Neuroscientific research has demonstrated that the pain from heartbreak resembles drug withdrawals. It can be undoubtedly brutal, making us feel as though the sadness and anger will never dissipate, or that we’ll never meet another person quite like our ex. Few of us have been taught as kids or teens how to cope when a meaningful relationship ends. That’s in part why many of our clients are left scrambling for answers, reassurance, and closure without knowing more healthy and effective ways of coping.
It’s important to understand that every time clients indulge in ruminations, social media stalking, and trips down memory lane, they keep themselves addicted. It can seem easier to move on when they have attributed a direct reason for the breakup. However, when they get stuck questioning and trying to split hairs replaying what may or may not have happened, they’re more likely to stay hung up. Thankfully, there are a few skills they can learn that will give their pain the mindful attention it needs in order to heal:
- Acknowledge that processing heartbreak involves grieving a loss, and this means that it doesn’t have a predictable timeline—ask your client to practice reminding themselves that eventually they will move on.
- Ask your client to remember that their ex is an ex for a reason—explain that humans tend to idealize past partners, and this prolongs the cycle of obsessing. Have them write down a list of all the reasons their ex or the relationship wasn’t right for them. Instruct them to pull it out any time they start revisiting all of the good times and making themselves feel sadder.
- Teach your client how to sit with the discomfort of not knowing. For example, they can try their best not to repeatedly check their ex’s social media. This reinforces to their brain that they “need” to engage in these checking behaviors in order to feel okay.
- Encourage your client to practice accepting the heartbreak and the ending of the relationship. Acceptance is an intentional acknowledgement of what is objectively true. We do not have to like or love something that we may need to accept in order to let go and move on.
- Work with your client on developing a mindful approach to healing. Mindfulness allows us to accept that thoughts are there, and to nonjudgmentally watch them come and go. Suggest to your client that they can take their post-breakup thoughts with a grain of salt, noting that thinking about all the stages of the relationship will not bring them the certainty or peace they crave, nor will their thinking rewrite the past. Reengaging with the past keeps them distracted from their present. When they have a thought or memory about their ex, ask them to label the experience (i.e., thought, feeling, memory) and then to shift their focus to their breath or to something physical in their surrounding space.
- Gently direct your client to do more of the things they love. Whenever we have too much downtime, we tend to fill the ‘void’ with ruminative thoughts. If they focus on doing the things that bring them joy and fulfillment, it’s likely the thoughts will become less frequent, and their brain will begin to recognize that it feels much better not to be stuck on their past relationship.
Katie Krimer, LCSW, is a psychotherapist with a thriving practice in New York, NY; and founder and coach at the wellness company, Growspace. She is passionate about helping others develop a more authentic way of living, and teaching the practice of mindfulness and self-compassion.