Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

This guest blog entry is by Kelly L. Norman, LMSW, Psychiatric Emergency Professional, Washtenaw County Government.

Please note that the opinions presented in the article are that of the author and not necessarily the opinions of RHN. RHN chooses to publish articles and share individual sites to evoke discussion and show all options, ideas and beliefs.

Unless you are incredibly lucky, you will have to survive a breakup at one time or other in your life. It’s just part of the dating game. Sometimes, couples may break up shortly after they begin dating and it might just seem like a minor nuisance. Usually, though, at least one of the parties experiences hurt feelings and a sense of loss. Here are some things you can do to help you get through the transition after you turn your Facebook profile from “in a relationship” to “single”.

Of course, there is no cookie cutter way to deal with breakups, or any stressful situation in life. Human beings are all different; they inevitably will each prefer different coping mechanisms. But these are a few suggestions that have been known to be helpful for others.

Focus on the future:

It’s tempting after saying goodbye to someone significant to dwell on the past, whether it’s the good times you had together or things the person said that hurt you or may have led to a breakup. And you inevitably will, probably, to some degree. But it’s also important to imagine the future, when the wounds will not hurt as much. Try writing down some things you’ve always wanted to try and resolve to do them, whether alone or with friends.

Shore up your resources:

None of us gets through the hard spots in life alone. Make sure to spend time with friends and family. This is not to say you have to share all of your feelings with friends or ask them to be your personal therapists. What is important is to know you have and can be around people who like your company, and might be able to distract you a little from the doldrums. Plan things ahead of time as much as you can; following a schedule is also a good way to beat the breakup blues.

Soothe yourself:

Write down a list of things that you like that bring you pleasure and that are easy to do alone. Do them instead of brooding or doing something self destructive. This might include eating comfort foods (in moderation), soothing smells, taking a hot bath or shower, listening to a particular artist or particular piece of music. It could be going to the museum at lunch time and admiring the works of art there, or calling a friend to ask how they are doing, or a particular kind of exercise. Try to avoid addictive things (alcohol, drugs, gambling) as a way to “feel better”; that could just start a different problem. The ideal way to use a list like this is to write it down before you experience a loss, simply because it’s hard for us to remember them when we are down in the dumps; but making the list now can still help.

Avoid “stinking thinking”:

Cognitive therapists, who draw on the teachings of Aaron Beck, David Burns and others, are skilled at giving patients “homework” that will help turn the negative thoughts that are overwhelming them to more logical, often positive thoughts; they’ve found that such exercises actually help to change a person’s mood. Thoughts we have about ourselves and others(“Now that x is gone, I will never be happy again,” “No one loves me, and if you tell me my friends do, that doesn’t count,” “The only person I want to be with is x, so my life will always be empty and unfulfilled,” “I’m a freak because I don’t have a partner”) at times like these frequently don’t really reflect the truth. “Homework” exercises will force you to look at these sentences logically and re-write them into things that are effectively more truthful, and that will help you see things in a more positive light.

One of these exercises is sometimes called “Stop Stinking Thinking.” It’s developed from David Burns’ “two column” technique in his book, “Feeling Good.” 2 or 3 inches from the top of a piece of paper, make two columns. Label one column “stinking” and one “re-thinking” (you can use thoughts and revised thoughts, A and B, 1 and 2 or whatever you wish really). At the top of the page, write the event you have experienced that may have caused the problem (this way it will be easy to retrieve later so you can remind yourself of it the next time something similar happens). Under “stinking,” write the negative thought just as it is in your head. Let’s take “Now that x is gone, I’ll never be happy again.” Now, re-read that sentence imagining someone else said it. In the “re-thinking” column, start writing down the things counter to that thought you might tell a friend. Some examples are: “You were happy before you even met x, so it stands to reason that you will be happy later on, even though you’ve broken up. You may be unhappy for a while, because you are grieving a loss, but it’s doubtful that that could last ‘forever’”. See what I mean?

In reply to “I’m a freak because I don’t have a partner”, you might say, “Lots of people I know are single, and that does not make them seem like freaks to me. As a matter of fact, ‘freak’ is simply a label saying that a person is different…Each of us is different than others in some way, but that’s good! In fact, the differences between me and the next person might cause someone to be attracted to me rather than someone else.”

Be good to yourself!

Give yourself permission to grieve, and don’t beat up on yourself if you find that the tears or the anger don’t just melt away after a few days, weeks, or even months. Everyone has their own timetable for grief. If you are divorcing , a year is the minimum time people usually experience symptoms associated with grief; usually other breakups cause a period of blues that are proportional to the length of and commitment you had to the relationship.

Should you start dating again? Well, that depends, mostly on your own individual circumstances and temperament. Casually dating, perhaps even dating several people, might help distract you and remind you that you have good qualities other people are attracted to. But jumping in a serious relationship might not be the best thing now. For one thing, you might not have the energy to give to that relationship, and the other person may give up because they’re feeling cheated. Also, we tend to make important decisions better when we’re emotionally strong. You might end up committing yourself to someone who you would easily see was incompatible if you had waited a little longer.

Get first aid if needed:

Most of the time we are resilient creatures, and make it through painful periods, ultimately putting them behind us. In some cases, however, especially if a person has a history of depression or anxiety, grieving a breakup may be accompanied by more serious concerns: suicidal thoughts, drinking or drugging to excess, or other risky behaviors. If you are experiencing any of these, particularly suicidal thoughts, you need to get professional help immediately. Your family doctor, your insurance company, or a local hotline all should be able to give you a referral to a reputable mental health practitioner. Also, most ERs are staffed with at least one mental health professional that you can speak to if needed.

Try these things if you are going through a difficult time, and see if they don’t work for you.

Kelly L. Norman, LMSW
Psychiatric Emergency Professional
Washtenaw County Government

See David Burns, MD: “Feeling Good: the New Mood Therapy”(Harper, 1999); or his “Feeling Good Handbook”(Plume, 1999)
If you don’t know or can’t find a hotline in your area, call 1-800-SUICIDE, a national hotline that can connect you with one near you.

Elana Clark-Faler
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