Why the Post-Breakup Period Can Be Surprisingly Powerful
Just days into an excruciating breakup, Amy Chan was in her bathtub crying. She knew her relationship was over, and she also knew that there was no chance of reconciliation. Chan did not want to get back together with her ex-partner. Still, she was in mourning. “I still yearned for him,” writes Chan in her book, Breakup Bootcamp: The Science of Rewiring Your Heart.
Processing the end of a relationship can bring up a lot of dormant demons, and it’s usually not about the ex. For Chan, her grief turned to anger, and although she understood that endlessly ruminating over her ex wasn’t helpful for her long-term well-being, talking about it with friends and family was all she could do. After trying therapy, acupuncture, Reiki, and meditation to recover from her breakup, Chan started a retreat for women going through heartache. This is where women come to learn how to navigate the path out of a relationship, which often brings up a lot of unprocessed emotions. Chan learned a lot from her own journey and the stories of other women going through the same cycle, so we asked her and psychologist Jenny Taitz about what to do after a relationship ends. The period after a breakup can be lonely and disorienting, but with the right tools and mindset, Chan and Taitz both see this time as a powerful opportunity to reinvest in yourself.
Identify the thinking traps.
Heartache can feel never-ending, says Chan: “And I know what a dark place that is when you don’t think that pain is going to end.” So for starters, the first rule of Chan’s breakup boot camp is no vilifying your ex. “You want to process your emotions, but you don’t want to feed your emotional monster,” she says. “Sometimes we hold on to the pain as our last resort, our last attempt to hold on to the relationship. That emotional charge is keeping you attached.”
To lessen your emotional intensity, Chan says it’s important to learn how to reframe your story: “Write your story how you would tell it to your friend over coffee, then look at it.” Then she says to circle all of the thinking traps—the parts of the story that aren’t serving your own narrative. It could be that you’ve chosen to see only the negative parts of the relationship or that you’ve fictionalized parts of it. Whatever those traps are, circle them and then rewrite the story with just the facts. “The intensity is so much lower when you look at just the facts,” says Chan.
Seek friends but don’t constantly ask for their advice.
Taitz, the author of How to Be Single and Happy, agrees with Chan that overanalyzing the relationship makes it harder to move on. “A friend may offer you a nice escape, and it is so normal to want to process ending a relationship with a friend,” says Taitz. “Give yourself some time to vent but also consider whether or not this is helping.” Sometimes friends will project their own experiences, says Chan, and people can simply be insufferable after a breakup. “My friends got sick of hearing my story, and some of them, as much as they loved me, were like, ‘Can’t you just get over it?’” says Chan. This type of feedback can push friendships away, which is the opposite of what most people need when dealing with a breakup, so Chan’s second rule of breakup boot camp is no advice-giving. Instead, she suggests that people be mindful about whom they receive advice from and seek out trained experts and therapists: “Leave the advice-giving to them and try to support one another by sharing your stories and listening without judgment.”
Consider a ritual or a rite of passage.
If you’re the person ending the relationship, “celebrate the courage it takes to end it while circumventing the urge to torture yourself,” suggests Taitz. A candle ritual, a cord-cutting meditation, or a letting-go letter might provide some closure. “Marking the end of a relationship with love and respect is important because it’s honoring the relationship that has passed, and now you’re making space for something new to come in,” says Chan. At her retreats, every person writes a letting-go letter following a list of prompts, such as “This is what I take accountability for,” “This is what I forgive,” and “This is what I learned.” At the end of the day, everyone goes outside and burns their letters in a bonfire. “It’s one of the most powerful parts of the retreat,” says Chan.
Steve Bearman, PhD, outlines a six-step process for completing relationships that details how to thoughtfully communicate resentments, apologize, forgive, express gratitude, appreciate one another, and say goodbye. “We live in a culture that pours endless energy into beginning relationships well but very little into ending them well,” writes Bearman. His process is designed to be done with the other person exiting the relationship, but if that’s not an option, it’s still worth doing it alone (or with a friend who will just listen).
Figure out your values.
Free of a relationship, you now have lots of time—and energy—to explore what you truly want in life. “Brainstorm concrete ways to get out of your head, such as using Headspace or a gratitude journal or taking up a hobby that requires full focus and participation. Try Tracy Anderson classes or a new recipe,” says Taitz. Apps like Mend, which gives you personalized tools and advice for navigating heartbreak, can also help.
Chan sees the end of a relationship as a new beginning, a chance to start over with a blank canvas. “I thought my breakup was the worst thing ever to happen to me, but that breakup was my shake-up to redirect my life,” says Chan. “I was living these ideas of what relationships should be, following society’s expectations and a model that my parents had set for me, and I didn’t ever question whether those beliefs were even mine.” Learning how to rewire your thinking more toward optimism is how you can own your story and become resilient, she says. “The plan can change,” writes Chan in her book. “And if we don’t have buoyancy to flow with the ups and down, we can break.”
Exercise: Connect the Dots
excerpted from Breakup Bootcamp
Think about a time in your life when something didn’t go accord to plan and, as a result, something even better happened. Perhaps it was being let go from a job only to find a higher-paying, more fulfilling one. Or maybe it was the horrible breakup that helped you learn a key lesson about yourself and finally gave you the courage to move out of your hometown. Write down three unexpected “plot twists” that ultimately resulted in something positive.
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