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How to Reclaim Your Life After a Tough Breakup

Grieve, but don't beat yourself up for "failing."

Key points

  • Separation is a painful experience, but we often add to our misery with our self-critical thoughts.
  • Reclaiming our dignity requires allowing ourselves to grieve, which means making room for the full range of our feelings.
  • Life often brings painful experiences, and we often increase our suffering through toxic self-blame.
Pixabay Image by Vic_B
Source: Pixabay Image by Vic_B

Few things are more heartbreaking than separating from someone we’ve loved. The shock of a sudden ending and being alone can be overwhelming. Indeed, breaking up is hard to do. How can we tap inner resources to help us heal, find inner peace, and reclaim our dignity?

A psychologically sound view of working with adversity can be drawn from the Buddhist story of the two arrows. The first arrow is what life brings us–the sense of loss or sudden shock of losing our partner. That comfort, familiarity, and connection are no longer available. If there was a gradual separation, our grief might be less acute. But there can still be the shocking finality of losing your partner.

A sudden breakup is gut-wrenching. The realization that the relationship isn’t what we thought it was can undermine our sense of reality. A painful reality begins to sink in–something we thought was secure turns out to be unstable.

If the separation was sudden, perhaps triggered by a betrayal or unilateral decision by one person, we might feel excruciatingly raw and vulnerable. The shock of such an announcement can be brutal and traumatic. Being unable to understand what’s happening and why–and having little voice in the matter–can leave us powerless and unspeakably sad.

Grieving is our organism's natural way of healing from pain. A path forward opens as we meet our feelings with as much gentleness as possible. We must find a middle path between avoiding them and being overwhelmed by them. Finding the right distance from feelings is one aspect of Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing approach, which aids us in finding a gentle and friendly attitude toward the full range of our emotions.

Are You Berating Yourself?

According to Buddhist thought, the first arrow is the unpredictability of life piercing our heart–the shock, the loss, the disorientation. But it’s the second arrow that generates the bulk of our suffering. This is the one that sneaks up on us from the inside–the arrow we direct toward ourselves without being aware of it.

We have little control over the haphazard arrows that life shoots at us, whether in our love life (separation), work-life (losing our job), or family life (a loved one dies). But importantly, we have more control over whether we release that second arrow toward ourselves–the arrow of self-blame, self-hatred, and shame that makes our grieving more complicated and devastating.

The pain of unavoidable, “necessary losses, “as author Judith Viorst calls it–is intensified by the anguish generated by self-criticism and shame. Then not only do we feel loss and grief, but we conclude that something is wrong with us for feeling what are normal human emotions.

We may be plagued by repetitive thoughts that we’re somehow to blame for the separation. Or we may think something is wrong with us for feeling so distressed. Very common self-judging self-talk might include zappers such as:

  • Where did I mess up? Was it me who screwed this up?
  • I should be over this by now! What’s wrong with me that I can’t let go and move on?
  • Will I ever recover from this loss?
  • How did I create this mess?
  • What a failure I am!

We need to notice and replace such negative thoughts with more gentle self-talk, such as “I can’t control others’ decisions” or “I need to bring loving-kindness to myself and stop blaming myself for what happened." However, this is not to say that we had no responsibility in the matter. But there’s a huge difference between blaming ourselves and taking responsibility for what might have been our part, however small it might be. Being paralyzed by self-blame can freeze our ability to soften our grief and inquire calmly and soberly about how things got off track.

Perhaps we didn’t listen well or minimize our partner’s grievances. Maybe there were misattunements or miscommunications that we can grow from. Did we cling to self-comforting assumptions? Were we in the habit of blaming our partner for everything that wasn’t going well? Did we not show enough interest in our partner’s world? Did we assume that our partner felt the same way about our relationship?

If we’re paralyzed by shame–convinced that we’re flawed or defective–we’re not likely to slow down, inquire into what happened, and learn from our experience. Instead, we may enter a shame spiral and succumb to depression and hopelessness. Or instead of blaming ourselves, we may become fixated on shooting toxic arrows at the other person–succumbing to revenge fantasies and recriminations that perpetuate our suffering rather than further our healing.

Another pitfall of being self-critical is that it prevents us from recognizing positive things about ourselves. Can we validate how we opened our hearts and took the risk to love? Without such risk-taking, we live in bubble wrap, which may protect us from rejection and separation but keeps us in a prison of loneliness.

Honoring Our Worth and Value

In her classic book The Couples Journey, Susan Campbell tells us that some relationships are learning relationships rather than mated ones. They are a preparation for a better relationship in the future as we become wiser.

Life is a series of challenging learning experiences. If we can awake to how we’re aiming that second arrow toward ourselves, we have more control over whether shoot that arrow or relax into ourselves–grieving our loss with self-respect and dignity.

Separation, loss, and betrayal are painful events for everyone. If we add self-blame to the mix, our suffering intensifies. Shame is the sticky glue that keeps us stuck–feeding our inner critic in unhelpful, repetitive ruminations.

The ongoing challenge of our life is to honor our worth and value as a person regardless of whatever happens to us. By bringing mindfulness to difficult situations, we can differentiate our unavoidable pain from the self-generated suffering of berating ourselves for what happens to us. Holding ourselves with dignity, we can grieve, learn, and move on with our self-respect intact, even if temporarily bruised.

© John Amodeo

Facebook image: Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock

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