Your ghost. The one that creeps over your shoulder and whispers remnants of the past in your ear. Sweet, delicious things. Things that cast their enormous shadow over all the times you were hurt, didn’t get what you most needed, or were left high and dry.
That person you think of at the end of a drunken night when the brute hands of alcohol open your heart’s chambers. The one you still see in your dreams. The one whose name popped into your head when you read the title of this article.
There are a million ways to feel less pain. You have to let go of your ghost — you know that.
Only one problem: You can’t.
Well, fret not, because your friendly neighborhood exorcist is here to suggest some steps for a successful cleansing of bad juju.
The Presence: See The Specter
I have had my fair share of ghosts, believe me. The most persistent one stayed with me for a year. When we first broke up, I didn’t think I’d still be carrying the weight of that love after a whole rotation around the sun, or that it would continue to hurt quite as much as it did.
But it finally dawned on me why I wasn’t able to let it go. And it wasn’t because it was an irretrievable, unearthly love, the likes of which would never come my way again (despite what my brain had been telling me).
It was because I was addicted.
We know that when an addict loses access to his poison of choice, he starts experiencing withdrawal symptoms. The brain produces additional hormones and neurotransmitters to counteract the effects of the drug and this causes a state of imbalance. That was exactly in line with how I felt.
Now, I’m not much of a scientist, but to get to the bottom of this, I decided to put on my scientist hat (lab coat?) and scour the webs for some studies that would shed light on this phenomena.
I found something better.
The Reveal: Realize Why You’re Haunted
In 2010, researchers Helen Fisher and Lucy Brown observed the fMRI scans of 15 heartbroken young adults, many of whom (like me on many a night) were still drunk-dialing their exes and/or spamming them with texts. That is, when they weren’t lying on their beds listening to Spotify playlists titled “Sad Music for Crying Hours and Depressing Times.” That might’ve just been me.
The researchers showed the participants images of their former lovers. They found that the ventral tegmental (VTA) area, the ventral striatum, and the nucleus accumbens lit up in the scans — these are the exact same areas of the brain that are responsible for producing dopamine.
And when is dopamine produced? When a drug addict gets a hit.
So even when you’re pining after someone you lost, your brain releases the same chemical it did when you were happy in love. It automatically searches for the object of affection, but since it’s nowhere in sight, all you’re left with are your thoughts and a damn highlight reel. What does that mean for our ghost analogy? You ruminating on that wonderful memory with your certain someone is pretty much the equivalent of a line of coke for a coke addict.
The Expulsion: Let The Dead Sleep
So the answer to how you give up your ghost?
You first see it for what it is: an addiction. An attachment to a thing that, at one point, fulfilled a need for you. Until it didn’t. And just like any bad habit, you can learn to stop leaning on the harmful behavior as a crutch and instead establish new habits to replace the old ones. You can use the recurring thoughts as a habit loop trigger to pour your attention into an activity that brings value into your life; these will be the things that make your heart expand rather than constrict.
Practice interrupting your thought patterns when you find yourself ruminating. Get outside and go for a run. Call your best friend. Focus on tasks that move the needle toward your dreams. Find your flow. Find that thing that makes time stop for you and turn to it when you find yourself replaying the past.
Also, don’t glorify it. As a hopeless romantic, I know firsthand how much easier it is in theory, but you can learn to switch your line of thought by turning to all the reasons why that relationship didn’t work, why they were wrong for you, how they hurt you and gave you less than you deserved.
Balance out the glorification with a little splash of harsh reality.
Spoiler Alert: You Won’t Be Freed Overnight
Now, I’ll be honest and say that I wasn’t able to give up my ghost in an instant. But he haunted me less and less every day until he retreated into my past as a person I shared a special connection with for a certain period. Give yourself enough time to grieve but also make peace with the fact that not everyone who walks into your life is meant to stay in it. It’s not sad — in fact, there’s beauty in having shared that bond between souls, for however short or long a time. You were courageous for having given a part of yourself to another. You exposed your heart to hurt and you loved anyway. You felt. That is worth everything.
But it might be time to release the past now. As someone who has been able to triumph over different types of addiction, I can tell you that the interruption method, despite how frustrating it can feel at times, does work if you give it enough time. Let’s not stay in these haunted houses forever.
It’s okay to be in The Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s a temporary band. If the pain of your heartache hasn’t killed you by now, it won’t kill you in the future. Heck, some of the best days of your life haven’t even come yet. And until they do, go dance on your own anyway.
Ghosts and all.