12 Ways to Mend a Broken Heart
Tuesday January 6, 2009
Bess Myerson once wrote that “to fall in love is awfully simple, but to fall
out of love is simply awful,” especially if you are the one who wanted the
relationship to last. But to stop loving isn’t an option. Author Henri Nouwen
writes, “When those you love deeply reject you, leave you, or die, your heart
will be broken. But that should not hold you back from loving deeply. The pain
that comes from deep love makes your love ever more fruitful.” But how do we get beyond the pain? Here are 12 techniques I’ve gathered from experts and from
conversations with friends on how they patched up their heart and tried, ever so
gradually, to move on.
1. Go through it, not around it.
I realize the most difficult task for a person with a broken heart is to stand still and feel the crack. But that is exactly what she must do. Because no shortcut is without its share of obstructions. Here’s a simple fact: You have to grieve in order to move on. During the 18 months of my severe depression, my therapist repeated almost every visit: “Go through it. Not around it.” Because if I went around some of the
issues that were tearing me apart inside, then I would bump into them somewhere
down the line, just like being caught in the center of a traffic circle. By
going through the intense pain, I eventually surfaced as a stronger person ready
to tackle problems head on. Soon the pain lost its stronghold over
2. Stand on your own.
One of the most liberating thoughts I repeat to myself when I’m immersed in grief and sadness is this: I don’t need anyone or anything to make me happy. That job is all my own, with a little help from God. When I’m experiencing the intense pangs of grief, it is so difficult to trust that I can be whole without that person in my life. But I have learned over and over again that I can. I really can. It is my job to fill the
emptiness, and I can do it … creatively, and with the help of my higher
Attempting to fill the void yourself–without rushing
to a new relationship or trying desperately to win your lover back–is
essentially what detaching is all about. The Buddha taught that attachment that
leads to suffering. So the most direct path to happiness and peace is
detachment. In his book, “Eastern Wisdom for Western Minds,” Victor M. Parachin tells a wonderful story about an old gardener who sought advice from a monk. Writes Parachin: “Great Monk, let me ask you: How can I attain liberation?” The
Great Monk replied: “Who tied you up?” This old gardener answered: “Nobody tied me up.” The Great Monk said: “Then why do you seek liberation?”
4. List your strengths.
As I wrote in my “12 Ways to Keep Going” post, a technique that helps me when I feel raw and defeated to try anymore is to list my strengths. I say to myself, “Self, you have been sober for 20 years!! Weaklings can’t pull off that! And here you are,
alive, after those 18 months of intense suicidal thoughts. Plus you haven’t
smoked a cigarette since that funeral back in December of last year!” I say all
of that while listening to the “Rocky” soundtrack, and by the last line, I’m
ready to tackle my next challenge: move on from this sadness and try to be a
productive individual in this world. If you can’t list your strengths, start
a self-esteem file. Click here to learn how you build one.
5. Allow some fantasizing.
Grief wouldn’t be the natural process that it should be without some yearning for the person you just lost. Dr. Christine Whelan, who writes the “Pure Sex, Pure Column” on BustedHalo.com, explains the logic of allowing a bit of fantasy. She writes: If you are trying to banish a sexual fantasy from your head, telling yourself “I’m not going to fantasize about her” or “I won’t think about what it would be like to be intimate with him” might make it worse: In a famous psychological study from the 1980s, a group of subjects were told to think about anything but whatever they did, they were not supposed to think about a white bear. Guess what they all thought about?
6. Help someone else.
When I’m in pain, the only guaranteed antidote to my suffering is to box up all of my feelings, sort them, and then try to find a use for them. That’s why writing Beyond Blue contributes a big chunk to my recovery, why moderating Group Beyond Blue has me excited to wake up every day. When you turn your
attention to another person–especially someone who is struggling with the same
kind of pain–you forget about yourself for a split moment. And let’s face it,
that, on some days, feels like a miracle.
7. Laugh. And cry.
Laughter heals on many levels as I explain in my “9 Ways Humor Heals” post, and so does crying. You think it’s just a coincidence that you always feel better after a good cry? Nope, there are many physiological reasons that contribute to the healing power of tears. Some of them have been documented by biochemist William Frey who has spent 15 years as head of a research team studying tears. Among their findings is that emotional tears (as compared to tears of irritation, like when you cut an onion) contain toxic biochemical byproducts, so that weeping removes these toxic substances and relieves emotional stress. So go grab a box of Kleenex and cry your afternoon away.
8. Make a good and bad list.
You need to know which activities will make you feel good, and which ones will make you want to toilet paper your ex-lover’s home (or apartment). You won’t really know which activity belongs on which list until you start trying things, but I suspect that things like checking out his wall on Facebook and seeing that he has
just posted a photo of his gorgeous new girlfriend is not going to make you feel
good, so put that on the “don’t attempt” list, along with e-mails and phone
calls to his buddies fishing for information about him. On the “feels peachy”
list might be found such ventures as: deleting all of his e-mails and
voicemails, pawning off the jewelry he gave you (using the cash for a
much-needed massage?), laughing over coffee with a new friend who doesn’t know
him from Adam (to ensure his name won’t come up).
9. Work it out.
Working out your grief quite literally–by running, swimming, walking, or kick-boxing–is going to give you immediate relief. On a physiological level–because exercise increases the activity of serotonin and/or norepinehrine and stimulates brain chemicals that foster growth of nerve cells–but also on an emotional level, because you are taking charge and becoming the master of your mind and body. Plus you can visualize the fellow who is responsible for your pain and you can kick him in the face. Now doesn’t that feel good?
10. Create a new world.
This is especially important if your world has collided with his, meaning that mutual friends who have seen him in the last week feel the need to tell you about it. Create your own safe world–full of new friends who wouldn’t recognize him in a crowd and don’t know how to spell his name–where he is not allowed to drop by for a figurative or literal surprise visit. Take this opportunity to try something new–scuba diving lessons, an art class, a book club, a blog–so to program your mind and body to expect a fresh beginning … without him.
11. Find hope.
There’s a powerful quote in the movie “The Tale of Despereaux” that I’ve been thinking about ever since I heard it: There is one emotion that is stronger than fear, and that is forgiveness.” I suppose that’s why, at my father’s deathbed, the moment of reconciliation between us made me less scared to lose him. But forgiveness requires hope: believing that a better place exists, that the aching emptiness experienced in your every activity won’t be with you forever, that one day you’ll be excited to make coffee in the morning or go to a movie with friends.
Hope is believing that the sadness can evaporate, that if you try like hell to
move on with your life, your smile won’t always be forced. Therefore in order to
forgive and to move past fear, you need to find hope.
12. Love deeply. Again and again.
Once our hearts are bruised and burned from a relationship that ended, we have two options: we can close off pieces of our heart so that one day no one will be able to get inside. Or we can love again. Deeply, just as intensely as we did before. Henri Nouwen urges to love again because the heart only expands with the love we are able to pour forth. He writes: The more you have loved and have allowed yourself to suffer because of your love, the more you will be able to let your heart grow wider and deeper. When your love is truly giving and receiving, those whom you love will not leave your heart even when they depart from you. The pain of rejection, absence, and death can become fruitful. Yes, as you love deeply the ground of your heart will be broken more and more, but you will rejoice in the abundance of the fruit it will bear.