Photo by Aidan Cheung on Unsplash

Getting Better At Letting Go

I am terrible at letting go of things. It’s no secret. I’ve known it for years, but it’s only recently that I’ve allowed myself to fully acknowledge it. By letting go I don’t mean moving on and continuing with my life; I’ve had plenty of practice at that. I mean full emotional and mental extrication. That’s the bit I struggle with. I thought it was just my lot-an ingrained part of my personality that meant I was destined to go through life constantly looking backwards. It never occurred to me to question why, or that there might be a tangible reason for it. But recent events, coupled with the huge amount of thinking time that lockdown has afforded, have finally led me to the answer. As is often the case with my self-realisation epiphanies, the answer turned out to be so glaringly obvious I don’t know how it’s taken me so long to figure it out.

In February of this year, an old flame of mine was due to become a father. I don’t know when his baby arrived or what the sex was, having finally taken a friend’s advice and unfollowed him on social media. I’d been toying with the idea for ages but always managed to talk myself out. My excuse was that I was too nosy, too fond of knowing what other people were up to. In truth, it was just an elaborate means of self-flagellation. A form of masochism guaranteed to dredge up old insecurities and reopen old wounds. I knew it wasn’t healthy but I couldn’t stop myself. I needed someone else to make me do it.

Enter Charlie. On New Year’s Eve, a post popped up in my newsfeed which I would have preferred not to see. The guy in question doesn’t post very often but his fiancée does and she always tags him, hence I get to see her statuses. It was a photo of the two of them, with an accompanying post wishing everyone a Happy New Year from their ‘little family of 2.5,’ and saying how excited/scared they were for the baby’s impending arrival. The petty, spiteful part of me wanted her to look dreadful. I wanted her to be one of those women who pregnancy doesn’t suit, with swollen ankles, an enormous bump and bad skin. Naturally, she looked glorious. With her neat little bump and glowing complexion, she was blooming. As she was always going to be. And sure enough, my old insecurities came bobbing up like corks. That horrid little voice in my head that says things like, ‘Of course he preferred her to you, look at her,’ and, ‘If and when your turn comes, you’ll probably pile on the weight.’ I related all of this to Charlie during a late-night video call back in January. Her response was immediate and unequivocal.

‘You need to unfollow that boy.’

She went on to say that it sounded like all of this was coming from a place of hurt, and she was right. Admitting that was hard, chiefly because I feel like I shouldn’t still be hurting from it. Six years have gone by since they got together. I myself am happily engaged. So why, after all this time, does it still bother me?

There are a few reasons. One is that I want children, ideally in the next couple of years, and I’m terrified that it won’t happen. Until it does, I will continue to worry, despite my best efforts not to. Meanwhile, everything is falling into place for the men who hurt me. The guy I mentioned earlier isn’t the only one. An ex-boyfriend of mine also became a father this year, and while I fully acknowledge that both have probably changed a great deal since I last saw them, part of me wants to scream that they don’t deserve it.

To suggest that people who wronged me years ago do not deserve happiness is ludicrous, I know. I said this to a friend of mine just this week. Instead of agreeing with me, she very astutely replied, ‘That doesn’t change the fact that you have trauma attached to those memories.’ She’s right. It doesn’t. So I’m not going to berate myself for feeling the way I do. Instead I’m going to trust that these feelings will pass. They have passed before when they were centred around other people, and they will pass again. It may not happen until I have a child of my own, but it will happen. It is the milestone I am envious of, not the people themselves.

It was never the people. Despite my difficulties in letting go of the past, I never wished I was back with any of my former partners. I never wished things had turned out differently, and I accepted that the guys in question were ultimately not right for me. And yet I still felt like I was holding onto something. Like there was something drawing me back, an emotional tether anchoring me to those periods in my life. But if it wasn’t the guys themselves I was pining for, then what? What was I holding onto? It has taken years, but I finally figured it out.

It was me. The thing I’ve been holding onto all this time was an alternative version of myself. One I felt could have existed under a different set of circumstances. That’s what I’ve been struggling to let go of, not the men. Moving on from them was comparatively easy, but with every breakup and rejection, you are not just losing a partner. You are losing a planned future, a set of dreams and aspirations for yourself. You are losing your sense of certainty about the direction life is taking you. That’s why I find it so bamboozling when I see former partners’ holiday snaps; it’s like looking directly into the lens of one of my own alternate realities. When I explained all of this to my best friend recently, she understood precisely what I meant. She said she never got the impression that my hankering after the past was about the guys. It was always coming from a place of introspection, and was therefore very much about me.

My fear was that one of those alternate selves was better than my current self. Some I could discount on the basis that too much time had passed, or they were never that clear to begin with-just a vague, shimmery haze like a cloud of gas hovering on the periphery of my vision. Others felt far more substantial to me, and they’re the ones I wonder about. Maybe they’re more well-travelled than I am, more intellectual or articulate. Maybe one of them got really into running, is four stone lighter than me and doesn’t worry about the width of her hips or the thickness of her thighs. I spent years torturing myself with hypotheticals, feeling inferior to versions of me that never existed.

So what changed? First, I reached a major milestone of my own. Getting engaged gave me something concrete to plan and look forward to. It also meant I was able to finally let go of one of the only two tethers I was still holding onto. The promise of being a bride was enough to make that hazy, alternate version of the me that could have been fade away completely. Suddenly she was gone, and I didn’t miss her.

Now just one tether remains: the one I spoke of earlier. While it is still there, it has slackened a lot recently, and a big part of that was unfollowing him. Having those reminders was not good for my mental health and I knew it. Friends had suggested unfollowing him before, but suggestions give me options and options give me an excuse not to do it. Sometimes I need an explicit instruction. I need a friend to look me dead and the face and say, ‘You need to do this,’ because I will do it. I’m very obedient that way. The older I get, the less inclined I am to give in to my masochistic tendencies. I’m all about being kind to myself nowadays, and part of that is not subjecting myself to things which I know full well will upset me. I will find out eventually whether they had a boy or a girl and what name they chose, but I’m not ready yet and that’s fine. I may not be ready for another couple of years, and that’s also fine. At least now I understand the reason behind this tendency of mine, and if I understand it, then I can tackle it. I can cut myself some slack, safe in the knowledge that my propensity to look backwards is not about him. It never was. It’s about me, where I am in my life and where I want to be. When I get there, the last remaining tether will be cut. Of that I am certain.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be good at letting go of the past, but I can help myself by minimising painful reminders and making plans for the future. Until recently, I was convinced that university was the best time of my life and would forever remain so. I no longer feel that way, partly because I now have concrete things to look forward to, and partly because I’ve realised the people who matter most to me are here in my life, not stuck in some distant memory. As for the Laurens that never were, they are not better than the me that currently is. How could they be when they were the hypothetical products of relationships that weren’t right? Just one remains, a single pale ghost who grows dimmer by the day. I’m ignoring her, starving her of attention until she fades away. She will eventually. They always do.

Lauren Phillips is a language teacher and writer with a deep love of words in all their forms. She uses writing to help her process her own tangled thoughts.

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