According to Oscar Wild, “the heart was made to be broken.” Few experiences are as painful as severing the ties with a romantic partner — even if you’re the one who initiated the breakup. Your world may feel groundless, colorless, meaningless. However, a heartbreak can also inspire surprising self-growth and gift you with a sense of independence and vitality that you didn’t know what possible.
Often tears fertilize the seeds of self-transformation and nurture a new self that needed to be discovered. “The emotion that can break your heart is sometimes the very one that heals it,” said Nicholas Sparks. Here are a few strategies to begin the healing process.
Make the Decision to Let Go
It’s difficult to heal if you’re living in limbo — if much of your day is spent dreaming of a shared life with your ex. Too much fantasizing shackles you to the past and keeps you in a state of pain.
In his piece “Learning to Let Go of Past Hurts: 5 Ways to Move On“, PsychCentral founder and CEO John Grohol says that making the decision to let go is the first step to healing. “Things don’t disappear on their own,” he writes. “You need to make the commitment to ‘let it go.’ If you don’t make this conscious choice up-front, you could end up self-sabotaging any effort to move on from this part hurt.”
This decision involves action: retraining your mind from rehashing old memories to envisioning an optimistic future. It means taking accountability for our thoughts and behaviors on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.
Allow Some Obsessing
Let’s say you’ve made a conscious decision to let go and are trying your best to retrain your thoughts, but your brain still gets stuck on fantasies about your ex. That’s okay. Allow the occasional obsession. Progress is uneven. By suppressing the thoughts, you might make matters worse.
In a famous 1987 study by Daniel Wegner published in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, participants were asked to verbalize their stream of consciousness for five minutes while trying not to think of a white bear. They were told to ring a bell, every time the thought of a white bear came to consciousness. On average, the participants thought of a white bear more than once per minute. Over the next decade, Wegner developed his theory of “ironic processes” to explore how to tame unwanted thoughts. He concluded that when we try not to think of something, a part of our mind calls to mind the very thought we are forbidden to think. This isn’t a green light to live in the past, of course. But by indulging in the occasional fantasy, you may think about your ex less.
Stay with the Loneliness
With any breakup comes the sharp pangs of emptiness. The hours spent with a loved one is now empty space, leaving a gap in your heart. Especially difficult are the scheduled calls or moments throughout the day when you’d meet. Certain songs or restaurants or movies remind you of memories shared. While it’s tempting to distract oneself from the pain with things that offer temporary relief, a straighter route to healing is to stay with the loneliness — to go through it, not around it.
In his book The Inner Voice of Love, the late theologian Henri Nouwen writes:
When you experience the deep pain of loneliness, it is understandable that your thoughts go out to the person who was able to take the loneliness away, even if only for a moment. When … you feel a huge absence that makes everything look useless, you heart wants only one thing – to be with the person who once was able to dispel these frightful emotions. But it is the absence itself, the emptiness within you, that you have to be willing to experience, not the one who could temporarily take it away.
Distinguish Love from Infatuation
Maybe your ex was, indeed, your true love. But maybe your brain confused infatuation with love. While they can feel the same, knowing that you’re dealing with the chemical release of infatuation over the deep intimacy of true love can help you get over the loss more easily.
How to tell the difference? In an article for Redbook magazine, American author Judith Viorst distinguished love from infatuation in this way: “Infatuation is when you think that he’s as sexy as Robert Redford, as smart as Henry Kissinger, as noble as Ralph Nader, as funny as Woody Allen, and as athletic as Jimmy Conners. Love is when you realize that he’s as sexy as Woody Allen, as smart as Jimmy Conners, as funny as Ralph Nader, as athletic as Henry Kissinger, and nothing like Robert Redford but you’ll take him anyway.”
Learn to Detach
According to the Buddhist tradition, much of our suffering is born in clinging to relationships and material items in our lives, attaching ourselves to their permanent status. If we can get comfortable with the idea that everything in life is transient, we free ourselves to experience people, places, and things more fully and spare ourselves the pain associated with attachment.
Psychiatrist Mark Epstein says that intimacy puts us in touch with fragility and the acceptance of fragility opens us to intimacy. To love means to appreciate the fleetingness of a relationship, to be able to embrace impermanence. “When we take loved objects into our egos with the hope or expectation of having them forever, we are deluding ourselves and postponing an inevitable grief,” Epstein writes in his book Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart. “The solution is not to deny attachment but to become less controlling in how we love.”
Remembering the impermanence of any relationship can be especially freeing when healing from a breakup. Nothing lasts forever. Even if never separated, the relationship would still be fleeting.
Build a Sense of Self
Jean-Yves Leloup, theologian and founder of the Institute of Other Civilization Studies and the International College of Therapists, explained, “Sometimes we must undergo hardships, breakups, and narcissistic wounds, which shatter the flattering images that we had of ourselves, in order to discover two truths: that we are not who we thought we were; and that the loss of a cherished pleasure is not necessarily the loss of true happiness and well-being.”
Pain exposes us to the work that needs to be done to feel alive within ourselves and to stumble upon a joy that isn’t depend on anything or anyone. We are brought to our knees, immersed in the rubble and dirt of grief. However, such a perspective allows us to build a new foundation and begin to define who we are and what we aspire to be.
Open Your Heart to Love
You may be bitter, hurt, disillusioned. You never want to trust someone again. However, the fastest way to heal from a breakup is to continue to love deeply and to open your heart to the possibility of future love.
“Do not hesitate to love and to love deeply,” Nouwen writes. “You might be afraid of the pain that deep love can cause. When those you love deeply reject you, leave you, or die, your heart will be broken. But that should not hold you back from loving deeply. The pain that comes from deep love makes your love ever more fruitful. It is like a plow that breaks the ground to allow the seed to take root and grow into a strong plant.”
Wegner, D.M., Schneider, D.J., Carter, S., & White, T. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53: 5-13.
Nouwen, H.J. (1998). The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom. New York, NY: Doubleday.
Epstein, M. (1998). Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness. New York, NY. Broadway Books.