It’s no understatement to say a broken heart is akin to bereavement and as with grieving – there’s no definitive time frame for recovery or blueprint for how it will affect you. A broken-hearted friend once told me, ‘the first year was bad, the second year was worse and by the third year I thought I was going mad’. Author Howard Jacobson captures the pain of heartbreak in his novel The Finkler Question, ‘Just when you think you’ve overcome the grief you are left with the loneliness’. I’ve known people who have never recovered from their broken heart and years later still hold on to that sense of loss.
As well as the grief, a break-up can be a serious dent to the ‘ego’ – our sense of who we are. Caught up in a cycle of anger, self-blame and forensic questioning of what went wrong, it’s not unreasonable to ask, ‘why has this happened to me?’ At a deeper level you may be left with a nagging sense of not being good enough … of being incapable of love … of being unlovable.
So it’s perhaps no surprise that 40% of people who are going through heartbreak experience clinically recognisable depression.
Some of those people may consider counselling – after all, the basic intention of counselling is to alleviate psychological pain and suffering. But perhaps frustratingly for some, counselling doesn’t generally offer a ‘quick fix’ – and for good reason – the gains can be short-term too and rarely begin to address underlying issues, which then remain unexplored, ready to cause more heartbreak in the future.
As the author and psychotherapist Thomas Moore writes in his New York Times bestseller Care of the Soul:
‘The trouble with some of our modern therapies and psychologies is that they aim at goals that are known – fantasies or normality or unquestioned values … but there are times when we may need to be weak and powerless, vulnerable and open to experience. In relation to the symptom itself, observance means first of all listening and looking carefully at what is being revealed in the suffering. An intent to heal can get in the way of seeing.’
Without doubt, taking time to reflect on your experience of relationships – within a context of your relationship history and background – can help you to understand why you respond the way you do to heartbreak.
I truly believe that this long-form, non-linear way of exploring and healing heartbreak is the way to go, but I can’t help being drawn to the promise of a quick fix – let’s be honest it is appealing – especially when the pain is so visceral and your sense of resilience is on its knees!
So I was intrigued to come across psychotherapist Guy Winch’s Ted Talk on How To Heal A Broken Heart. His opening battle cry is, ‘getting out of heartbreak isn’t a journey … it’s a fight.’
Guy poses a question that is the paradox of the broken-hearted:
‘Why do so many of us flounder when we try and get through heartbreak? Why do the same coping mechanisms that get us through so many of life’s challenges fail us so miserably when our heart is broken?’
The answer is that many of our coping mechanisms are either well-armoured defences – which in day-to-day life are social survival techniques – or our vulnerability, which we generally only show when trust has been built.
The problem with being broken-hearted is that our well-armoured defences numb not only the pain, but also joy and any potential for being open to love. As for vulnerability – that doesn’t get a look in when our trust has been damaged – basically, the heart and brain have ganged up and are saying ‘let’s not go there again’.
So it’s perhaps no surprise that Guy has put together a three-step plan to help you get though heartbreak.
Step 1: Stop the unnecessary search for explanation for why it didn’t work.
From today you need to accept it’s over. It is finished. Your ex has decided, for whatever reason, to walk away. There’s no point in trying to work out why – it’s over – end of. And do not – I repeat do not – hold out for hope.
As Guy says, ‘Hope can be incredibly destructive when your heart is broken’.
This is going to be tough, so you’re going to need to remind yourself how badly your ex treated you.
Do not idealise them – do not focus on the ‘good times’ – stop feeding your addiction to your ex.
If this means writing down in your phone all the times they did something mean or were unkind, do it. And look at that list when you start to think about them. I guarantee it will be a long list too.
Step 2: Stop giving your ex a starring role in your life.
The next chapter of your life is about to begin. Imagine turning that page over. There’s a story ahead – which let’s be honest, your ex doesn’t deserve to have a starring role in. They don’t even deserve to be an extra.
There is no going back – it’s time to move on. Deep down you know that.
And if you hear a tiny voice inside you saying – ‘but I want them – not anyone else’ – go back to step 1 and remind yourself of why they weren’t right for you – you know what I’m talking about – all the times they did something mean, unkind or hostile.
Step 3: ‘If a broken heart has shattered your sense of identity or derailed your social life – it’s time to reach out and identify the voids’.
The temptation of course is to hide away, and whilst taking some time out to reflect and lick your wounds can be cathartic, you will also need to balance that with getting out there. This is tough, but you have to do it. And when I say out there – I mean with other people. Do something that involves sunshine, exercise and fresh air and all the ‘feelgood’ biological chemicals will start moving through the body.
But working through a broken heart is not about trying to control how you feel – to an extent it has to be endured.
Don’t hold on to the past or worry about finding love again in the future. Being in the here and now is essential for healing. Give yourself a break from the cognitive overload of heart break and if necessary have Guy’s ‘cheat sheets’ at hand to help you do that.
As the author Najwa Zebian writes:
‘Sometimes we give love to the wrong person, and we sit there and wonder, ‘how could I have given love to that person? They don’t even deserve it, or ‘what a waste of time.’ But the thing is, you shouldn’t think about it that way. You should think of the fact that you were able to give love, because if you are able to give, that means you have it inside you.’