Is there a special someone dominating your thoughts? Here’s why it happens and how to stop thinking about them, according to therapists.
So you thought you were over that breakup, huh? The reality is a bit different: You can’t stop thinking about your ex. Maybe he got under your skin, or maybe he ended up ghosting you.
No matter how romantic connections end, it’s hard to let go and move on—especially when you can’t stop thinking about someone. The same also goes for non-romantic connections, too, like friendships and even acquaintances.
Pretty much anyone can weigh on your mind. We talked to expert therapists to understand why it’s hard to get someone out of your head and how to do it successfully.
Why it’s hard to stop thinking about someone
When someone’s stuck in your mind, you’ve usually succumbed to rumination—obsessive, constant, and repetitive thinking. Think of it as thoughts running endlessly on a hamster wheel. How difficult it is to stop thinking about people comes down to who they were to you and what they meant to you in your life at the time, according to Jane Greer, a marriage and family therapist in New York City and author of What About Me?
Maybe a former flame had given you visions of forever. Maybe a friend offered comfort in your time of need. There are many reasons people keep thinking about others, even when they don’t want to. And it’s not just past connections who may be running a loop in your mind. You can ruminate on new friends and acquaintances too.
The good news is that doing this occasionally is completely normal, according to Sanam Hafeez, MD, a neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University in New York City. It only becomes a problem when coping skills (more on those in a bit) don’t help and you feel like you can’t control your thoughts.
So why might your mind latch onto thoughts of someone?
We’re all human
Human beings need connection, says Paul Hokemeyer, a clinical and consulting psychotherapist in New York and author of Fragile Power. “This need for connection is hardwired into our central nervous system,” he says. “It’s primitive and instinctual, not rational or intellectual.” And the quality and quantity of emotional connections relate to self-esteem. Our human relationships allow us to feel safe and of value in the world, according to Hokemeyer. “They fill us up when they are good and deplete us when they turn sour,” he says. “So it’s completely natural that we will feel out of control when someone who touches us deeply enters and exits our lives.”
One reason it’s hard to stop thinking about someone, especially an ex, is that it stirs up a mixture of feelings. “For example, maybe the time they were in your life was a very happy time, and so you can’t stop thinking of them and the nostalgia about your past relationship,” Dr. Hafeez says. What they meant to you at that time is a loss when they’re no longer in your life, says Greer. And thinking about them is a way to remember and recapture some of that sense of well-being that you shared with them.
It seems obvious, but it’s worth noting that it’s hard to get somebody out of your head if a relationship ends with rejection.mGreer says there’s still pain at the loss and maybe a continued longing to have them back in your life. “That’s when they are in your head most of all because the greater the loss, the more you’re going to wind up ruminating about them,” she says. So understanding the magnitude of the loss, whether that be a friendship or relationship, and how it makes you feel about yourself is important for moving on.
Another reason for thinking about someone is you may have unresolved issues you don’t want to take into your next relationship, Dr. Hafeez says. “You may need time to heal and deal with your breakup before you move on,” she says. “To do this, I recommend speaking to a therapist or mental health professional.”
You’re focusing on potential
Rumination isn’t reserved for past relationships. Consider how often you think about a crush. If you can’t stop thinking about someone new, it may be because you’re focusing on their potential, says Greer. “That’s the fantasy of what you could have and what you long for, what you may feel is missing in your life, what you might have had with somebody else,” Greer says. “And you see this new person as the potential to re-experience and relive, with a new person, what you had in the past relationship.”
Remembering yourself at the time
Your nonstop thoughts may have less to do with your ex than yourself. You may have liked the person you were when you were with your ex, according to Dr. Hafeez. “It’s important to remember that you can always be that person again, whether you’re on your own or with someone new,” she says.
Another reason why you keep thinking about people is loneliness. “The person you spent all of your time with is now out of your life, and you can’t stop thinking about them,” Dr. Hafeez says. Rather than spending so much time thinking about them and being lonely, reach out to old friends and family who you haven’t seen in a while, she recommends. “It’s better to reconnect with old friends and family than to be thinking about the wrong person,” Dr. Hafeez says.
How to stop thinking about someone
Grant yourself grace
Know that you may still love and care about your ex, and that’s okay. Just remind yourself that love is sometimes not enough in a relationship. And just because you end the relationship doesn’t mean the love you feel ends, Dr. Hafeez says. “So stop beating yourself up for thinking about them, and over time you may eventually stop thinking about them entirely,” she says. “In other words, if you focus all of your time and energy on why you are still thinking about someone, you will only think about them more.”
Hokemeyer agrees, saying the more you try to banish people from your consciousness, the more they will hijack your life. Training yourself to pull away from thoughts of this person isn’t an overnight process. “Remember that you are engaging in a process that will take time to sort itself out,” Hokemeyer says.
Feel your feelings
Before you can stop thinking about someone, give yourself time to feel angry, sad, mad, or any other emotion. “Acknowledging your feelings in a healthy way is part of the healing process and will help you feel better in the long run,” Dr. Hafeez says. “Once you have had time to grieve and feel all types of emotions, this will mitigate your sadness, leave you thinking less about the person, and leave you with nothing left to replay in your head.”
Release those feelings
Let go of any anger or resentment you may have towards the person. “Holding onto anger is not good for your mental health because you extend the pain you felt from your ex or a particular situation, which adds more stress to your life,” Dr. Hafeez says. Letting go of anger and offering forgiveness allows you to live in the present moment, ease your pain, and set yourself free from someone else.
(Related: The One Thing You Have to Do After a Breakup)
Write it all down
Get ready to start a journal. Writing your thoughts and feelings down can help you understand them more clearly, gain control of your emotions, and help you figure out how to feel better, according to Dr. Hafeez. “Getting all of your built-up emotions out of your head can heal your broken heart, thus help you stop thinking about someone,” she says.
Hokemeyer says putting pen to paper moves the experience out of the primitive part of your brain, your limbic system, and into the most sophisticated part of your brain, your prefrontal cortex. He suggests listing why the relationship, friendship, or connection didn’t work and listing what hurts. “Allow these feelings to flow unedited,” he says. “Don’t be ashamed to list things like hurt pride or a bruised ego.”
Finally, make a list of the lessons learned and what you can do better in the future. Once you’ve completed these three lists, keep them in a place you can revisit them daily. Then give yourself 90 days to focus on the list and make sense out of the experience, Hokemeyer recommends.
Consider what you learned
Greer recommends really trying to focus on what made the relationship or friendship so special and so meaningful to you. Your understanding of this will inform your other connections. Essentially, the story that you tell yourself about what the person meant to you is impactful. You can use this knowledge to move your life in a positive direction, says Hokemeyer.
“There are specific and clearly articulated reasons why the person you’re obsessing about came into your life,” he says. “Instead of allowing your emotional and intellectual capital to be drained by a host of negative emotions, such as resentment, betrayal, and loss […] focus on the positive things you’ve learned about yourself in the process.”
Set aside time to think about the person
It may sound counterintuitive, but setting aside a specific amount of time to think about someone is a good tactic, says Greer. “Try and structure when you’re going to think about them so that you acknowledge to yourself that you missed them and reflect on what you valued in the relationship that you had with them, instead of letting them pop into your head all the time,” she says.
Did your ex randomly just pop into your head? Sorry, but you have plans to think about her today after dinner. Tell yourself to hang tight until your scheduled session. This trick gives you the room to feel your feelings without incessant thoughts disrupting your active life, Greer says.
Another helpful way to stop thinking about someone is to establish boundaries with yourself and sometimes with the other person. (This is especially true for ex-romantic relationships.) For example, make it clear to yourself what is best for you, what you need, and what you don’t need from the person in order to start the process of moving forward, Dr. Hafeez says.
If your ex keeps messaging you, make it clear to him that in order to move on, you do not want him to reach out. This will help him fade from your mind and give you the time to grow and heal, says Dr. Hafeez.
Another way to set boundaries: Delete old photos from your phone. “If looking at past photos triggers you and causes you to constantly think about someone, deleting them from your phone may be an important step to move forward and clear them from your mind,” Dr. Hafeez says.
If you cut off communication and give yourself time away from the person you can’t stop thinking about, you allow yourself to heal fully, and your romantic bond will eventually break, according to Dr. Hafeez.
This might mean blocking a former friend or lost connection on social media, Greer says. It doesn’t have to be permanent, but it’s hard to stop thinking about someone if their pictures and updates are always on your timeline.
Take care of and distract yourself
Indulging in “you time” or self-care can also make you feel less stressed and can rejuvenate your mind, Dr. Hafeez says. “Focus on personal goals and the present moment to help you make the most of your life and get to that happy place again,” she says.
This might mean dating, starting a workout routine, or joining an art class. Taking active steps to focus on yourself is a good way to get someone off your mind and prioritize you. “Spend time with family and friends, try a new restaurant, or enjoy a spay day,” says Dr. Hafeez. “Whatever it is that you do, give yourself love and attention to clear your mind and focus on yourself.”
Focus on other relationships
Greer suggests looking at other relationships or friendships in your life to see if you are experiencing any of the same kinds of positive feelings you miss from the person you’re trying not to think about. You may want to crack open your journal again for this step. Consider how you might enhance those relationships or how you might even meet new people so you don’t stay stuck in the past.
It’s helpful to acknowledge what made that connection so significant and powerful. Doing so will help you figure out how you can replicate the feeling in your current relationships and how you can have that in your life going forward, according to Greer.
When to speak to a professional
Of course, if you can’t stop thinking about someone after trying the above techniques, it may be helpful to speak to a therapist to stop the ruminating. “A therapist can help you confront your feelings and teach you ways to deal with difficult emotions, eventually leading to no longer thinking about someone,” Dr. Hafeez says. A mental health expert can help you navigate the process and may recommend treatments such as support groups, anxiety medication, or antidepressants.