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Mary Darling Montero, LCSW Headshot

Letting Go of What You Can't Control

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Based on popular topics on the message boards and in my psychotherapy practice, it's clear that one of the reasons we become stuck in suffering after a relationship ends (and in many other areas of life) is this: We're trying to change things that are beyond our control.

Perhaps we've been served divorce papers and we fight the inevitable, despite clear signals from the other party that the relationship is over. Or maybe we're struggling with the dreaded feeling of having had months or years of our lives stolen by an ex. Because we're propelling our energy into areas outside the scope of our control, we feel powerless and our suffering is exaggerated and prolonged.

Getting past this requires a cognitive shift, or changing the way we perceive and react to the situation. Accomplishing this shift involves determining what we can and cannot control, then accepting and letting go of those things we can't control in order to refocus our energy on what we can.

This is a familiar message. It's found within the lines of the Serenity Prayer:

"God, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."

As well as this Maya Angelou quote:

"If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude."

In psychology it's evident in constructs such as "locus of control," or determining whether you attribute events in your life to external sources (I am suffering because he is treating me poorly) or internal sources (I am suffering because I am allowing myself to be treated poorly).

To illustrate the point, here are a few common roadblocks to healing:

You've just been broken up with and you're relying on the other person for closure.

Your significant other left you. You want to sit down and discuss the downfall of the relationship in hopes that it might change the outcome or provide you with closure, but he or she refuses to do so. You've left several messages but receive no response. You wonder how the person can treat you this way after being a significant part of your life. You feel angry and unable to move forward.

It's normal that in this situation you would feel unsettled and want to seek reconciliation or closure. If the other person refuses to work with you towards either aim, it's time to determine what you can and can't control in the situation. What you can't control is the other person's feelings or behavior. Oftentimes we become stuck in believing that if we just behave in a certain way or leave one more message, the other person will come around. Getting unstuck requires us to ask the question, "Am I going to continue to blame the other person's behavior for my anger and inability to move forward, or am I going to acknowledge that it's my responsibility to accept the reality of the situation and focus on what I can control?" What you can control is working towards understanding that no matter what you say or do the other person is going to handle the breakup in his or her own way, and that you might have to find closure on your own.

You can't let go of your anger for having stuck it out in a difficult relationship, only to be broken up with.

You're counting the months or years. Your ex's behavior glares at you from your memory. You were treated unfairly. Your needs were ignored. You feel that you've been robbed of time. You can't stop asking yourself why. Why did he or she leave after I put so much into the relationship? Why did he or she take me for granted?

It's expected that you'd feel angry if someone mistreats you, and it's healthy to work through that anger. What's important is how you work through it. You can remain mired in what you can't control (everything your ex did to you), or you can begin to look at what you can control (learning the red flags of relationships that aren't good for you and how to approach relationships differently in the future).

In this scenario you might also be beating yourself up for having remained in the relationship and put up with bad behavior. You might feel that you wasted time. While you're already focused on your own actions, you're still trapped in focusing on what you can't change (the past). Running in circles obsessing over past mistakes only leaves us dizzy and swimming in regret. To free yourself from that trap your thinking must shift to forgiving yourself, and to reflecting on those red flags and learning how you can avoid them in the future.

For more from Mary Darling Montero, visit

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