Begin healing a broken heart with 3 basic steps
Getting over a break up is hard. And unfortunately, common. If you’re actively participating in the dating game, chances are good that you’re going to experience a break up sooner or later.
Of course, not all break ups are created equal. While some break ups might be cured by a night out with friends and a new date, others are much more significant and painful.
This is for that painful kind of break up. It’s a How To guide for moving on after a serious break up. How to heal a broken heart, essentially.
It’s a few steps that—in the midst of suffering—will help you begin the healing process. They’re not an instant cure. As you’ll see, the ‘cure’ involves time and some degree of effort on your part. But these steps can point you in the right direction.
1. Feel your Feelings, Grieve the Loss
The end of a relationship brings loads of emotions; most of them not so fun. Getting past the pain requires experiencing and feeling the emotions as they come up.
Feeling your Feelings vs. Expressing your Feelings
There’s an important distinction between feeling your feelings and expressing your feelings. Often when you express your feelings (e.g., when you talk about them, tell the tale of what happened), you end up feeling worse. This is because you’re simply telling your version of your painful story over and over. Nothing is being resolved; in fact, you’re usually becoming even more engrossed in your version of the story and how awful it is that you begin to give it a lot of energy and attention and you hold on to it more tightly than ever. So while you may be expressing your anger, frustration, and hurt, those feelings don't seem to be going away. If anything, they’re magnified.
How do I feel my feelings?
Moving on after a break up requires feeling your feelings. How does one feel their feelings, you ask?
You can become like a scientist, carefully studying their exact nature. For example, when you notice loneliness, identify where it is in your body. Do you feel it in your heart, in your stomach, or in your head? Describe it in detail. Is it like a dull aching or a sharp burning? Is it moving, staying still, hot, cold, etc.?
All emotions are physical sensations in the body. Sit with the feeling you’ve identified and revel in the way it feels. Feel it in detail.
When you experience your emotion in detail in this way, it starts to fade. All emotions have a beginning, middle, and an end. We’re often afraid to feel our emotions because we think if we let ourselves really dive in and feel them, we’ll get stuck. We think they’ll hurt us, or we’ll never escape, or they’ll somehow damage us irreparably.
I promise you, this isn’t possible. In fact, the opposite is true. As soon as you sit with your feelings and really feel them, they become processed and can pass through and away from you.
You’ll feel the emotion begin, hit its peak, and then begin to dissipate. This process is typically much faster than we expect. When you sit with your emotion and feel it in detail, you let it run its course.
This is a process of feeling, not thinking. While you’re feeling your emotions, you’re not judging them or commenting on them. You’re simply experiencing them as objectively as possible, just like the scientist would.
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What am I doing if I’m not feeling my feelings?
If you’re not feeling your feelings, you’re resisting or suppressing them. This might look like distraction or avoidance; obsession with something else, busyness, addiction. No matter how it looks for you, resisting your feelings causes them to persist. They simply can’t go away until they’ve been experienced and processed.
Think of a beach ball you hold under water. If you want to hold the ball under water you can, but only for so long. Eventually, your arm will get tired or you’ll get distracted or forget to apply the pressure and the ball will shoot up to the surface.
The same is true of emotions. You can successfully push emotions away, keeping them under the surface for a while. But not forever. At some point, your defenses will be weakened and you won’t be able to resist your emotions any longer—they’ll come to the surface, like it or not. The longer and more forcefully you’ve been resisting them, the more impact they’ll usually have when they do eventually surface.
When you feel your feelings all the way through to the end you’re processing them in a healthy way without resistance. So, dive into them. Really experience them. Don’t be afraid. Don’t resist. Let the feeling wash over you and feel it all the way through to its end. Let it run its course—beginning, middle, and end—and it’ll be over sooner than you expect.
As Robert Frost said, “The best way out is through”. The best (and fastest) way out of your negative feelings is to go through them. This is grieving.
2. Separate your Story from the Facts
Although there is real pain from the loss of the relationship that needs to be felt and grieved, much of your pain is unnecessary. Unnecessary suffering is caused by your story of what happened.
To see how your story and the facts often get confused, let’s look at the distinction between clean pain and dirty pain. Clean pain is pain that’s caused by actual, factual events. For example, if you stub your toe, the physical pain is clean pain. A break up often involves some clean pain. It’s a fact that your ex is no longer in your life and the pain of that loss can be very clean and real. It’s emotional pain from a real loss. As we talked about above, the way the deal with clean pain is to feel your feelings all the way through and grieve your loss.
Clean pain is ‘clean’ because it’s not tainted or exaggerated by your subjective story. By contrast, dirty pain is pain that’s caused by your subjective interpretation of the situation, or your story. In the toe stubbing example, dirty pain would be the suffering that comes from you telling yourself, “You’re such a klutz—you always do things like this! When are you going to learn how to walk?” Totally subjective, totally unnecessary, totally optional.
In your break up, you may be telling yourself stories like, "He never loved me", "I won't find this kind of relationship again", "I really hurt her". These are not objective facts or circumstances. They are your interpretation of what happened—someone else in the same situation may come up with completely different interpretations. If someone else could possibly see the same situation differently, you can too.
Notice and question your story
While clean pain is handled by feeling your feelings and grieving, dirty pain is handled by acknowledging, examining, and questioning your story.
A first step you can take is to ask yourself, "Can I know for sure that my story is true?" Can you? Can you know for sure that he never loved you, or that you won't find a better relationship in the future? If you find that you can’t absolutely know for sure, maybe—just maybe—your interpretation is wrong. Maybe there is at least the possibility that he did love you or that an even better relationship is around the corner. Things don’t always look the way we expect them to look. Our theories and conclusions are often wrong—especially when we’re trying to interpret someone else’s actions.
When you’re in the middle of pain it can be difficult to let go of your story. But freedom—and happiness—is found in loosening your grip on your painful interpretation of events. Even when it looks as if your story is the only logical conclusion, if it’s causing you pain it’s most likely not true.
Another excellent question is, “What if I wasn’t telling this painful story?” In other words, imagine where you’d be—what you’d be feeling, doing, thinking, how you’d feel about your break up—if you weren’t able to tell the painful story you’re telling. If it just never occurred to you that maybe he didn’t love you or if never occurred to you that you wouldn’t learn from this situation and find a better relationship in the future. Let yourself go there. How would things be different without this story? That’s often enough motivation for people to begin rethinking the story they’re telling. Your story is always optional. You can choose to tell a new story.
There are many powerful methods to question and dissolve painful stories. If you want to delve deeper into releasing your story, you might consider working with a coach. They will guide you through the questions and steps in examining your story until the underlying beliefs that cause your dirty pain are no longer something you hold on to.
3. Give it Time
The process of moving on after a break up isn’t linear. Going through each step makes the other steps easier. Your feelings and your thoughts are energetically linked so the more you feel your feelings, the easier it is to change your story. And both of these become easier with time.
Once you've spent some time grieving and questioning the stories that are causing suffering, an amazing thing begins to happen. You begin to feel better.
It doesn’t happen all at once and you can’t put a time frame around it, but it will happen. One day, you’ll wake up and find that you’re not thinking about the relationship, or you’ll notice yourself smiling and laughing and looking forward to the future again.
Then, you may take a few steps backward. That’s totally normal—it’s usually one step forward and two steps back for a while. That’s okay. You’re still moving forward. It’s not possible to not move forward. Just give it a little more time.
Amy Johnson, Ph.D. is a psychologist and master certified coach. She writes a popular blog full of down-to-earth, achievable steps to living a happier, more enlightened life at www.DrAmyJohnson.com. Grab her FREE ebook on getting out of your own way to create the life you want.