You may find it hard to stop thinking about someone who triggered you emotionally. Identifying the reason, and practicing acceptance and distraction, are just some strategies that may help reduce intrusive thoughts.
Over the course of your life, you’ll probably meet a person or two who sparks some intense emotions.
Maybe you love someone who doesn’t feel the same way — or someone who loves you, but caused you great pain. Deep dislike can also fuel rumination, so you might even get stuck on thoughts of someone you just can’t stand.
In either scenario, you’d rather not think of them at all, so you resolve to banish those unwanted memories and move on. As you may have noticed, though, trying to suppress certain thoughts often only brings them back in full force, leaving you overwhelmed and frustrated.
This doesn’t mean you’re doomed to think about that person forever. The 12 strategies below can help you refresh your focus.
If you’ve tried and failed to move your thoughts away from someone, ask yourself why. Delving unflinchingly into this question can help you get some insight on why you’re still stuck on them and perhaps lead to some resolution.
Say you had an intense crush on a classmate but never got the chance to ask them out. Now, you spend a lot of time imagining yourself making this conversation happen.
It’s pretty common to fixate on unrealized hopes, but what if you could still connect, perhaps through social media or a mutual friend who helps you get in touch? Maybe your crush says no. Or maybe they say yes, and the date’s a total flop.
Either way, a clear outcome can help you turn the page on those thoughts and move forward.
It’s not uncommon to build people up as extremes, especially when time has faded the more realistic memories.
People have more nuance to them than right and wrong or good and bad, but memory biases can increase your chances of remembering wonderful or terrible things over more normal, everyday traits or events.
These exaggerated perceptions can take over your mental space pretty easily, making it even harder to let go. You can combat them by gently nudging your memories back toward the realm of strict facts.
- Say you can’t let go of an ex. Instead of thinking, “They were so perfect. I’ll never find anyone else like them,” ask yourself what made them so fantastic. Laying out specific things that drew you to someone can help you realize it might not be all that difficult to find others with similar characteristics.
- Find some evidence to support or refute idealized impressions, like: “They never let me down,” “They always knew just what to say,” or “They’re so horrible. All they want to do is make me miserable.” When you take the time to sift through your memories, you’ll likely identify a few that shift your perspective to a more realistic shade of gray.
- Look at the situation objectively. If you can’t escape the suspicion that your co-worker is out to get you, challenge yourself to find other explanations for their behavior. Maybe they’re having a tough time. Perhaps they treat everyone with a similar sharpness. Stepping back from an emotional view can help you avoid taking someone’s behavior personally, which can make it easier to shrug off.
When you can’t seem to stop thinking about someone, try turning toward those thoughts instead of away. That might sound completely illogical, but this technique can really work.
Those thoughts might keep returning because you haven’t yet accepted the reality of the situation. Unrequited love, humiliation, unjust treatment, plain old spite — any of these can cause plenty of distress, which you reject to protect yourself.
You can’t push pain away forever, though, and when you finally allow yourself to confront it, you might be unpleasantly surprised by its intensity.
Shoving the thoughts in a mental box and hiding the key can make them seem forbidden, off-limits. Accepting them, and the circumstances around them, can help you navigate distress more productively. Opening the box and letting your thoughts loose reduces their urgent need for acknowledgment.
Meditation is one helpful way to practice exploring and accepting unwanted thoughts. A regular meditation practice can teach you to sit with thoughts and let them pass as you observe them with compassion and curiosity.
Not everyone finds meditation helpful, so if it doesn’t work for you, don’t sweat it. Other methods can help you begin exploring and accepting thoughts of someone in order to finally get them off your mind.
Journaling is one such approach. Many people associate journaling with their teenage years, but a journal can have benefits at any stage in life.
Journals offers private space to vent frustrations and come to terms with difficult emotions. It might even feel a little easier to identify potential reasons behind persistent thoughts in writing.
Many people find journaling cathartic. The relief that comes with writing down difficult thoughts can almost make you feel as if you’ve set those thoughts down in a place where they no longer burden you so heavily.
Distraction can help you manage any kind of emotional distress, as long as you use it correctly.
When you’re trying to find temporary relief from unpleasant or upsetting thoughts, distraction can be a great tool.
Distraction can also come in handy when you can’t do anything to change the circumstances troubling you. It shouldn’t replace acceptance and self-exploration, though. To properly resolve recurring thoughts, you’ll typically need to address them at their roots.
In short, as long as you don’t use distraction to deny emotions and experiences, it may work as a good short-term coping strategy.
It can help to try focused distraction or redirecting your thoughts to something specific, instead of simply letting your mind wander where it will.
A few helpful distractions to try:
Whether you want to take your mind off your last love interest or a toxic friend’s betrayal, it can help to refocus on one very important person: yourself.
Some dedicated self-exploration can distract you from thoughts of whoever you want to stop thinking about. It can also help you get back in touch with your hobbies, personal interests, and other things you find meaningful. You know, those things that so often fall by the wayside when you get wrapped up in thoughts of someone else.
Self-discovery can yield even greater rewards when you’re trying to move on from thoughts of an ex or crush who didn’t feel the same way. The more you reconnect with yourself, the more you might notice key ways they don’t quite meet your needs or align with the future you envision.
Believing you need someone makes it much harder to let go. If you convince yourself you can’t carry on without them, it can become a real struggle to take healthy steps toward achieving your goals alone.
Try asking yourself:
- What need did they fulfill?
- Could I fulfill that on my own?
- If not, how can I meet that need?
Your answers can help you begin to identify a clearer path forward. Remember, nobody can fulfill all of your needs, though friends and partners provide important emotional support.
Creating some space between yourself and the other person can help you redirect thoughts more successfully. Out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes.
When you can’t avoid them completely, these strategies can help:
- Temporarily unfollow or hide social media profiles, and avoid visiting their pages.
- If you belong to the same friend group, limit your hangouts for the immediate future. COVID-19 distancing guidelines provide a fantastic, honest excuse, since it’s much safer to limit interaction for now.
- Avoid texting, calling, and otherwise maintaining regular contact.
Mindfulness, or your awareness of the present, can improve well-being in a number of ways. Staying present in your daily life can strengthen your relationships with others. It can also boost self-awareness and have a positive impact on mental health.
When you live mindfully, you’re more in tune with each passing moment, so it becomes easier to stop cycling thoughts and return your attention to what you actually want to concentrate on. Since your mental energy is caught up in each moment as it happens, it’s less likely to drift off toward what could have been.
Living mindfully is often as simple as:
- using your five senses
- grounding yourself when your attention wanders
- focusing your breathing
Waiting is often both the easiest and hardest thing to do.
Sure, you don’t have to do anything besides live each day of your life. Still, time does seem to pass much more slowly when you want something specific to happen.
You might scoff at the idea that your pain and the intensity of your thoughts will someday diminish, but time generally does do the trick. A day will eventually come when you have to actually expend effort to recall that person you can’t stop thinking about now.
It’s all too easy to get trapped in distress when someone wrongs you. Maybe you go over the injustice again and again, fixate on the pain of betrayal, and think of all things you could do to balance the scales. Yet retracing this path generally only fuels more misery, while forgiveness offers a more reliable route toward healing.
Here’s one thing not everyone realizes about forgiveness: It’s for you, more than anyone else. Forgiveness helps you let go of the wrongs you’ve clutched close to your chest so you can move forward with a lighter heart.
It becomes easier to forgive when you remember everyone makes mistakes, and many of these mistakes have no bad intentions behind them.
If the strategies above haven’t helped you stop thinking about the person, professional support is a good next step.
A therapist can’t give you a spotless mind of eternal sunshine, but they can offer compassionate guidance as you explore reasons why you can’t move on.
In therapy, you can learn productive ways to challenge unwanted thoughts and break their hold, along with mindfulness practices and other helpful coping skills.
Struggling to forgive someone? A therapist can help with that, too.
The mind can be a tricky place. It doesn’t always respond in the way you’d like, and sometimes it seems to have, well, a mind of its own. This can feel particularly frustrating when thoughts of someone you want to forget pop up as fast as you push them down.
Other people can affect you deeply, for better or for worse. When they let you down, it’s easy to fixate on what might have been, but accepting what is can help you set aside those wonderings and regain your peace of mind.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.