As a therapist, I have sat with many people recovering from a breakup. I have been able to witness the subtle shifts as a life is put back together, even when people have no idea how to move forward. For many people I see three distinct phases in this process, each important, each challenging in its own way. There are riches to be found in growing through a break up and, as hard it is to believe, you can come out the other side stronger and wiser. Read on to see the different phases of a breakup and how you should be treating yourself during each cycle of emotion.
Grief Takes Over Phase
When a break up becomes a reality to you, there will be a phase of grieving. Grief is an overwhelming emotion; it affects your body as well as your heart. You may find yourself having trouble sleeping, with no appetite, feeling like you have the flu, achy, and dazed. The breakup will play front and center in your mind, maybe even obsessively so. You are not thinking clearly. You are not functioning well. It is pretty horrible, and also pretty normal. During this time it is okay to let yourself have a pity party; in fact, it may be the best thing you can do. Focus in this time on self protection. You need to decrease external stressors, slow down for your body, and give yourself time to cry.
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It is also good to protect yourself from yourself at this time, as you might not be at your best or most rational. So create a little protective shell, get some tempting food delivered, turn off the phone or give it to your trusted friends. No Facebook and no reaching out to your ex. The good news is that this phase is the shortest. It is a crisis phase so take it seriously and be gentle with yourself.
What happened? This is your primary focus for the next phase. As the pure grief fades and your life takes on a rhythm again, you may become more aware of what wasn't working in the relationship. You will still miss what was working, but you may become more aware of the compromises you had been making, the ways you had changed yourself in the final days of the relationship, the things you are angry about. You may pick apart moments and conversations looking for clues. You are actively taking apart the shared aspects of your life, and needing to recreate a single life.
During this phase you may also become really aware of your internal voices, those that are critical of you, the negative beliefs you have about love or men, or fears about being alone. These are painful to confront but if you can face them now, and maybe transform them, you will move forward from a healthier place. Note: It can be hard for your friends to handle all of the processing that may go on for you during this phase; therapy can be a great support so you get all the time you need to talk about your ex and the relationship without burning out friends.
Really Moving On Phase
There will come a point in which you know you will have a better relationship next time. You will have clarity about your part in what happened and what was not your fault. You also can recognize all that you have to offer. You know what you want and what you can't tolerate. Dating begins to sound fun, or at least interesting. You still think about the relationship but with less pain. Really moving on means you no longer define yourself by that past relationship. It is a part of your history but no longer the key to some truth about you. You are filling your life with things and people that bring you happiness and, even when longing for a partner, you feel excited by the world around you and the possibilities.
People in the midst of breakups ask again and again, "How long will this hurt like this?" The best answer is — Not forever. I can guarantee that emotions never stay permanently — they will shift and transform. But what is also true is that it will take as long as it takes. There is no clear timeline, for some people each phase lasts a few days or a week. For others, each phase may take months. The phases may repeat or cycle back on themselves when life gets difficult. Holidays and anniversaries have their own place in the process and will stir emotions. You can do things to keep yourself from getting stuck, but you can't avoid the process all together. It will hurt… and it will change.
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