January 10, 2011

How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?

Once when I was in college, I sat on my wooden desk chair holding the lipstick red cordless telephone to my ear, listening to a friend from high school. He was trying to impress me with stories of school in Montreal, how he could smoke pot on the sidewalks freely, when a friend in distress came in and sit on my bed. “I have to go,” I said, “a crying girl just came in.” His response still leaves me smiting today: “You must be in heaven. You always loved a person in crisis.”

I thought about this on Friday when a reader emailed me. “I was wondering if you had any advice on heartbreaks,” she wrote. “I don’t know how to overcome one!”

I’m not in the advice business, of course. If anything, I think of what I do sometimes as “different ways to think about the same old problems,” and it’s in service to others as much as it is a help to myself. A lover of crisis? You’re talking to a girl who loves security, not mayhem. But compassionate? Definitely.

So I thought about this email a lot over the weekend. Truth be told, it’s been a long time since I cried over any guy but the one I married. But when a friend drew the three of swords in a tarot reading on Saturday, I viscerally remembered that feeling of everything falling away––hunger, interest, energy––and feeling only the numbing ache of a broken heart. For me, the behavioral fallout often included self-destructive distractions, weeping into pillows, and at its worst, totally withdrawal from life. I don’t know if you can willfully mend a broken heart any faster than the natural regeneration process. But I do know what you can do until time puts the pieces back together again.

Make your life a luxurious cradle for yourself as you mend. One friend’s mother instructed her to “change the karmic energy of her bed” by finding new sheets she loved, free of any old associations. Treat yourself kindly. Buy a silk bathrobe. Make wholesome, nourishing dinners. Take yourself out to the movies. Read a mystery. Find luxurious smelling candles. Soak in a bubble bath. Let people caringly touch you: get a massage, get a haircut, get a manicure. And grieve: Tell a friend you need that proverbial shoulder. Write in your journal. Write a letter to the heartbreaker you’ll never send. Remember the bad parts of the relationship, too. Think about what you learned, what you want out of your next relationship, what are your non-negotiables, and what you deserve.

Some people deal with heartache by not acknowledging their feelings; others by dwelling on the break too much, too long. You know yourself. You know when, as Glamour so brusquely puts it, you need to “move the eff on,” and when you need to queue up The Bourne Identity and a facial mask and wallow away a Saturday afternoon.

But when heartbreak strikes, I like to think of Jane Eyre, perhaps unrecognized as the best break-up book of all time. Jane let go of love–the only she’d known in her life– because of her sense of personal integrity and self-worth. She wouldn’t settle for a bum deal. Even without ever directly experiencing it, she knew in her bones, in the very cells of her body, what she deserved.  That unwavering belief gave her the will to wander out into an unknown world with nothing but the clothes on her back and start over–no friends, no money, no family, no fallback. And when another man offers the prospect of a loveless marriage, she walks away from that offer, too, still knowing that a deep, passionate love and a marriage of true minds is what she requires for union. Jane Eyre has grit, a diamond-hard tenacity of spirit that comforts her in her darkest hour. She knows what she deserves, she doesn’t settle for anything less, and in the end, (SPOILER!) she gets just what is rightfully hers. Through these inevitable, unavoidable heart aches and disappointments in life and in love, that’s the kind of happy ending we all should hold out for.

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  • WriteGal: I completely agree. It’s all about going back to what has comforted you. For me, it’s all about food! I cook an impressive meal that I eat on my best china, complete with candles and flowers. Time to celebrate No. 1!7 years ago

  • Kristina Strain: Wonderfully written! I would say that picking up a new hobby or activity helps, as well. It helps with the whole moving-forward thing. I have friends who’ve successfully used pottery classes, ikebana, and yoga to cope. My palliative was clog dancing. To each her own!7 years ago

  • Tess: Agreed, every little bit of it. You can’t face every problem in life and conquer it in 30 minutes, so distractions are completely necessary and respectable. I hate that people try to get through tragedy without them. And Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books too, for all the reasons you listed.7 years ago

  • WriteGal, I’m with you! I think I was aching over someone the night I made myself blinis, caviar and sour cream for dinner!

    Kristina, Good point! And now I know what ikebana is!

    Tess, That is so true–not ever problem can be dealt with during the length of a sitcom. We’re such a quick fix society, it’s so important to remember that.7 years ago

  • Margaret: Oh, I love this post! You, processing a long-ago hurt and recognizing the strength that it actually referred to; your advice, perfect self-care; your example– my all-time favorite book, not only good for romance and decision-making, but also for broken hearts. *happy sigh*7 years ago

  • Jennifer: Great article, and oh so true! One cannot truly
    get over” anything without actually processing it first.7 years ago

  • wendy: I agree with you about Jane Eyre! And moving on is always what we want to do, but there are times, I think, that we do need to develop all the other feelings as well. To cry a really good cry-Paradise Road. To be mad just a bit-Judas(the 1 time I can hate a Kate Winslett movie!). To laugh loud and long-Monty Python. With out the balance of feelings, sometimes we wander so confused, not knowing what to think or feel. None of these movies are break up movies, but they have a way of lifting me out of my funk and seeing things fresh.7 years ago

  • Kanesha: A good friend is going through a difficult divorce right now – so we’ve been having cocktails and reading Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart (not drinking and reading at the same time, though, with this book). I can’t remember the exact passage, but it was something like – remember the situation/circumstances, but not the soundtrack that went with it.

    My friend and I laughed so loudly when we read that because she was thinking about her current situation and I reflected back to a horrible break-up in 1995…and we thought about how we often spend too much time in the he/she said BS and not taking time to look at what REALLY went on, and how we had lost a critical part of our essential selves in the process of the relationship and/break-up. I love all the self-care ideas, ladies – super important!7 years ago

  • Kim: Sarah, this was such a timely post! As per usual, I often feel like you know exactly what to say at the right moment. I am not going through a broken heart, but lord knows I have been there more often than seems fair. Your last paragraph re: knowing when to walk away from security in favor of passion is definitely on my mind a lot now, as there are two gents that are amazing in my life right now. One makes me feel all that firey, passiony, magic you only get so often, and the other is just so perfect and good and safe, but doesn’t feel right. I’ve definitely been angry at myself for not being willing to open up more to the secure choice, in favor of my instinctual one. In fact, this has sort of overcome my morning. Thanks for the reminder 😉 !7 years ago

  • Brooke: I’m experiencing a different kind of heartache, and I’ve been avoiding all of the kind of self-care things that you’ve mentioned because it feels to me like it would be disloyal to let myself try to enjoy something because… what if it worked? But maybe I need to stop punishing myself because it’s true that I have already been hurting enough.7 years ago

  • EB: Such sweet, sound advice.7 years ago

  • Betty: So much of what you say rings true. A relationship I was in ended in November, and my lingering sadness is that I was prepared to comprimise on what I needed and deserved for the sake of having a boyfriend.7 years ago

  • fanny | live happy: Beautiful post. This is so good to read, even if you aren’t going through some sort of heartache. We’ve all been there at some point in our lives, and it’s good to look back and be able to see how far we’ve come.

    I think it’s always good to focus on baby steps when you’re in the middle of something that is so, so hard. Baby steps, and just have the trust that it WILL get better even if you can’t see your way out of all the awfulness at the time.

    And now I’m off to read Jane Eyre. I can’t believe I’ve never read it!7 years ago

  • Laureen: You know that quote, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans”? I sort of feel like it can be applied to heartbreak, something along the lines of “Your heart mends while you’re busy doing other things.”

    It hurts and it hurts and it hurts but if you keep yourself busy one day you wake up and it’s not the first thing you think of in the morning. In addition to comforting yourself and giving yourself space and time to grieve, this is a time to lean into personal interests/goals that, let’s all be honest, we sometimes compromise when we’re in a relationship–and especially when that relationship is ending.

    Like Kristina & Tess said, pursuing your own interests and ideas distracts you and moves you forward. Sometimes the hardest part of a break up, being alone, has a silver lining: it’s all about you! So definitely take the time you need for a good wallow, give yourself the pampering you deserve and then start to purposefully create a life of your own design.

    Also, I can’t recommend exercising enough: Whether it’s yoga or running or powerlifting. You get your blood pumping, those endorphins flowing and–most importantly–you get out of your own head and boost your self-esteem! Plus, even once your heart has mended, if/when you bump into this person again it never hurts to be lookin’ super fine.7 years ago

  • Staci: Very good advice —
    From someone who has been there…..I told a friend recently I wasn’t afraid of anything, relationship wise, because I’d been through it — to the deep, dark, cold, lonely places only a true heartbreak can bring.
    But remember, you will eventually return and heal, most likely better than before.
    Years later, as I navigate the dating world, I don’t worry, I just hope.
    You’ve made me want to read Jane Eyre!!7 years ago

  • Sara Rose: Don’t forget you are allowed that extra brownie. And take walks with snow and, deep, soul refreshing breaths. Then remember that old adage that is both tiresome but true “This too, shall pass.”7 years ago

  • Miss Petite Treat: Lots of great advice!

    And I know I’m totally going to sound like everybody’s grandmother, but I think the book The Rules: Time Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right also offers some good insights on this topic (or at least my husband thought so…).7 years ago

  • Melissa: When I’m going through any kind of difficulties, I try to remember what (was it Victoria Moran, or Sarah Ban Breathnach? I think the latter) said that women take most bad decisions in life when they don’t get enough sleep. Try to get a decent amount of sleep, even if that requires (optimally mild and herbal) sedatives.7 years ago

  • Charlotte: This is a brilliant post! I agree, you should make a list of things that make you happy and soothe your soul and do everything on that list as much as possible.

    Blue Skies,
    Charlotte xo7 years ago

  • keishua: Jane Eyre-I have not read that in a while. I love a good novel to deal with a broken heart. I am always a fan of Austen for these sort of things, too. Yep, a bath is a great way to wash a broken heart away. Really extreme measure of self care works.7 years ago

  • Michelle: Brooke, your words brought me back to a time when I felt as I think you do. And you’re right–if you’ve felt heartache, for however long, you’ve suffered. Whether it was for a year or just a month, it counts and it doesn’t have to go on endlessly. Let yourself be happy, you deserve it.

    Changing things up always snapped me out of my misery–the stereotypical new haircut and workout routine always made me feel hopeful. Trying to be of use to other people who had it worse than me always helped to put things in perspective. And the letter-you’ll-never-send is more helpful than you can imagine. It is so worth it.7 years ago

  • Dream in Grey: Wallowing, that really helps…but you have to give yourself a time limit and then have chosen something fun to do afterward. Works wonders7 years ago

  • Kristin: Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’ve just walked away from my Mr. Rochester, hoping to find him again on better terms.7 years ago

  • Cadi: Laureen’s post spoke to me: it hurts and hurts and hurts but then one day, you wake up and the hurt isn’t the first thing on your mind. And from that morning on, it hurts a little less every day. Your appetite will come back, along with your spritely spirit and will-to-live. And Sarah Rose said it just as I was thinking it: This Too Shall Pass.

    And until that day comes, indulge yourself. Have a hot bath when you want, have a screaming-into-the-pillow-how-could-this-happen-to-me hard cry until you’re sick over it if you need to. More than once if it helps. Have ice cream for breakfast if the mood strikes. Call a great friend and tell her you’re hurting and ask her to come sit with you – even if you have nothing good (or nothing at all) to say. Reaching out is one of the most important things, it reminds you that you’re not alone when you feel like you are SO alone.

    And just let yourself BE. Without being anything at all, just be. It’s harder than it sounds but something I found to be so grounding when my heart was aching (and for whatever reason it was so much easier to be still and find that place when my heart was aching).7 years ago

  • Bethany: Loved the post and Loved loved the comments.
    And thanks Laureen for that quote! “Your heart mends while you’re busy doing other things.”
    There’s a quote I used to hold on to about hard feelings, even despair eventually exhausting itself. Kind of like this too shall pass.
    Love the self care tips. And I know a routine that included lots of tlc, check in with friends, yoga and deep breaths was what I needed. With the help of a friend I set up a routine (after the initial week or two of not doing much of anything) that included little things like get up, make the bed, take a shower, go for a walk, check the mail. Sounds simple, but it was nice to see a path through the day when it felt hardest.
    I too am going to pick up Jane Eyre! I’ve never read it.
    Thanks for the post!7 years ago

  • Becky: oh my god i just loved this post! thank you7 years ago

  • jen: Thank you for this post. I know it’s an older one, but I’m new to your blog and I love it. And this was a very meaningful post to me right now. Your insight is much appreciated.7 years ago

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