The mental and physical space we create by letting go of things that belong in our past gives us the option to fill the space with something new. ― Susan Fay West
Even if decades have passed, your mind still wanders back to your 16-year-old love whether you’re laying alone late at night or half asleep in the morning. You recall the depth of your feelings, the intense desire you felt, and your sorrow when it ended.
Why are you still impacted by distant events that have a bearing on your current emotional state? You’ve had previous loves and heartbreaks. You may just let some of them drift away into the background. Why can you not let it go?
The answer might be found in how you process emotions in terms of attachment style, attachment-based future expectations, and how emotions interact with your memory system.
Secure attachment styles have strong emotion regulation skills, are able to appreciate the good, bad, and ugly in others (they don’t believe in absolutes), and have general positive outcome expectations; in other words, they believe that love will always be available and that there will always be people to support them.
When things are going well in a relationship, people don’t overstate their happiness. They simply appreciate the present moment and accept it as it comes. As a result, they are not crushed or devastated by negative feelings when things go wrong.
Because they think that helpful people and love will always be there, they do not believe that they must meet that one particular person at a given moment or they will never have another chance at real love.
They don’t create larger-than-life love stories in their heads because they aren’t prone to catastrophizing, idealizing, or believing that the love of one single person can save them. Compare this to how someone with a preoccupied attachment type may experience things.
If you have a preoccupied attachment style, you could regard love as a valuable resource that you must preserve and safeguard. You could believe that there isn’t enough love in the world. As a result, you are more inclined to feel that there is one person with whom you must make contact. And you’re always on the lookout for someone who could be this person when you meet him or her.
You’re likely to imagine and fantasize about perfect, passionate love. You can even make these events happen for yourself. When things go wrong, however, these tremendous highs are usually followed by equally deep lows and regretful despair (if not panic). And, throughout it all, the person with a preoccupied personality may obsess and repeat events in their head.
This is where memory plays a role. Your amygdala (a major component of your emotional brain) attaches an emotional “tag” (or label) to a memory when you have a strong emotional experience. When you recover the memory later, the emotion is also automatically retrieved. Alternatively, if you experience a similar sensation in the future, it may bring recollections of the prior incident to mind.
The more you think about a memory, the stronger the neural connections in your brain for that memory grow (through a process known as long-term potentiation). The fact that relationship losses for individuals with preoccupied styles are frequently seen as unresolved and unclear is also a factor. People with preoccupied personalities are more inclined to relive past events in an unsuccessful attempt to “figure it out.”
If you find yourself replaying sad memories over and again, consider focusing on the future and plans for improving your relationships. Solution-focused rumination has been shown to reduce discomfort and negative emotions in studies.
People with dismissive personalities do this on a regular basis. Negative social events and losses are actually “dismissed” by them. They also repress unpleasant feelings, making individuals less likely to feel them as strongly (at least at the conscious level).
Negative social memories and pain experiences are masked by this habit of denial and repression. Keep in mind that while these techniques are adaptable for reducing emotional pain associated with relationship losses, they come at a high cost. They may employ these methods in current love connections as well as recollections from the past.
The worried and strong wants of people with frightened styles are the same as those of those with obsessed styles. As someone with a dismissive style, they have a proclivity to avoid, deny, and repress. The issue is that they lack the necessary emotion management abilities to properly repress feelings.
Negative emotions and memories are prone to flood awareness at inappropriate moments, causing strong negative emotional spirals and unresolved feelings of loss.
People have a desire to make sense of and comprehend their worlds, regardless of their personal style. Your brain will not know where to place information in your memory or mental map of the universe if you can’t understand why a relationship ended (called a schema).
You don’t have enough facts to alter or develop new mental maps if the situation is sufficiently unclear. So, until a new relationship comes along to distract you, your thoughts and memories merely bounce about and stay active. Those thoughts, on the other hand, will patiently wait until you find yourself in that lonely location again, or when you hear your buddy ranting about her latest heartache.