How to Heal After a Breakup
I hung up the phone, tears in my eyes. Did that really just happen? The man that I thought I was going to marry just told me he loved me, but didn't see himself getting married and having a family.
I had no choice but to break up with him.
We could have spent more time together, but I wanted a family--and as a 30-something-year-old woman then, time was just tick, tick, ticking away. It felt like my heart was breaking into a thousand pieces. No one is immune to this type of pain in life. I remember, not long after my breakup, I had this huge pile growing right in the middle of my sparse, organized and minimalist office. It took me three weeks of completely ignoring it to actually see it sitting there staring right at me. Blind spots are real!
I knew I needed help. I called a friend over and asked her to sit with me while I went through the stack of papers, receipts, books, clothing, and other odds and ends. Piece by piece, we excavated a month's worth of piling and stacking. When we got to the bottom I saw the cause of that pile: pieces of my broken heart--items that my ex-boyfriend had given back to me after we’d broken up. I had been subconsciously covering them in an attempt to delay my pain and grief. That day, I could delay it no longer. I allowed myself to embrace, then release my grief around our love. After that, the pile was gone and I've never seen it again.
Doing what I do for a living--helping people organize their lives and sift through their emotions--I know firsthand how important it is to make sure to capture and preserve evidence of joy and pain in our lives. Anything we leave out and about in our worlds can become either unexpected cause for celebration as we see it in our day, or a torpedo strike spinning us down to the bottom of the ocean of our grief.
I never thought I would be a breakup expert, but I've had more breakups than I would prefer to admit. I always thought I would get married at 19 and have 10 kids. Instead I've had this incredible journey of loving several wonderful men over the course of my life who have helped me grow and learn. Because of these rich experiences, I’ve learned how to help others (and myself) manage their spaces after a breakup in order to minimize the accidental damage that can occur.
Here are 3 tips to help you heal after a breakup:
Tip 1--Plan a neutral handoff
Give items back to your ex-partner in a neutral way. Mail them, leave them in a handoff location where you don’t need to see your ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend, or give these items to a trusted friend to give back to your ex. You don't need to ask if they still “want it.” Make the executive decision to get these items out of your space and life, and let your ex-partner decide how they want to deal with the items. Generally speaking, give these items back as soon as possible so you can start healing without holding onto the hope or fear of seeing your ex-boyfriend again. Your wounded, emotional self might want to make an in-person handoff a high stakes situation--either looking for hope for things to be different, or wanting to rehash in an attempt to change the outcome or reduce pain.
As women, we become chemically bound to our partners as soon as things get romantic. Oxytocin, also known as the love hormone, is released in our brain, which amplifies our emotions. In a breakup situation, this can have negative effects. During caveman days, the release of oxytocin in our brains and bodies is what helped ensure we had a partner to provide food and shelter for us and our offspring. Today, in modern times, it keeps us locked into our feelings about past partners beyond our expiration date. Holding space for yourself for several weeks or months will allow you to neutralize that bond and heal more quickly.
Tip 2--Create a box to store all items from the breakup
They say that when you are grieving you shouldn’t make any decisions about the physical stuff for a year. But you don't want to be hit with pain every time you come across these items either. I recommend that you collect all of these items within the first few hours or days, and box them up. Label the box (so you don't forget) and put it somewhere safe, but out of sight. When you want to grieve this partner, you can pull out the box and temporarily visit the past.
With some partners, we have gone through our shared box of stuff together (only if it was a safe situation where we were fostering a friendship). With other partners, I would reevaluate the box in six months or a year later, once I had time to heal sufficiently. Often I would find myself letting go of most of what was in the box, keeping only the items that were truly meaningful. In time, I would move the items from that specific partner to a shared "Star's Past Loves" box. I envision looking at these tokens of love and passion when I'm a little old lady in my golden years, reminiscing on this younger version of myself and her lovely romantic experiences.
Tip 3--Make a list
The most important thing you can do after a breakup to start the healing process is to make two lists. First, list all the things you are grateful for about your ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend: the things you love, the things you will miss, the things you fear you will never have again because they were just so wonderful. Then make a second list with two columns. In the first column, write all of the things you didn't like about your ex-partner: things that didn't work for you, or things that drove you crazy. In the second column next to each thing you didn't like, write what that negative experience made you realize you actually wanted.
For example, if your ex was unable to commit, you may have discovered that you want someone who is crazy about you and wants to be with you with full certainty, someone who is monogamous, or someone who is ready for a fully committed partnership now. This pain point becomes information and clarity for the kind of relationship and partner you want to have in your life. These combined lists become your master list of what you want from your next partner. It's your manifestation list for your future partner, and a guiding light for picking your next partner out of the sea of potential partners. I believe that there are many possible loves for each of us, and it's a matter of finding someone who aligns well for us and what we want in this life.
No matter how bad it hurts, take comfort in this. I've found that I have never dated backwards, meaning that each partner I've dated has been more aligned and better for me than the last. And it’s not just me. I've seen this with nearly everyone I know as well. Take comfort in the fact that your next partner will be even more compatible with you because of your history with your ex-boyfriend. Every experience helps shape us into the person we truly are at our core, and who we want to be.
The more we move away from our past relationships with love, gratitude, awareness and kindness, the better our next partnership will be. But remember that the most important relationship we have in this life is the one we have with ourselves. You can love and nurture yourself in every moment, including the broken hearted ones. Be good to yourself, and curate your spaces to foster love, peace and healing. Doing this can turn heartache into a wonderful opportunity to grow and show ourselves how much we love, trust and care for ourselves.
It's not about where we've been or even where we're going, but about where we are right now. Coming home to ourselves in this moment is the most important and loving thing we can do.
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