“It’s not your job to like me—it’s mine.” Byron Katie
Why are breakups so painful? Whether we are the dumper or the dumpee, the range of emotions we feel is universal: devastation, sadness, and anger. Oh, and there’s the acute pain, as if your heart had been gouged from your chest, stabbed a dozen times with a butter knife, and booted to the curb.
Am I right?
Of course I am. I’ve been there. We all have. I intimately experienced a broken heart and its rippling effects when my partner and I ended our seven-year relationship. I admit that I was the architect of the break-up. I was mostly shut off, insecure, and jealous during the tenure of the relationship. Our breakup was sticky. It was messy. It was ugly…downright.
As if the pain isn’t enough, we can’t sleep, we lose our appetite or eat like a cow, we stop bathing, we look homeless, and we watch YouTube playlists of How to Get Your Ex Back in Thirty days. Sad days.
You see, a breakup is a loss. It’s a death of a relationship. It’s a death of an identity that was entangled with our ex partner. The stages of a breakup are similar to grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It’s no wonder we’re a mess when we split from an ex.
The good news is that there is an antidote to our hot-messed-up heart: mindful self-compassion.
What is Mindfulness?
When I first came across the practice of mindfulness, I had a difficult time grasping it: to be aware on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment. Huh?
What I found helpful was to understand its opposite: mindlessness.
In the past I often turned to food to make myself feel better. During the breakup I gorged mindlessly, frequently finishing pints of ice cream and large bags of chips and popcorn without ever being present to the eating.
For example, one particular day I was listening to music and a song came up that reminded me of my ex. Instantly, I became sad. This prompted me to grab a bag of popcorn and start eating. Next thing I knew the bag was almost empty. Then I muttered to myself, “I’m such a fat cow.”
When our brain is on autopilot, we are not present in our experience of life. In the case of the popcorn, I had been mentally checked out, lost in my thoughts of my ex, as I nearly finished the bag. Then I chastised myself for it.
Studies have shown that when our minds wander, we’re unhappy. When I look at my own life, I see that being mindless, not mindful has led to a lot of suffering in the forms of anger, shame, anxiety, and depression.
The practice of mindfulness, then, is to pay attention, on purpose, to what we’re thinking, what we’re feeling (emotions and bodily sensations), and what is happening in our environment, without judging it.
In other words, we are an engaged and impartial observer to what we’re experiencing in the present moment. We don’t use labels or preconceptions, and we don’t believe our thoughts or take them personally.
How Can Mindfulness Mend a Broken Heart?
A stressful event, such as a breakup, can cause our minds to explode. Often, we’re spinning on our thoughts and we don’t know how to stop it. There may be thoughts and feelings of rejection, regret, shame, and unworthiness, and a host of destructive beliefs.
After my ex and I split, I had a lot of regret, and my thoughts involved punishing myself for how my actions had led to the undoing of the relationship. I replayed past events over and over in my head. I kept wishing that I could have done things differently.
I thought I could have been more open, trusting, and loving. And I wished I hadn’t been so scared to share my vulnerability and fears, because if I had, perhaps that would have strengthened the relationship instead of weakened it.
The breakup was excruciatingly painful, yet I felt it necessary to hurl more insults at myself.
Fortunately, there are many forms of mindfulness that can help us get over a breakup and our ex. This is what I did to heal myself.
Self-criticism is very common. And in the context of a breakup, when we’re in pain, we tend to open the floodgates of self-berating thoughts. We are ruthless, and very good at it.
We might think:
- “I’m such a loser.”
- “I’m fat and ugly.”
- “I’m such an idiot for screwing things up.”
- “I’ll never find someone as good as my ex.”
- “My ex is dating and happy, and I’ll always be alone and miserable.
- “I deserve to hurt.”
When we believe these harsh thoughts it exacerbates our suffering.
According to Kristen Neff, author of Self-Compassion – The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, self-criticism has a strong association with depression and dissatisfaction with life. And underneath our self-attacks are deep insecurities about our own personal worth and value.
This was true for me. I had often discounted my talents and abilities because I had a core belief that I wasn’t good enough. And my breakup only further triggered my negative self-perception.
Fortunately, mindful self-compassion can snap us out of our mindless self-judgment, and provide us comfort when we need it most.
Being compassionate means recognizing that there is suffering, being moved by the suffering, leading us to alleviate it, and understanding that suffering is part of our shared human experience.
The practice of mindful self-compassion is being aware of the self-critical thoughts that cause us pain, offering kindness and love to ourselves to allay it, and recognizing that we’re not alone—what we’re going through is part of life, and we all have imperfections.
There are many self-compassion exercises, but this is one of my favorites:
Self-Compassion Exercise: A Letter to Yourself
1. Grab your journal or a piece of paper and pen, and write about the thoughts and feelings of inadequacy and insecurity you may have as a result of the breakup. Write about any emotions that arise—shame, regret, anger, or sadness.
2. Think about a real or imaginary friend who is kind, gentle, compassionate, and unconditionally loving. This friend knows you intimately—what you’re going through, your life history, your strengths, your weaknesses, your thoughts of inadequacies and insecurities.
3. From the viewpoint of your compassionate friend, write a letter to yourself. Using deep compassion and loving kindness, what would s/he say about your thoughts of inadequacy? How would s/he address the suffering that you’re experiencing as a result of your self-attack? How would s/he point out that you are only human and that we all have strengths and weaknesses?
4. Once you finish writing the letter, put it down. Do something else like go for a walk or make a cup of tea.
5. Pick up the letter and read it. Let the words of kindness and compassion penetrate your being. Receive the love, the tenderness, and the acceptance.
The “aha” moment for me when I first did this exercise, in the context of my breakup, was that I was shocked at how harsh I had been toward myself. How had I allowed the self-attack when I would have considered the same behavior, if inflicted on others, unconscionable?
As a result of the exercise, I recognized that I was hurting and I gave myself permission to receive kindness and love from myself instead of rebuke.
The practice of self-compassion allowed me to hold space around my thoughts and feelings, and it created an expanded awareness of who I am—that, even if I’d made mistakes in my relationship, I am lovable, I have wonderful qualities, I am capable of a lot of things, I am resilient, and most importantly, I am enough. Further, it helped me realize that we are all connected through similar experiences, whether good or bad. We are never alone.
Benefits of Mindful Self-Compassion
Some of you may be thinking, why bother with this self-compassion thing, when I can just go to my best friend or mom and have a good cry with them and they’ll make me feel better? This is fine as well. It’s important to have a good support system.
The thing is, when we learn how to be self-compassionate, we become our own source of love and happiness. We stop relying on the external to feel good about ourselves.
To boot, there is evidence that the practice of self-compassion can make us more resilient, more joyful, more productive, and less depressed. I can attest to this, having come out of my rut happier, stronger, and more at peace. I also learned ways to offer myself love and kindness, which I can apply whenever I feel the slightest of discomfort.
Some of the ways I give myself care are:
- Loving-kindness meditation
- Daily gratitude practice
- Self-compassion soothing touch
- Walking in nature
When we experience a devastating event, we have a choice in how to respond. Some choose to get out of dodge mentally and deny their feelings through unhealthy coping mechanisms. Others take the route of self-punishment for their flaws and inadequacies.
There is an alternative: mindful self-compassion. If you want to get over a broken heart, this practice should be at the top of your healing arsenal.