Turning Your Breakup into a Breakthrough

What research can teach us about useful strategies for healing heartache.

Posted Jun 29, 2020

Stas Knop/Shutterstock,
Source: Stas Knop/Shutterstock

The pain of dealing with a breakup is universal and relatable. When breakups occur, they often stir up fears of being alone, of never loving again, and of being isolated. When you break up with someone, you’re not just grieving the loss of the relationship but also the loss of the hopes and dreams you shared together.

Ultimately, we all want to know that we’re not alone and that we’ll get through this. Despite the universality of breakups, there is no manual for how to get over them (if only!), as no two breakups are the same. How long it takes to heal from a breakup is dependent on a variety of factors and differs for each person.

As painful as breakups can be, there is often an upside to this arduous process, even if it’s not readily apparent. Hard as it may be to believe, breakups can frequently lead to breakthroughs. Breakups can provide the space to reconnect with yourself, grow, and reflect on ways to apply the lessons you’ve learned moving forward. Although there is no manual for how to get over a breakup, below are tips that can help you cope as you’re grieving your breakup: 

1. Take time to grieve and acknowledge the conflicted feelings that may arise. Acknowledge the grief and allow yourself to process the emotions that come with it. When you’re grieving a loss, you may feel tempted to suppress your painful emotions, but doing so will ultimately prolong the process of moving on. We often assume that avoiding painful emotions will bring us relief when the opposite is true. When you allow yourself to experience painful emotions, they lose their power over you and provide you with the ability to notice and enjoy the positive emotions when they do arise. It’s also important to remind yourself during this time that you can miss someone and still not want them back in your life.  

2. Focus on the relationships that help you thrive. Reach out for support from the friends and loved ones that you trust. It will help you feel less isolated but also has the added benefit of strengthening the relationships in your life that you value.

3. Reflect on the reasons the relationship ended. Chances are, as painful as it might be, there are some valid reasons why this relationship ended. Focusing primarily on the positive memories related to the relationship will likely intensify feelings of heartbreak and can prevent having a balanced view of the relationship.  

Results from this study showed that intentionally reflecting about an ex-partner’s negative qualities can reduce attachment to an ex-partner and assist with healing from a breakup. If you find yourself feeling tempted to reach out to your ex, or you can’t stop thinking about the positive memories you shared, it can help to write out their negative qualities and/or the dissatisfying parts of the relationship, then refer back to this list when you need a reminder of the reasons why you broke up in the first place. 

Also, take time to consider if you notice a particular relationship pattern repeating (such as being drawn to the same type of partner repeatedly or all your relationships ending in the same manner, etc.). If you do notice a pattern, it can be helpful to reflect on what your role is in this pattern and where this pattern may stem from. When you’re ready, journal about what you learned from this breakup that you can apply to your other relationships moving forward. 

4. Prioritize your self-care. When coping with a breakup, it can be tempting to dive headfirst into several pints of ice cream and repeated Netflix binges. It’s important to meet yourself where you are and allow yourself the time and space to engage in these types of activities without shaming yourself. 

However, when you feel ready, you may also want to prioritize the basics that fuel your body, since doing so can help prime you to cope with the breakup in an adaptive manner that feels more manageable. If you’re not sure where to start, consider realistic ways that you can engage in eating nourishing foods, moving your body regularly, and getting adequate sleep. It may feel overwhelming to make too many changes at once, so consider how you can start to incorporate small changes in these three areas of your life. 

5. Be mindful of social media use and limit contact with your ex. Staying in contact with an ex when you haven’t moved on yet can be a painful reminder of what you lost. Research has demonstrated that keeping tabs on your ex-partner’s social media activity can increase distress related to the breakup and potentially prolong the inability to move on.

Seeing videos, posts, texts, and/or emails from your ex may initially feel good, but ultimately it can create false hope of reconciling, contribute to feelings of jealousy, further exacerbate your distress, and prolong the healing process. If you’re still friends with your ex on social media, consider blocking them or temporarily removing their posts from your feed. If they are still texting or emailing you, consider blocking them for the moment or telling them you don’t want to have contact right now. 

6. Engage in new activities or hobbies you enjoy. Use this time to explore hobbies or interests you may have been putting on the backburner. If you’re not sure where to start, consider taking a fun class where you try a new activity or try reflecting on activities that brought you joy when you were younger.  

7. Practice self-compassion. When you’re going through a breakup, it can be tempting to blame yourself for mistakes you made or worry that you may never find love again, but doing so can narrow your perspective and exacerbate your pain during a time when you need support the most. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Arizona found that participants coping with a divorce who had a high level of self-compassion experienced fewer symptoms of distress when compared to other participants who had lower levels of self-compassion. 

The good news is that you can cultivate more self-compassion through a variety of exercises. An example of one such exercise would be to imagine if a trusted friend were in a similar situation. Would you berate your friend when they’re feeling down and tell them that they’ll never find love again? Rather than agreeing with their negative self-talk, you would likely provide them with support and comfort. Think about what you would tell this friend and apply these same statements to yourself. 

8. Reflect about previous times you’ve experienced a breakup or another painful experience. Reflecting about a previous time in your life that was painful may sound counterintuitive but can actually help you to heal from a breakup. Often when we experience a breakup or other difficult time period in our lives, we may fear that things won’t get better, but they often do eventually.

There is no doubt that being in pain isn’t fun, but it can also contribute to experiencing growth and beginning to recognize strengths you didn’t know you had. Thinking back to these previous times in your life and remembering that you made it through—as well as reflecting on what helped you get through those difficult periods—can help instill hope and give you important information about tools you can use to help yourself cope this time around. 

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional or psychological advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your mental health professional or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding your condition or well-being.  

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Langeslag, S. J. E., & Sanchez, M. E. (2018). Down-regulation of love feelings after a romantic break-up: Self-report and electrophysiological data. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147(5), 720–733. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000360

Marshall, T. C. (2012). Facebook Surveillance of Former Romantic Partners: Associations with PostBreakup Recovery and Personal Growth. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15(10), 521–526. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2012.0125

Sbarra, D. A., Smith, H. L., & Mehl, M. R. (2012). When Leaving Your Ex, Love Yourself. Psychological Science, 23(3), 261–269. https://doi.org/10.1177/095679761142946