Divorce and Separation / Relationships

Surviving a traumatic breakup: A psychotherapist’s guide to healing

Alicia Henry, LCSW

If you have ever struggled with a breakup or divorce you will recognize that this can be one of the most painful experiences an individual can go through. Much like an open wound, healing from a breakup requires special care and treatment. Inspired by my own personal heartbreak, combined with years of clinical training and practice as a psychotherapist, I will share with you the wisdom that I have garnered about how to heal and evolve from this experience.

#1 Find a professional to talk to

Ideally, this would be someone who can sit with your feelings without judgement or advice giving; someone who can treat the wound. The empathy and patience of your therapist during this time is exactly what you need mirrored in order to have empathy and patience with yourself. This will slowly allow you to heal and provide ongoing relief.
The key to finding the right therapist after a breakup is connecting with someone who can meet you where you are at. After a breakup your brain is trying to process what has happened. Breakups are highly personal and there is symbolic meaning placed on this attachment; your ex represents so much more than the loss of a lover and friend. The last thing anyone wants or needs when they are in the beginning stages of treatment is to receive generic advice. This may be helpful later on, but in the initial stages of navigating your experience, you will need someone who can listen closely, empathize and understand.

#2 Stop self blame

After a breakup, our minds want to categorize blame. This can lead to an irrational and endless wheel of self-criticism. You may find yourself reflecting on everything you would have said or done differently if you could only go back in time.
No matter what the circumstance surrounding your breakup, it is important to keep in mind that when a relationship fails, it is never one person’s fault. I repeat, when a relationship fails, it is not all your fault.
Relationships are a complex, two-way dynamic between two people. Your reactions to your partner are a product of many factors such as early attachment, personality, temperament, and family dynamics. You may not be proud of how you reacted in certain situations, but remember, your response was elicited because of a thought that you had. If you non-judgmentally reflected upon the moments you were most ashamed of, you would likely find that your emotional reaction was triggered by something. Perhaps your ex even triggers you more than anyone else. It is key to remember that your reactions at the time were a reflection of how you felt, and ultimately, what you believe about yourself and others. Gently shift your focus away from what you feel you did wrong, to how and why you responded the way you did.

#3 Be your own best friend

Breakups often shine a light on the parts of ourselves that need the most growth and attention. If you are consistently going to your ex’s social media pages or scrolling through your photos together, you may be sticking the knife in this elusive wound over and over again. At some point this behavior may be preventing you from moving on. Ask yourself, what is the purpose of this behavior? Will punishing yourself help you to feel better and/or move forward into a better place?
If you believe that you have lost the most important thing in your life, it might help to further explore in treatment the reasons why it did not work out. If this sends you into a thought process of self-blame and sole responsibility, remember rule #2. Remember, the beauty of breakups is that they allow you to evolve.

#4 Honor the representation

When you are in a relationship with someone, you are not only dating the person that they are, but you are dating the idea and representations of what this person means to you. You have unconsciously assigned different meanings to this person that are very powerful. In psychotherapy, we term these representations, “objects.” Meaning, your former partner may be a source of affection, love, adventure, friendship, closeness, and etcetera. When you lose this person, you are also losing the symbolic meanings attached to this person which amplifies and intensifies the feelings that you have. For example, if having a partner allowed you to act on the parts of yourself that were adventurous and fun-loving, you may be feeling hopeless that you will no longer have these experiences. Remember, the actions ultimately came from you because you decided. Can you learn to apply the same encouragement to yourself that your partner provided?

#5 Stop ruminating

If you find that you are compulsively focusing on negative thoughts, it is likely due to unresolved feelings about the breakup; que tip #1. Clients and friends alike have confessed that ruminating about their breakup gives them a (false) sense of control and mastery. The underlying belief is that by constantly thinking about your relationship, you are keeping the connection alive and preparing for reconciliation or an alternative outcome. For control seekers, this behavior (or other unhealthy coping mechanisms) is not uncommon. Ironically, ruminating is an out of control behavior that requires re-wiring. Freedom from ruminating thoughts is the ultimate way to regain control over yourself and your wellbeing. This begins by admitting to yourself that obsessing about the breakup will not change the outcome. What can be controlled is how you choose to honor your feelings of loss and caring for yourself.

#6 Treat your breakup like an open wound

Open wounds are painful and need medical treatment. Sometimes putting a Band-Aid over it can be helpful, but perhaps you need to lift the Band-Aid from time to time and give the wound some air.
So, I ask you, are you pouring salt into your wound? Or are you treating it appropriately with something? Do you need something stronger (psychiatry, more frequent therapy visits, etc) to help it heal?

#7 Continue doing the things you are good at

I am not going to tell you to take up a new hobby, rather, if there is something that you are good at (like biking, sewing, cooking), try to use this activity to get outside of yourself, even if it is only for a half hour. When we are going through something painful, we seek to understand so we bombard ourselves with over-analysis. If you do this 24/7, it depletes you. By allowing yourself moments to be outside of your self-analysis you are giving your wound the air it needs to breathe and heal.

#8 Keep starting over

There will be days when you start to feel better, followed by days that you might feel like you are sliding backward. Something seemingly small might trigger a memory that leaves you feeling overwhelmed again. Remember, this moment will not last forever and you will experience relief. Reach out for help. Validate your feelings and then choose to shift your attention to something else. Do not be afraid to keep starting over. And do not ever give up.

Alicia Henry, LCSW is a Manhattan based psychotherapist. Visit her at Uppereastsidetherapy.com

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