5 Ways to Rewrite Your Breakup Story and Feel Better
How to make sense of and feel better about a breakup
Posted Jun 06, 2019
As a therapist, I hear a lot of breakup stories. Many people come to therapy because they’re struggling to “get over” someone. They often feel stuck in their pain, as if life will never be good again. They say that all they want is to get back to feeling like themselves, yet, their mind is preoccupied by the other person, what they lost, and what went wrong.
While any experience of loss can be painful, what keeps us trapped in our suffering has a lot to do with the stories we tell ourselves about what happened. We often feel compelled to keep telling ourselves, our friends, or even a therapist, the same story over and over again. In reality, these stories can have a lot more to do with our own psychology than they do with the actual circumstances of the breakup. They are usually heavily influenced by negative overlays from our personal past. In fact, the event of losing a relationship can be like one misstep into a sinkhole of old, unresolved stories and emotions.
So, what can we do about this? The good news is that there are certain strategies we can use to shift our mindset from ruminating about the breakup to having a clear and compassionate understanding of ourselves as well as a path forward. We can start by doing the following:
1. Pay attention to your critical inner voice.
Each person has a “critical inner voice,” a side of themselves that is turned against them and their circumstances. This “voice” frequently becomes intense after a breakup, twisting a person’s experience through a distorted filter.
For example, it can put the person down with thoughts like, “She hates you. You’re worthless without her.” It can make them feel sorry for themselves, “How could he hurt you like this? You’ll always be alone. No one will love you.” It can put their ex on a pedestal, “She was perfect. You’ll never find anyone else like her.” It can appear to be acting in their interest, while actually offering terrible advice, “Just stay in and have another drink. You’re not up for seeing friends.” It can even build a person up in ways that are destructive, “You were too good for him. You should never fall for anyone again.”
These voices can generate a story far from the reality of what occurred between two people. Recognizing and countering these thoughts with a more compassionate, balanced view of oneself and one’s partner can help break the hold these thoughts have, reduce the misery they are inducing, and begin the process of creating a more balanced view of the situation
2. Let go of the fantasy of love.
When people separate, they not only lose the actual relationship, but they also lose any fantasy of love and illusion of connection that was operating. They no longer have the false sense of safety they derived from a fantasy of being merged with their relationship partner.
A "fantasy bond" is a concept developed by my father, psychologist Robert Firestone. When a fantasy bond develops real acts of love and relating are gradually replaced by the form of being in a relationship. When two people rely on each other to feel whole, they lose themselves in the process, forgoing independence, and often attraction, in the interest of feeling safe as part of a united couple. Sadly, the way they treat each other starts to deteriorate, and genuine feelings of aliveness, admiration, and affection start to drain from the relationship.
When the fantasy bond is broken, each partner feels like they are losing a part of themselves. They think they need the other person to continue to exist. They may indulge in a fantasy of how the relationship was, remembering and aggrandizing the best of times. Their partner may become a superstar in their eyes, making it much more difficult to move on from the split.
The reality is that usually things in a relationship were not going very well before the breakup took place, and maintaining that fantasy connection is part of what’s causing and sustaining their pain. Letting go of the fantasy bond will stir up anxiety about being a separate person on one’s own. But the truth is, each of us is a whole person, and we do not need a relationship to complete us. The feeling of safety in a fantasy bond is an illusion for which we pay a price. Facing this can be freeing and the beginning of healing.
3. Adopt a growth mindset.
Some people are naturally more resilient when a breakup occurs than others. Studies have shown that both a person’s attachment history and their mindset contribute to whether the person recovers from or remains mired in the pain of rejection. A person with a “fixed mindset” sees personality as more set in stone and tends to blame themselves and their “toxic personalities” for a breakup. They also tend to regard future relationships as less hopeful.
On the other hand, a person with a “growth mindset” tends to see their personalities as something that can be altered or developed. They’re able to look at the breakup as an opportunity to grow and change, and they’re hopeful that their romantic future will improve, and future relationships will go better. Unsurprisingly, people with this type of mindset recover from a breakup much more quickly.
We can actively work to develop a growth mindset and become more resilient in the process. We can start to see challenges, even breakups, as a chance for development and personal growth.
4. Practice self-compassion.
A recent study of people who experienced a breakup showed that practicing self-compassion can be one of the most effective tools for overcoming a rejection or breakup. “If you pick all of the variables that predict how people will do after their marriage ends, self-compassion really carries the day,” wrote University of Arizona researcher Dr. David Sbarra.
Self-compassion is very different from victimization. Dr. Kristin Neff, a lead researcher on the subject, has defined self-compassion as having three components. The first is favoring self-kindness over self-judgment, treating yourself like you would a friend going through the same thing. The second is practicing mindfulness rather than over-identifying with thoughts, which means a person can acknowledge all of their thoughts and feelings, but they don’t have to get swept up in them. For instance, they can acknowledge that they’re having thoughts about their ex without feeling compelled to repeat the same stories about the person or ruminating on a particular point about what happened. The last component of self-compassion is to favor common humanity over isolation. A person can feel so isolated after a separation, and yet, most everyone has been through what they’re struggling with. Seeing their suffering is part of a common human experience can help a person avoid feeling victimized or different in some deep, negative way.
5. Create a coherent narrative.
Using the above tools to shift their perspective, a person can start to tell a more coherent, compassionate story of their breakup that helps them move on even stronger. The most important thing to remember in this process is to focus on yourself. In a relationship and a breakup, a person only has control over themselves. Yet, when they break up, it’s common to get completely caught up in focusing on the other person. “What was she thinking?” “How could he do this to me?” It’s also easier to tell stories about the other person than ourselves, “He just went crazy.” “She got scared and ran away.”
The only person we can change is ourselves, and the only way we can grow is by looking at what we brought to the table in our relationship. If you’re trying to tell the story of your relationship, it’s valuable to investigate not why your partner treated you badly, but why you were drawn to that type of treatment. What actions did you take that created distance? What are some of the less favorable aspects of the relationship that compelled you? What draws you back to those things now as you long for the other person? Here are some questions that can inspire self-reflection and help a person take a more truthful look at what they really lost in the breakup.
- Why did you choose the person you chose?
- Did they have traits similar to your early caretakers’?
- What were you drawn to about the person when they started to reject you?
- How did you act toward the person?
- What motivated your actions (from infidelity to distancing behaviors)?
- Why did you tolerate negative treatment?
- Was this treatment familiar from your past?
- What thoughts or feelings made you choose to stay?
- What are you drawn to about the other person now?
- Did you lose a sense of your separate identity in this relationship?
- Did you give up important aspects of your self in an attempt to please your partner?
When reflecting on these questions, remember to continue to practice self-compassion. The point of looking at ourselves isn’t to take all the blame or let our inner critic run rampant, but to create a deeper understanding of ourselves and the patterns we bring to a relationship. By getting to know ourselves and our patterns, we not only free ourselves from much of the pain of a breakup, but we orient ourselves to make better choices in the future, both in the partners we select and how we relate to a loved one over time.
To learn more, join Dr. Lisa Firestone for a Webinar on "Overcoming Breakups and Rejection."