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If you’ve ever wondered how to move on after a breakup and having gone through heartache, you may have experienced common sentiments from friends and family such as “I never liked them anyway,” “You can do much better,” or the classic “Time heals all wounds.” But have you ever thought to turn to science to help mend your broken heart? As a psychology junkie, I have spent some of my darkest post-breakup hours watching psychologists speak in TED Talks and reading books about the science of heartbreak.
1. Let yourself be upset
If you’re trying to forget about the breakup and pretend like it never happened, you’re just delaying the healing process. In his Ted Talk How to Get Over The End of a Relationship, Dr. Antonio Pascual-Leone, a clinical psychologist and researcher, said to focus on uncomfortable feelings of sadness, emptiness, and loneliness instead of avoiding them. “While you’re avoiding the issue, nothing can change,” he explained. While the length of the coping process varies for everyone, Dr. Pascual-Leone’s research shows that many of the steps needed are the same, and the first one is always to allow yourself to feel all the emotions. You need to go through the eye of the storm to get a sense of what you are feeling and why you are feeling that way. Also, you won’t be suppressing or holding onto any emotions in the long term when you allow yourself to truly feel them.
2. Determine what you needed out of that relationship
While you’re feeling all the emotions that come from the ending of a relationship—pain, hurt, sadness, loneliness—use this as an opportunity to find out what it is that you need. What were you hoping to get out of that relationship? Was it the desire to feel valuable, loved, or like you were a priority? Dr. Pascual-Leone said that change and healing start to happen “when you spell out what you deeply need, even if you don’t feel entitled to it yet.”
Even if you were not the one who wanted the breakup, the relationship ended for a reason and your needs were not being met (even if those needs were unconditional support or loyalty). Take a minute to think about what you were searching for from that relationship. Then, think about how you can begin to give those things to yourself. How can you make yourself feel valued, supported, or loved unconditionally? Breakups give us a lot of insight into our innermost needs, so use this period to reevaluate what you truly need out of a relationship so you know for the next relationship but, more importantly, for the relationship with yourself.
3. Rediscover yourself
Surprisingly, one of the reasons breakups are so hard is not always because we miss that person, but because we miss who we were with that person or what we could have been. “Research shows that breakups lead you to experience a loss of self,” explained Dr. Gary Lewandowski Jr., author of Stronger Than You Think and a professor of psychology, in his Ted Talk Break-Ups Don’t Have to Leave You Broken. “When you lose a relationship, part of who you are as a person goes with it.” So how do you soften the blow of a difficult breakup? Use it as an opportunity to rediscover yourself.
Dr. Lewandowski Jr. defines rediscovery of self as “recapturing those things that you may have sacrificed or diminished while you were in the relationship.” Think about the hobbies, friendships, or even movies/songs/books that you enjoy but put on the back burner while you were in that relationship. Maybe it’s as simple as, you love sushi and your partner couldn’t stand to be around raw fish or you love sci-fi while your significant other always wanted to watch a comedy. Yes, we experience a loss of who we thought we would be, but realizing that being in the wrong relationship actually prevented you from being who you’re meant to be will help lessen that loss. Dr. Lewandowski Jr.’s research shows that focusing on yourself and rediscovering who you are accelerates the coping process because you no longer feel that loss of self.
4. Stop looking for answers
Even if we know the reason for the breakup, we often create stories in our minds about alternative reasons, what might have been, or what we could have done differently. People can quite literally become addicted to playing the memories of their relationship over and over again in their heads, searching for where it went wrong—and yes, I mean addicted. “Brain studies have shown that the withdrawal of romantic love activates the same mechanism in our brains that get activated when addicts are withdrawing from substances like cocaine or opioids,” explained Guy Winch, a psychologist and speaker, in his Ted Talk How to Fix a Broken Heart. Bottom line: You’re searching for answers because you’re trying to hold onto the relationship out of addiction, not because an explanation would help you get over it. “No explanation is ever going to feel satisfying,” Winch recommended. “Be willing to let it go and accept that it’s over.”
5. Take off the rose-colored glasses
When we look back on past relationships, it is incredibly common to remember only the fond memories, but viewing your ex with rose-colored glasses is counterproductive and will only make it more difficult to move on. After a breakup, we often idealize the person who broke our hearts or made us miserable and forget any negative things about them or the relationship. Winch recommends to his clients to make a list of all the ways the person was wrong for them, including negative qualities, pet peeves, and disagreements that could not be solved. Then, revert back to that list whenever nostalgia, regret, or loneliness comes up. “Your mind will try to tell you they were perfect, but they weren’t and neither was the relationship,” he said. “If you want to get over them, you have to remind yourself of that frequently.”
6. Fill the voids
It sounds cheesy, but now that we’ve identified what holes are in your broken heart, it’s time to fill them. What are you truly missing from that relationship? Identify how to fill those voids in other ways. Maybe that means calling up your friends and making plans for a night out because you miss having a go-to person to spend time with. Maybe you just miss the romantic connection or intimacy and are ready to sign up for dating apps and start going on dates. Maybe it has to do with missing who you were in the past relationship, so you focus on dating yourself for a while and fill your own voids. Whatever voids you need filled and however you do so, try getting out of your comfort zone (and getting out of the house!). Be honest with yourself about what you actually need, put one foot in front of the other, and identify what you’re truly missing in order to fully heal.