Caroline Cranshaw: How to get over a break-up without having a breakdown

Publish Date
Thursday, 14 September 2017, 9:00AM

"Pour yourself a drink, put on some lipstick, and pull yourself together.”  -  Elizabeth Taylor

The pain of broken heart is a pain unlike any other. I have been through a lot of trauma in my life and getting dumped unexpectedly was hands-down the worst. The funny thing was, I had experienced things that most people would think was the worst thing you could imagine; and still, the trauma of a breakup I found to be much more painful.

Now as a therapist, people come to me to help them deal with getting through a breakup. Apologizing through their tears for being so upset, they tell me that they know what’s happened is not that bad to be reacting so strongly. But I get it. The pain of rejection is so overwhelming, it feels like you can’t cope and you may not possibly survive.

The difference between rejection and nearly all other negative emotions we experience in life - is the extent of pain it causes. We describe the feelings we experience, after the rejection of someone we are in love with, as like being punched in the gut or stabbed in the heart. Some people even compare the pain of a broken heart as being equal to the physical pain of car accidents, childbirth and cancer.

So why does the pain of rejection hurt so much more than other emotional wounds?

The answer lies in our DNA. We are social creatures and being rejected from our clan or community in our pre-modern past would have meant losing food, family, partners and protection. This would have made it very tough to survive, so being banished was the same as receiving a death sentence. Since the magnitude of being on our own was so life-threatening, we have evolved a hypersensitive alarm system to warn us if we are in danger of being ostracised. It does this by causing pain and anxiety whenever we perceive a rejection.

We are hard-wired to connect with our romantic partners, and when we are in love, especially in the beginning, we are high on a cocktail of drugs that even pharmaceutical companies have yet to match. Our brains are pumping out dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins, just to name a few, to reward us for possibly perpetuating the species. Chemicals like oxytocin, the bonding hormone, make us want to stay with that person so we will raise our children together. When the person we are bonded to rejects us and is not around, it’s like withdrawing from drugs. We are literally addicted to those hormones that are released when we are in love.

Another part of why breaking up is so painful, is that we are bonded to our lovers like we are bonded to our parents. Think about how we call each other “baby”, cover each other in kisses and hold each other tight. The only other time in life we experience a closeness like that is as infants and children. So, when our lover leaves us, it’s like being abandoned by your parents. When they do brain scans of people going through a breakup, the same part of the brain that registers physical pain is lit up like a Christmas tree. Your heart physically slows down and adrenaline goes up, the pain in your chest is real, stemming from the effect on your actual heart.

Even when the relationship hasn’t been that good, we just want the pain to go away. We may resist breaking up even though logically we know it’s a good idea. The primitive part of our brain makes the association that if we get back with that person, our pain will go away. And the lengths that people will go to to get their lover back is some of the craziest behaviour you will ever see. People inaccurately believe that their loneliness and pain is caused by the other person's absence.

 So, what actually works to help you get over a broken heart?

1. Process your pain (while sober…)

I know, I know. This is the last thing you want to do. You would rather drown your sorrows in a bucket of wine while stuffing your face with the worst junk food you can imagine while swiping on Tinder. This is in-between obsessively checking your ex’s social media and mentally listing all the horrible things that are wrong with you.

Unfortunately, the only way out is through. The more you try to numb it, stuff it down, or screw someone else to make it go away -  the more it festers deep down inside like an infection. I believe breakups are one of the greatest opportunities for growth to identify what is stunting you and holding you back. Broken-hearted people are also unconsciously mourning a loss or trauma from their past. If you are hysterical, it’s probably historical. Did a loved one leave you as a child or young adult? Answer this question:

I have felt this way before when____________________________________________?

When someone abandons us or betrays us when we are young, we don’t have the maturity to make logical sense of it. We blame ourselves, and to make meaning of our traumas, we create negative beliefs that can hold us back when we get older. Beliefs like “I’m not good enough,” or “people will always abandon me,” or “I am unlovable,” can cause us to overcompensate, be insecure, fake, or passive-aggressive in relationships.

When someone breaks up with us, it confirms our biggest fears, and we re-experience the pain of the trauma that caused the harmful beliefs in the first place. Know that some of the pain you are feeling is also unprocessed pain from the past. I highly recommend finding a good therapist who is experienced in helping people get over a break-up, even if for only a couple of sessions. Investing in your mental health is some of the best money you will ever spend.

2. Write a letter

Another way to process your emotions is to write them down. I find writing an honest letter to your ex, written as if you won’t be sending it to them, so you can just write freely - is incredibly helpful with letting things go. A letter is a chance to say goodbye, as well as an opportunity to say the things you never had a chance to say. It’s also important to take responsibility and apologise for your part in the demise of the relationship. Allow yourself to feel your emotions as you write the letter. Let yourself feel the anger, appreciation, gratitude and hurt so you can release it.

After you’ve written the letter you can decide if sending it is necessary, however, remember that the purpose of the letter is for your own healing, not as a last shot to get back with your ex. Assume if you send the letter, whatever you write will be shown to other people. Closure is something you create within yourself, not through what other people do or say. Burning the letter also can be deeply therapeutic - imagining you are burning and releasing your hurt and pain.

3. No contact (or social media stalking…) 

In this day and age where our lives are documented on social media, it’s easy to spy on our ex. However, this behaviour only makes it take much longer to get over the break-up. And no, for right now you cannot be friends, even on Facebook. If I had to identify the one thing that’s universal with people who struggle with moving on with a breakup, it’s that they can’t or won’t stop communicating with, or cyber-stalking, their ex.

I’ve heard every excuse in the book of why people need to stay in touch, from “we are best friends,” to “I want to be there in case they want to get back together.” These are bullshit excuses you tell yourself when actually you are holding out hope of getting back together with your ex. These excuses are preventing you from moving on to find someone who will adore you, and treat you with the love and respect you deserve.

The only reason you need to keep contact with an ex is if you have children together. If you do, keep all communication about the kids. To get over your breakup, you need to separate on an emotional, physical, and psychological level from the person you are trying to get over. The most effective way to do that is to stop stalking or talking to your ex.

It’s recommended to cut off all forms of communication and have no contact. Make the decision that you’re not going to call, email, message or text, and you’re not going to answer if your ex contacts you. And don’t have sex with them - this just delays and increases your pain. It’s hard to get over someone when you are still getting under them. Delete their texts, emails, get rid of any photos (or put them in a folder and hide it on your computer) and block them on social media. You must commit to no contact and then do your best to stick to it no matter what happens. Trust me, this will help speed up the process.

4. Create an aversion to your ex 

If you are having a hard time letting go, you may be thinking of only the positives about the person and the relationship and conveniently forgetting the negatives. We move away from pain and towards pleasure, so it helps to focus on the negative aspects of your ex. If you can’t think of any, I want you to make some up.

Imagine them naked with horrible hygiene, the most unattractive body type you can imagine and the worst case of multiple STD’s you can think of. Rotting teeth, terrible breath, sores and pus oozing from their genitals - at least the ones you can see through the masses of body hair. Most of us can think of a person who fills us with disgust, imagine that person’s face super-imposed over the person you want to forget. Your brain will want to change the channel and think about something instead.

5. What did you gain in your relationship?

When you fall in love, the love and acceptance you feel will make you feel happy even when the two of you are apart. The amazing thing about falling in love is you start to believe that you are attractive, appreciated, desired, special and worthy. It’s important to realise that you or your ex didn’t imagine these qualities. Someone else wouldn't have seen them in you, even momentarily, if these qualities weren't part of who you are.

Make a list of all the qualities you allowed yourself to believe to possess when you saw yourself reflected in adoring eyes. Write them on your mirror, on post-it notes you place around your home, or even set them as reminders on your phone, so they pop up during the day. I’m intelligent and interesting. I'm gorgeous and sexy. I'm hilarious. I'm amazing. I am good enough right now, just as I am.

You allowed yourself to feel that way in your relationship. Those positive feelings didn’t come from the other person, they came from within you. Feeling in love is feeling in the flow of love, something you can allow yourself to feel at any time. We just put a lid on it most of the time and only allow that feeling to flow when we are around, or thinking of another person.

6. Date other people 

Everyone is different, but I find meeting someone new one of the most helpful things you can do to move on. You deserve to be with someone who loves and adores you and staying home and making out with your misery after a few months isn’t sensible, it’s being a martyr. Just make sure you don’t rant about your ex. You will come off much more attractive if you are discreet about your past lovers.

One of the best times for figuring out who you are, what’s holding you back and what you really want out of life, is right after a break-up. Your ex has set you free to meet a partner who will adore you and never want to let you go. Heartbreak is an opportunity to become a stronger version of you and change your life for the better. A you that is more aware, more confident and more capable of lasting love.


Photo / Getty

Books I recommend:

It’s Called a Breakup Because It’s Broken: The Smart Girl’s Breakup Buddy by Greg Behrendt & Amiira Ruotola-Behrendt

Getting Past Your Breakup: How to Turn a Devastating Loss into the Best Thing That Ever Happened to You by Susan J. Elliott