July 27, 2011

Ways to Deal with a Breakup.

Photo: oedipusphinx

People break up thousands of times everyday all over the earth.

Why should the pain of my loss be any more special or acute than the next?

It’s not. I may think that it is while I’m in it, but it’s really not. The intensity, flavor and the story and circumstances surrounding it may be different for each breakup around the world, but it’s really all the same; it’s painful. We all feel it. If you open your heart to someone and you lose them you feel pain. And if this one didn’t affect you that much, then the next one probably will.

This is how we’re built as humans. We feel. Generally, after a breakup we feel shitty. So considering that this is not negotiable, the relevant question is: what do we do with the pain?

Actually, there are two questions:

1)  What do we usually do with it?

2)  What could we do with it that might be better?

What we usually do with pain

According to the Kübler-Ross model we go through 5 stages of grieving when faced with a loss, and although a breakup is not a death it can sure as hell feel like one.

Here are my versions of the 5 stages of breakup:

Denial He really didn’t leave me. He’s coming back.

Anger F#ck him. I wish we’d never met.

Bargaining I’ll be really good, better even, if he’ll take me back.

Depression I’m so sad. I’ll never be happy again.

Acceptance I really am alone. And that’s okay.

How quickly we move through these stages is as varied as each individual who goes through them. And moving through the stages is no linear path, we vacillate between them, sometimes minute by minute.

Buddhists describe how we deal (or should I say not deal) with pain in 3 ways:

ignorance pretending it’s not there             “I’m fine, these things don’t affect me.”

aggression pushing it away            “I’ll just get really angry instead of feeling the pain.”

passion indulging in it                        “I am so miserable!”

I don’t know about you, but I’m a passion kind of girl. I will dive into it headfirst and don’t come up for air until I’m drowning. That generally goes for anything, especially relationships. Which is why I find myself in a sea of self-wallowing over and over again after diving into the heart and bed of a love (no, that wasn’t a freudian slip).

The pain of being left by a lover dredges up old feelings, rips open old wounds, and I just end up feeling sorry for myself. And self-pity is a deep hole to try and boot-strap yourself out of.

The contrast of experience

Humans experience everything through contrast, comparative to something else that we’ve experienced. The post breakup experience is such a major contrast to what we were feeling while in the relationship, from the chemicals that are released in our brains to our everyday activities and how we relate to them, and it’s impossible to get away from it. Everything post breakup is infused with opposing contrast to what came before it, like falling in love and being with someone you care about.

That’s part of why a breakup is such a big deal; it’s a drastic shift in our overall experience. And by comparison our current experience can seem black, dark and bad. To experience life and love in varying shades instead of black vs. white might be better way to do it. Surely it would be easier on us.

Pain vs. Suffering

H.H. the 17th Karmapa, courtesy of www.kagyuoffice.org

Maybe in the end the real question is will we work with our pain or will we turn it into true suffering. H.H. the 17th Karmapa said the best thing I have ever heard about suffering, and it changed my life upon hearing it:

“We must cultivate what brings happiness and give up what brings sorrow.”

By holding on to pain and not allowing it to move through you and change it’s own nature, you are re-living the pain. Dwelling on those thoughts are what brings us suffering. When you relive the pain again and again, hence cultivating it (the wrong thing) – that is the definition of suffering.

And that, not the pain, is what I’d like to start working to avoid.

What we can do with the pain, instead

Be with it, as a friend, not as a lover. Believe me, you don’t want to take on your grief as your next lover, it won’t do a thing for you in bed.

Get to know it intimately; it’s flavor, texture, how and where your body feels it. Try to explore it with some curiosity. Touch in on it and then let go, just let it move through you.

The next time it comes up, whether the surfacing of a single air bubble in a still pond of water or a great white poised to rip your head off, breathe deeply and take it in – just the raw feeling. Sit with it for a moment just feeling it. Then take another deep breath and let it dissipate, let the pain just slip from your tense muscles and through your fingers and drip back into that ocean.

Although pain may be a constant through every sentient being in this world, it also changes constantly. You will notice that the sensations in your body change as you feel the pain come on and as it dissipates. You can notice the flavor and texture change as you become less attached to it.

Express yourself

Write about it (like I’m doing here), journal it, express it, let it out. We don’t always have romantic endings that give us a sense of closure. If your lover didn’t work it out with you, work it out on paper.

Boot-strap your emotions with self-care

Be gentle with yourself! We have a tendency to let the pain we feel separate us from what we love and the enjoyment of life. With some awareness we can use our pain to remind us to have compassion for ourselves instead. This is when we need it the most, because when we’re in pain we’re prone to forget the self-care that’s required for us to feel good about ourselves. Our good habits slip and we fall into old patterns that can be self-destructive. Alternately, the self-care we muster in these times leads to genuine self-love.

On the positive side, pain is an opportunity for change

Use the pain for change. Our pain can be an opportunity for making positive change in our lives. I saw one of my favorite yoga teachers the other day who just happens to be a psychotherapist and she told me that comfort and ease are not big motivators for personal change. Pain and dis-ease are the precipitators of change. (It is also said that relationships are the quickest path to enlightenment. Hmmm, correlation here?)

Let pain be a catalyst to get in touch with your compassion

Feel the pain of others. If we can remember that everyone feels this, that everyone is like us, we can empathize with them and let that inform/increase our compassion. Let the pain bring you closer to all human beings rather than separating. That’s how we can really bootstrap out of self-pity. It’s not self-pity when we realize that everyone is suffering – that’s compassion.

A short list on how to handle pain in a positive and possibly productive way:


• exercise

• do yoga

• meditate

• get into nature

• eat well, get all your nutrients and avoid foods that make you feel bad (i.e. most comfort foods)

• supplement if necessary, make sure your brain is getting the necessary building blocks to produce happy chemicals like serotonin

• stimulate your interest in life and yourself with a hobby

opportunities for change

• take time for self-reflection

• take stock of how wonderful you are

• focus on your strengths

• positive reinforcement, ask your friends what they see in you

• look at your weaknesses in the relationship and work to develop yourself out of them

• learn something new to engage your mind in a new way

• visualize what you really want


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