After the Break-Up: When Moving On Seems Impossible
How to release the grip of a lost relationship and reclaim your life.
Posted Feb 22, 2015
When a relationship is over, feelings of rejection can numb your sense of self and wreck your balance. For many jilted lovers, the first impulse is to try to fix what’s broken or recover what was lost. But often, the beloved has moved on and reconciliation is not possible. And still, you persist. How can you ever move on?
One of my most popular posts is “Coping with Distress and Agony after a Break-Up.” It lists strategies and affirmations that can soothe feelings of rejection, decrease obsessions, and reduce the desire to maintain contact with the former lover.
But as a recent reader pointed out, how can you believe an affirmation of worth when you are convinced of your unworthiness? And why would you use strategies for moving on when you’re still trying to find a solution that will win back your beloved? These are excellent points. So let’s examine “coping with a break-up” from this very different perspective.
If you are still distressed by feelings of failure, idealizing the one who rejected you, and intent on recovering the lost relationship, you’ve essentially granted this relationship the power to consume your life and create your misery.
Powerless, you’ve become invisible, even to yourself, and certainly to this desired person, or any other person who might be a potential mate. You may harbor a sense of being stuck, or feeling suspended from truly living. In fact, it’s quite difficult to win anyone's affection while you're feeling like a loser.
Here is a set of strategies for reclaiming your power and recovering yourself, including your emotional equilibrium, your vitality, and your self-worth.
Forget about moving on. Moving on and away from your beloved before you’re ready only increases your distress. Where you are right now is precisely where you belong.
Instead, envision moving forward. Moving forward means not staying stuck in the same place that’s getting you nowhere fast. If a life strategy isn’t working after many months, this type of thinking doesn't help: "Must do this harder, longer, faster, stronger.” Instead: “Must find a new life strategy.” And if you’re destined to be with your beloved, moving forward simply brings you into a better place to make that happen.
See your reactions as normal. Our brains and bodies are wired to have powerfully painful reactions to rejection. The break-up of a relationship can trigger a cascade of chemicals that make you feel lonely, depressed, and worthless—especially if you see the rejecter as “the one for you.” You are not crazy, you’re in a natural state of distress.
Face your grief. It can be tempting to avoid grief. You may be fearful that it will be too painful, especially because you’ve lost someone and something precious. But repressing your grief can result in depression, anxiety, obsession, suppressed immune system, and chronic despair. Avoiding grief keeps you feeling stuck and powerless.
See grief as a necessary reaction to loss. Grief includes feelings of disbelief, anger, fear, and sadness, as well as physical symptoms of fatigue, tension, emptiness, distractibility, and changes in appetite and sleep. It is painful, to be sure, but it is also a byproduct of your ability to invest in meaningful relationships.
See grieving as a process of healing. Grieving is how you gradually let go of what might have been and adjust to what is. And over time, your outlook will naturally shift: From “I must demonstrate I am a worthy mate for her/him” to “I can reclaim my own sense of worth.” Grieving is what sets you free from the pit of despair.
To move through the grieving process, get out of your head and get in touch with your body. Believe it or not, it’s hard to move through an emotional experience by staying in your head. While you’re rationalizing your sense of worthlessness and wracking your brain for solutions, you’ve probably put your emotions on hold and cut off the awareness in your body.
Your body sensations tell you the truth about what’s going on for you. Whenever you feel an emotion welling up or feel a contraction somewhere in your body, simply observe the sensations as they move through you. Particularly if meditation and mindfulness don’t work because intrusive thoughts keep derailing your efforts, you may benefit from this body-centered, somatic approach, with support and coaching on attending to the physical sensations in your body. By training your attention on your body, your mind stays out of the way rather than escalating your pain with inflammatory thoughts.
For example, when you’re thinking negative thought—s/he is who I want and I must demonstrate that I am a worthy mate or s/he’s just not that into me or her/his rejection means I’m a failure—switch your focus to the sensations in your body, whatever they might be. I feel tightness in my jaw. I have a lump in my throat. I have butterflies in my tummy.
Anger (including frustration, irritation, guilt) tends to be expressed as tension in the jaw, head, neck, shoulders, and hands. Sadness (including sorrow, disappointment, despair) is often felt as pain or constriction in the throat, chest, and arms. Fear (including anxiety, worry, dread) might be felt as discomfort or uneasiness in the belly or legs. You may have your own unique responses.
Let feelings flow. When an emotion is triggered, notice how your physiology ramps up at first. Attend to your body's sensations as you ride the wave, so you can disregard any painful thoughts. Stay on task by scanning your entire body and describing your physical sensations to yourself. You’ll reach the crest, and as your physiology calms down, you’ll slide down into calmer waters. Observe how the wave has passed through you, within a minute or two. That's what emotion is, energy in motion. Your physiology ramps up and then quickly calms down, as long as you don't sustain it with painful thoughts. It’s just a wave and not a flood unless you make it so.
That’s why focusing only on your physical sensations is a powerful tool—it renders you incapable of thinking painful thoughts (including repressive ones such as, I can’t feel this grief; it’s too painful; it will destroy me) that needlessly increase your pain. By focusing on your body, you’ve put a halt to that endless loop of mental anguish and existential suffering, and allowed your feelings of grief to flow through and out of you.
Practice this technique every time a wave of emotion comes up, and you’ll never have to experience that particular wave again. Letting your feelings flow through you frees you from their grip and eases your emotional burden, enabling you to naturally move forward.
Granted, letting it flow can be totally scary, especially when your feelings promise to be painful or overwhelming. But by riding the waves, you get to go with the flow and find healing.
Practice deep, slow breathing. Physiologically, the only difference between excitement and fear is whether you’re breathing or not. Fear is excitement without breath. Focusing on your breathing, even for a few minutes a day, can put your brain into a more soothing state. Calm breath also makes it easier for you to practice being a nonjudgmental observer and letting your painful feelings flow when you are triggered. Getting out into nature (ecotherapy) has a similar calming effect. Breathe.
Take one day at a time. There are no deadlines. Trust the process and understand that your adjustment can be as gradual as you need it to be. It’ll happen as you become ready for it.
See hope as an important part of coping. For now, you may be holding onto the hope that you’ll figure out how to win back your beloved. But as you grieve and adjust, your hope can change direction—perhaps to hoping that you can create a happy life for yourself—with or without this person.
Recommended reading on letting feelings flow through your body: