longer as angry at myself because I’m better able to understand how my brain works.
“Ugh, why do I find it hard to let go of my friend even though everything about them irritates me?”
Because you once formed an attachment to them, which is a strong emotional bond we build for survival reasons. It’s completely natural to struggle for a while once they’re out of the picture.
“Why do I keep hoping my ex texts me?”
Because falling in love is like getting addicted to a drug – it releases some amazing feel-good hormones – and once you’re off it, you begin to crave the person that used to make you feel on top of the world. Every text from them is a dopamine hit.
By learning more about neuroscience and psychology, I’ve gained a lot of resilience because I have a better understanding of my brain, which helps me foster self-compassion.
A few of the books I recommend on the topic include:
- Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love by Amir Levine and Rachel Holler
- Breakup Bootcamp: The Science of Rewiring Your Heart by Amy Chan
7) Embrace the power of rituals
It may seem silly to burn a photo of your ex or to write a goodbye letter to your best friend and never send it, but according to research, rituals can be very effective tools that help us move forward in the grieving process.
Not only do you gain some control over the narrative but you also take the time to commemorate the relationship, appreciate it for what it once was, and find the courage to finally let go.
However, keep in mind that a ritual isn’t a magic trick. I once thought that burying a necklace from my ex in the back garden would release me from the terrible post-breakup pain, only to cry two days later.
Letting go doesn’t happen in one go.
It happens every time you don’t think about them for ten minutes; every time you remember another painful thing they did in the past; every time you re-focus on yourself and your happiness.
Nonetheless, a ritual is still helpful because it’s a specific moment in time that says, “I’ve performed an action to remind myself I am letting this go.”
Write a thank you letter – just for yourself. Visit a place you connect with the relationship and reflect on everything that’s happened. Take down the pictures you have up on your wall.
Whatever it is, make it special. This ritual is purely for you.
8) Invest your love and energy back into yourself
After my breakup, I listened to Miley Cyrus’s wise words and bought myself some flowers.
And then I took it a step further. All the love and energy I’d once poured into my relationship was now overflowing, so I re-directed it to where it was needed: my own self.
I revamped my wardrobe. I started working on my novel again. Found new friends. Levelled up my gym workouts. Tried new hobbies. Created a self-care routine. Went on fun dates. Read amazing books.
The greatest remedy for heartbreak is to place yourself back in the center of your universe.
It’s to become the partner or friend you needed all along.
Take yourself out. Buy yourself something you really like. Cook delicious meals for yourself. Get a massage. Do something that makes you feel alive.
You’ll soon find that re-discovering yourself in new ways and being your best friend is an amazing way to detach yourself from someone because your life becomes much better now that the person is out of the picture.
You can do just fine without them.
No, scratch that. You can absolutely thrive.
9) Come to embrace forgiveness
Forgiveness is hard. There’s no doubt about that.
What’s more, it doesn’t happen in a snap of a finger. You can’t just say “I forgive you” and expect to immediately feel better.
Forgiveness is a long and intricate process, and it all starts with the recognition that forgiveness ultimately isn’t for the person you’re detaching from. It’s for you.
As the psychologist Rubin Khoddam Ph.D., says: “Forgiveness is not just a noble act; it’s a vital process for our own well-being. By letting go of anger and resentment, we create a healthier emotional environment within ourselves.”
This also means that forgiveness doesn’t need any direct resolution. You don’t have to speak to the person you’ve detached from because they are not the most important part of the process.
A great way to try and practice forgiveness is to view all past events from a bird’s eye perspective. It’s to understand where the other person was coming from, which of their issues led them to act in a certain way, and why things ended the way they did.
Careful, though – gaining a sense of understanding doesn’t mean that you’re excusing any of the person’s behavior. It just means you now understand their motivations better.
Most importantly, forgiveness is about recognizing that both you and the person in question didn’t know any better at the time. Your relationship couldn’t have turned out any other way because this was ultimately the best you could have done.
Please note: This advice doesn’t necessarily apply to abusive relationships. Forgiveness is a much more complicated matter in such cases, and if you can, it’s a good idea to discuss it with a licensed therapist.
10) Establish an emotional separation or reduce contact until you’ve moved on
Cutting someone out of your life is painful, yet it’s exactly what you might need to do in order to move on and completely detach yourself from them.
If you can’t establish a physical separation for the time being, it may be a good idea to have an honest conversation with the person and set new boundaries.
For example, you can keep your conversations to surface-level topics and turn to other loved ones for emotional support. In other words, you can be friendly, but not friends.
Research shows that “out of sight, out of mind” is actually quite accurate – as long as you focus on building your social support network, experience new adventures, and invest your love back into yourself, your attachment to the person you’ve let go of should decrease over time.
11) Be kind to yourself
Lastly, remember that detachment takes time. And by time, I don’t mean a few weeks. I mean months or possibly years.
You won’t detach yourself from someone overnight, no matter how many rituals you perform.
But one day – be it two months or two years from now – you’ll think of the person and realize that time really does heal all wounds.
And not just time. You’re the one doing the work. You’re the one showing up for yourself over and over again.
You’re the one who deserves your effort and love.
So become the person you want by your side and let go of the person who no longer has a place in your life.