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'Processing Your Feelings' After A Breakup Only Makes It Worse, Says Science

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Stop “Processing Your Feelings” After A Breakup. It's Killing You.
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Heartbreak, Self

Plus, the three things that make it BETTER.

When we go through a breakup, it’s normal to process our feelings, reflect on what happened, sort things out, and gain some perspective. This is actually helpful and healthy.

For a few weeks.

And then something odd happens. You get stuck in emotional quicksand.

Have you ever had a friend who let themselves get angry over being left and then stayed angry for years? And no amount of "processing" helps them get over it?  That’s because they’re not actually processing anything. They’ve fallen into what researchers call "rumination", trapping themselves in emotional loops, endlessly replaying the same distressing feelings.

The Difference Between Healthy Talking It Out And Rumination

With self-reflection, you go through a short, turbulent period and slowly, insights arrive.

Feelings subside. Acceptance flickers. Calm sets in. Memories of the breakup may still be painful but they don’t carry the electric charge they once did. There is a sense of carrying forward.

Meanwhile, when you’re constantly thinking about the breakup but the thoughts illuminate nothing, you're ruminating on your feelings. There are no new insights. No new epiphanies.  

You slip further away from balance and centeredness and in fact, you’re not lowering the intensity through "processing" you are increasing it with obsessive thoughts. Rumination is a particularly difficult hamster wheel to step out of because of its self-reinforcing nature.

Ruminating about a breakup makes you more upset. The more upset you are the more you want to think about the problem because you think you have to process your feelings.

So, if talking it out doesn't help, what does? Scientists have made new discoveries about rumination and found three actions that dissipate it: Distraction, distancing, and silence. Here is how they help:

1. Look! Shiny Keys!


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Think of rumination as the brain’s version of a toddler’s tantrum. How do you stop a wiggly two-year-old’s upset? Look! Shiny keys! Shake, shake, shake!

You don’t even need an object. Sometimes it can be a simple question.  

In a wildly popular YouTube video, you can see a father completely distracting his two-year-old’s melt-down with a simple question: "What’s a cow say?" The child stops crying and says, "moo." In another scene he asks, "Where’s your tongue?" The child stops crying and sticks her tongue out. Then the father sticks his tongue out and they both start laughing.

Now, clearly, you are not going to distract your rumination by shaking shiny keys in front of your eyes or asking yourself what a cow says. As adults, we need something a little more powerful. But what?

It doesn’t matter, as long as you find it genuinely interesting. Researchers found the most effective distractions arouse intellectual curiosity (like Sudoku and crossword puzzles) or arouse powerful emotions (like riding a roller coaster, watching a horror film, cooking, and hiking).  

Again, there is no "right" distraction — it’s whatever activity floats your boat.

2.  Shhhh!

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Using distraction as a technique to relieve rumination won’t work if you start talking about your pain. All you’ve done is delay the rumination. Battling rumination requires a Two Week Silence Rule. That means once you’ve launched Operation Distraction, you are not allowed to verbalize any aspect of your ruminations.   

Silence will strengthen distraction’s ability to ease your distress. Talking about your distress, on the other hand, is a way to fling yourself back into rumination’s arms.

Every time you start talking about the problem, stop yourself in mid-sentence, change the subject, and find a way to distract yourself. The only exception to the Silence rule is the next one.

3. Distancing


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It’s completely natural to analyze a painful experience through your own eyes or what psychologists call a "self-immersed perspective." It’s a first-person accounting of the pain.

There is no one’s perspective but your own. You get in touch with your feelings, you examine them, you let them play out. This is healthy — at first. Self-immersion produces strong benefits if we stay there for a brief amount of time.   

Fortunately, there is a way of extracting the benefits of self-reflection without the intense pain that accompanies self-immersion. It’s called "distancing" and it’s a way of talking about your problem (to yourself or others) that creates distance between the event and your feelings.

If self-immersion requires you to relive events in the first person, self-distancing asks you to do it in the third person. In self-immersion, you tell your story using the words "me", "I", "mine", "myself", and "ours". In distancing, you use "he", "she", "it", "theirs", and "themselves".

Self-immersion is emotional while self-distancing is intellectual. One is concrete while the other is abstract.

Be A Fly On The Wall

In several clever experiments, psychologist Walter Mischel had half his heartbroken subjects meet with a counselor and recount their breakup from their own perspective. The other half were to "speak of the experience from the perspective of a fly on the wall". In other words, to psychologically distance themselves from their own perspectives.

The results were dramatic. The self-immersion group that reflected from their individual point of view became more emotional, more agitated and increased their anguish as they relived the breakup.

But the self-distanced group showed much fewer emotions, used more abstract terms to describe their feelings, and experienced more emotional stability. These studies showed that seeing things from your own perspective tends to recount and reactivate negative feelings while distancing helps reappraise them.

Why Distancing Helps You Heal Faster


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The point of a self-distanced perspective isn’t to deny loss, it’s about recounting the story of that loss from a different point of view. It isn’t about fudging facts to make yourself feel better, it’s about gaining an undiscovered perspective.

For it to work, you must be authentic and recall events accurately. There are a few ways to "recount the breakup" to yourself (or better yet, to a friend).

Pretend you’re watching a documentary about your relationship (with a David Attenborough or James Earl Jones type narrator). Or pretend a docent at a museum is taking a small group through a tour of your breakup. What would they say? What new insight would you get?

Science can’t prevent you from experiencing searing pain after a relationship ends but it does give us a useful insight: While pain is inevitable, prolonged suffering is not, especially if you "Distract & Distance" yourself away from rumination.

Michael Alvear’s latest book is The Bulletproof Writer: How To Overcome Constant Rejection To Become An Unstoppable Author.

 

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