Tools for Surviving a Breakup
Psychologists well know that a romantic breakup is one of the most traumatic experiences a person goes through. Considering the gravity of this event and the amount of emotional turmoil it creates, it’s astonishing to think that nearly every one of us will have this experience sometime in the course of our lives.
The word “breakup” itself triggers depressing images in our minds; often involving reactions such as crying into a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, while watching every cliché rom-com your friends swore by that helped them “get over it.” Or maybe it’s chopping off your hair and incessantly listening to the seemingly undiminishing supply of John Mayer’s heartbroken blues. Regardless of the type of reaction, it is nearly impossible to refrain from preoccupying the mind as a form of coping following the traumatic event.
Film has especially romanticized the experience of breaking up. Freshly heartbroken and single characters stereotypically drown themselves in distractions (or alcohol), all of which glamorizes unhealthy coping mechanisms as a fundamental part in the process of moving on. However, these “quick fixes” are often short lived and prove ineffective in the long-term healing process. What happens when distractions no longer soothe the ache in our hearts? How does one truly “get over it?”
Researchers at Northwestern University may have an answer to these questions—which at first may seem counter-intuitive—but is arguably the first legitimate step to moving on: reflecting on the past relationship. The study compared two groups consisting of participants who recently experienced a breakup: one group was provided frequent questionnaires, heart rate monitoring, and interviews; the other only received initial and final questionnaires. To the surprise of the researchers, there was a significant increase in the overall well-being and recovery process of those who reflected more on their past relationship.
Grace Larson, the leading researcher, said that by allowing themselves to reflect back on the past, the participants were able to create “a stronger sense of who they were as single people.” She went on to explain, “The process of becoming psychologically intertwined with [a] partner is painful to have to undo.” Furthermore, she proposes that “self-concept repair” is crucial to the process of eventual healing.
“Self-concept repair”, or the process of restoring one’s individual identity, can seem daunting without knowing where to start. Fortunately, there is no right or wrong way to grieve the loss of a relationship—but there are some things one can do to ease the transition from sadness to acceptance.
Feel the feels.
To put it candidly, feelings are scary. No one wants to put themselves through feeling emotions that cause pain and sadness; it is much easier to sweep them under the rug and declare oneself “fine”. But what’s crucial to growth is the decision to allow oneself to feel these emotions as they come instead of relying on distractions and unhealthy coping mechanisms to keep true feelings at bay.
It takes courage to simply sit with our emotions, as uncomfortable as they can be, and truly feel. All feelings are valid, but when we use distraction as a means to cope, we are choosing to invalidate them by refusing to feel them—consequently postponing growth toward recovery.
Experiencing our raw emotions can be overwhelming at first, but with time and practice, becoming mindful about our thoughts and feelings can provide a lot of clarity.
See a therapist.
Sometimes in order to achieve this clarity, professional guidance is needed. There should be no stigma about seeking help, especially because these professionals acknowledge that the emotional damage caused by breaking up can be “traumatic.”
One therapy session will not cure a broken heart, but it will provide the needle and thread to eventually sew oneself back up together. Vocalizing feelings and emotions with a therapist will help you make sense of your irrational thoughts and, sometimes intense, emotional reactions. With self-awareness and insight, you will gain a more rational view on the relationship as a whole, and the road to self-repair will become clearer and more straightforward.
Focus on yourself.
At the end of the day, the only person we’ll be with for the rest of our lives is ourselves. We deserve to make ourselves as happy as we possibly can be.
While this study shows that reflecting on the relationship is fundamental in the road to recovery, another important aspect includes prioritizing personal aspirations in order to reclaim self-identity. Larson observes that by nurturing individual ambitions that were neglected during the relationship, a greater purpose can be found in the motivation to recover. By refocusing on achieving these previously set aside goals, a more solidified sense of self will blossom—separate from that of the late relationship.
These potential steps toward self-concept repair can help guide us through recovery. Once this self-identity has been reclaimed, we can start to mend the holes in our hearts, knowing that we are complete as individuals without the relationship to define us.
For more resources on dealing with the aftermath of a breakup, be sure to check out our webinar on Overcoming Breakups and Rejection airing June 11th at psychalive.org
In this Webinar: By truly understanding the emotions triggered by a breakup or rejection, people can free themselves of much of their suffering…
Larson, Grace & A. Sbarra, David. (2015). “Participating in Research on Romantic Breakups Promotes Emotional Recovery via Changes in Self-Concept Clarity”. Social Psychological and Personality Science. 6. 10.1177/1948550614563085.
Tags: break-up, break-ups, breaking up, feelings, overcoming break-ups, relationship, relationship advice, relationship problems, self-improvement, therapy