Heartbroken: How do we deal with breakups and heartbreak?

Breakups are hard, especially when they come as a shock. It’s natural to go through a lot of painful emotions. Yet some creative artists are able to harness their experiences and transform this into something new.

So how do we deal with heartbreak? 

Thanks to the following guests for participating:

Rosie Wilby, award-winning comedian, podcaster, speaker and author of The Breakup Monologues:

The Omnipreneurial Psychologist ™ and speaker Hema Vyas

Here are some of the resources from the show:

Susan Piver, author of The Wisdom of a Broken Heart speaks on her YouTube channel:

Books looked at this week:

Rosie Wilby: The Breakup Monologues: The Unexpected Joy of Heartbreak

Susan Piver: The Wisdom of a Broken Heart: An Uncommon Guide to Healing, Insight, and Love

PS. I do not receive commission for reviewing books and talks.

Transcription

Exploring how we can master ourselves by looking at how experts say it is possible with your host Suswati Basu.

Intro music

Welcome to episode 28 of How To Be…with me Suswati as your timid presenter, guiding you through life’s tricky skills by taking this learning journey with you.

Even though breakups do not feature among the seven most stressful life changes, it can be no less devastating. Dr Jennifer Casarella writes in WebMD that romantic love can be like a drug. It triggers the release of “feel good” chemicals in your brain. Losing it in a breakup can cause emotional and physical problems, like anxiety and tiredness.

So how do we deal with heartbreak?

Here’s the Omnipreneurial Psychologist Hema Vyas, who is a renowned speaker on heart wisdom, human consciousness, spirituality, health, energy medicine and the science of Ayurveda. Omnipreneurs place value on health and humanity alongside business goals seeing meaning and success as integral to one another. 

HEMA VYAS

Our first book is from award-winning comedian, podcaster, speaker and journalist Rosie Wilby. She regularly appears on radio and TV commentating on sexuality, dating and love and was dubbed ‘the Queen of Breakups’ by BBC Radio 4 following the success of her podcast The Breakup Monologues. She spoke to me about her wonderful and hilarious new book The Breakup Monologues: The Unexpected Joy of Heartbreak last week. Find the full interview on http://www.howtobe247.com, but here is a snippet:

ROSIE WILBY

Wilby says heartbreak is universal. No matter what your sexuality or preference, we all seem to navigate a similarly emotionally perilous happy-sad terrain in the unfortunate or sometimes fortunate event that we have been dumped.

In the twenty-first century, relationships are more likely to end due to one of the ‘big seven reasons’ identified by the author, nurse and counsellor Kathy Labriola which are:
• Sexual problems (including mismatched libidos and affairs)
• Incompatibility around money
• Domestic issues arising from living together
• Drug and alcohol addiction
• Untreated mental health conditions
• Abuse (physical, verbal or emotional)
• Conflicts over autonomy and intimacy

And Wilby says heartbreak is a peculiar chaos, because we often feel guilt about wallowing in. It’s not like the person has actually died. And nor have we. But something precious has.

She refers to the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross who became famous for her theory of the five stages of grief in 1969 which were – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Although she was writing about the emotions experienced by terminally ill patients, the model became widely viewed as a template for all forms of personal loss. Yet later in her life, Kübler-Ross expressed regret at documenting the stages in what was interpreted to be a linear and predictable pattern. And heartbreak can experience all these stages at different times.

Dr Anna Machin, an evolutionary anthropologist says one of the major neurochemicals that underpins love is beta-endorphin. It’s an opiate. When you’re with the person you’re in love with, you’re
existing at quite a high level of opiate in your body. So when they dump you and you have that horrible shock, then you are in fact going into opiate withdrawal, which is why it’s so unbelievably psychologically and physically painful. Hence we could enhance these levels through exercise, dancing, singing, laughing with friends. Or chocolate releases dopamine so that’s good too. Or if you’ve got a cat or a dog, give them a stroke because that will release oxytocin.

But Wilby says actually it can be a transformative experience. A study published in 2015 in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships investigated the variation in how mental health is impacted after a breakup. One hundred and forty-six newly single men and women were asked to write narratives of significant events in their prior relationships. How people made meaning of these events through narrative seemed to influence their mental health afterwards. Not surprisingly, a more positive narrative ending corresponded with an ‘adaptive resolution ’ . In other words, their trauma had been reduced. In Wilby’s own case, she was able to harness her heartbreak in to something creative, such as new material for her comedy routines.

And actually she blames peer pressure for forcing people to want to grow old and grey together, which seemsto be held up as the ultimate goal and pinnacle of validation. Hence breakups are viewed as failures.

Academic and sex and relationships therapist Meg-John Barker is the author of the brilliantly empathetic book Rewriting The Rules. As someone who identifies as non-binary, Barker says the language surrounding breakups always includes for example: “The relationship is broken. We have split and separated from someone. It is ended and everything suggests finality, something that is over and relegated to the past. ’ Even ‘divorce’ comes from the Latin ‘di ’ meaning apart, and ‘vertere’ to turn different ways.”

There is also a major expectation gap in terms of this dreamy notion of being in a relationship. Anthropologist Helen Fisher defines the progression of a relationship
in three distinct, but interconnected, stages: lust, romantic love and attachment. Wikby says many of us now mistake this final stage as ‘falling out of love ’, the intoxicating sexy rollercoaster of novelty replaced by a calmer sense of familiarity and companionship. But it is still love.

And Professor Jacqui Gabb of The Open University ’s Enduring Love project says that the ideal of ‘the one’ perfect partner who will be everything to us is such an unrealistic goal that, ‘Many people who aspire to it are often unhappy when the reality of life doesn’t match up to this fantasy. Some people who buy into this dream end up bouncing from one partner to another as they try to find the non-existent person who has no flaws or shortcomings. Others stay in relationships that aren’t good for them because they fear the stigma of being single or because they convince themselves that this person is “the one”, so they have to stick with them whatever.’

Dr Gabb also conducted a research study with more than 5,000 people in long-term relationships and found that everyday thoughtful acts such as bringing a partner a cup of tea or breakfast in bed were a far more crucial ‘glue’ holding things together than lavish gifts or sexual passion.

And apparently in the West we have a more idealistic view of relationships, whereas Dr Machin found that in China, the older generation will describe it as quite a negative state, associated with compromise, frustration and sacrifice.

Clinical psychologist Janice Hiller says that the mistake many of us make after a breakup is to dwell on only the good memories of the relationship, the happy, smiling snapshots. If we feel that we have lost the ‘perfect’ partner or friend, then the pain can be immobilising. Whereas if we recall the spiky conflicts, misunderstandings and frustrations, then it becomes easier to move forwards and believe that there might well be someone and something better ahead. This is sometimes known as a ‘negative reappraisal’ strategy. Psychologist Dr Ed Tronick also believes that rough patches and conflicts are crucial to our social and emotional development. By working through them, we build deeper, lasting connections.

Wilby makes an important point that breakups are seen in binary terms – of good and bad, blameless dumpees and heartless dumpers, heroes and villains. In any breakup, there are always two stories, both emotionally authentic and true in their own way. And in her view, the structures of commitment, marriage and monogamy within which we conduct our romantic relationships have all been forged in the heteronormative, patriarchal interest, which is why the status quo is beginning to shift.

And author and journalist Kate Leaver researched friendship breakups for a chapter of her book The Friendship Cure. Many of the people who came forward with stories had never opened up about these endings before because they ‘simply didn’t know how to grieve them’ . She found that the most common things people said were that it felt ‘like a death’ and ‘even more personal than a romantic breakup’. She recommends to we should give ourselves permission and time to feel hurt and upset when a friendship ends the same way a romantic relationship would as well.

After the initial chaos has dissipated, breakups can have very good side-effects. A 2003 study published in the academic journal Personal Relationships and co-authored by writer and speaker Ty Tashiro and Patricia Frazier found that a group of ninety-two undergraduates who had experienced a recent romantic breakup reported, on average, five positive types of personal growth they thought might improve their future romantic relationships. These ranged from boosted self-confidence to learning how to be a better partner and, perhaps most crucially of all, how to choose a better partner. Women reported more growth than men did. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck talks about the importance of a growth mindset over a fixed mindset, which is based on a belief that the hand we are dealt is just the starting point.

And we talked about the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where the main character pays to have memories of his love interest removed from his brain. However, when Wilby met psychologist Kimberley Wilson, she said: ‘The post-traumatic growth after having your heart broken is important. Everything contributes to the experience of who you are.’ So if we do ever get to a point where we can simply delete negative memories, we might avoid identifying unhealthy patterns and we could end up repeating cycles of bad relationships. There’s an idea that ‘what isn’t processed is repeated’.

In the end, Wilby says without the
sadness of a breakup, how can we ever truly appreciate the happiness of being together? How can we ever develop and learn? A
2015 Binghamton University study found that women reported higher levels than men of both physical and emotional pain immediately after a breakup. However, they recovered much better in the longer term.

Our next book is from American writer and meditation teacher Susan Piver who wrote The Wisdom of a Broken Heart: An Uncommon Guide to Healing, Insight, and Love. Here she is

SUSAN PIVER

Piver is the survivor of a devastating breakup after five years of mad and passionate love with a guitar player. She charts the torrent of sadness, sorrow, disappointment, and depression which overtook her.

Piver has put together a care package of Buddhist practices and exercises that can help the broken-hearted heal and use this setback as a spur to wholeness. She says heartbreak can be a great antidote to BS and a great leveller.

The journey begins with assessing what your current state of mind is after facing heartbreak by documenting your progress in a journal. In addition to insights and ideas about how and why you feel the way you do, use it to jot down the titles of books you’ve read and what you learned from them, the names of songs that move you, and notes of encouragement to yourself. She also lists questions to answer such as:
– “my breakup occurred so many days ago, and my emotions have been”,
– “the last time I felt these feelings were so and so and how do they compare?”
– The thing that has been the most difficult for me since this relationship ended is
– When I think about our breakup, the thought or thoughts that plague(s) me over and over are
– I feel the pain of this loss most acutely when I
– What I miss most and miss least about our relationship is
– the thing I regret most is
– the unforeseen benefit of this break up is
– if I could take them back right now I would or wouldn’t because
– the most important thing I need to tell myself right now is

Piver says when you lose love, the heartbreak that results contains varying degrees of despair about ever loving being loved again, destruction of self-worth, tidal waves of emotions accompanied by obsessive thoughts, and a sense that the pain will never end. She also says that if we had inklings of these emotions pre-breakup, they’re only heightened post-breakup.

And she also advocates crying because it indicates that you need to examine these and strive to set them right and like we discussed last week, she says sadness softens the edges around what holds you back from loving fully and freely and is the gateway to wisdom.

She writes: “When your heart is broken, sadness begins to soften you whether you want it to or not. Your normal defenses are gone. When you think of the pain you feel, the tears come…The world actually seems alive in a way it never had before—every moment seems laden with meaning and the gateway to lasting happiness.”

When she was in the throes of pain, she realised all the painful and horrendous things she was imagining were not present, and she realized suddenly and completely that it was her thoughts and only her thoughts—that were tormenting her. If she stopped her thoughts, the pain stopped. So she recommends you take your mind off your thoughts and bring attention to the room or wherever you are right now and observe what is around you. You can return to the silence and stillness whenever you want.

Otherwise write down five things you notice in your surroundings and be very specific using your senses. After you’ve made your quickdraw list of five things, now make another list of five things in the environment—but this time take it a little slower. The point is coming out of your head and into your environment can help cut anxiety for a few moments.

In heartbreak, Piver also says it’s important to differentiate between sadness and depression. Sadness is where the world and all its elements speak to you with moving clarity—and depression, which deadens all sound and absorbs everything and everyone into a sort of lifelessness.

The way to ensure that your emotional experience of heartbreak is healing and not poisonous is to examine your intention in working with your feelings. Do you want to become whole so that you can love again? Or do you want to banish your emotions so that you don’t have to feel them? An intention that is rooted in a feeling of power, loving-kindness, and compassion is far more effective than one rooted in fragility, bitterness, and insecurity.

Hence she recommends slowing down and picking up a pen and a piece of paper and write down the wish that is at the center of your desperation the next time you feel despair. It’s likely that your strongest feeling is fear, so imagine your wish comes true, and that your in a better position to help others. Rewrite your wish so it includes others.

In the next exercise, Piver says to question your reality, comparing your pre-breakup to your post-breakup life writing in your journal what were my most important problems, who your closest friends were, what did you do in your spare time, your number one aspiration, and ranking your priorities. Notice if there have been any major shifts.

Heartbreak also offers a choice to either embrace it or fight it and run away. You can’t fix it, reverse it, or ignore it. The only way out is through. Either way your feelings of grief is justified. This feeling is a natural cycle of life that teaches you the meaning of happiness beyond pleasure. But she advises to find friends in this darkness.

Shr says CHOOSE TWO OR THREE BOOKS or songs by people who have demonstrated familiarity with the kind of despair you’re experiencing. Keep them somewhere accessible and, when you feel that you are about to drown in darkness, turn to one of them. Try to find the line, passage, or chapter that expresses most clearly what you feel right now. Get out your Heartbreak Wisdom Journal and copy the salient lines into it. Describe in a few sentences or paragraphs how or why these particular lines pierce you to the core and perhaps change the lines.

Make friends with your heartbreak. Rather than fighting off unpleasant feelings, it is always best to soften, open, and invite them. Fighting wastes valuable time. Allowing them acknowledges the reality of that particular moment and makes it easier to address your circumstances intelligently. Be kind to yourself. At the moment you feel an uncomfortable emotion, she says grab your journal, write the emotion and the corresponding bodily sensation. Paying attention can gradually shift and lessen the sensation .

Piver also recommends meditation as a regular practice that has proven to be helpful in noticing what is passing through your mind. Meditation creates the stable surface on which the mind can rest.

Accepting pain also makes it so that it can’t hurt you and having faith is key. She suggests doing flashes of meditation which basically means instead of meditating, just remember what it is like to meditate which can help interrupt trains of thought when you start going down this rabbit hole.

The effect of betrayal is no small thing, and recovering from it requires a reordering in your brain of how reality works. Hence try not to feed it with a storyline, it will burn itself up eventually.

The author examines discarding false alternatives to healing (blame, magical thinking, becoming disheartened, going into battle), giving your demons a dinner party, and letting go. And embrace your friends at this point and if you can afford it, see a therapist.

Things to avoid are replaying the relationship in your head over and over again, listening to friends who corroborate negative thoughts, expressing yourself to your ex-partner in an emotional rant, extremist thinking ie. Nothing matters and everything is rubbish, blame game, thinking you should be completely fine, revenge, and denial. And she says turn off your projection.

The third section, “Be Where You Are,” covers a variety of subjects including the rise of authenticity, the value of tears, and the path to renewal. She also recommends the loving kindness meditation, telling yourself:
May I be happy.May I be healthy.May I be peaceful.May I live with ease. And then referring to someone you like, someone who is more challenging, and then the rest of the world. And even your ex partner.

So to sum up:

Wilby says in The Breakup Monologues that our breakups are vital parts of our personal growth, badges to be worn with pride rather than shame. If we can harness their potential by viewing them as opportunities for learning and healing, breakups can make both our future individual selves and our future relationships stronger.

In Wisdom of a Broken Heart, Piver uses wise counsel, exercises, and Buddhist spiritual practices that can turn the pain of heartbreak into the joy of healing and wholeness. She recommends using journaling, meditation, loving kindness and writing your story.

Heartbreak is difficult, and no one is left untouched. But I think sometimes if you learn something from it each time, it makes it more understandable. I look forward to seeing you next time, and if you enjoyed this please hit subscribe.

Published by suswatibasu

Suswati Basu is a writer, journalist, producer and feminist activist residing in London. She has written for the Guardian, Huffington Post and the F-Word blogs, and has worked for various media outlets such as the BBC, Channel 4 and for ITV News/ITN. She currently works as a senior intelligence expert.

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