Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She's the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
HOW TO STOP OBSESSING ABOUT YOUR EX'S NEW RELATIONSHIP: Until now you’ve been handling your divorce or break-up process well. You’ve gone through the confusion of whether to stay or go, and all the angst and hard decisions that come with leaving. But you’ve been coping.
Then you found out that your Ex is sleeping with someone new.
Now, waves of rage, pain, self-doubt, and resentment are crashing over you. “Coping” has been overwhelmed by a storm of emotion. It feels like your blood has been replaced with Arctic seawater: Frozen and stinging at the same time.
What's worse? It. Is. All. You. Can. Think. About.
“Are they on the motorcycle right now? He’s probably taking her to that restaurant I always wanted to go to that he said was too expensive. Are they holding hands right now? I bet they’re kissing. Maybe they are having sex right this very second. They probably skipped the motorcycle ride and decided to spend the day in bed. We used to do that…”
In your mind’s eye you play out scenes from your life together. Except your role is being played by someone who might be sexier, more fun or more interesting. You see your Ex — the happy, sweet, fun one you first fell in love with — sharing the best parts of themselves (and hiding the rest).
It’s worse at night, when there are no distractions. The joy and passion you envision for them is made all the more cruel by the stark contrast to your own silent bed. You lay sleepless, writhing in agony at the injustice. You want to stop thinking about it but you can’t. You feel trapped… in your own head.
Believe it or not, the part of your brain that sees things in your mind’s eye cannot differentiate between something that you’re thinking about and something that is actually happening. So when you’re imagining your Ex and their new sex partner making out on the couch, you react to it emotionally (and physically) like you were seeing it happen right in front of you: Your heart starts racing, you feel nauseous, and you are filled with pain and rage.
Being victimized by these intrusive images is incredibly traumatizing. Ruminating does not bring any value to your healing process. Instead, it keeps you from moving forward. Trust me on this one: I've been working as a breakup recovery coach for a long time, and even wrote a book all about the recovery process — Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to An Ex Love, if you're interested in learning more.
I know from walking with countless broken hearted people who are suffering the same way that you are, that time alone does NOT heal this. (Nor does forcing yourself to date again, or getting into therapy to “heal your self esteem” or any of those things. If you don't take deliberate action to take control over what's going on in your head and in your heart, you can stay stuck in this place for a really long time.
In order to rescue yourself from the impotent madness of this obsession, in addition to moving through some very specific stages of healing, you must learn and practice three new cognitive skills very deliberately, every day, until you’re in the clear: Self-Awareness, Mindfulness, and Shifting.
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1. Self Awareness
Self Awareness is the ability to think about what you’re thinking about, and the fact that you are having an internal experience—not an actual experience. It sounds simple, but it’s very easy to get swept away in our thoughts without even noticing what’s happening.
As soon as you become aware that you are thinking about your Ex, say, (out loud, if necessary) “I am thinking about something that is not happening right now.”
Recognize that your vivid thoughts are activating all these scary, painful feelings, but in reality nothing bad is actually happening to you right now. You are sitting at a table, eating a bowl of cereal. You are breathing. Anchoring yourself to the reality of the present moment by using your senses creates a protective barrier between you and intrusive thoughts.
Look: Notice what your phone / tablet / laptop looks like right now. Notice the colors, shapes, things you can see in the room around you.
Hear: What are you aware of hearing, right now? Yammering in a coffee shop. Music through your headphones. The hum of the refrigerator in the kitchen.
Feel: The chair under your butt. Your feet on the floor. The breath in your nostrils. The aching feeling of heartbreak in your core. Emotions are really just physical sensations. That’s why they are called feelings. Notice how your body feels, in the present moment, without judgment.
3. Thought Shifting
You’ve broken the obsession, and are in the safe space of reality. The third step to stop intrusive thoughts about your Ex is to intentionally shift your attention to something positive or pleasurable.
For example, you can shift to thinking about going to lunch with a friend this afternoon, or weekend plans. If shifting mentally is too hard you can also shift your attention to something that is happening in the present moment: Watching a movie, listening to music, or petting your dog.
Shifting is important because the thoughts we habitually think about get stronger. When you practice shifting, the intrusive thoughts about your Ex will get weaker.
4. Putting It All Together
You get stabbed in the brain with the image of your Ex having hot sex with the new person.
- Become aware that you are having a thought about something that isn’t happening right now.
- Shift your attention to physical reality: The color of the table, the taste of your tea, your heart pounding in your chest.
- Then, very deliberately, think about going skiing with your friend this weekend.
- Repeat as needed. (And plan on doing this many times a day, at first.)
Shifting your awareness or distracting yourself does not mean that you are avoiding or stuffing your feelings. “Obsessing” is not the same thing as “Processing.” It’s mentally picking at a scab that you are not allowing to heal. You have to get unstuck from the obsession phase in order for healthy new growth to occur.
5. Get Real Help
I will also add that, in my experience in working with people going through this (and in my own personal horrible breakup experience) these steps and strategies are easy to talk about, and much harder to do. Many, if not most people going through what you're going through need support to move forward and get unstuck from this incredibly painful space.
Pro tip: Most therapists have not been introduced to the research around the biologically based reasons we get profoundly stuck on Exes and have a really hard time moving on. As such, many standard-issue therapists will attempt to “help” by getting you to talk about your family of origin, or challenging life experiences, your unusually low self esteem, etcetera.
These therapists are so well meaning, but really do not understand that their attempt to connect your “stuckness” to some unresolved emotional pain or psychological disorder is not just misguided and unhelpful: It makes it worse instead of better. (When you're already feeling low, the last thing you need is a therapist making you feel like this is happening because you're inherently disordered or broken in some way.)
This is NOT why you're feeling the way you are. You're feeling this way because you are a human being who, just like the rest of us, is built to bond. These bonds are fierce and enduring, and are not affected by logic or reason. Do begin releasing your attachment you need to be addressing it from an evidence-based, biologically -informed attachment perspective.
This approach is a “whole enchilada.” The cognitive skills I shared with you are just one part of a much larger set of skills and experiences that the healing process requires. It's the system of healing I made available for you in my online Heal Your Broken Heart breakup recovery program, and the type of breakup recovery coaching that we practice here at Growing Self. If you are interested in doing meaningful breakup recovery counseling with me or one of the coaches on our team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation call to discuss your goals and how we can help you more forward.
That said, these techniques are powerful tools and I hope that they are helpful to you. I’d like to hear your thoughts about them. If you have other practices that you’ve used successfully, please share your strategies in the comments so that others who may be hurting can benefit from your wisdom.