Even though breakups are such a common human thing to go through, they can really be devastating for the psyche. In this short article I summarise my experiences of working with clients going through difficult breakups, the common pitfalls to watch out for and I provide some insights into how therapy can help deal with the aftermath of a difficult breakup.
Going through a bad breakup is a nasty experience. Period. There is no getting away from the pain, there is no easy fix, it hurts a lot. The longer the relationship, the closer the bond that was severed – the longer it takes to heal. What I hear from many of my clients, is that the more loving and full of intimacy the relationship was, the more crushing it is to experience a difficult breakup. You get lost in the contradictions of it – you loved your partner and then they let you down. There may be infidelity involved, stonewalling, bursts of anger or ghosting. Emotions fly high and trigger some people into extreme avoidance and others into extreme anxiety.
You may notice that your thoughts are looping, you are obsessing about some aspect of the breakup. You may find yourself going over and over again some detail of the relationship or the breakup. One minute you feel numb or completely ok, then you switch to you feeling drained, terrified, tense or empty. There is the feeling that time is dragging, you may feel a strong urge to reach out to your ex and check their social media. You may also get angry at the things that hurt you, angry at yourself for not stopping the relationship sooner or for not trying harder. In order to deal with all of this you go over internet forums, look for online advice or read articles on breakups. A lot of those will give you tips and when you read those tips you may become overwhelmed or guilty for not feeling strong enough to follow the advice of internet gurus.
When you’re going through an emotional rollercoaster like that, it may be tempting to distance yourself from your ex-partner and, by consequence, from the entire relationship and yourself in it. You may be tempted to experiment, seek out new relationships fast, try out new things, date people that are the opposite of your ex, do an Ayahuasca retreat, change your job or circle of friends – all of that just to get as far away as possible from the experience.
The difficult truth is that these experiments, however common, may lead you astray. They may be a natural part of the process but they may drive you away from the pain and, inadvertently, from yourself. After all, diving into that pain, guilt, and sorrow seems like you’re going mad. So you shield yourself by using distractions. It is natural, you are doing the best you can to save yourself, but this can also stop you from actually healing and moving forward.
First of all, it is important to remember that however painful this experience is, it does not mean you are damaged for life. It , does not mean you or your ex have a personality problem. These things happen and have always been happening. For some people, this may be a part of a larger pattern but this is not the time to be questioning yourself like this. However tempting it may be to use labels like “narcissistic” or “borderline” in reference to yourself or your ex, personality issues or patterns should never be diagnosed in a time of mental crisis or directly after a trauma. And a bad breakup can really be a trauma – it can be a life-threatening experience pushing even the healthiest of people into suicidal ideations, substance abuse, self-harm, or dangerous behaviours.
Second, however excruciating the experience is and however long your healing takes, it does not mean that you will never fall in love again or be happy. It just takes time. What is needed in a time like this is safety, familiarity, and time. You also need time to figure out your role in all of this, without beating yourself up but taking responsibility for your share and deciding which things you want to keep and which things you want to change. Changing everything, just like changing nothing, is not a good idea.
Third, it is extremely important to seek balance between giving yourself time to heal and taking smart actions to move things forward. My clients sometimes have a tendency for one or the other, and it is my job to balance this out. For people who are more prone to dwelling on the past, I might suggest trying something new or pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. For people who are more prone to doing, I might suggest taking a break or spending time reflecting on what you really want.
Finally, you need to monitor yourself for the things that you are blocking or avoiding. Is there any thought or feeling that you tend to turn away from? Do you block angry feelings or is there some persistent thought that keeps looping in your head? If you have noticed something like that, try and do the opposite of what your instinct tells you to do. Look at that thought or feeling with curiosity rather than anxiety. You need to be careful of course so as not to overburden yourself but it is important to face these difficult areas if you want to avoid being triggered by them in your future relationships.
If you are feeling overwhelmed after a breakup, if you’re stuck or confused, a good therapist can help. Here’s a short list of key goals of therapy after a breakup:
1. Help you explore and better understand the patterns in your emotions and thoughts since the breakup, so that you can work towards healing and growth.
2. Support you in identifying the obstacles that may be holding you back from moving on, and help you find ways to overcome them.
3. Collaborate with you to create a personalised plan of action that addresses these obstacles and brings positive changes into your life.
4. Encourage you to gain a fresh perspective on your experiences through self-awareness, and help you navigate through the healing process.
5. Provide you with continuous support, encouragement, and a non-judgmental presence, as you navigate through this difficult time.
If you feel like you could use some support, please know that you don't have to go through it alone. I've helped many clients heal and move on after difficult breakups (and I have lived through one myself). Send a message, call me or book a single session directly through the website.