As the saying goes, breaking up is hard to do. There are few things more painful than the heartache of separating from someone who has found their way into our heart — the shock of a sudden ending and being alone again. How can we heal and move on after such a gut-wrenching trauma?
A complex slew of feelings may overwhelm us after a break-up. How can we tap into inner resources that might help us heal?
A psychologically savvy view of working with adversity can be drawn from the Buddha’s story of the two arrows. The first arrow strikes us with a deep sense of loss and the sudden shock of living without our partner. The comfort, familiarity, and connection is no longer available. If the separation was gradual, our grief may be less acute. But similar to losing a loved after a long illness, there can still be the shocking finality of no longer sharing your life together.
The realization that the relationship isn’t what we thought it was — and will no longer continue as expected or hoped for — can undermine our sense of reality. Something we thought was true and secure turns out to be untrue and unstable.
If the separation was sudden, perhaps triggered by a betrayal or unilateral decision by one person, we may feel excruciatingly raw and vulnerable. The brutal shock of such an announcement can be traumatic. Being unable to wrap our mind around what happened and having no voice in the matter can leave us feeling disrespected, powerless, and unspeakably sad.
Grieving is our organisms natural ability to heal from pain. We need to engage skillfully with our feelings so that we neither avoid them nor get overwhelmed by them. Finding the right distance from feelings is one aspect of the approach called Focusing, which can help us find a way to be gentle and friendly with our emotional life.
What’s Wrong with Me?
The first arrow is life’s unpredictability piercing through our comfort zone — the shock, the loss, the disorientation is very painful indeed. But it is the second arrow that generates the bulk of our suffering. This is the arrow that comes from the inside — the one we direct toward ourselves, oftentimes without our full awareness.
We have little control over the unavoidable, haphazard arrows that life shoots at us, whether in our love life (separation), work life (losing our job), or family life (a loved one dies). Fortunately, we have more control over whether we aim a second arrow toward ourselves. This is the arrow of self-blame, self-hatred, and shame that often makes our grieving more complicated, prolonged, and devastating.
The pain of an unavoidable loss — “necessary losses“, as author Judith Viorst calls it — is intensified by the suffering created by self-criticism and shame. Then not only do we feel loss and grief, but we conclude that something is wrong with us. We may have repetitive thoughts that we’re somehow to blame for the separation. Or we may believe that we shouldn’t be feeling so sad or distressed. Our critical, self-judging self-talk might be:
- How did I mess up, screw up, blow it?
- Why aren’t I over this by now! Why can’t I let go?
- I’ll never recover from this.
- What’s wrong with me?
- How did I create this?
- I’m flawed and a failure.
This is not to suggest that we had no responsibility in the matter. But there’s a gigantic difference between blaming ourselves and taking responsibility for what might have been our part. In fact, being paralyzed by self-blame can freeze our ability to soften into our grief and inquire calmly into how things got off track.
Perhaps we didn’t listen well when our partner voiced grievances. There may have been misattunements or miscommunication that we can learn from. Did we cling to our assumptions and not ask enough questions? Did wishful thinking lead to the supposition that our partner felt the same way about the relationship that we did?
If we’re paralyzed by shame — convinced that we’re flawed and defective — we’re not inclined to learn from our experience. Instead, we may sink into a shame pit and succumb to depression and hopelessness. Or we may shoot the arrow at the other person — getting stuck in revenge fantasies or recriminations that perpetuate our suffering rather than help us heal.
Being self-critical may prevent us from recognizing positive things about ourselves. Can we validate how we opened our heart and took the risk to love?
In her classic book The Couples Journey, Dr. Susan Campbell offers the view that some relationships are learning relationships rather than mated ones. They prepare us for a better relationship to come.
For better or worse, life is a series of challenging learning experiences. If we can be mindful about how we’re aiming the second arrow toward ourselves, we have more control over whether we shoot that arrow or hold ourselves with respect and dignity as we grieve our loss.
Separation, loss, and betrayal are painful enough. If we add self-blame and shame to the mix, our suffering is multiplied. Shame is a sticky glue that keeps us stuck — and keeps us spinning our wheels in unhelpful, repetitive ruminations.
Our challenge is to honor our worth and value as a person regardless of whatever happens to us. Bringing mindfulness to difficult situations, we can differentiate our unavoidable pain from the self-generated suffering of berating ourselves for what happens to us. Holding ourselves with dignity, we can grieve, we can learn, and we can move on with our self-respect intact, even if temporarily bruised.
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