While writing my latest book, The Wisdom of a Broken Heart, I thought long and hard about heartbreak—my own and my friends’. Since then I’ve learned even more about what it truly means to be heartbroken and what's actually healing.
Manage Those Obsessive Thoughts
Heartbreak from lost love is different than other kinds of heartbreak. When a person suffers a loss, it is normal to feel grief, remorse, and tremendous sadness. But when your heart is broken by a relationship, additional qualities come into play: Ridiculously potent shame and loss of self-esteem. Completely unpredictable and unmanageable mood swings. And most notably, obsessive thinking. Awake or asleep, you cannot stop ruminating on your situation, what caused it, and what you might have done differently. It can feel as if your own mind has turned against you.
To counter-balance these very difficult things, it is important to learn a meditation practice, some way of relating to your thoughts—not to control or fight them, but to allow and observe them without allowing them to sweep you away. Mindfulness practice allows you to place your attention where you would like it to go and, with the mind of heartbreak, this is job #1.
Beware The Advice Books
There are basically two kinds of books offering standard advice for working with heartbreak—and neither seems particularly helpful.
The first kind is what I call the “You go, girl!” category. (The great majority of breakup books are aimed at women….) The general idea behind these is something like:You need to forget about him or her. He/she simply couldn’t deal with your overwhelming awesomeness. Go out with your friends, get some cocktails in you, maybe go for a cute new haircut and Move On!!
Actually, this isn’t terrible advice. It might not get at the deep well of real grief that one experiences during a breakup, but still, it can be good to remember that you are an amazing person, to hang out with your friends, and generally pay attention to yourself in a good way.
The second kind is pretty terrible, though. This is the kind of book that says: There is something wrong with you. That is why this happened in the first place. You carry unhealed childhood wounds and/or thought the wrong thoughts and will keep “attracting” the same heartbreak until change. If you can think only the right thoughts, you can avoid ever having your heart broken again.
I think this is harmful advice. It assumes that sadness isn’t supposed to be a part of life. It is. It assumes that you can control love. You can’t. It also assumes that you know what’s best for you. I don’t know about you, but experience has shown me over and over again that what I think will be good or bad for me often turns out to the opposite. Plus the possibilities and wisdom you find in life from looking at it rather than pre-scripting it are so much huger than you can ever imagine.
Actually Lean Into the Pain
There is a third approach, however: You can lean in to the pain. Open to it. Feel it. Let it touch your heart and soften you. Accept that you’re on a journey and that it’s leading somewhere, only you don’t know where.
When you relax with what you truly feel by allowing it—without telling yourself any story about what it all means—you create an enormously expeditious path to healing.
Heartbreak Makes You More Capable of Love
When your heart is broken, it is broken open.
One of the most notable things about heartbreak is this: You can feel everything. Anything can—and often does—touch you. Your own pain affects you, but so does the pain of others. Their joy touches you too. You don’t have to think about it or reason it out: “Wow, he just lost his job, of course he must be sad, I feel terrible for him,” you just feel it, as if it was happening to you. The same goes for others’ happiness. Your heart is completely open and in a way, more alive, responsive, and sensitive—more loving—than ever before. So in a weird way, heartbreak makes you more capable of love. Even though it doesn’t feel very good at first.
So basically, what this means is that your heart is indestructible. It can never actually be broken.
Heartbreak Is Inevitable, So... Relax!
This one sounds like a bummer, and in a way it is, but in a way, it’s not. There is no relationship that will not end in heartbreak. Whatever you enter into will dissolve—either because someone changes his or her mind about the relationship or, of course, because someone will die. Appreciating the impermanence, difficult as it is, teaches you how to appreciate and honor the preciousness of love.
Plus, since it’s inevitable, you can stop bracing yourself with worry and relax….
You Will Get Over It
There has never, ever in the history of humanity (as far as I know) been a single reported case of an unchanging feeling. Feelings are always changing. What is tormenting you now will, someday, simply be a memory. I promise you that.
In fact, you can test this out for yourself. The next time a particularly painful feeling rises, look at a clock, preferably with a second hand. Try to hold on to this feeling exactly as it is, for as long as possible. If you feel it begin to slip away, try to bring it back. See how long you can do this before the feeling is simply replaced by some other thought, like I wonder if dinner is ready or maybe it’s finally time to start that course is neurobiology. Seriously. Was it ten minutes? Two? 61? Whatever it is, you simply can’t feel it forever, even if you try.
Depression and Sadness are Different
When Gloria Steinem was interviewed about the death of her husband (to whom she had been married only a short time), the journalist asked her if she was depressed. “No,” she said. “I’m not depressed. I’m sad.” When asked the difference she answered, and I’m paraphrasing, “When you’re depressed, nothing has any meaning. When you’re sad, everything does.”
When your heart is broken, sure, you may become depressed, but the overwhelming feeling just under it is tremendous sadness, which is tender and gentle. Although it doesn’t feel good (at all), it is earthy, alive, and real. You suddenly find yourself in a world where you can see beneath the surface of things. You can see the reality beyond conventional thought. This is very valuable.
Love Does Not Equal Safety
When most people say they're looking for love, what they usually mean is they are looking for safety by seeking another person who can help them stop worrying: about not having enough money, growing old alone, or feeling undesirable. This is not a nice thing to do to another person. It is completely normal and human to be afraid and seek comfort from others—but this isn’t love. Love is never safe. It is fierce and unpredictable and impossible to domesticate. You can’t make it your slave because it is simply bigger than you. That’s why it’s so awesome.
Faster Healing = Feel the Feelings
American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön gives this pithy instruction on working with strong emotion: “Feel the feelings and drop the story.” This is the most concise, direct, and accurate prescription for working with heartbreak I’ve ever heard.
Give Love and You Will Feel Loved, Always
There is a way to have love in your life everyday, all the time.
All the self-help books about love (some of which are incredibly deep and helpful) are nonetheless about how to get love, with the idea that once you get it, you can return it. None of the books (really—none) are about how to give love.
That's kind of strange, don’t you think?
The way to always have love in your life is to stop waiting around for someone to give it to you and instead just start giving it. You can always, always give love. Whether it’s by stopping to listen to a disheartened colleague, volunteering at a hospice, or simply taking a few moments to think about those you love and hope they are well, the possibility of giving love is always there. In this way, you can create love wherever you go until you are living within love. There is no need to wait for anything or anyone.
BTW—this, giving love, is the secret and infallible formula for healing a broken heart. You return it to love, but from a position of power and generosity. You see that love is always there.
Susan Piver is the bestselling author of "The Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say ‘I Do,’ " and the award-winning "How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life." A graduate of a Buddhist seminary, she writes the relationships column for Body & Soul magazine and is a frequent guest on network television, including The Oprah Winfrey Show, Today, and The Tyra Banks Show. She lives in Boston. For more info: susanpiver.com
*Courtesy of Beliefnet.com