“Someday you’re gonna look back on this moment of your life as such a sweet time of grieving. You’ll see that you were in mourning and your heart was broken, but your life was changing…”
― Elizabeth Gilbert
No matter what their specific circumstances, breakups take a very real emotional toll. Like any loss, there’s no easy-breezy way to deal with one – to skate over the emotions or simply “get over it.” When a split occurs, the feelings can be crushing. We can lose ourselves in the grief, anger, desperation, and despair so much so that we truly believe we’ll never feel okay or ourselves again. However, no matter how great the loss or deep the wound, this is NOT the case. Human beings are resilient. It’s possible to honor our feelings and the end of a chapter in our lives, while taking healthy steps toward healing.
In several studies, Stanford researchers Lauren Howe and Carol Dweck found that a person’s “basic beliefs about personality can contribute to whether [they] recover from, or remain mired in, the pain of rejection.” Their research showed that that participants with “fixed mindsets,” who saw personality as more set in stone, were more likely to blame their “toxic personalities” for the breakup. After a rejection, these people would question and criticize themselves and, therefore, tended to view their romantic future as less hopeful. Conversely, people with “growth mindset” viewed their personalities as “changeable.” They were better able to look at the breakup as an opportunity to develop and change. They felt hopeful that future relationships would be better and were able to recover from the breakup more quickly.
What we can learn from this study is that much of the suffering we feel around a breakup comes from within – how we process and make sense of the experience. It’s not just the loss that we endure, but all the untrue things we tell ourselves about that loss that hurt us. A great deal of our pain is not a result of the actual affliction but the symptoms generated around it, which means that we have more power than we think when it comes to feeling better. If we can learn to stand up for ourselves and fight against some of the damaging ways we handle a breakup or loss, we can feel our real feelings, while maintaining and reclaiming our positive, hopeful, and authentic sense of self.
So, what actions can we take to “get over” a breakup?
- Feel the Feelings
First off, we shouldn’t deny the pain we’re experiencing. Separations are difficult and complex. They evoke myriad, even conflicting emotions: longing and loathing, anger and affection. It’s natural to be stirred up by a big shift in our lives, and we have to find a way to feel the feelings that arise. Plus, on top of whatever current hurt we’re experiencing, separating from a partner can trigger deep, primal feelings we have surrounding loss or rejection.
It’s important to find safe places to express our emotions fully. Letting out our sadness and anger can actually help us avoid sinking into depression or exploding into rage. Whether we do this alone, with a trusted friend, or with a therapist, we should have a compassionate, accepting attitude toward whatever we feel. Remember that all of our feelings are acceptable. We can’t control them or pretend they don’t exist. What we can control is our behavior. No one feels good from sending that incensed text or shutting themselves in a dark room for days on end. By finding a healthy way to acknowledge and release our feelings, we’re less likely to act them out in destructive, regrettable ways toward ourselves or others.
- Silence Your Inner Critic
Following publication of the Stanford study, Howe said “The experience of being left by someone who thought that they loved you, then learned more and changed their mind, can be a particularly potent threat to the self and can drive people to question who they truly are.” It’s very common for people who’ve experienced a breakup to turn on themselves. Any current rejection can tap into old wells of self-doubt, feelings of shame, humiliation, and self-loathing. Be aware of a “critical inner voice” that starts attacking you when you’re vulnerable.
Remember, it’s not just what happens to us in life that affects us but what we tell ourselves about what happens. Losing someone will cause real sadness, but there’s a whole new level of pain opened up by the inner dialogue that’s been set off in our heads. Common post-break-up thoughts or critical inner voices include: You’ll never find someone else. No one will ever love you. You’ll never date someone that attractive, smart, sweet or successful again. If she doesn’t want you, no one will. If he doesn’t like you, it means there’s something wrong with you.”
The theme of these “voices” is to destroy our sense of self, to make us believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with us, which can also lead us to feel desperate toward our former partner or the relationship. We may think we need that relationship to reaffirm our very sense of self – to make us believe that we’re okay. All of this is based on a very faulty idea set forth by a sadistic inner enemy. The sooner we challenge this voice, the more realistically and compassionately we’ll be able to view ourselves and our journey as an independent person separate from the relationship.
- Let Go of Fantasy
There are always real things we’re losing when we part from someone we were close to, however there are also elements of fantasy in every relationship that can exacerbate our feelings of loss. Psychologist Dr. Lisa Firestone suggested that when couples form a “fantasy bond,” they tend to replace the real substance of a loving relationship with an illusion of connection. “The overwhelming, emotionally shattering sense of loss that we experience at the end of a relationship is often the result of our having created a fantasy bond,” said Firestone.
A couple forms a fantasy bond, usually unconsciously, as a way to feel that they’re not alone, while remaining emotionally distanced from each other. The relationship is often marked by less physical affection, less real, personal relating, fewer acts of kindness, more deadening routines and increased defensiveness. The patterns a couple falls into can ultimately lead to the demise of the relationship. After breaking up, the couple mourns the loss of the fantasy as much as or more than they do the positive aspects of the relationship.
When a breakup occurs, Firestone suggests asking ourselves the following questions: Were we really treating each other in a loving way? Were we there for each other? Were we both showing care, honesty and respect for each other? Am I upset by the loss of actual relating or the fantasy that we substituted for real relating long ago? If we can recognize how much of our connection was based on fantasy, we may have genuine, sad feelings about the negative shift in the dynamic with our partner, but we’ll also recognize that what we’re actually losing wasn’t necessarily as great as we remember it.
- Explore Your Attachment Style
Recent studies have shown that some people are more likely to suffer from a split than others. Depending on the attachment pattern we experienced very early in our lives, we may feel more or less shaken up by the ending of a relationship as adults. Understanding our attachment patterns can help us have more insight into our feelings and reactions in all stages of a relationship. If we feel particularly insecure, anxious, or upset by breaking up with someone, it can help us to look at our past and what might be getting triggered in the present.
Attachment research has shown that the more we make sense of and feel the full pain of our childhood, the better able we are to form healthier relationships and feel more secure within ourselves. As attachment expert Dr. Daniel Siegel has said, “If you can make sense of your childhood experiences—especially your relationships with your parents—you can transform your attachment models toward security. The reason this is important is that relationships— with friends, with romantic partners, with present or possible future offspring—will be profoundly enhanced. And you’ll feel better within yourself, too.”
By exploring our attachment style and creating a coherent narrative of our experiences, we can start to feel more integrated within ourselves and less likely to fall apart when we encounter painful situations. Plus, we can understand our own relationship patterns and form more secure attachments in the future, in which we feel more comfortable in both our connections and our separations.
- Avoid Rumination by Practicing Mindfulness
It’s all too easy to get caught in a loop when it comes to replaying what went wrong in our relationships. While a healthy amount of self-reflection can help us identify real qualities that may have hurt us or patterns we’d like to change in the future, ruminating on our suffering is never the answer. Repeating negative thoughts to ourselves will only diminish our spirit and demoralize our efforts, but it can feel really tough to break out of the loop. One way to find a balance is through mindfulness. Mindfulness practice teaches us to sit with our thoughts and feelings without judgment. We can accept and experience whatever arises within us, but rather than becoming entangled and consumed by one thought or feeling, we allow each to pass like a cloud over a mountain. By focusing on our breathing, we can connect to our body and find a sense of calm. Practicing mindfulness has been shown to help reduce rumination and regulate emotions, two things we can all benefit from after a relationship ends.
- Embrace Self-Compassion
In her research, Dr. Kristin Neff has found seemingly endless benefits to practicing self-compassion, and yet, so many of us persist in being hard on ourselves, especially in moments when we’re hurting or vulnerable. Contrary to misconception, self-compassion does not mean feeling sorry for ourselves or denying our flaws. Rather, it entails three main principles defined by Neff:
Self-kindness as opposed to self-judgment: This means we adopt a kind, sensitive attitude toward ourselves, as we would toward a friend. We can still be truthful with ourselves without being cruel. This attitude actually allows us to accept more feedback and make real changes. After we separate from a partner, for example, we can learn from our mistakes, while being kind toward ourselves and recognizing what we’re going through.
Common humanity as opposed to isolation: This involves recognizing that we are not alone in our struggle or our suffering. All humans suffer, and most have even been through a breakup. Knowing that we are connected to others in this way reaffirms the very real idea that we can move on, feel better, and find a relationship that makes us happy.
Mindfulness as opposed to over-identification: As explained above, mindfulness allows us to sit with and experience whatever we’re going through in a very real way. However, it helps us not to over-identify or sink with the painful thoughts and feelings that arise. We can feel sad without defining ourselves. We can accept our struggle without believing we will never reemerge.
- Think About Who You Are and What You Like to Do
One of the most essential things to remember during a breakup, divorce, or even in the course of a relationship is that you are a whole person in and of yourself. Every one of us is a rich and full being with unique interests and attributes that make us come alive. We don’t need anyone else to prove our worth or make us okay. As low as we may feel after separating from someone else, we still have to find ways to connect to being ourselves. That means seeing friends, pursuing goals, and participating in activities that light us up.
Whatever large or small effort we can make to stay close to all the many things that matter to us, independent of our relationship or our partner, are important to pursue. This may involve reconnecting with people or projects we set aside in the course of our relationship. It could mean trying something totally new. We may travel far or simply explore a new part of town, a new route to work – anything to remind us that life is full of new possibilities, roads we haven’t traveled.
Sometimes, after a relationship ends, any step toward the future or feeling more ourselves can serve as a profound reminder that we’re moving on. This can make us more resistant or nervous to let ourselves be happy. However, pushing past this feeling will likely be the final hurdle toward healing. We shouldn’t be afraid to discover something new about ourselves or to embrace the inevitable unknowns life has in store. If we can face this journey with a compassionate attitude toward who we are and a curious attitude toward what we want, we can move forward and find our way. We can feel the real sadness of saying goodbye without denying the possibility of the future. As E.M. Forster put it, “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”