learning to let go, surviving a break up

Terminating an attachment to someone we love is one of the most painful experiences we will undergo as humans. You all know what I am talking about—the dreaded breakup.

If I ask you to think back, you can likely tell me about each breakup you have endured and how it has shaped your life. Even years later, these memories still provoke emotions about the traumatizing experience. The reality is that break ups are counterintuitive to our very nature; human beings are wired for connection and belonging.

Several recent studies have revealed that we experience emotional pain, especially that of a break up, much like physical pain. MRIs show that regardless of whether you step on a nail, go through a break up, or are criticized by a loved one, the same pain receptors in the brain are activated. Meaning, the brain processes emotional pain in the same way it does physical pain. Personally, I think that sometimes our emotional pain can be even more excruciating than our physical pain because people cannot see it and do not understand how we feel. This lack of understanding leaves people feeling even more isolated and alone.

Separating from someone you love is like a Clash of the Titans in your brain. Your instinctual/emotional brain tells you to run back into that person’s arms where you will be safe. Meanwhile, your rational brain lists all the reasons why going back wouldn’t fix the problems in the relationship, and reminds you why you broke up in the first place. If you’re wondering how to survive this battle of the brains you can read more about that here!

In a discussion this week, I realized that there is one particularly unhelpful strategy that we/our brains subconsciously use to cope when going through a break up. I’ve called this unhelpful coping mechanism “hope finding”.

Hope finding is a thought trap or a way of thinking that keeps you stuck in limbo. It keeps looking for signs, words, or interactions to convince you/your brain that there is hope for the relationship, even after you have broken up. It is a way of coping, of holding on to the person or the relationship. This may sound appealing, but in the long run it keeps you from moving on—it keeps you stuck.

Hope finding magnifies all the positive interactions with the person and minimizes all the negative ones. For example, your ex may act distant towards you and push you away throughout most of the day/week but have a moment where they crumble and express that they miss you. Hope finding overlooks all of the cues and signs that they are distancing themselves and moving on, and instead focuses on the one time that they express missing you—this gets taken as hope.

Hope finding can also present itself in two other forms: believing that the person is “the one/our soulmate”, and/or believing that God has called us to be with this person (for religious people). This type of thinking causes us to look for hopeful interactions and prevents us from taking a realistic look at the relationship/situation. These variations of hope finding are thought traps that keep us stuck and prevent us from letting go. When we feel a person is the one or that God sent them into our lives, we tend to shut down our critical thinking and cling to the hopeful moments. Learning to let go in these cases can be especially hard, but with some critical thinking and the right coping strategies, you can learn to let go and continue the search for Mr./Mrs. Right.

We all hope find; our brains are wired to try to reconnect with the person we are attached to. But if we are breaking up with someone, it is often for good reasons and hope finding will only keep you stuck; it will keep you from moving on and meeting the person you could spend your life with. Here are some ways you can help put an end to this unhelpful coping mechanism so that you may carry on with your life:

  1. Take a realistic inventory of your interactions: for every hopeful interaction that your ex gives you, there are likely 10 other realistic interactions. You need to get in the habit of taking a realistic inventory or your interactions each day or week. Sure your ex may have opened up to you once this week about how they were feeling, but how many other times did they ignore your calls, not text, get spotted with another person…etc. In order to find closure you have to read between the lines and take a realistic inventory of the interactions the two of you share.
  2. Make a list of the legitimate reasons you broke up to begin with: when you do find yourself getting sucked in by all of the amazing memories that the two of you shared and how kind your ex has been to you today, you need a break up list to ground you back to reality. This list should include all of the very legitimate reasons the two of you broke up. For example: “we always fought about finances”, or “I never felt like I could be myself”. Other examples may include an inability to communicate, or not taking your feelings and emotions seriously. There are endless reasons why we may not fit with another person, and when we start to get carried away thinking about the good ol’ days, we need a reality check.
  3. Limit your time to overthink: if you are sitting around fixated on your ex, chances are you have too much time on your hands. You need to resume with your everyday life: get involved in sports, return to an old passion or hobby, make plans with friends…etc.  Try not to devote too much time to overthinking your most recent conversation or past interactions as it will only drive you crazy and never results in getting the answers you feel you need. Make a conscious effort to do things you enjoy.

If you are going through a break up or have gone through one recently and are still not over it, join the club. There are several others out there who wonder why they have not been able to move on, or are having a hard time letting go. It is helpful to know that it is in our human nature and even wired in our brains to seek reconciliation. We can however learn to override that unhelpful coping mechanism, and power through the breakup process so that we can move on.

I once read a quote that went something like “let go or be dragged.” Being dragged is one of the most heartbreaking feelings, BUT you are making the choice to hold on. Choose to empower yourself. As Mandy Hale says “letting go doesn’t mean you stop caring. It means you stop trying to force others to…”

Wishing you love,