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Robert D Stolorow Ph.D.
Robert D Stolorow Ph.D.


Heartbreak is the signature emotion of authentic existence.

One of Martin Heidegger's most important contributions to existential philosophy was his emphasis on the central role of affectivity or emotionality in disclosing constitutive features of human existing. For example, the experience of existential anxiety (Angst), according to him, reveveals an authentic owning-up to our "Being-toward-death"--to our temporal finitude as essential to our intelligibility to ourselves.

In my own work (Stolorow 2011), I claim that authentic Being-toward-death entails owning up not only to our own finitude, but also to the finitude of all those we love. Hence, I contend, authentic Being-toward-death always includes Being-toward-loss as a central constituent. Just as, existentially, we are “always dying already” (Heidegger), so too are we always already grieving. Death and loss are existentially equiprimordial. The finitude of human existing is disclosed not ony in anxiety but in grief and heartbreak as well.

Poet David Whyte (2015) captures beautifully the extent to which heartbreak is built in to our caring engagement in the world, wherein heartbreak and mattering go hand-in-hand.

"HEARTBREAK is unpreventable; the natural outcome of caring for people and things over which we have no control, of holding in our affections those who inevitably move beyond our line of sight. Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot, in other words, it colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day; heartbreak is not a visitation, but a path that human beings follow through even the most average life. Heartbreak is our indication of sincerity: in a love relationship, in a work, in trying to learn a musical instrument, in the attempt to shape a better more generous self. Heartbreak is the beautifully helpless side of love and affection and is just as much an essence and emblem of care as the spiritual athlete’s quick but abstract ability to let go. Heartbreak has its own way of inhabiting time and its own beautiful and trying patience in coming and going.

"Heartbreak is inescapable; yet we use the word as if it only occurs when things have gone wrong: an unrequited love, a shattered dream, a child lost before their time. Heartbreak, we hope, is something we hope we can avoid; something to guard against, a chasm to be carefully looked for and then walked around; the hope is to find a way to place our feet where the elemental forces of life will keep us in the manner to which we want to be accustomed and which will also keep us from the losses that all other human beings have experienced without exception since the beginning of conscious time. But heartbreak may be the very essence of being human, of being on the journey from here to there, and of coming to care deeply for what we find along the way…"


Stolorow, R. D. (2011). World, Affectivity, Trauma: Heidegger and Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge. Link:

Whyte, D. (2015). Consolations. Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press.

Copyright Robert Stolorow

About the Author
Robert D Stolorow Ph.D.

Robert D. Stolorow, Ph.D., is one of the original members of the International Council for Psychoanalytic Self Psychology, which stems from the work of Heinz Kohut.

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