Post-breakup can lead us quickly down the path of “Where did I go wrong?” But a lot of the time, digging through those memories can drag us down rather than lift us up. It is this aspect of human nature that prompts perennially positive TV soccer coach Ted Lasso to tell his players that the happiest animal on Earth is the goldfish. 

“Do you know why?” He asks. (And no, it’s not because goldfish don’t need to go through divorce.) “It’s because they have a 10-second memory.” In other words, a goldfish can’t beat itself up over mistakes it has made in its very tiny bowl. “Be a goldfish.” Sounds kind of nice, doesn’t it? (The emotional freedom, not the tiny bowl.)

While self-reflection is definitely a necessary part of post-breakup emotional clean-up, we can all benefit from learning what to focus on and what to let “swim away.”

But my memory is longer than 10 seconds

True, as humans with complex relationships and complicated emotions, we can’t forget all we’ve been through in the time it takes to walk across the room. The longer your relationship or marriage, the more memories that have found a place within you. 

And, chances are, you wouldn’t want to forget every single remembered event during that time period because – that’s where human things get sticky – our relationships tend to vine in and around all the other parts of our lives. There’s good stuff in there we don’t want to let go. 

Make negative memories serve your healing

While negative memories might feel impossible to shake, researchers at Columbia University in New York have very good news. When we find positive meaning in negative memories, it not only helps the adverse event fade, but also opens us up to a whole host of potential positive outcomes:

  • Enhanced positive emotion
  • Fewer symptoms of depression
  • Faster recovery from stress
  • Broadened cognitive perspective
  • Better decision-making
  • Enhanced creativity
  • Better coping skills

In short, humans might not be able to forget as quickly as goldfish, but we can choose to work with what we remember, learn from it, and see our experiences in a new light.

For example, rather than say, “I should never have gotten involved with a narcissist,” you can drop the self-blame and turn it around. Give yourself the time and space to exercise self-care and take steps toward healing from the manipulation and abusive behavior you were strong enough to leave behind. 

Hand holding a note of paper with the message let it go written on it
In ‘The Art of Letting Go,’ author Mick Trenton writes about breaking the chains of negativity and letting go of your inner critic. (Shutterstock / macondo)

Let go of the inner critic

If you think of your divorce as a “failed marriage,” you are likely to find a way to blame yourself and vacillate between your failures and your ex’s. Once you’ve started down that path, you’ll find plenty of reasons – big and small – why things went wrong. But when that happens, be honest – do you feel any better?

Here, “being the goldfish” means not dwelling on all that, not going down that road. Author Nick Trenton has written a 20-book series, “The Path to Calm,” on how to transform negative thoughts and stressful self-talk and release the past in order to embrace the present. In “The Art of Letting Go,” Trenton writes about breaking the chains of negativity and letting go of the seething negativity of the inner critic. 

“Everyone has that little voice inside their heads telling them they are not good enough – their inner critic…The inner critic can be harsh and unforgiving, and it can hold people back from achieving their goals and living their best lives.”

The reward in replacing the negativity of the inner critic with patience and forgiveness for yourself is the ability to let in wisdom and grow your capacity for strength and love. Releasing yourself from the inner critic frees you from anxiety and frustration and allows for the growth of self-compassion. 

Moving forward, instead of digging up dark thoughts from the past and avoiding the social connections you need to heal, it’s important to seek out your positive friends, embrace new sensations, and engage in activities you enjoy. 

Jason Sudeikis arrives for the ‘’Ted Lasso’ Season 2 Premiere
Actor Jason Sudeikis plays a positive-minded soccer coach in ‘Ted Lasso.’ (Shutterstock / DFree)

Make way for self-reflection

Letting go of negativity isn’t the same as putting on blinders and running out into the busy intersections of life. Releasing the negativity and self-blame from the past is a vital first step. Then it’s time to take some strides toward the good stuff. 

  • Allow yourself to feel how you feel. There’s no getting around this. Divorce or break-up is a loss and tends to feel like one. You wouldn’t rush someone to get over a death, would you? Give yourself some grace.
  • Don’t go it alone. Accept the help of those who care about your well-being. Keep communication open and seek the right type of support for you, whether it’s one-on-one counseling, group support, regular encounters with loved ones, or all of the above. 
  • Establish healthy boundaries. While being open to family, friends and therapy is absolutely essential, there will be times when you need quiet alone time. Time to relax and reflect or go for a long run. Or time to sit in your car and listen to death metal. Whatever you need, be open and honest with the people who love you and let them know what OK is and what isn’t.
  • Find a healthy creative outlet. We all have different ways of self-expression. Some of us find release in keeping an honest, “please-don’t-let-anyone-ever-find-this” journal. Others express themselves through painting, music, cooking, dance, exercise or home improvement projects. Channeling emotion into a healthy creative outlet releases stress and increases positive feelings.
  • Engage in healthy, positive self-reflection. The time has to be right for this. You may find it easier when guided by a counselor or therapist. Self-reflection is an opportunity to learn about yourself and find healthy ways forward. Don’t simply think about where you’ve been – explore what you’ve learned from where you’ve been and what you’ve discovered about yourself and your strengths.

Know thy self-compassion

Above all, remember to exercise self-compassion. Self-compassion isn’t just being kind to yourself (although that is an excellent step up from feeding that inner critic). 

Stanford Medicine shares some of the best definitions of self-awareness out there, including this one: “Self-compassion is sort of a paradox as it is not really about focusing on the self, but about considering oneself as one of the sentient beings among all others towards which it is worthy to dedicate one’s own energy to the avoidance of suffering and promotion of happiness.”

In other words, it’s about seeing ourselves — and our pain — as worthy of the attentive care we’d show someone else. It includes not defining ourselves by our painful thoughts and feelings but instead holding them in “mindful awareness.” Our capacity for self-compassion is tested when we need it most: during times of despair, loss and pain. 

Lastly, self-compassion means recognizing that our troubles and trials are not a source of personal shame – they are part of the larger human experience. Once more, in the words of Ted Lasso, “Ain’t nobody in this room alone.”