Five years ago, I was in a relationship with a man who I thought I’d be spending the rest of my life with. Then one day, the relationship ended suddenly and dramatically. The future I envisioned fell apart and along with it, my sense of self-worth and identity.
He was my first love, and without realizing it, I had put much of my sense of identity into that relationship. I spiraled into a depression, broke out into panic attacks, and had thoughts of suicide. Many women know this story all too well, and I know from experience that there is plenty of unhealthy cliché advice out there that makes the situation worse.
It took a lot of work to turn that darkness into light, and along the journey, I learned how to build my muscle of resilience. I discovered tools of self-soothing and rewiring negative ways of thinking. Now I use the pain as fuel to my fire and have devoted my life to helping other women do the same.
Whether you or a friend is dealing with post-breakup heartbreak, here are four of the most important lessons I learned the hard way.
01. Ignore anyone who says, ‘Just get over it.’
We live in a society where we are rewarded for moving forward, and the quicker, the better. We equate strength with those who can power through any challenge or hardship with efficiency and speed. While this may work in the corporate world, it doesn’t work with matters of the heart. It doesn’t work with mourning loss, or when dealing with deep, powerful emotions. When I was going through a traumatic breakup, I had some friends who thought the hard love approach would be helpful, “Just get over it” they said. Hearing that only deepened my shame even more. There was no magic button to press for me to just “get over it.”
Know that there is nothing wrong with crying, feeling sad, and taking time to carefully recover and get back up. There is nothing weak or wrong about being vulnerable.
02. Know that it’s perfectly normal to go through withdrawal.
Feeling sad over someone after breaking up is a natural process as your brain is actually in withdrawal. When newly in love, you’ll experience a bunch of feelings that will feel liberating and exciting to the point of addiction. Anthropologist Helen Fisher points out that “Love is not an emotion—it’s a motivation system, it’s a drive, it’s part of the reward system of the brain.” In the early phases of a relationship, “love” is a chemical addiction and those same chemical reactions are at play when getting over an ex, just in reverse. Research suggests that people may crave their ex-partner similarly to the way addicts crave a drug they are withdrawing from. Studies show that recently broken up singles show activity in the ventral segmental area of the brain (which is associated with reward and motivation, and specifically the release of dopamine), that is also seen in drug addiction. So yeah, it’s normal to feel miserable when you first break up. But understand that in time, the chemicals fade—whether falling in love or out of love.
03. Do not isolate yourself.
Your natural instinct may be to isolate yourself and sulk in private, but this is probably the worst thing you can do. Community increases your feel-good hormones and studies show that talking can have healing effects. A UCLA study reveals that spending time with close friends causes the brain to release natural opioids, which are like the painkillers found in opium. When you lose the familiarity, daily routine and stability of a relationship, it is important that you surround yourself with people who make you feel safe, loved and cared for.
04. Recognize a bridge when you see one.
Know that some relationships were only ever meant to be a bridge, not a destination. Know that love is not a scarce resource and that there is no such thing as The One person that’s meant for you. Love is a choice. Love is not a possession that you either ‘have’ or ‘don’t have’. Love, is an action, and the good news is, you can create that action of love over and over again.
While you’re mending your heart, remember to be gentle to yourself. When your animal brain takes over and triggers you to check his social media, or obsess over the new girl he’s dating, ask yourself if you are being kind to yourself. Know that it’s completely natural for you to grieve the loss of a romantic partner. The question is, will that relationship be a bridge for you? Will you find the lesson and look within to see where you can grow? Or will you allow resentment fester and become hardened and jaded? One direction gives you power; the other gives your power away. The choice is yours.
Photo Credit: Erin Woody