Can’t Get Your Ex Out Of Your Head? Here’s Why

And how to banish them once and for all

Maybe it’s still a fresh heartbreak, or maybe it's been a while since the two of you broke things off and it still seems that every little thing reminds you of them: their favorite drink being served at the bar, a song you think they would like, or a funny meme that throws you back to an inside joke.

No matter how hard you try, your brain just won’t give up thinking about them. And believe me, I know what hell that can be. I went through a bad breakup two years ago, and my heart still has love for him. That love used to frustrate me, and the constant thinking about him frustrated me even more. I was caught in rumination hell and couldn't understand why. I felt like there was something wrong with me.

I believe that if you truly loved someone, then that love doesn’t just poof! go away. You’re better off learning how to accept it and move on with your life. Your ex meant something to you. And for better or worse, they were a part of your journey. But that’s not to say they should live rent-free in your head. Kick their bum asses out.

If their memory is taking up too much space in your membrane, and you’re at your wit’s end, then relax, I got you. As I said, I've been there, done that. It took me a hot minute to understand why I couldn't get my ex out of my brain, but what I found helped me in my healing journey, and I hope my findings will help you too.

They made you feel something that you haven’t been able to give to yourself

I have always struggled with feelings of self-love and unworthiness. My ex came along at the height of these feelings and he made me feel things that no one else had at that point. He saw right through my bullshit and told me he saw me for who I truly was. I felt safe.

Then, things fell apart and he took with him (what I thought was) my sense of self. Who was I if I couldn’t view myself through his eyes anymore? What now? I was crushed. But, eventually, I refused to let myself be defined by someone else and I fought hard to give myself what he gave me in our relationship: acceptance, care, support, and love.

Learning that I could give myself all of those things was a real game-changer in my heartbreak healing journey. We just so happen to exist in an era of self-love, an era of being our own partner and best friend, being someone to lean on when we need ourselves most. We have people like Lizzo to look up to who sings, “I buy myself flowers every Sunday, Imma marry me one day.” Give yourself what you need, and you’ll find that you’re doing just fine without them.

You believe they are a great loss

After the breakup, I couldn't stop thinking about what I lost, and I had major FOMO. The person I envisioned a life with wasn't there anymore, and neither were our plans, hopes, and dreams. During the time my heartache was still raw and fresh, one of my friends wasn't having it and said something that put things in perspective:

“Oh you’re sad that you lost him? Well, boohoo! Because he lost out on you, and you are one of the greatest people I know.”

Realizing that I was also a great loss changed how I viewed him. Sure, I missed him and felt sad, but it became easier and easier to shift my focus on what else might be out there for me.

You’re going to hate me for saying this but here goes: there is plenty of fish in the sea. Staying focused on the one fish that fell off your line isn't productive. Even if you aren’t ready to think about other potential partners, take comfort in knowing that there are better catches out there for you.

List of things I don't like about my ex
List of things I don't like about my ex
A screenshot from my own list, blurred to protect the guilty. Upon rediscovering this list I actually laughed out loud at this one point I had written down. Photo by author

And if you don’t believe me, then try this. Write out a list of every little thing that irked you about your ex and your relationship together. Don’t be afraid to get petty and scribble out anything that comes to mind.

When you’re finished making your list, take a look and relish in the fact that there are people out there who don’t have the qualities you disliked in your ex. Maybe you'll end up finding that your ex wasn't such a great loss after all. Pull this list up anytime you need it to give yourself a jolt of motivation to keep on swimming.

Your neural pathways haven’t been repaved yet

If nothing seems to help and you find yourself on a one-track mind about your ex, neuroscience is your best bet in understanding what's going on.

When I was stuck on a runaway train thinking about my ex, my therapist helped me by explaining why my brain couldn't let go of thinking about him. It goes like this, even though my ex was no longer present in my life, he was still physically present in my brain. He lived on in the neural pathways that were carved out for him when we first started dating.

And if you need a biology refresher, neural pathways are connections between neurons in your brain, the more those neurons talk with each other, the stronger the neural pathways become.

Ergo, the more you think about your ex, the more you’re gonna think about your ex.

As mentioned, those pesky neural pathways began to take form when you first started dating them. Your formerly-newly-beloved brought about a rush of feel-good bonding hormones, and thinking about them every day became your new normal. But now that your ex is no longer apart of your life, pining over them and reinforcing old pathways only hurts you and prevents you from healing.

So, here's how to reclaim your brain

Unfortunately, it's going to take time and effort to repave your neural pathways. Time is the only thing we don't have direct control over, and that truth is a bitter pill to swallow.

The great news is that our brains can be remolded, we have control over our level of effort. Thus, we can repave and reshape our neural pathways into ones that don't feel like a drag.

It's easy to fall into the trap of shaming yourself for not being able to stop thinking about them but, shame will only prolong your pain. Instead, you should do the following:

First, you must forgive yourself (and your brain) for still thinking about your ex. Don’t judge your thoughts, and don’t beat yourself up. You aren’t the first person in history to experience this, and you won’t be the last.

Second, avoid things that remind you of them. Whether it's music, places, certain smells, or whatever immediately takes your mind back to them. And stay clear of the person themself. You can't be in active contact with them and completely heal, it'll keep your biology stuck. Don't give your brain an excuse to pump you full of those feel-good-hormones that reinforces your bond.

Third, face the music and practice acceptance. Overthinking won’t change the situation, it won’t fix mistakes that were made, and it won’t bring them back. All you can do now is to take the lessons that you learned from your relationship and tuck them in your back pocket for the future. What are breakups for if you don't learn something from them?

It might seem impossible at times, but you will be able to move on completely. One day you’ll be able to think about them with a smile on your face, minus the pain. You’ll be able to silently wish them peace and happiness, then move on to your next thought.

For now, realize that you have the power to stop thinking about your ex and you deserve to move on and reclaim your brain.

It's ok if you still love them. Learn how to make peace with that instead of fighting it. Your ex doesn't need to be in your life, or on your mind though, they belong in the past. The person you do need in your life is yourself, and it’s time to recognize what a catch you are instead of thinking about the loss you think you have in them. You have so much to give to the right person, don't get stuck on the wrong one.

It’s taken me nearly two years to kick my lousy-behind-on-rent-brain-tenant to the curb, but I got here. And, I got here by taking my time in healing and giving myself space to explore why I was stuck. I can only hope the same conclusion for you.

If you wish to follow my journey outside of my writing, you can find me on Instagram and Twitter, where I share snippets of my writing and pictures from my life in Norway.

Written by

Texan expat in Norway since '02. Sharing stories and scribbles about life, hoping others feel seen by my words. IG: theeverevolvingroad

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