Mending a broken heart is never easy. There is no quick way to stop your heart from hurting so much.
But how do we get beyond the pain?
Here are 10 steps I’ve formed after listening to experts and friends on how they patched up their heart and tried, ever so gradually, to move on.
10 steps to heal a broken heart
1♥ Accept that it hurts
I realize the most difficult task for a person with a broken heart is to stand still and feel the crack. But that is exactly what she must do. Because no shortcut is without its share of obstructions. Here’s a simple fact: You have to grieve in order to move on.
Accept that you will have to go through some pain. It is an unavoidable truth that if you loved enough to be heartbroken, you have to experience some suffering.
When you lose something that mattered to you, it is natural and important to feel sad about it: that feeling is an essential part of the healing process.
The problem with broken-hearted people is that they seem to be reliving their misery over and over again. If you cannot seem to break the cycle of painful memories, the chances are that you are locked into repeating dysfunctional patterns of behavior. Your pain has become a mental habit. This habit can, and must, be broken.
This is not to belittle the strength of your feelings or the importance of the habits you’ve built up during your relationship. Without habit, none of us would function. But there comes a time when the pain becomes unhealthy.
When you enter your bedroom at night, you switch on the light without thinking. If you obsess about your ex, and feel unhappy all the time, it’s likely that your unconscious mind is ‘switching on’ your emotions in exactly the same way.
Without realizing it, you have programmed yourself to feel a pang of grief every time you hear that tune you danced to, or see your ex’s empty chair across the kitchen table.
2♥ Create new habits
Now you have to break those connections. Turn off the music that reminds you of your ex. Make your home look and feel different from when your loved one was around. Move the furniture.
Take up a new activity. And keep moving: exercise is the single most effective therapy for depression.
Working out your grief quite literally — by running, swimming, exercising, walking, or kick-boxing — is going to give you immediate relief.
On a physiological level — because exercise increases the activity of serotonin and/or norepinephrine and stimulates brain chemicals that foster growth of nerve cells — but also on an emotional level, because you are taking charge and becoming the master of your mind and body. Plus, you can visualize the fellow who is responsible for your pain and you can kick him in the face. Now doesn’t that feel good?
The point of these changes is to break up the old associations and give yourself a new environment for your new life. The changes you make don’t have to be permanent. Even if it is just using a different shampoo and deleting your ex’s number from the memory of your mobile, change something. Now!
3♥ Shift your way of thinking
The next step is to do the same thing on the inside – transform your habits of thought. In a relationship, we build up a huge array of such habits. When the love affair ends, these patterns can still be running.
To change your thinking habits, you need to understand a little more about them.
Have you ever witnessed the same event as someone else, and later found out their experience of it was completely different from yours? Each of you saw the event through a ‘frame’, made up of your personal beliefs, feelings and internal habits.
If you are finding it devastatingly difficult to handle the end of your relationship, you may need to change this ‘frame’. You will need to reframe your heartbreak. Stop seeing it as the end of your happiness. Instead, turn it into a challenge; view it as an opportunity.
Being heartbroken can make you feel worthless and hopeless – but that is because the frame you are using is too narrow. Learning to see your situation with a different frame is a wonderful liberation.
Forgive him.Forgiveness can be difficult but you really need to do it – expect it to take time, but do it. Not forgiving is like eating rat poison and expect the rat to die.
Believe that a better place exists, that the aching emptiness experienced in your every activity won’t be with you forever, that one day you’ll be excited to make coffee in the morning or go to a movie with friends. Hope is believing that the sadness can evaporate, that if you try like hell to move on with your life, your smile won’t always be forced. Therefore, in order to forgive and to move past fear, you need to find hope.
4♥ Change perspective
The following exercise will help you look at your circumstances from different points of view, so you gain helpful insights.
1. Think about the break-up of your relationship. What are the judgments or generalizations you have made about yourself and your ex?
2. Now think of someone you admire – a character from history or a real friend. Imagine they are watching a movie of this part of your life, and step into their shoes to watch it instead. Imagine what their comments would be.
3. Now imagine that a neutral observer is watching the movie of your life. Step into their shoes and watch it from there.
4. Notice the differences that you see from each point of view. Which ones are helpful? Which ones make you feel better? Use these perspectives to view your relationship in a new light.
People who get over difficulties well rarely see what has happened to them as a disaster. They frame it as a challenge.
It is a matter of a point of view. It is not what happens to us, but how we interpret it that determines the outcome for us.
If you in anyway can, help someone else. When you turn your attention to another person — especially someone who is struggling with the same kind of pain — you forget about yourself for a split moment. And let’s face it, that, on some days, feels like a miracle.
5♥ See him in a different light
The next stage is to focus on your mental picture of your lost love. By changing how you represent your ex in your mind, you can greatly reduce or even eliminate your distress.
You must learn to control your ‘visualization’. Every single one of us makes pictures in our imagination – and we can all learn how to change the pictures. It is important to learn to do this, because our bodies react to what we imagine in the same way that they react to what is actually happening to us. Memory and imagination affect our feelings in the same way as reality does.
We are constantly altering our state by the pictures we make in our imagination and the way we talk to ourselves. So it is vital to control those pictures and not let them run away with our feelings.
6♥ See your past in a different light
Answer the following question. Which side of your front door is the lock on? To answer, you have had to make a mental picture of the door. You have made a visualization.
1. Now try to imagine what your front door would look like if it was bright orange or had yellow stripes down it. Make it bigger. Move it away so that it is smaller. Move it further away and down a bit so you are looking down on it. Make it open. Change it in different ways.
2. Think about your ex now. As soon as you remember what someone looks like, you are using visualization. What is the expression on his face? Observe what your ex is wearing and what he is doing. Where do you see the picture of him? In front of you, or to the left or the right? Is it life size or smaller? Is it a movie or a still image? Is it solid or transparent? Now, as you keep that image in your mind’s eye, notice the feelings that arise. Make a note of those feelings.
3. Now you could remember or imagine them differently. You can imagine you are a great film director. You can re-shoot the scenes of your memory and imagination in any way you want. You can change the action, soundtrack, lighting, camera angles, framing, focus and speed. Change how you are visualizing your ex and notice how it affects your feelings.
4. Bring to mind the picture you had of your ex.
5. Notice where it appears and how big it is.
6. Now drain the color out until it looks like an old black and white picture.
7. Move the image further away until it is one-tenth of its original size.
8. Shrink it even further, right down to a little black dot.
9. Notice how your feelings have changed and compare how you feel now to the note you made earlier.
You will notice that some changes have a bigger effect than others. Images that are closer, bigger, brighter and more colorful have greater emotional intensity than those that are duller, smaller and further away.
Standing outside your memories and watching as if they were a movie helps you distance yourself from them.
7♥ Fall out of love
Now you are ready to tackle the central problem using the visualization technique. Part of being heartbroken is the fact that you still feel in love. It hurts because part of you is still attached to your ex. This exercise helps that piece of you release itself.
1. List five occasions when you felt very in love with your ex. List them so you can easily call them to mind.
2. Start with the first of those memories. Play with it. Move the image away from you so that you can see yourself in the picture. Make it small.
3. Drain out the color so it is black and white, then make it transparent. When you look at your memory like this, it will seem as if the event is happening to someone else, and the emotional intensity will be reduced still further. You are starting to re-code your memory.
4. When you have finished re-coding the first memory, do the same for the next one. Work through them until you have done all five.
5. Remember in detail five negative experiences with your ex, where you felt very definitely put off by him or her. List the five experiences.
6. Take the least appealing memory and fully return to that moment. Try to relive it.
7. Now turn up the color and the clarity. Make the memory as bright and clear as you can, and experience the feelings more and more strongly.
8. Go through each of the other four negative memories of your ex, and relive them. Carry on until even thinking about them puts you off.
When you think about the bad experiences again and again, the negative memories begin to join up so that there is no space between them for the feelings of love, yearning and regret.
Concentrate on the exercise and do it methodically. Some people have found that doing this just once makes them feel different. To make sure the effect sticks, do it every day for two weeks.
8♥ Learn to know your emotions
The next stage is to learn to understand your emotional reactions better. Your feelings of heartbreak are unlikely to disappear unless you cope with what they are trying to tell you.
An emotion is a bit like someone knocking on your door to deliver a message. If you don’t answer, it keeps knocking until you do open up.
Opening the door to your feelings means learning to understand them. This can be hard, because heartbreak is complicated by other feelings: anger, fear and shame.
Now allow yourself some fantasizing.
If you are trying to banish a fantasy from your head, telling yourself “I’m not going to fantasize about him” or “I won’t think about what it would be like to be intimate with him”, might make it worse… In a famous psychological study from the 1980´s, a group of subjects were told to think about anything but whatever they did, they were not supposed to think about a white bear. Guess what they all thought about? [A white bear.]
9♥ You WILL find love again – believe it!
You could fall into the trap of remaining convinced that your ex is the only person you could ever love. This is unlikely to be true on a planet with six billion people.
So why do you believe it? Can it be because you are desperately trying to avoid accepting that the relationship is over? Or are you afraid that the bad feelings associated with heartbreak will never go away?
That fear makes you anxious, and keeps you feeling bad for longer. The burden of your heartbreak has grown heavier, and a vicious circle has been established.
Laugh. And cry.
Laughter heals on many levels and so does crying. You think it’s just a coincidence that you always feel better after a good cry? Nope, there are many physiological reasons that contribute to the healing power of tears. Some of them have been documented by biochemist William Frey who has spent 15 years as head of a research team studying tears. Among their findings is that emotional tears (as compared to tears of irritation, like when you cut an onion) contain toxic biochemical byproducts, so that weeping removes these toxic substances and relieves emotional stress. So go grab a box of Kleenex and cry your afternoon away.
10♥ Live a happy life after your break-up
A good way of giving yourself a boost – and coping with complicated feelings – is to imagine a bright future.
1. Imagine the future as a corridor in front of you. Imagine walking down it, away from the present, towards a door.
2. Open the door, and see beyond it a world in which you have recovered from your heartbreaking relationship.
3. See what you look like, what you are wearing, where you are going, whom you are seeing.
4. Now step into this new world and into the new happy you. Imagine the whole experience from the inside, seeing what you would see, hearing what you would hear, and feeling how good and happy things are now.
It is not a matter of believing the image is real: just imagine it as vividly as possible.
In heartbreak, there is often a backlog of emotional learning to get through. Do one bit at a time. Your unconscious mind will protect you, and give you a rest so that you can deal with the next bit. You will learn to step out of the memories, leave them behind, and start a new life.
Once our hearts are bruised and burned from a relationship that ended, we have two options: we can close off pieces of our heart so that one day, no one will be able to get inside. Or we can love again. Deeply, just as intensely as we did before. Henri Nouwen urges to love again because the heart only expands with the love we are able to pour forth. He writes:
The more you have loved and have allowed yourself to suffer because of your love, the more you will be able to let your heart grow wider and deeper. When your love is truly giving and receiving, those whom you love will not leave your heart even when they depart from you. The pain of rejection, absence, and death can become fruitful. Yes, as you love deeply the ground of your heart will be broken more and more, but you will rejoice in the abundance of the fruit it will bear.