How To Move Through Heartbreak

“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

What I remember most about my last life-changing heartbreak is the feeling I had walking into it. We met at a park on my way home from work on a warm, sunny August afternoon. I felt light, hopeful, and relieved that my partner and I had moved through a rough patch and were experiencing newfound ease in our relationship.

I had no idea what was about to hit me.

He told me with a sense of conviction that we were over. I thought I could convince him otherwise but he had made up his mind. I grappled with that — that he had made a decision and was steadfast in that decision — and I had no idea. We shared a home and a bed every night and I had no idea where his heart was.

So began my journey through heartbreak. I can’t say I have the answers for how you should move through heartbreak. It is a process that is unique to everyone. It is rarely linear and never easy, or simple. As always, you know you better than I do so take what serves you from my words, and leave the rest.

We can move through heartbreak, though, and maybe the way we move can make a difference in how we come out on the other side.

Feel your feelings

You’ve probably heard this before: the best way out is through. (If you are curious as to its origins, it appears the internet’s consensus is Robert Frost in his poem A Servant to Servants). The only way through a break up is to allow ourselves to fully experience all of the emotions that come with the loss of love.

It may be tempting to run from the emotions or to numb them. Alcohol, cannabis, and sugar were always there for me. They were the best I could do, at times, and I think it is important to not beat ourselves up if we do have to reach for our vices.

I wouldn’t say my means of numbing did irrevocable harm, rather, it tended to postponed the emotional processing of the breakup. Other times, it landed me in another relationship before I had the chance to grieve the last one.

Kristin Neff speaks of painful feelings in her book called Self-Compassion:

“Painful feelings are, by their very nature, temporary. They will weaken over time as long as we don’t prolong or amplify them through resistance or avoidance. The only way to eventually free ourselves from debilitating pain, therefore, is to be with it as it is. The only way out is through.”

The pain of heartbreak hurts like hell. It can be heavy, dark, and may mean crying in public places (or is that just me)? Science shows that the pain we experience after a heartbreak has its origins in the same area of the brain that is activated when we experience physical pain. So yes, heartache can hurt all over, and the pain you are experiencing is very much real.

How do we feel our feelings? I think that looks different for all of us. For me, it usually means noticing the feeling and allowing myself to sink into it, rather than avoid it. I’ve found Focusing (a step-by-step exercise) to be a useful tool when I am not sure exactly what it is that I am feeling.

Cue Self-Compassion

We have all heard that our feelingsaren’t facts, but they certainly colour our thoughts and our reality. They may lead us to a heavy-hearted explanation for why it is the breakup happened. For me, my breakup was confirmation of my deeply held belief that I was not worthy of love.

It can be hard to love ourselves while simultaneously accepting that someone we cared deeply for has chosen to live their lives without us. I always needed someone else’s love to confirm I was lovable. Without it, I had a hard time believing that there was anything to love about me. This is where self-compassion can come in and hold us through the grieving of a breakup.

A little self-compassion is going to go a long way through the process of healing after heartbreak. A key component of self-compassion is recognizing that heartache is a very human experience. You are not weak for letting the experience of losing love knock you down, you are imperfectly human. In the words of Kristin Neff:

“Compassion is, by definition, relational. Compassion literally means ‘to suffer with,’ which implies a basic mutuality in the experience of suffering. The emotion of compassion springs from the recognition that the human experience is imperfect.”

Photo by Emily Ferris | Instagram: emilyeverywhere

Let the heartache give you what you need

When we are experiencing heartbreak it is hard to look at it as something that is going to be life-giving in any way. It can feel as though the heartbreak is sucking all of the vitality and goodness from our lives, leaving us empty, alone, and without hope.

In retrospect, sadness gave me what I needed. It gave me solitude, an opportunity for introspection, and a chance to release many years of heartache and disappointment. It gave me the quiet to reflect on the deterioration of my relationship in an honest way. I began to see parallels to all of the heartbreaks that came before this one.

Eventually, I began to move away from seeing myself as a victim who was blindsided by my ex-partner. I began to accept and understand my role in the deterioration of my relationship. This insight allowed me to break free of patterns and begin to find a kind of safety in relationships that I never thought was possible.

I love how David Whyte speaks about heartbreak in his book Consolations — heartbreak is part of being human, including that of growing up:

“Heartbreak is how we mature; yet we use the word heartbreak as if it only occurs when things have gone wrong: an unrequited love, a shattered dream… But heartbreak may be the very essence of being human, of being on the journey from here to there, and of coming to care deeply for what we find along the way.”

Reframe heartbreak (when you’re ready)

I remember deciding that my heartbreak was going to change me. I was stubborn and determined to not let the shame of him leaving me swallow me whole. I wanted to be okay. In hindsight, this mindset was crucial in helping me move through my heartbreak.

I don’t know what led me to have that perspective. Perhaps I was at that point in my life where I was becoming rather sick of my antics. I had cycled through relationships that had a similar undertone since I was 15 and I was exhausted.

Linda and Charlie Bloom, authors of Secrets of Great Marriages, speak to reframing in this article:

“As we shift our thinking about our situation, there is a change in emotional tone and the meaning that we give to our life circumstances. We can choose to move our experience from a negative frame to a more hopeful one, filled with opportunities. This process allows us an expanded view of our reality.”

Reframing my breakup allowed me to redefine myself. I had moved across the country for someone I loved and it didn’t work out. So there I was — alone in a new city; the life that I had built around someone else ripped out from beneath me. It was awful but it was also an opportunity to start over, so I did. I now look back and see this as a pivotal time in my life and am grateful for all of it (even the bouts of crying in public).

Like all matters of the heart, breakups are a highly personal experience and there is no right or wrong way to cope. For that reason, I was hesitant to write this article because I know nothing I say is going to make the pain go away. I ended up writing this because I remember I once found solace in the words of strangers on the internet. At times, feeling less alone was enough.

Only we can move through our own heartbreak, and as we do, it is important we tap into what we need and not what anyone else tells us we should need.

Wherever your heart is right now, be gentle with yourself, and remember that you are worthy of love. In the sweet words of Sharon Salzberg in her book Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection:

“You do not have to earn love. You simply have to exist.”

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