It doesn’t matter if it was your idea, if you both agreed it would be better, if you fought, or if he just up and left. Breakups hurt. You might not have thought you would need to heal from a breakup like this one, but here you are–heartbroken.
At first, you just felt numb or maybe in shock that it was over.
Then you found yourself getting angry over little things or crying about seemingly nothing. Eventually, maybe it was hard to get out of bed in the morning.
Even worse if it was a breakup during the holidays. You had all these plans and expectations for what this special time of year was supposed to be, and now you’re at home alone eating ice cream from the carton.
Or maybe you just can’t accept that the relationship is over.
How do you let go of someone you don’t want to let go of? How do you heal from a breakup when you’re pretty sure it’s impossible that you’re actually broken up? When you feel like the other person was a part of yourself?
Now your whole world is turned upside down. You’re at a loss and you don’t know what to do with yourself.
Before You Heal from a Breakup
If you have gone through a breakup or divorce, you may spend weeks, months, or even years feeling any or all of the following emotions:
The hurt after a breakup can come from any number of thoughts and feelings. You’re wondering how he could break up with you, or how you could do it to him.
Being alone can also hurt, especially in significant times in your life like the markings of anniversaries, holidays, or achievements
Back to whatever caused the breakup—you might still feel angry about the action or event that pulled the two of you apart. You might feel mad about the breakup itself, angry that he called it quits, or angry that he pushed you to end things.
It’s possible you might feel anger over being alone, or over being left with whatever remnants of the relationship you now have to take care of yourself.
Finally, you may be feeling some shame in the aftermath of the breakup.
You may feel shame or regret about how it ended or why.
Or maybe you feel broken. Like something’s wrong with you. Wondering why you’re dealing with yet another breakup. Wondering if you’ll ever be loved again.
Why Breakups Feel So Painful
A breakup is a loss. Losses hurt.
If you are in emotional pain due to loss, your body may hurt physically. That’s because our brain codes the emotional pain of rejection or exclusion the same way as physical pain (Eisenberger et al., 2003).
So that “heartache” can actually make your chest or stomach hurt (Laslocky, 2013).
That doesn’t mean you’re in physical danger, but a breakup can hurt just as bad as a physical blow.
How You Cope with Heartache
You may be one to ignore your feelings. You move on quickly, get busy with work, and avoid your feelings. Or you occupy yourself by dating again.
And when grief comes up, what do you do? Drink? Eat? Binge watch every episode of your favorite show?
Numbing like this with work, alcohol, or other distractions turns down the intensity of the feelings.
But the feelings and the hurt are there for a reason. They are important signals that can cue you in to your need for support.
If you’re prone to an anxious response, you amplify your feelings of distress by ruminating and beating yourself up. You’re certain you did something that caused the breakup. Or you shame yourself with self-talk like, “I’m not loveable,” “It’s my fault,” “If I were (skinnier, more fun, less stressed, etc.) he would have stayed.”
And when anger comes up, what do you do? Text your ex? Stalk him on social media or badmouth him to your friends?
All of these coping actions serve a purpose, to try to manage the pain and grief of the breakup—but the pain is still there, buried deep inside.
Effective Coping to Heal from a Breakup
To heal from a breakup, you have to encounter your feelings. Allow space for all of them: grief, sadness, relief, shame, anger, and anything else that comes up.
You need to mourn your relationship.
The relationship was a huge part of your life, your idea of yourself, and your plans for the future. Now it is gone, and those ideas are undergoing the painful process of change.
That said, keep in mind grief is very individual. Everyone has their own timeline. But the key is always taking the time to process your feelings before you move on. Allow yourself to cry and experience the heartbreak for as long as it takes.
It can also be helpful to talk with a friend or journal for the opportunity to name what you’re feeling. Research has shown that when you can identify and label your feelings they are easier to manage (Lieberman et al., 2007)
Can you heal from a breakup if you don’t process your feelings?
While you might have moved on from your newly ended relationship, there are several consequences to avoiding your feelings after the breakup.
1. You can bring emotional baggage into a new relationship. If you’re not aware of your tendencies, needs, and triggers in a relationship, you are likely to repeat the same pattern again.
2. You may not feel open for future relationships. Some people struggle to find a renewed sense of romance after a breakup. Instead, you guard yourself in your next relationships and are never truly present and vulnerable with your new partner.
3. You’re more easily triggered. You now find it difficult to tolerate emotions regardless of what prompted them. Instead, you push them down. And emotions you didn’t deal with before will come up when you least expect them. For example, you explode when a coworker or your new partner says something that sounds like your ex.
How Counseling Can Help You Heal from a Breakup
You don’t have to do it alone
It’s hard to process a breakup on your own, but therapy can help.
The simple experience of not being alone with your pain is already therapeutic.
If you can encounter your grief, anger, shame, and longing to have the person back and share that with your counselor, it can be a healing experience. It helps you honor your feelings and move through them so they can pass.
Counseling also helps you make sense of what you’re feeling, especially if the emotions seem contradictory. It can help you express anger when you didn’t have the chance to. And help you say what you didn’t get the chance to say.
More than anything, therapy will have calming effect. You will be able to tolerate and express emotion so that it doesn’t get triggered and explode unexpectedly.
In therapy, you can learn how to trust your own experience. How to identify and soothe your own signals of pain and hurt.
Empowerment—Confidence that your next relationships can be even better
Counseling can help you become aware of how you deal with this unbearable grief, shame, anger, and trauma of losing someone important.
Your current strategy for dealing with these emotions becomes conscious, at which point you have the opportunity to change strategy if you choose. Additionally, counseling may help you shape a strategy that works better for your next relationships.
Knowing what you do and how you deal is empowering. It gives you choices and options (Bugatti, 2022).
Opens You up for a New Relationship
Another result of the work you do in counseling is the planting of hope in the possibility of things being different the next time. Your new awareness can offer hope of escaping any negative cycles you’ve found yourself in with past relationships.
It can get you ready for dating again, even if right now you can’t imagine getting to a place where you can open your heart again.
Ultimately, therapy will help you trust your own experience and resilience again even if it’s painful. Therapy can help you understand what happened in the relationship and what you do in response. And when you’re conscious of what you do and how it makes you feel, you have more power to change it.
About Dr. Irena
For over 20 years, Dr. Irena has helped women heal from breakups, process the complicated emotions, and find empowerment in their steps forward. She currently offers counseling in Houston, The Woodlands, and New York. If you are interested in working with her through your own breakup, email her for a free 10-minute virtual consultation: firstname.lastname@example.org or call (281)-267-1742.
Bugatti, A. (2022, January 2, 2022). We Heart Therapy In EP 69: Using EFT for Individuals (EFIT) healing from Break Ups – Featuring EFT Trainer Helene Igwebuike. https://wehearttherapy.podbean.com/
Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302(5643), 290-292.
Laslocky, M. (2013). This is Your Brain on Heartbreak. Greater Good Magazine. Retrieved January 20, 2022, from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/this_is_your_brain_on_heartbreak
Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M. J., Tom, S. M., Pfeifer, J. H., & Way, B. M. (2007). Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling Disrupts Amygdala Activity in Response to Affective Stimuli. . Psychological Science, 18(5), 421-428.