How to get over someone : Life Kit Breakups come in all shapes and sizes — slow dissolves, out-of-nowhere endings — and maybe you even initiated the breakup. But they all have a few things in common. Mainly, they can hurt. These six tips can help you move forward after a breakup.

How to turn your breakup into a new beginning

How to turn your breakup into a new beginning

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Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
Four heart-shaped sugar cookies are laid out in a row on kraft paper surrounded by white, light pink, dark pink and red paper dots. The first cookie is whole and un-iced; the second cookie is broken in half; the third cookie is pieced back together with icing; and the fourth cookie is decorated with pink and red icing.
Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Amy Chan remembers the breakup vividly. When she found out her partner was cheating on her, she immediately fell to the floor. After the split, she spiraled. She lost more than just her partner. She lost the future she'd planned out — the house, the kids, the fairy-tale, happily-ever-after stuff. "I put so much of my identity in him, and us and our future plan, that without that, I didn't know who I was," says Chan.

Things got rough. The breakup led to years of depression and anxiety. Friends had to come by to make sure she was eating enough.

She's doing much better now. She got over her split and used the lessons she learned to start Renew Breakup Bootcamp — a retreat for the brokenhearted to go and learn from relationship experts. She has written a book, Breakup Bootcamp: The Science of Rewiring Your Heart. She's one of a few experts whom we asked to talk about how to recover, heal and move on from a breakup.

Now, breakups come in all shapes and sizes — slow dissolves, out-of-nowhere endings — and maybe you initiated the breakup. But they all have a few things in common. Mainly, they can all hurt. And recognizing that is the first step in getting better.

Breakups hurt. Give them the respect they deserve

When we're with our loved ones and we are happy and warm, our brains light up in the basic reward-related regions. "The same kind of regions that activate when you eat a piece of chocolate or win an amount of money," says Naomi Eisenberger, a psychology professor specializing in social neuroscience at UCLA.

On the flip side, when we feel rejected, the regions of the brain that process physical pain activate. She says there's something truly painful about social rejection.

And pain from a breakup hits us at a place that's at the core of our being. That's according to Orna Guralnik, a clinical psychologist, a psychoanalyst and the center of the Showtime documentary series Couples Therapy.

"I recommend people remember that a breakup is, first of all, worthy of their self-care, of paying attention to their feelings and not expecting themselves to get over a breakup as if it's nothing," she says.

Chan likens it to a mourning process. As she was still hurt from her breakup, she says her well-meaning friends would run out of patience and eventually tell her to buck up, to get over it. Not super-helpful.

"It is perfectly OK for you to feel a range of emotions. And because you feel those emotions, it doesn't mean something is wrong with you" she says.

Like any mourning process, it'll take some time and work.

Resist the urge to use booze or drugs as a crutch

When you're inebriated, the part of your brain that is rational, logical and forward thinking (i.e., all the tools you'll need to get over a breakup) starts to turn off. We all know this (and yet!). Chan says that substances can amplify our feelings of sadness and anger in a way that leads people to make decisions they regret.

Basically, they'll rid you of the clarity you'll need for this next takeaway.

Face reality and actually be broken up

Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
Two heart-shaped sugar cookies that are broken in half in a zigzag pattern sit on different pieces of sparkly paper. The heart on the left is on red sparkly paper, and the heart on the right is on pink sparkly paper.
Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

This is harder than it sounds.

After a breakup, Chan says your body is in a state of shock. So even if you know a relationship is over, your body will still be in constant search of those "love hormones" you'd normally get from your ex. And this is a wound you pick at when you take a stroll down memory lane looking at your old texts or stalking your ex on social media. In fact, unless you share something (pet, child, car, etc.), she says there's no real good reason to contact your ex.

Yes, even if you're looking for "closure." This is something Chan's clients often say they're in need of, but she says they're looking for the wrong thing. "It's not actually a closure. It's a relief from pain that they're looking for," she says. And there's nothing an ex can do or say that'll offer relief because the thing that's causing the pain isn't the ex — it's the separation.

"If you're still blaming your ex, analyzing your ex, hoping for your ex to change, you're still in a relationship with your ex," she says.

Our experts suggest avoiding the common pitfalls of villainizing your ex or putting your ex on a pedestal. Neither is really rooted in reality — and both keep you from focusing on yourself and moving forward.

Use the breakup as an opportunity for self-reflection

The moments after a breakup can be, in some ways, an exciting time to learn more about yourself. One of the exercises Chan uses with her clients is having them write down their breakup story as if they were telling it to a friend. Then she looks over the stories and teaches clients to spot what she calls "thinking traps" — generalizing, black-and-white thinking, being caught up in "shoulds." Once those are recognized, she has clients rewrite their story with just the facts. This helps them get to a more honest understanding of the relationship.

And sometimes it's helpful to dig even further, examining past relationships (and not just romantic ones). "While we dig deeper, we realize that sometimes ... it's not specifically this last ex, but it was the sense of abandonment that they have felt over and over again in their life," says Chan.

As you're looking back and reexamining, Guralnik says to be careful to differentiate between thoughts that you can learn from and thoughts that are rooted in shame. If you're looking back and finding actions you can change ("I was too controlling" or "I was being too self-absorbed"), that can be helpful. But once you start defining yourself by these actions ("I'm a loser," "I'm unlovable," etc.), then you're in shame-based territory.

Recognize when you're "stuck"

Everyone gets over each breakup at their own pace. Guralnik finds attempts to prescribe how long processing a breakup should take somewhat arbitrary. "People differ in how they attach, and they differ in how they mourn their attachments," she says.

She has worked with people in her practice who take years to get over a breakup, to come out on the other side having gone through a "very honest, deep process of mourning." Others get through it a little quicker.

Chan spent two years after her breakup villainizing and pathologizing until a friend finally asked her if that story was serving her in any way. It was the question she needed in order to finally think about the relationship honestly — remembering the good and the bad — and begin the process of moving on.

But how do you know if you're just taking your time to process or if you're stuck? Guralnik says to be alert for repetition. "If you're having the same series of thoughts, the same emotional experience week after week, and nothing is developing, nothing is changing, then something is off," she says.

If you're caught in a cycle, know that it's natural. Chan says what tends to happen is we feel a primary emotion (say, sadness) and then feel shame about that emotion because we don't think we should be feeling that way. Then we start feeding that emotion with our thoughts and ruminations. Sometimes we don't do ourselves any favors and really lean into it. During the bad times, she'd play Coldplay's "Fix You" on repeat while in the fetal position.

In those cases, you want to try to do the opposite. Stand up tall with your shoulders back. Put something less wallow-y on the playlist. Sometimes literally just shaking your body will help you reset your mind away from unhelpful ruminations. Eisenberger says that getting some exercise and spending time with loved ones help our bodies naturally produce pain-easing opioids.

You can also use the energy you'd otherwise spend on ruminating on your ex and instead focus on a new hobby or reinvest in a passion you've been meaning to spend more time on. Essentially, fill up your life and eventually you'll be ready to ...

Start dating again, if you feel ready

There's no hard and fast marker to tell if you're ready to go out and date. Our experts agree, though, to make sure you're dating because you feel like you are genuinely interested in meeting new people, and not as a way of distracting yourself from your breakup.

"The only way to tell is to actually do it," says Chan. "And if you go and you're absolutely destroyed and it takes you back to what you think is square one, then OK." That's fine! Take the time to rest easy and try again later. And if you do go and the experience goes a little better, then keep trying.

This doesn't mean you're not still nursing some wounds from the breakup. You might still even miss your ex. But the moment might be right when you stop "being completely consumed and preoccupied with trying to understand what happened," says Guralnik. Either way, know that you do have the tools to recover from heartbreak.


The podcast portion of this story was produced by Clare Marie Schneider.

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