A broken heart often brings clients to my therapy room. Usually, it’s an unexpected relationship break up. Sometimes, it’s bereavement, particularly a spouse, partner or child. All these losses are tragic and the pain we feel, while devastating, is normal and human.
Managing significant losses in our life can be a full-time occupation for a period of time, and we need to give it our full attention. The following five stages are not linear but cyclic. The grief of a heartbreak comes in waves but, with good awareness and self-care, we can become more resilient, more caring and loving for the future, knowing that the pain will lessen.
Stage one: Grieving
- Allow yourself to cry; tears heal
- Exercise and move your body. It shifts stuck energy and creates endorphins in the brain that make us feel better. Even gentle exercise brings oxygen to the brain that improves our ability to see things clearly. While it’s normal when sad to want to stay in bed and sleep all day, make an effort to get up and get out
- Spend time with good friends who will hug you and feed you nourishing food. You might want to avoid being alone for a while
- Communicate, talk it out, particularly with a therapist. You need someone who will really listen, and not interrupt or just wait to tell you their own heartbreaking experience, or minimise it, offer sympathy that makes you feel worse, or false cheeriness as in "think of all the good things you’ve got!" Don’t expect friends to be your therapists.
Stage two: Reflection
- Have you experienced many previous losses? Unresolved grief can accumulate and become more painful. If you’ve never experienced this level of pain before, some of these coping skills are needed.
- Identifying disappointments will help to point to our unrealistic expectations. Were we deceived or did we deceive ourselves? Or both? Did we not see clearly who the other really was?
- In retrospect, we can see what we may have not seen, or blinded ourselves to, and be wiser for the future.
- Avoid the trap of beating yourself up. It’s not fair to blame yourself for not knowing then what you now know. Taking responsibility not to be deceived in the future, however, is essential, and it’s very different from blame.
Stage three: Managing loss
- This involves taking responsibility for our own emotions. No one can make us feel anything without our (unconscious) agreement. We cannot change what has happened, but we can choose how we respond
- Avoid negative coping styles such as drugs, alcohol, risky behaviour or chronic distractions. Plan activities that are nurturing and enjoyable instead
- Take time off if you can. Avoid burying yourself in work to distract yourself. If you have to work and/or have commitments to care for others, make sure you also allow time out to let yourself feel, to work through the process
- Go away, if only for a short time. Scenery that does not trigger painful memories is helpful to the healing process. If you can’t leave, maybe you could change your furniture around or repaint the walls. Create a difference in your living space, to lay down new memories and new feelings.
- You might consider a change in appearance—a new haircut or a change in wardrobe. It’s remarkable how different we can feel when we have a new look.
Stage four: Healing
- Work out what you need and find ways to give this to yourself
- Whenever you feel resentment, it’s likely because there’s something you really don’t want. Give yourself the choice of not agreeing to what you don’t want to do. You’ll be pleased with yourself for looking after your "self". Resolve to give what you want to give to others only from a full heart and with complete agreement instead of grudgingly. This might mean adjusting from the compliance of "always being nice" to being decisive and assertive, while still being polite
- Practise being in the present. Save pondering the past for therapy sessions, and leave it there, while you get on with what needs to to be done in your life now. It’s important to realise that until past issues have been resolved, we can be frequently triggered by seemingly trivial situations in the present, and react in a way that’s out of proportion. It’s an indication that we need to look at what is really being triggered.
For example, Jana’s fury at the lack of consideration shown by a work colleague preoccupied her for days. In therapy, she realised this incident had evoked her resentment of the lack of consideration and appreciation shown by her ex-partner, and before that, by her father. As a child she’d felt helpless when disregarded, particularly when she herself behaved considerately. Once this was put into perspective, Jana was able to see that as an adult she was able to communicate more assertively and effectively. This realisation changed her childhood conditioned habit of accepting others’ values when they imposed on her own, to valuing herself as an equal. Her next relationship was more reciprocal, and Jana was much happier with both herself and her new partner, as well as being more valued at work.
Stage five: A new relationship?
- The list. It’s a sign the grieving process is over when we realise we’re looking to the future and a possible new relationship. However, to avoid old mistakes, make a list of all the qualities you want in your ideal mate in the first of three columns down a page. Examples include: ‘kind’; ‘emotionally available’; ‘monogamous’; 'in touch with emotions and able to express them’; ‘good communicator’; ‘financially stable’; ‘a considerate lover’ and so on. Then, down the middle column of your page, rate yourself on a scale of 0–10 on each of these qualities. Be honest and fair. If in any of these qualities you rate yourself 7/10 or less, resolve that you need to work on yourself on these. The reason is we need to feel equal to our partner, and if they are, say, 10 on some quality while we rate ourselves as 4/10, we might not feel we deserve them, and might unconsciously sabotage the relationship. Give yourself some time to work on what you’d like to improve. Six months to a year is not an unreasonable amount of time for this. When a prospective new partner arrives, see how well you can tick off the boxes. Don’t accept anything less than a great match
- Make sure you’re ready. A relationship on the rebound, when we’re still smarting, angry, needy or in pain, is not likely to last. Can you be comfortably alone with yourself? Can you fill your time with activities that are restful, emotionally nourishing or mentally stimulating? If so, you’ll be able to bring far more acceptance and love to a relationship, and appreciate what your partner brings, too.
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