5 Ways To Let Go Of The Past & Release Painful Relationship Memories

Your nervous system holds your painful memories.

 Ways To Let Go Of The Past & Release Painful Relationship Memories getty

Do you find yourself remembering how great things used to be? Perhaps it’s the memory of a loved one, or the hurtful memory attached to betrayal from someone you trusted.

The pain won’t seem to lessen over time. What do you do with this emotional burden? How do you let go of the past and release this crippling memory that keeps you from loving or trusting again?

Did you know that your nervous system has a memory? This is an important part of learning how to let go of the past.

RELATED: How To Forgive, Let Go, And Move On For A Peaceful, Happy Life


Every cell in your spine and everything throughout your entire nervous system has cellular memory. Your emotions are connected to this unique structure through your limbic system.

The limbic system is responsible for interpreting emotional responses, regulating hormones, and storing memories.

The amygdala, an almond-shaped mass of brain cells, determines which memories are stored. Some painful events are stored in the brain and some in the body, depending on the emotional response and the intensity a memory or painful event evokes.

Each time you experience any of the associations with this memory, such as the smell of his or her cologne, the hypothalamus causes you to have an emotional reaction (anger, hate, sadness, fear) and a physical reaction (increased heart rate, sweating, nausea, decreased appetite, rapid breathing).


This is the mind’s survival mechanism against perceived threats.

In the beginning of new relationships, your brain “overrides” this protection mechanism with happy chemicals like dopamine. This enables you to prematurely trust your partner easily, without making him or her earn that trust. This sets you up for betrayal.

At this point, you may unconsciously abandon your own physical or emotional needs, which may set you up for neglect or abandonment from your partner, as we train others how to treat us, by how we treat ourselves. 

When the hypothalamus becomes unbalanced, so do the pituitary glands it regulates, which is responsible for releasing oxytocin, the bonding chemical. Many times we are fooled into experiencing the relationship better or remembering a relationship as better than the actuality, due to the unbalanced hypothalamus.

In reality, the attachment was often from the addictive chemical high of the relationship and not the actual person.


Basically, the hypothalamus and the amygdala are partners that generate and connect learned emotional responses. They mostly respond to stimuli related to fear and pain. 

Your natural survival mode leads you to run from relationships and love, or to protect yourself, get angry, and confront this person. This is the primitive fight or flight response.

This is not isolated to intimate relationships. This can be a parent/child relationship, a friendship, or working relationship.

Here's how to let go of the past, and shift emotional responses and reactions conditioned with certain people or memories.

RELATED: How To Let Go Of The Reins Controlling Your Life — And Feel Safe In The Process


1. Think of the experience causing you pain.

Remember the pain, hurt, or memory you're struggling to get over or let go of. Write it down.

The act of writing in itself helps to release a small portion of this pain. If you don’t like to write, you could talk about it and record it on a tape recorder, and then listen to yourself.

2. Discuss what positive attributes your relationship represents to you.

This can include, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Security
  • Control
  • Comfort
  • Surrogate parent
  • Safety
  • Companionship
  • Freedom
  • Maturity
  • Love
  • Acceptance
  • Belonging
  • Care
  • Desire
  • Appreciation
  • Respect
  • Family
  • Admiration
  • Shared values
  • Empowerment

3. Acknowledge that you may feel vulnerable, scared, fearful, or powerless.

That’s where anger, hurt, and pain originate. None of us want to feel disempowered, certainly not to an insensitive person that may have taken advantage of the relationship. 


Now, what is at the core of that fear, vulnerability, or anger? What past experience? It may be rooted in a childhood experience.

Be very open and honest with yourself. No one will have access to this information but you.

RELATED: 12 Ways To Let Go And Free Yourself From A Painful Past

4. Be honest with yourself and ask: What is your unmet emotional need behind this?

It could be a childhood need that has never been met or a need that has developed in adulthood.

Allow yourself to experience familiar senses associated with the pain of this memory and the one you're trying to release: sights (photo/memory/place or location), sounds (song/music), smells (cologne/soaps/deodorant/perfume), tastes (food/drink), or touch (texture).


Allow yourself to cry, release anger, swear, hate, feel the pain, or whatever you need to do to release these painful memories. Go through the stages of anger, denial, sadness, and depression.

This is grieving. You must grieve to release the pain. Then, when you’re ready, attach a new pleasurable thought to these sensory reminders.

5. Look back at the relationship and ask: How were you 'at choice' and not a victim of what happened?

It’s okay to acknowledge that this person may have hurt you, taken advantage of you, stolen from you, betrayed you, controlled you, manipulated you, or lied to you. Now that you're wiser, from your empowered adult self, ask yourself how you may have been “at choice” at the time they hurt you, but were not aware.


Did you give away your power too soon by over-loving? Give away your trust too early? Allow yourself to be taken advantage of by an unsafe person by over-giving? Self-abandon your own needs to get or keep this partner? Compromise or settle for poor behavior during the relationship that you knew was wrong?

Or, perhaps you were on the receiving end and took advantage, and that ruined the relationship. Did you over-take and give nothing back? Neglect this person to the point of losing him or her?

The most powerful tool you own is in accepting the fact that you have choices in all your relationships. This is empowerment.

By staying stuck in the victim role, you remain disempowered. No one can control you, take advantage of you, compromise you, or betray you, unless you allow it. You are at choice.


RELATED: 25 Encouraging Quotes That Will Help You Make Peace & Let Go Of The Past

Denise Wade Ph.D. CMRC is a Transformational Author, Researcher, and Relationship Expert. She is passionate about helping women create positive, loving, long lasting relationships.