One year ago, you may as well have called me Ophelia. I. got. dumped. I’m not talking knew-it-was-coming, pretty-much-fizzled-out, mutual-we’re-still-friends-now kind of breakup. I’m talkin’ thought he was the one, blindsided, didn’t change my clothes for a week, 4am wailing to Adele and No Doubt (sorry, neighbours), crying in the dentist’s chair, hairdresser’s chair, optometrist’s chair (“I don’t know if slide A is better or worse!!!” *sob*), hitting the club on weeknights, not eating, not sleeping, totally, utterly, destroyed kind of breakup.
Sound familiar? If you’ve ever experienced the euphoria of being in love, there’s a good chance you’ve also experienced the excruciating pain for heartbreak. Talk about suffering! It’s a risk we take when we make ourselves vulnerable in a relationship. I like to think there are three kinds of people in this world: Those who have never had their heart broken; those who have had their heart broken and believe it was the best thing that ever happened to them; and those who have had their heart broken and are still working through it. Chances are, if you’re still reading this post, it’s because you fit into the third category. No matter which category you belong to, this post will teach you a bit about why it feels the way it does, and how you can maintain a will to survive when jumping into a brook seems reallllllllllly tempting…
The Grief Cycle
When we hear the word, “Grief,” we generally think of our response to the loss of a life. However, grief can be defined as our reaction to an intentional or unintentional parting with someone or something of value, meaning we can experience grief over the loss of a relationship, a career, a home, a pet, a societal position– there is so much to explain about grief, but I’ll keep this 101 short, because if I tried to fit it all into one post I’d surely lose your attention (which is probably already lacking if you’re heartbroken–fun fact: grief mimics depression, meaning our focus, concentration, motivation, sleep and appetite are shot).
So, when you break up, you are actually experiencing grief. There are several theories about the cycle of grief–you may be familiar with the most famous: Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance), and new research suggests this is neither a uniform, mutually exclusive, nor linear process (I often liken the “graph” to mutual funds for clients…picture improvement over time with lots of ups and downs) . Most theorists agree, however, that there is initial shock or avoidance, followed by “encounter” (which may or may not include bargaining, anger, guilt, fear, despair and depression) and finally adjustment and reconciliation. It’s important to note that the grief process is unique to the individual, and likely everything you are experiencing is normal. The common “features” I mentioned are merely some of what you might experience.
It’s tough to prescribe a “getting over heartbreak” plan, because everyone grieves differently, and it depends on where you’re at in the grieving process. However, I will recommend a few “Dos” and “Don’ts” for mending your broken heart. These are fairly broad and simplistic, given the unique experience each person goes through in their split. I will write an upcoming post on fostering resilience in children during a split.
1. Surround yourself with people by whom you feel valued, & Increase your self-esteem
When we’re rejected, our self-esteem plummets. I kid you not, I made a consultation with a plastic surgeon for about 12 different procedures shortly after my relationship ended (Thankfully, I had enough mental clarity to realize a huge rack and a perfect nose would not solve my problems, so I cancelled them). Being around people that love us is really important for reminding us of our self-worth until we can get back there again on our own. Also, if possible, treat yourself: get your hair done, or put on some self-tanner. Go shopping. Take a trip.
2. Change your environment and your routine
Our minds create powerful associations, leaving a whole whack of feelings, memories, and experiences tied to our environment. If you didn’t move because you had been living with your partner, rearrange your apartment. Move your bed, buy new sheets, stock the fridge with blue cheese (or some other pungent thing your ex didn’t like), and purge your environment of glaring reminders (by “glaring,” I mean pictures and gifts…try to not throw away the cutlery because she liked eating with a fork, etc. or else you’ll end up with an empty apartment). Similarly, if you were used to having dinner at home every night, plan dinner with a friend, eat out, or attend a class or event in the evening. A third wheel is the leader on a tricycle (uh…what?).
3. Listen to music
I always say the worse the pain, the better the music. There are SO many songs out there that validate exactly how we’re feeling, that remind us there are hundreds of thousands of others out there experiencing similar pain. Here’s just one list of 100 heartbreak songs. I’ve been meaning to write Mariah Carey, Bruno Mars, Adele, No Doubt, and Beyonce to thank them for keeping my sanity…the day I changed the lyrics of “Someone Like You” to “Someone UNlike you” was a huge victory in my grief process.
4. Practise Yoga, art, writing, therapy, or some other form of expression
Ever had someone crying in your yoga class? That was me. For about a month. While it’s important to distract yourself at times so you’re not in pain 24/7, it’s also important to “go through” it. Sadness is a tough emotion, because it’s not productive like anger. It takes a bit more creativity to express. One of the first things I did after my breakup was go to a dollar store and buy a giant poster-board and art supplies (keep in mind I am the furthest thing from an artist). Think of a metaphor for where you feel like you’re at, and draw 2 pictures: one where you are now and one where you will be when you come out of the darkness (I was a dead to blossoming flower). Or, draft an email to yourself and free-write how you’re feeling (keeps it private for if you’re worried about anyone stumbling across it). Also, when you’re “expressing” through a creative form, try to focus on the process, not the product. It’s not about what you create, it’s about attending to your experience so that you can ultimately find meaning in it. Finally, if you have extended health, get therapy! Many people believe heartbreak is not a “good enough” reason to get help, when in fact, it’s one of the top 3 reasons my clients see me. If you don’t have extended health, see if there is a training clinic or low-cost counselling centre in your area. Also, lots of practitioners will offer low-cost or sliding-scale counselling to students or those who can’t afford it.
5. Sit in the pain, and practise compassion while you’re there
The more we avoid something we’re afraid of, the more power it has over us. I’m quite petrified of flying, but the longer I avoid doing it, the more likely I am to scream at the sound of the toilet flushing or require several G&Ts to prevent leaving fingernail holes in the armrests. Emotions are the same way. The more we avoid our sadness, the more painful it will become (remember, Pain x struggle=suffering). Months went by where I literally cried every waking moment of the day. I just wanted the pain to stop. Then, I read “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron, and I decided to stop struggling. I “befriended” my sadness. I remember even saying out loud, “Oh Hello, Sadness. Here you are again. I hope you don’t stick around too long today, but go ahead. Make yourself at home. There’s cake in the fridge.” Sadness still comes around every once in a while, and it always will.
6. Practise Mindfulness
Mindfulness is an escape from our rumination over the past and our anxiety over the future. Do things that you can fully participate in–sports, dancing, concentration meditation, mindful walking, building, cleaning. When my feelings are too unbearable to cope with, I find a really good beat on Youtube and dance around. Losing yourself in the task at hand can be enough to carry you through an excruciatingly painful moment.
1. Get blackout wasted
Drinking can feel like a fantastic way to forget in the moment, but let’s not forget it is a DEPRESSANT. It’s one thing to wake up with the Sunday morning “Booze blues” that leave you feeling a bit down. It’s another thing to wake up to an empty bed, too hungover to concentrate on anything to distract you from your heartbreak, and an archive of desperate drunken text messages begging for your ex to take you back.
2. Give up your basic needs
Make sure you keep eating, even though you may have no appetite. Our brains run on glucose, and when we’re deprived of it, we can’t think properly and go into a state of anxiety. I found I had trouble chewing, so I lived off smoothies for a while. Similarly, don’t give up exercise, don’t pick up a drug habit, and don’t rebound with Ben & Jerry. You will end up making yourself feel worse, and it will only delay and intensify the pain. There is one exception to this, however: if you find you are having a hell of a time trying to sleep, you might want to get a SHORT-TERM prescription for Zopiclone or another sleeping pill and only use it if you’re desperate for one good night’s sleep. This is not intended for chronic insomnia; only do this if your sleep is so bad you’re nonfunctional/can’t work and reaaaally need a night’s rest. Prescription sleeping pills, especially those with longer half-lives, don’t let us go into the deep sleep we need to feel rested before enough of the drug wears off. Not only do we sacrifice rest, but because REM (dream) sleep occurs following deep sleep, we sacrifice dreams, and dreams are a hugely important part of working through grief.
3. Set a “time-limit” for grief
Everyone’s grief journey is different. However, there are many people who don’t understand this, and you might encounter people who say “You’re STILL crying over that?” or something of the like. No one knows what you need more than you do, so try to control the desire to make a passive-aggressive comment in response, and focus on your own process.
4. Try to replace them
When you’re good and ready, dating can be fun and a great ego boost. However, if you can’t make it through a date without mentioning your ex or getting choked up, chances are you’re not ready. Also, let them know where you’re at. I was very clear with the people I dated afterwards that I had just gotten out of a 3 year relationship and was not going to be jumping into anything serious anytime soon. Honesty may be awkward, but it’ll give you a platform when you realize you’re still in love with your ex and are not ready to drag some poor soul into your healing process.
5. Swear off relationships forever
As humans, it’s natural to become guarded after we’ve been hurt. So be guarded for a bit. The guard is necessary while we’re healing and fragile. But rest assured if you work through your grief and find a way to integrate the experience into your life story–find a way to make meaning from it–you’ll be in a place where you can risk making yourself vulnerable again. Don’t rush it. Don’t force it. Honour your process.
Do Try to Find the Meaning in it All
As my man Viktor Frankl said, “What is to give light must first endure burning.” Ask yourself what you learned from your relationship. What they taught you. What you taught them. What experiences you had together. What challenges you overcame. Ask yourself how having your world turned upside down has forced you to grow, what you’ve learned from it all, what opportunities have opened up for you from no longer being with them. As happiness begins to seep back into your life, remind yourself that the experiences that are at the root of them would not be possible had you not experienced your split.
Finally, if I still have your attention, this is how I often explain grief to clients. It might fit for you, and it might not. Personally, I find metaphor really helpful in working through this type of thing. Writing this resonated for me, but it may not for you. I encourage you to use this one if you’d like, or to find your own metaphor for your grieving process. Metaphors have tremendous efficacy in therapy.
Heartbreak is like being post-surgery: At first, you’re in shock. The anaesthetic is still doing its thing. It doesn’t seem that bad. In fact, you can’t even feel it. But then, the freezing slowly starts to come out, and that numbness turns into pain. Intense, horrible, unbearable, pain. It’s so bad sometimes, you want to vomit. Your chest physically aches. It feels hollow, like there’s a part of it that’s missing. There’s nothing you can do to speed up the healing process of this wound. All you can do is take care of it. You can cover it up and distract yourself from the pain at times by going out or being active, but at other times you have to let the air at it and attend to it with sympathy, care, and attention (and uh…Polysporin?), otherwise it will not heal. Days, weeks, months go by of this process. The wound is still there, and there are days when it hurts more than others. Days when you feel like you’re right back where you were post-surgery. Days when it stings, and days when it itches. But that pain will come and go. The thoughts will come and go. The emotions will come and go. You will continue to heal. You might aggravate the scab here and there, with photos and songs and places that you remind you of your partner. One day, though, the scab will fall without you pulling it. It will be a scar. What was once raw and pink, bruised and swollen…it will fade, fade, fade. It will be a memory. That person, that relationship, that scar will be a story, a part of you that you will never forget. A part of you that reminds you of your strength, your courage, your resilience. You survived. You healed. All that’s left is a reminder that you can make it through anything.
Hang in there. It will get better. You will heal. You might have moments where you don’t think you can go on, you might have moments where you feel defeated and discouraged and beaten down by the process. You’ll have setbacks where you feel like you’re back where you were 3 months ago, but a few days will pass and you’ll move back up on the “Y” axis. 🙂 If you’ve been through this before, what’s worked for you when you’ve been heartbroken? Feel free to share your experiences, stories, and journeys…keep tragedy to Shakespeare where it belongs!