From someone who learned the hard way.
Having trouble learning how to get over a breakup and move on from your ex? Do you miss the way they looked at you? The way they smelled? The way their hand felt in yours? Do you think you see them walking down the street when really it’s a stranger? Do you still hear certain music that reminds you of them?
When someone takes up so much of your life, it’s impossible to get over them in a day or two. And while doing things like reading, walking, working out, journaling, and hanging out with friends can certainly be positive distractions, if you really want to deal with the root cause of the emotional pain you still feel, you’ll have to do things a little bit differently.
I have a secret to confess: I went through a breakup that took me several years to get over. She was intelligent, challenging, loving, kind, and beautiful. We dated for just over a year and the mark she left on my heart was undeniable.
I had imagined our futures together. Repeatedly. I pictured her smiling face looking up at me at our wedding. We had discussed what we would name our children. I fell in love with her, hard. And one day it was all over.
It took several painful years to get over her. Years of hiding myself emotionally and engaging in surface-level relationships.
I could have done it a lot sooner if I knew how to properly address what was really going on in my unconscious mind, and I want to help you get through things much faster, by laying out that process in this article.
Emotions are one of the most addictive things available to you. When you are in love with someone, your brain is hit with massive surges of dopamine (brain scans have shown that our minds follow very similar patterns when influenced by cocaine or nicotine).
When you no longer have access to your intimate partner (post-breakup), your brain doesn’t fall out of love with them, it simply continues to be in love with them, but you no longer have access to them. And like a crying baby who doesn’t have access to his mother that it so yearns for, our minds' “rejector stimulus” is on overdrive.
We simultaneously feel the pain of abandonment, the deep craving for a “fix” of our drug (aka partner) of choice, and our once-regular hits of dopamine and oxytocin are nowhere to be found. In fact, immediately after a breakup, your happy chemicals are replaced with a flood of cortisol (stress hormone) and adrenaline. It’s almost as if your body is saying “Here’s a rush of energy... time to get up! Either work your butt off to get that one back, or go make yourself a more valuable partner and find someone else!”
Long story short, if you were hooked up to a brain scanner, your brain after a painful breakup is highly similar to the brain of a drug addict in rehab. So if you're getting over a breakup, do these things first:
1. Remind yourself of the good, the bad, and the awful.
Part of the reason we get stuck in processing our breakup is that we idealize the relationship as a big collection of amazing, emotionally fulfilling times with very little downside. In reality, you fought frequently and there were core incompatibilities that drove you apart.
To get a more accurate view of your past relationship, journal about the things that you loved about the relationship, the things that bothered you about your ex, and your part in the downfall of the relationship.
2. Allow yourself space to grieve alone.
Take a few days (at least) to sit with your emotions and let them move through you.
Every time you resist feeling an emotion, it goes down to the basement to lift weights. So if you ignore the frustration, anger, resentment, hurt, or pain that is present in your body, it will only get stronger and come back louder than before until you listen to the signals.
3. Embody the "you" that felt the most stifled.
In any failed relationship there is bound to be a part of you that felt like it was discouraged by your ex. Maybe she didn’t like your playful side, or how much time you wanted to spend with your friends, or how much time you spent working on your business.
Whatever it was that felt dormant, go and inhabit that side of yourself to the fullest degree. You only suffer in a breakup to the extent that you lost yourself during the relationship, so there might be some leftover negative emotional residue if you felt like you weren’t fully allowed to be yourself around your partner.
4. Use your newfound energy for positive growth.
With the surge of adrenaline and cortisol that you get after a break up telling you to get up and get out (and numb yourself to the pain by partying and hooking up with others), you have a huge opportunity. Get your exercise routine-dialled, learn a new skill, or build a new business.
I have had clients who built successful seven-figure businesses from the surge of adrenaline they got from an especially painful breakup. Some of the best art in the world was made by people who had lost love. Utilize this current of emotional energy for your personal gain.
5. See your emotional process as a trend, not a linear path away from suffering.
If you expect your emotional suffering to decrease in a linear A to B straight line, you’re in for a rude awakening. Re-frame your processing of the breakup as something that generally trends upwards and you won’t be as taken aback by the down days (when you see something that reminds you of your ex, smell their perfume on someone, and so on).
So you’ve done everything listed above and it only feels like it’s affecting you on the logical level, and not on the deeper emotional level? Then I have one exercise left for you. And it’s one that gets right to the heart of the suffering.
Think back to your relationship with your partner, remember all of the good times and ask yourself one question: What is the overarching emotional benefit that you got from being with them specifically? It could be something along the lines of “She made me feel appreciated/proud/good about myself.”
Whatever that thing is, one of the reasons that you’re suffering this long after your breakup is because whatever she did for you is still a large void in your life. You may be emotionally and psychologically addicted to your ex because they were your only source of a certain emotion, thought, or feeling that you only got from them.
Some examples of this would be:
You have low self-esteem and she made you see yourself through her much more positive perspective.
You are reluctant to give yourself any praise for a job well done and she would lavish you with praise and congratulations.
You feel directionless in life and your relationship with her gave you a project to work on.
You aren’t good at keeping yourself accountable or on track with your goals and she helped you tremendously in this area of your life.
Whatever your ex gave you, you are likely still suffering because you barely give yourself any of the emotional benefit that she gave you tons of. So the action step part of this section is to start giving yourself the thing that she used to give you.
Like a bird who lands on a tree branch only to have it break out from underneath its feet, you still have wings. You can make yourself soar without her.
Do I still do mental gymnastics sometimes and begin convincing myself that I’m still not over her? Yes, I do. As do a handful of my clients that are engaged to other women. But our brains are experts at convincing ourselves (logically) that we want things that aren’t good for us (because we want them emotionally).
When I slow down for longer than a minute and think about why we broke up (several times), it was because we weren’t right for each other. She is my ex for a reason, just like yours is your ex for a reason. If it was meant to be then it would have been easier and you both would have fought to keep it going. But now it’s in the past and all that’s left to do is to let go of it.
They came into your life to teach you a lesson about yourself, and now it’s time to gracefully let go of that person. You are better off for having known them, and you both bumped into each other on your life’s journey so you can better prepare each other for your next respective relationships.