What Can You Control After A Break-Up?


Figure out what you can and cannot change after a break-up.

In the classic chick flick Legally Blonde, Elle Woods is unceremoniously dumped by her college beau over a fancy dinner. Elle, with her 4.0 GPA in fashion merchandising, simply isn't marriage material in the eyes of her boyfriend, Warner Huntington III. He needs someone "serious." He needs a "Jackie, not a Marilyn." Elle had been expecting a proposal from Warner, and is blindsided and heartbroken. Many of us can relate to the scenes that follow, in which Elle falls into a post-breakup spiral of self-doubt. She is no longer perky and self-assured, but downtrodden and depressed. She feels as though her perfectly mapped-out life has been derailed. Elle is no longer in control.

After a breakup, we often see everything that we can't control. "I can't make him love me." "I can't convince her to try again." "He won't come back no matter what I do." "She's never going to change." We are so caught up by the people we have no control over that we sometimes fail to pay attention to one future we can control—our own.

Psychology researchers like Dr. Martin Seligman have confirmed the importance of feeling a sense of control over our own lives. When we believe that we can influence our surroundings, we are happier and psychologically healthier. In one study, Seligman and his fellow researchers asked two groups of people to solve word puzzles while wearing a pair of headphones. Sounds simple enough, right? Here's the catch—while people attempted to solve these puzzles, the researchers played a loud, annoying tone through the headphones. Both groups had buttons in front of them, but only one group had functional buttons to stop the awful noise. The other group could push that button all they wanted, but the noise persisted.

Seligman found that people who were able to stop noise performed far better on the puzzles than people with useless buttons. Even when this group didn't use their buttons—or exercise their control—simply knowing they had some control was enough. People who did not have functional buttons—those without any control—felt frustrated and down. Here's the kicker: When the researchers finally gave this second group the option to shut the noise off, they stopped trying. They believed there was nothing they could do to improve their circumstance. They "learned" to be helpless. 

Learned helplessness is a phenomenon where one believes they have no control over what happens to them; as such, you stop trying to improve your circumstance.

It is true that we don't always have control over the ways people enter and exit our lives. This is one of the hardest truths to accept. Just like Elle Woods, we may want to follow our exes to Harvard Law School to convince them that we are smart, attractive, worthy. But when we focus all of our energy on controlling the beliefs and behaviors of other people, we ignore the ways in which we might be improving ourselves. Ultimately, Elle finds happiness not in winning back her boyfriend Warner, but in taking control of her own professional future.

It's important to take the time to figure out what you can and cannot control. Try this simple exercise:

1. Draw a circle—this is your sphere of control.

2. Inside the sphere, put all of the things in your life which you can control or influence.

3. Outside the sphere, put all of the things in your life which you cannot control.

4. Begin to meditate on what is inside the circle. Focus on expanding and improving these things. Focus on what you can change.

For more scientifically supported exercises visit Amelie’s site on how to heal a broken heart.