Dealing With Heartbreak? Get Your Breakup Questions Answered.
Dealing with Heartbreak
Dealing with heartbreak is never easy. For years now, it’s been a personal passion of mine to help people recover from heartbreak. As a divorce recovery counselor and breakup therapist, I know that when you’re going through a bad breakup or divorce, it can be absolutely overwhelming emotionally. Most people describe feeling “obsessed” with matters related to their breakup: thinking about their Ex, or plagued with incessant thoughts about what went wrong in their relationship, why the breakup happened, what it means about them, and — most importantly — when they’ll ever feel better.
A bad breakup or divorce can turn your world upside down. The life you’ve known feels shattered. The pain seems bottomless. It can feel hard to function, or “be normal” when you’re so sad. And the swirling questions often have no answers, but gnaw at you constantly nonetheless.
I’ve found that for many people dealing with heartbreak, the unanswered questions, or confusion about what to do in different situations, are on their minds constantly. I get many questions from people in the process of trying to get over heartbreak, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to answer some of them today on this episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.
Questions About Heartbreak
We’ll be talking through the following breakup questions:
- “I was blindsided by my breakup, and feel totally confused about what happened. Should I try to have a ‘closure talk’ with my Ex?”
- “I was getting past my breakup, but then learned my Ex started dating someone else. Now I feel devastated all over again. Why do I feel so upset by my Ex’s new relationship, and how do I move on?”
- “My Ex moved on quickly. Now I’m struggling with low self esteem after my breakup, and I can’t stop thinking about my Ex. How do I move past this?”
- “I have to work with my Ex, and see him flirting with his new love interest who is also a co-worker. I have been feeling anxious and depressed as a result. How do I cope with this terrible breakup situation?”
Listen now to get some advice for how to cope with a breakup, get your confidence and self esteem back, start feeling like yourself again. If YOU have a question for an upcoming episode of the podcast, you can leave it in the comments section of this post, or call 720-433-1110 to leave me a voicemail that I may use on an upcoming episode.
In the meantime, take care,
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Dealing With Heartbreak? Get Your Breakup Questions Answered.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you’re listening to The Love, Happiness, and Success Podcast.
[Intro Song: Into the Sun by Tristen]
Dr. Lisa: That beautiful song we’re just listening to together is from Tristen. It’s called Into the Sun. It’s from the album Sneaker Waves. The whole album is just beautiful. I thought that this song was a nice fit for our topic today, which is all about how to deal with a breakup, how to cope with a broken heart, and how to start feeling like yourself again after a really important relationship has ended. Because it’s hard. So that’s what we’re talking about today.
If this is your first time listening to the show, hello, and welcome. I’m Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I’m the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching, and the host of The Love, Happiness, and Success Podcast. This podcast, if again, if this is your first time, this is all about helping you feel good about yourself and your life. It’s about helping you have happy relationships and learning how to be a strong, successful person who does good things in the world. Every show is designed around a topic to help you do just that.
While I speak about many things on this podcast, my background- I’m a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. I’m also trained as a psychologist and a life coach, so we can go all over the place with that. I talk a lot about relationships, personal growth, career, achievement strategies. I do have a special place in my heart for helping people who are dealing with the pain of a really bad breakup or divorce. I just have a soft spot. And I think that’s because, like pretty much everybody else in the world, I myself have also gone through a terrible breakup.
For me, it happened when I was really young. I mean, like, 15, 16, 17 years old was kind of the span of time that it was happening; I was still in high school. But to this day, the pain I experienced during that period of my life was like nothing else I have ever gone through. I have had a pretty long and interesting life at this point. But that was so hard. I still remember so clearly how intense that pain was, and how inescapable it seemed, and how it just impacted every part of my, not even my life, my being, and also how just helpless I felt to change it. Every day of that life segment was just torture. It took me a really long time to recover, and I did recover. But looking back, I wish that I had had some really meaningful help and support to do that a little bit faster because it took a long time.
Years later, I mean long after that, well into my 20s, I wound up going to counseling school. At the time, I wasn’t consciously set on helping broken-hearted people. I had moved on to other things but I still think on some, even unconscious level, that part of the reason why I have such a passion for helping people is because of that experience. To think that I could help people who were going through something similar, that same kind of devastation and heartbreak, was really meaningful to me. So that’s part of why I wanted to become a therapist.
Even though ironically, my parents took me to see a counselor when I was in high school, and it was a horrible experience. It was not useful at all. Pros and cons, but then I did end up trying therapy again years later with someone who had a different approach, and that was much more useful. So, I have a special place in my heart for the brokenhearted. What is also true is that when I started this work, I worked with individuals and couples, but with broken-hearted people, when I started this, I didn’t really know how to help people either. I mean, there’s not explicit training that you get in counseling school around this particular topic, right? So, I would talk to people that were just absolutely devastated, and certainly, I could understand how they were feeling and have compassion for them.
I had little more at my disposal than just empathy and emotional support, which is something. But I didn’t really know how to help people move through this and heal this. And because [of] two reasons. First of all, I’m very passionate about what I do. I take this seriously. I am also a card-carrying nerd, and I love science. I started researching. I started reading studies, tracking down different pieces of information that might help me understand this a little bit better and how to help people. I started just putting these pieces together around, that kind of fit my observations and my own life experience in answering the questions: “Why can we get so stuck on certain people?” And “Why is it so hard to let go?” And “Why do we feel so devastated?” And “What needs to happen in order to be able to heal and really move on?”
And so I read everything, experimented with a lot of stuff with my very patient clients. We got there and figured out over years what worked, what was helpful. That research, it turned into a book. The book is called Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to an Ex Love. Then from there, that book, it turned into an online breakup recovery program called Heal Your Broken Heart.
Of course, in my practice, as my practice has grown, I have over 20 people on my team now who I work with, my colleagues, but I also offer them training and supervision, specifically around how to help people with breakup recovery because that’s one of the things that we specialize in, in my practice, Growing Self.
At this point, I’ve walked with many people through the process of healing and growth. I supervise many other counselors who do this kind of work. I am just really excited to be able to, to do this with you too, and just kind of offer you some of the same perspective and advice that we share in those programs and books, and with our clients in this format. Because as I’ve mentioned in this podcast before, I like doing this podcast because I know that it just connects with a lot of people who might not have access to this kind of information otherwise. Just to think that I’m doing something that could be helpful to somebody else in the world is really genuinely meaningful to me. So thank you, thank you for being here, and listening to this, and passing this on if you have somebody else in your life that is suffering and could benefit from the same information.
I have done a number of podcasts on this topic in the past, you can browse through the collection on iTunes or whatever. But I am especially excited about today’s show because it is all about you and your breakup questions. I have people reach out to me all the time with questions, questions for the podcast, people, we have a very active commenting community on various blog posts on the website. People ask questions there. We also have an online support group where there are a lot of questions going on. Today, I wanted to really take the time to answer as many of these questions as I can and in the depth that they deserve. If I’m just responding to a comment or something, I think it’s hard for me to really give these the time, and the attention, and the respect that they deserve. So that’s what we’re doing today.
If you have breakup questions or other questions, relationship questions, general questions for me, you can also ask. You can email me, get in touch with our group firstname.lastname@example.org. You can get in touch with me through Facebook, facebook.com/drlisabobby, dropped the Marie for the sake of minimalism, and also through our website growingself.com, but Facebook is a good way to get in touch.
Speaking of Facebook, while we are on the topic, if you are going through a bad breakup or you know somebody else who is and think that they could use some extra support, you or they are invited to join my online breakup support group. It’s on Facebook. It’s a totally free group. There’s no cost associated with it. Also, this is not a therapy group, so I’m not facilitating it. It’s not a process group. It’s just a peer support group where a lot of really great, compassionate, and wise people are going through the same thing as you might be. People are posting about what’s going on in their lives and getting some really insightful and compassionate responses and advice from other people who can really understand.
While I don’t want to intrude too much on the conversation, I really want it to be a peer support group, I do look at the posts and responses, and I go to comment from time to time. But I have just been so impressed with the level of wisdom and the heartfelt support that I see members giving to each other. It’s just so heartening because I think one of the things that is the hardest sometimes for people going through a bad breakup is that they feel so darn alone. It’s so ironic because even though everyone has been there at some point in their lives, I think many times people that did the work of healing, it can be hard for them to put themselves back in that place and really understand what it feels like in the time before feeling has happened, healing, rather, has happened.
Well-meaning people that love you very, very much also kind of inadvertently shut you down, you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I’m feeling so terrible.” And they’ll say, “They weren’t good enough for you.” “You should move on.” “Just let it go.” “Start dating.” Whatever. But there’s like no space for you just to feel your feelings. It can feel invalidating. In this group, people will understand and care about what you’re going through. If you’d like to just have this, you’re welcome to join. I will tell you this is a totally secret group. You can’t Google it. You can’t find it on Facebook, and I did that to protect everybody’s confidentiality.
The only people who can see that you are in the group are other members. Anything that you post is also only viewable by other members, but that also means that in order to join, we actually have to manually add each member, which we’re happy to do. It’s a little bit of a hack, but your privacy and confidentiality is worth it to me. If you would like to join, again, please track me down on facebook.com/drlisabobby, send me a message letting me know you’d like to be included. Then either myself or my assistant will add you so that you can participate.
Some of the questions I’m answering on the show today are from members of our group. Others are from people who just reach out to me. I will want to say I get lots and lots of questions and so, obviously, I can’t answer each individual one but because so many aspects of this experience are so universal and because people going through breakups are experiencing so many of the same things frequently, I tried to choose questions or cluster questions, then find the ones that I felt articulated what so many of you were asking about. Even if I haven’t been able to use your specific question, I hope that you hear yourself, and your situation, and your concerns in the words of other people, and then also get your needs met in my answer. With that, let’s jump into your questions.
Dealing with an Unexplained Breakup
This first one is actually from a voicemail. On that note, if you ever would like to ask a question that way you’re welcome to. You can leave me a voicemail by calling 720-443-1110, and leave me a voicemail. Then, I can answer directly on an upcoming podcast. But here is the question from a caller I will call N.
Caller N: I have a question to answer on the podcast and mine is… It’s been 30 days since we have spoken at all. I guess each relationship is different. So I wish I could tell the details, but it’s basically like, we’re together every single day for a couple of years, and then it was out of nowhere like, “I can’t do this anymore.” Then, my whole life is done and shattered. Then, a one-hour conversation, and then that’s it. There’s been no talking, and I have therapists who say that’s unhealthy, like it’s normal to process, whatever.
Am I just supposed to pretend like this person never existed and move forward? Or is it healthier to actually attempt to reach out, and have a conversation, and be adults, have some sort of closure to understand more? Or is that gonna actually hurt me at this point? Because I can’t always guarantee his response. He still has some of my stuff, and I have bags of his. But I think that we’re both so frightened to face… or he is scared. I think he’s out of sight, out of mind. It’s easier for him that he would let his stuff go. And even though he said he wanted to be friends, he has not reached out to me.
I don’t know what’s going on. I’m making myself insane not knowing what the right thing is to do. Do you try and, I don’t know, have more closing conversations? Because right now I feel like I was completely discarded. He never cared. I have all these questions I don’t understand and if it be would actually be more healing for me to get those answers and to know that he actually does care, but it just couldn’t work for us, for whatever reason, versus just feeling completely betrayed and left behind, which is excruciating when this person was my best friend. So, thanks.
Dr. Lisa: What a heartbreaking situation. Just the confusion, like, what just happened? Why did this happen? I just want to acknowledge, first of all, what you’re going through, I mean, getting blindsided via breakup makes all of this even harder because you can’t even make sense of the experience. So many people I talked to, this is not uncommon. They feel like they’re just kind of trucking along, things are okay, maybe it’s not a perfect relationship but you know, overall, it’s fine. It’s good. Then their person, their best friend, the person that they are with every day and sharing their life with, just breaks things off.
They don’t know why, and it is so hurtful and so confusing. A lot of people going through this feel the same way you do. Like, “Did you ever care about me at all? Am I not worth respecting enough to tell me what this is even about? Is there anything I can do?” The person in this position, you, you’re left not just in terrible pain but with all these questions that are themselves traumatizing when you don’t even know what happened. You asked a great question. You asked wonderful questions.
What I heard is, “Should I try to reach out and have a conversation to get some of these questions answered? Or would that only be more hurtful to me?” Here is the big problem. Let’s step away for just a second and look at this from a little bit more perspective. Sure, you can call them up and try to have a closure conversation where you both sit down like grown-ups and say, “What happened? Tell me what, you know what’s going on?” I think that there is this hope that you could sit down maturely over coffee and have a coherent and reasonable answer that was authentic and emotionally intimate. And that having that conversation would be healing and helpful to you, and that you could both walk away from that interaction feeling better.
That is possible. I mean, my gosh, in the counseling room, I help couples all the time. Have conversations where they are really authentic with each other, and it’s respectful. It’s constructive. So that can happen. Here’s the deal. If your ex was good at communicating, or was brave enough, or authentic enough to have those kinds of conversations, and be honest, and emotionally intimate, you guys would have been having honest conversations about the issues in your relationship before you got blindsided by a breakup. I think I heard you say something in there, just a little detail. You mentioned almost offhandedly, “He probably would be more comfortable with just letting his stuff go than actually addressing this.” Just another little clue that your ex may really struggle with that level of authenticity that is required to have those kinds of conversations.
Of course, I’ve never met your ex. I don’t know anything about him. So I can’t make statements about who he is as a person, certainly. Just as an observer and somebody who talks to a lot of people, I meet a lot of people who are really pretty avoidant when it comes to addressing things honestly, and openly, and being able to just have that level of intimacy in their conversations. Many times, it’s because they fear the other person’s reaction for whatever reasons related to their own history. So instead of being honest and open and brave, they will, instead, start telling themselves a narrative about how this is the way you are and this relationship is never going to change. They can really pretty easily convince themselves that the only way to solve the problems in their relationship is to end the relationship and break things off.
Of course, I have no idea if this was the case with your ex or not. Maybe he was telling you very clearly and explicitly for a long time about the things that he needed you guys to be working on in order to improve the relationship. But the way that you described how surprised you felt by all this makes me doubt that that was happening. So this is how this relates to your hopes for closure. Because even if it is possible to get a fairly avoidant person to sit down with you for a super serious conversation about what happened in the first place, even if they were like, “Okay, yeah,” you would most likely hear things that would not be helpful or meaningful to you. You would be hearing, “It’s not you; it’s me.” “I’m just not in a good place right now. I’m just going through some stuff.” Or my favorite, “You needed more from me than I was able to give you,” which are all things that an avoidant person probably thinks are better for you to hear but are really helping them protect themselves from the conflict or anxiety that would come from being straight with you.
What happens is that when I talk to people that have closure conversations… I mean, just the other week, I was talking to a young woman who had a conversation with her ex of four years, who just broke up with her out of nowhere and really surprised her. He said these kinds of trite path things. And she’s sitting here telling me, “I don’t believe a word he said. I know that there was something else going on because that doesn’t make any sense.” And rationally understanding it, almost always when I have people who try to have closure conversations, they leave them feeling that their needs were not met in that conversation, that it was not an honest, respectful conversation, that their ex is hiding things from them. They often feel worse after doing that. They feel angry because now, they feel like their ex lied to them from whatever they heard in that closure conversation.
Not always, I’m sure that there are mature people that can sit down and do that together. But the tiny little bit I know about this relationship is making me think that it might not be possible with this particular person. But you know this person a lot better than I do, obviously. What my advice for you would be is if you want to try and have that conversation, do it. I don’t know if it will make you feel better or worse. I don’t know what will happen. Maybe your ex will be brave enough to be honest, and open, and vulnerable with you. I hope that is the experience that you have and that you walk away from that conversation with new information that helps you feel more resolved about what happened.
If you are pretty sure that probably won’t happen, I would recommend that you sit down with your own wisdom and your own insight, and the fact that you knew this person as well as anybody else, that you know on some level what happened, then I believe that you can trust your judgment and your intuition enough to decide for yourself what the truth really was. I have not ever, I think, had anyone to sit in my office and I start asking them those questions that help them tap into their own inner knowing, and really genuinely not know why this happened. I think you know the answer. It may be more gratifying to hear it from him, but you don’t need him to tell you what happened. You know.
As a little exercise, you might write that reason out either in a journal or if you want to get really fancy, you can write it out as a letter from your ex explaining to you why they really broke up with you. Whatever you write about or journal about will probably be a much more honest and accurate answer than anything you’ll ever hear in real life. You deserve that. You might not ever get closure from your ex, but you can create closure for yourself by doing this kind of inner work.
As for the stuff exchange, again, I think it can be really tempting to think that there might be some kind of meaningful moment between the two of you as you’re exchanging garbage bags full of unwashed clothing and toiletries. But in my experience, it is usually just awkward and disappointing. One person is like, “Why did this happen?” And getting all tearful. The other person is like, “I gotta go.” For both people, particularly the person who’s really hurting, it can result in days, if not weeks, of rumination, and stewing, and just more obsessive thoughts. Again, I trust your judgment. If you need to have that contact, you do what feels best for you.
Based on my experience, it may be a less emotionally traumatizing experience for you to just send a simple text saying, “Hey, when is a good time for me to leave your crap on your porch and for you to anonymously pick it up? You can put my crap on your porch, and I’ll grab that while I’m there.” If you have a friend who can do that for you, so you don’t have to go to your ex’s house, that would be even better. Again, it is you deciding that this is done, you deciding that you are limiting your exposure to new things that can hurt you, and really helping you create a sense of control around this.
Then, you can move into the grieving process, which is different from that, like, what-the-hell-just-happened kind of state that you’re in now. You get to decide what’s happening as opposed to him deciding what’s happening for you. Those are my thoughts about your situation, N. Anyway, stay in touch. Let me know how all this goes. I hope that you can move into a more healing phase of this because right now, I’m hearing that it’s still just the shock phase. That’s just such a hard place to be in. I’m sorry that you’re going through it.
Seeing Your Ex with Someone New
Dr. Lisa: Now, for the next topic. I get so many questions about this. So I’m actually going to read you a couple of questions that are representative of what people go through. Then, we’ll discuss. And this is around, “How do I handle the new kind of layer of pain, and trauma, and obsession that happens when my ex is seeing a new person?” This first question is from an email:
My relationship of four years ended about seven months ago. It was mutual, and it ended after a big fight that we had. We’d been on the rocks for many months, and this fight pushed us over the edge. As with all of my breakups, I’ve been the reluctant one to move on—something about my attachment style. Although deep down, I have a lot of logical evidence to back up why we should break up, my heart really struggles to let go.
The first five months or so were incredibly hard. I tried to do my best with a mix of grieving, getting out with friends, allowing myself to wallow, and then putting myself first. Part of that was choosing not to date. So after a time period, I decided it was time to really move forward and stop living in the past, so I reluctantly pushed myself on to online dating. Although I wasn’t sure if this was the healthiest way to deal, I found the distraction incredibly helpful in moving me forward and helping me stop obsessing about my ex. Over the next couple of months, I found myself returning to normal and becoming happy again.
Then, a week ago, I went out with some friends. We were drinking up at a bar, and a friend of a friend, for some reason, brought up my ex’s profile on Facebook. My ex and I had decided to go absolutely no contact many months ago, as well as blocked each other on anything social media. So I haven’t seen or heard anything he’s up to. I thought I was ready, and I’d accepted the fact that he’d most likely moved on. But when I saw the happy pictures of him and his new girlfriend, I slid back to where my recovery was many months ago. Seeing this brought up so much anger, like, “How could he move on so fast?” “Why isn’t he struggling like me?” And also sadness, as in, “Did I mean nothing to him?” Not to mention, it was the holidays. So the fact that I’m alone, and that he’s able to keep going like nothing happened has really affected me.
Now, I’m mad at myself for letting myself be affected by this so late on when he is able to move on to his new happy life without ever looking back. I’m not sure what my question is, but I’m really struggling with the fact that before I knew he was with someone, I was fine and moving on. But now I know he’s in a happy relationship, I feel like a failure. I’m embarrassed that I’m still alone. Now, I feel like none of the work and happiness I acquired recently means anything. I guess my question is, how do I not let his status affect how I feel about myself?
Amazing question, isn’t it? I wanted to include this because you just did such a nice job articulating your story and really what this feels like for you. Also, I think you’re bringing up something that is so true for so many people is this kind of feeling of becoming unglued, to a degree, when we know that our ex has attached to a new person. Before I answer this, I’m going to read you one more question that is very much along the same lines, but I think adds even another dimension of understanding to this experience.
Another person got in touch and said:
I just found out that my ex who broke up with me, my ex who broke up with me, to be single, is now already in a relationship with someone else. The kicker is that this girl that he’s now seeing is no good. She’s super young. She’s an alcoholic; she’s been to rehab for it. She can’t keep a job. She is known to get around with guys. I know that she cheated on her ex. She is not a good person. All they do every single night is go to the bar and drink.
I get it. She’s sort of wondering to herself, “I guess she must be an enabler who lets him be an alcoholic, whereas I didn’t.”
It’s hard on me, but it makes me feel worthless, like I wasn’t enough. And then this loser is? I guess they deserve each other. I don’t know why he said he wanted to be single and then just shortly thereafter started dating her seriously. To make things worse, I found out he was having sex with this girl like a week after we broke up. My friend was out with them this past weekend. Anytime the girl that my ex was dating walked away, he would say bad things about her. It’s just shortly thereafter, and he’s changed his Facebook status to officially dating.
So she goes on to just talk about how heartbroken she is about how this person that she was dating is already in a new relationship but with a person who is, in her view, not a good person. Like the complete opposite of her. She drinks, does drugs, gets around, and how this has… She says, goes on another place, “I can’t stop blaming myself and feeling like she’s better than me and I just feel lost. How do I cope with this?”
I probably have 10 more questions from people who are going through similar things and that they are really, really struggling emotionally, after learning that their ex has moved on and is seeing someone new. In that second question, I wanted to include this. Because in this situation, objectively, intellectually, it could be easy to say, “Wow, that’s really surprising. That is not a good person and gosh, I don’t think I would want to be with somebody who would date a person like that.” But that is not actually what happens to people.
No matter who your ex is actually dating after you, there is still this visceral response to that information that is deeply impacting your self-esteem. I think what you heard in both of these stories that I related, is that the most painful part for both of these people, is that the knowledge of their ex being with somebody new damaged their confidence in themselves. It made them question their value. It also makes them feel ashamed because it feels like it has derailed them so much. On some level, it’s like you can hear this part of them. I think the first question actually said this explicitly, like, “I was fine. Like, why? Why is this impacting me the way that it is?” Or with the second one like, “This person is no good. Why am I feeling like crap about myself now?”
The first point here, even though for many people going through a breakup, you might be craving information about your ex on some level. I mean, I think you heard that in N’s voicemail, like, “I want to know what’s happening.” There’s this kind of craving for information. It is very rare, actually, helpful to get it. Because it, frequently, especially if you learn from your ex, “I actually fell in love with somebody else.” It makes it worse for you. It also leads to this continued rumination and obsession that then perpetuates your attachment.
Even if you had been doing a good job of setting boundaries and limiting your exposure to painful information, like in the case of the first questioner, and then you kind of got ambushed by new information from a “friend,” which does not sound helpful at all. First of all, that was not a kind thing for that person to do. Just as an aside to the first writer, it may be helpful going forward to ask people around you to support you in your recovery by respecting your boundaries. There’s also this other part of us that wants to know that has this desire for information, even though it is often painful. While there’s this curiosity, it’s typically a good idea to limit it. With respect for the second person, setting boundaries around Facebook so that you’re not actually seeing pictures and knowing what Facebook status of his. I think it would be very helpful for you, just in general.
Let’s talk more generally because going back to this point that you’re both asking around, “Why do I feel so crazy and devastated after learning that my ex is with someone new? Why has this impacted my self-esteem so enormously? What is happening and how do I stop this?” One of the most important things that I learned from all my research into the science behind breakups has to do with our evolutionary biology. Actually, the survival drives that are really running the show behind a lot of the breakup experience.
A quick, quick summary: Let’s jump into the science here for just a second to give you a context of what I’m going to share. As a human being, you were designed to bond on a literally physiological level with one person. It is literally a matter of survival of the species that this bonding happens. While this might not compute when we view attachment bonding through the lens of modern life, liking somebody, having similar interests, nobody is objectively going to die if they’re not partnered, typically, in our modern world. When you see your experience in love through the lens of survival of our species, it starts to change your perspective. Because through that lens, your life is actually on the line, or someone’s is, if partnerships fail.
For example, from the moment you were born you are primed to bond with your primary caregiver. Now, if a newborn baby didn’t have a parent who is going to ferociously bond with it at a primal level, that baby will not have someone who is motivated to carry it around all the time, make eye contact, talk to it, feed it, change it, wake up all frickin’ night, play with it, and be compassionate with it, instead of ignoring it or throwing it across a room when it cried. So that kind of primal bonding is what is required to meet a baby’s needs consistently so that that baby is able to grow and develop normally. If a newborn baby is neglected, if it doesn’t literally die, which it could, it will not develop normally. Cognitively, its brain does not develop properly, and certainly, emotionally, it does not develop properly. We have to bond to babies. Babies need to bond to adults, and adults need to bond to babies.
The other thing here is that similarly, although different obviously as an adult, but still in a very similar kind of way, using similar systems, adult humans must bond with each other on that deep of a level for our species to survive from a biological standpoint. Imagine prehistoric times, 20,000 years ago, that a child or three was born without a very strong pair bond between two partners or at least without a devoted family group who was strongly bonded to the woman and her children. It may have been literally impossible for one person, individually, to care for children, to provide for children, to find enough food to feed the children without the support of a partner or of a community.
Because we rely so profoundly on our attachment bonds to keep people close to us, and again, from a prehistoric level, in order to collectively meet our basic needs for things like food, shelter, safety. Humans are not the most ferocious animals in the natural environment that are our ability to survive and exist against wolves, and bears, and stuff has a lot to do with our collective nature. Human beings are a collective species. And until extremely recently, in the course of history, relied on the strength of attachments in pair bonds, or to their tribe, or group, or the parent-child bond in order to literally survive.
When those bonds break, or even more threatening, potentially, you are being replaced by someone else, your partner, your tribe has fallen in love with another person and doesn’t need you anymore, it is doing more than just messing with your self-esteem or your self-concept or making you feel sad on a primitive, primal level. That is deeper than any of our conscious awareness. It is triggering yours and activating these survival systems that are there to save your life. They are connected to your basic survival as a human.
I know that this doesn’t compute when we’re in our modern world, like seeing a photo of your ex with a new person on Facebook or learning that they’ve moved on quickly with a questionable new person is, intellectually, not a matter of life or death. But you guys asked me, “Why do I feel like I’m losing my mind over those?” It’s because, from a survival of the species, core-survival-drive part of yourself, it’s like you are not getting enough oxygen, or you’re out in the wilderness and the temperature is dropping, and you’re at risk of freezing to death. From that primal level, being replaced by a rival is the equivalent to a life or death situation.
What that means is, when your survival drives get activated, you feel like you’re going bananas. Because every primal instinct inside of you, that is not conscious, this is not thought, these are not your conscious minds. This is on the level of, “I’m really hungry and if I don’t eat something right now, I’m gonna pass out,” kind of thing. It’s something that your body just does. This is way deeper than this human thoughtful part of us. Every primal instinct inside of you is screaming at you to do whatever it takes to reattach, even if it means debasing yourself, even if it means begging, potentially. You wouldn’t do that because, intellectually, you’re, “No, I don’t want to do that.” But primally, that’s how it feels.
Think about these experiences that you’re having. You’re feeling horrible. You’re thinking about it all the time. You’re questioning yourself, losing your self-esteem, experiencing yourself as worthless. These are all actually pretty good survival strategies if your literal life depends on your being taken back by a partner or by a group. When you feel like a worm, you’re not going to fight with people or get all uppity, or difficult, or aggressive. You’re going to go back to your little sod hut and sit in a corner with your head down and be grateful for the half-rotten turnip that somebody throws at you. You’re going to accept the fact that you are a detestable worm and meekly make yourself useful by cleaning up after every one or grinding corn for 10 hours a day without complaining about it.
Of course, to us shocking humans, this sounds horrible and demeaning and, “I’d rather die or whatever.” But on a life or death level, this is an excellent survival strategy if your other option is literally to freeze, or starve to death, or getting eaten by a lion, or a wolf, or something. Literally from 10s of 100,000 years, this was our collective reality. Even a couple, a few 100 years ago, this was the truth, especially, and I hate to say this, but especially for women.
Now, in our modern world, even though you are perfectly capable of supporting yourself, and you’re not going to freeze or get eaten by a wild animal, if your ex is now partnered with somebody on Facebook, or if you’re rejected or replaced, that’s not going to happen. But you are still hard-wired to react like you’re about to die when that threat is on the horizon. Your body responds to that on a physiological level, making you obsess, making you feel like crap, making you doubt yourself, making you angry, and triggering this intense desire of loss, and fear, and grief, and pain that is very potentially motivating to reconnect.
I am offering this science-based information as a way of helping you understand the deep core processes that are at work inside of you so that you’re not beating yourself up for feeling so crazed about this. This is just one of many, very primal survival, drive-based forces at work inside of you, inside of all of us that are much, much stronger than our conscious mind is even aware of. These are all running deep, deep, deep down inside of us.
If you would like some more information about just some of these survival drives, don’t just take my word for it. There is a podcast that I’m a big fan of, it’s called The Hidden Brain. On a number of those different shows, the host has talked to different researchers who illuminate the power of these unconscious parts of ourselves and how much of an impact they can have on our daily life without it ever even being part of our conscious mind, influencing the way we feel, influencing the way that we behave. It’s very eye-opening that we humans, we’re very confident in our own abilities to make independent decisions and that we have control over our mind. To a degree that’s true, but boy, there’s a lot more there. Check out The Hidden Brain if you want to learn more about that.
Developing an appreciation, I think, for these other forces at work inside of you is an important step in healing, paradoxically. Because I know all this probably sounds crazy when I’m describing it, but I think that in itself is the problem and why educating yourself around these realities of the human experience is so helpful. It’s because people, all of us, we think that we have more control over these automatic feelings than we actually do. Then, we feel ashamed when we have them. It’s because oftentimes, the feelings really don’t make sense from the point of view of our logical mind.
When we’re in these situations and we get this primal power of our survival drives activated and feel all you know, panicky and terrible, also, that’s combined with the patently addictive nature of romantic relationships and attachment, which you may have heard me talk about in other podcasts, both of those things combined together, it creates this emotional storm inside of you whenever your attachment is threatened or broken even if it’s not a good relationship and even if it really makes no logical sense at all. But think about it, think about people that you’ve known or your own experience, who have maybe stayed for years in a bad relationship, or the classic examples of people who stay in abusive relationships. Sometimes, there are material reasons for that. But sometimes, it’s because whenever they do try to go, these feelings that you’re having, get activated and pull them right back in.
We can all stay really stuck emotionally on exes when, logically and rationally, those were relationships that needed to end. But it doesn’t compute on an intellectual level. That’s why you cannot think your way out of this problem because when you line it all up, you’d be like, “Yeah, that doesn’t make sense, but I feel this way. Why do I feel this way?” It’s exactly because of this, where there’s that disconnect between what we sort of know to be true and how we’re actually feeling that is often so discombobulating for people because they’re having these feelings that don’t make sense, then they shame themselves for it.
Like with both of these questions that I read to you, the first person was like, “I was over it. I was moving on. I was okay. What happened to me?” And the second person is like, “These are like, bottom-feeders. Why am I comparing myself to these people in such an unfavorable way because I should be feeling the opposite?” You can hear this really unspoken, but poignant question in both of these, which is, “I’m feeling things that don’t make sense so what is wrong with me?” It’s what both of these people are really, really saying.
I’m going to say something now, that is going to be very un-Oprah-like and might go against everything that you’ve heard from pop psychology. But you cannot always trust your feelings. Not all feelings are reliable sources of information about how you should be, right? Think about a heroin addict who is going through withdrawal. Imagine Trainspotting right around on the bed. They literally feel with every fiber of their being that if they don’t get a fix or whatever, they’re going to die. That is absolutely true for them in that moment. That is how they feel. But objectively, we can all rationally understand from a distance that they need to fight through those feelings in order to be free.
It’s the same with you. Get a hold of the big picture and understand that I am having feelings that are a withdrawal/survival drive phenomenon that I don’t need to take a lot of information from or do anything with. I don’t need to act on these feelings. Instead, I need to hold my course and make conscious decisions to act for my values, instead of your feelings. Then doing the follow-up work and going through the stages of healing that I talk a lot about in my program.
Working through grief as a discrete thing, working through anger, trying to find forgiveness for yourself and your ex, really rebuilding self-esteem. Those are all activities that harness the power of your conscious mind and strengthen it so that you can then work with your conscious mind to overcome these distress signals that are coming from these more primal parts of you that you shouldn’t listen to, in this case. But that said, the path to healing this is to, first of all, understand what is happening to you on that primal level and why you’re feeling unglued by just educating yourself around it. I write about these processes extensively in my book Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction To An Ex Love. If you’re like a science nerd like me and want to just know more, check that out. It’ll help you to just have more empathy and understanding for your experience.
The path to healing is, in addition to that self-awareness, being able to then coach yourself through those moments and back into a sense of safety. Even though your conscious mind is not the only player here, it is what we have to work with because these are unconscious, automatic survival drives that roar into being. But we can still use our conscious mind to help us understand what’s happening and get back into a sense of safety. Consciously reminding yourself that you are okay on a basic safety level, like “I’m warm enough. I have food. I’m alive. I’m not in danger.” Talking back to that panic part of yourself is actually key and just helping yourself relax physiologically, as is staying in the present moment, observing the feelings that are happening inside of you and these reactions as they come up. Also as you do that, being able to understand in an intellectual sense that these are actually artifacts of survival drives that you don’t have a lot of control over that are and that are also not actually reliable sources of information about your actual reality in this modern world.
On that, things that we routinely teach our clients in our practice or in our programs is how to cultivate cognitive and behavioral skills that they can use then to counterbalance these automatic survival-drive–type feelings. Part of that is learning how to cultivate mindfulness skills that help them deal with these natural responses. Also, cognitive-behavioral techniques that help them feel more in control. Again, while these are automatic reactions that are going to come up no matter what you do, intentionally cultivating mindfulness skills, doing the work of intentionally rebuilding your self-esteem and self-worth, and then empowering yourself with an intentional sense of control, and using the power of your mind to gain mastery over this is essential.
I think also giving yourself the opportunity to walk through the process of healing and grieving and learning how to release the anger, release the guilt, repair your self-esteem, these are all skills and discrete aspects of the healing process that sometimes, the pain of just that survival drives can motivate you to do that work. Ultimately, you can grow through this experience and get some distance from it. While all these skills are obviously beyond the scope of a podcast, if you want more help with us, you might consider checking out our Heal Your Broken Heart Online Program that can walk you through this process step-by-step and teach you some of these skills.
In the meantime, I hope that just understanding what’s actually happening inside of you helps you feel a little bit less like you’re going crazy and more like, “Okay, so this is the emotional equivalent of me feeling really hungry because it’s happening on that kind of level.” Being able to coach yourself through it in a constructive way, it can help you. Believe it or not, it’s so hard when I have people who are going through this experience. When I work with people who at the end of the day can arrive at the end of this process because they’ve done the work, and they’re able to feel at a certain point, maybe not neutral about their exes moving on, but they are able to feel resolved about it.
The best situations when I work with people who arrive at this place of forgiveness and compassion, who have come to genuinely feel glad for themselves that they have been released from a situation that didn’t give them the love and respect that they deserve. They also feel good that their exes have moved on too. But in order to be able to do that, you need to have certain skills, and mindsets, and opportunities to do kinds of work that can help you disengage from that primal survival drive part of yourself into this other part of your mind that you empower to have more control. If you’re at the mercy of those survival drives, it just feels so painful and disempowering.
I know it’s hard to believe when you’re in that state, and these forces are so active inside of you that it can feel different. But I hope that just some of these ideas, even though I know they’re big ideas, have given you a bit of a roadmap as to where to go in order to calm that down, and be able to be less reactive about the situation, and more empowered to feel really okay with all of it so that you get to move on in a really authentic and heartfelt way because you deserve that. You deserve that, too.
Getting Hung Up on Your Ex
Now, with all of this in mind, let’s hear the next question.
Dr. Lisa, I’m going through a really tough time. My boyfriend and I broke up a year ago. But since we were from the same office, same process and same floor, we still get to see each other. It was hard moving on because of that. At times, we would talk and quite get far from just talking. But we never really got back together.
I’m not sure if that means that there was some hooking up happening. I don’t know.
I would cry most of the time because I see him, and I miss him, but I can’t be with him anymore. Then recently, I saw him with a new girl who happened to be from his team. He was flirting with her, and it was so hard to bear seeing them every day. I would cry every night dreading the fact that I get to see them the next day. The worst thing is that he doesn’t care if I see him getting close to her.
I could not accept the fact that he moved on to a new girl. It drives me crazy to think that she could be the one for him. I feel unworthy. It’s so traumatic to see him doing things for another girl that he used to do for me. I looked for another job, but I haven’t had luck yet. I try to avoid them. But now I think I’m developing anxiety, panic, and depression. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. And I just cry at home after work. I’m so tired of trying, and I don’t know what else to do.
Going back to the context of what we were just talking about, any time that your love, your ex-love, who you are still attached to emotionally, even though intellectually you know you’re broke up, has connected with someone else, you’re being replaced by a rival. All these survival drives flare into action, and make you feel terrible, and crazy, and obsessed, and awful. That just happens but what you are describing in your question, this is pretty much the worst-case scenario for any breakup, is being trapped in a situation where you have continued contact, not just with your ex, but with your ex being with a new person. It is so traumatizing.
You’d be amazed at how often this happens because people start, they date a co-worker or a neighbor or their brother’s best friend, people with whom there’s this proximity situation. When the relationships don’t work out, basically, it can result in people getting emotionally tortured for extended periods of time. Think about how hard it was in the last couple of situations we heard. People just having a simple knowledge that their exes are with something new is making them go out of their mind, but they don’t actually have to be in the same room with it every day.
I think the worst part of situations like this one is that people feel really trapped. They feel like they can’t protect themselves from this continual trauma. Trauma might sound like a dramatic word for this, but I think that it fits. Personal disclosure here, so I mentioned at the start of this podcast that the reason that I have such a soft heart and so much understanding for people going through these experiences was due to my own terrible experience.
It happened to me when I was a kid in high school, but it had elements of this last story. So my ex wound up getting together with my former best friend who lived across the street from me. And we all went to the same school. So I had to be in classes with these people and witness to their comings and goings, even when I wasn’t in school. It was just this assault every single day of new traumatic information. What I’ve learned since then is that part of the healing process and the recovery process is being able to create boundaries for yourself from this painful situation so that you can heal inside of yourself.
When you’re in a place where you literally can’t do that, it’s like it just rips the wounds open over, and over, and over again. You don’t have that time and space to heal and recover. It’s really hard. What we know from research into trauma is that post-traumatic stress disorder, so being really deeply impacted by threatening or dangerous life events, is actually correlated with perceptions of control, as well as whether or not you’re re-victimized.
For example, even going back to World War I, right, when there was first awareness developing of what was then called the shell shock. It was observed that soldiers flying around in planes, like zooming around and able to control their movements or get away from harm or whatever, were much less likely to develop symptoms of shell shock or PTSD than soldiers in the same battle but who had been assigned to hot air balloons. The second group of soldiers, instead of zooming around and able to steer themselves to different places, they were simply hanging suspended over the battlefield in wicker baskets, or maybe not wicker I don’t know, but still just floating in the sky getting shot at, basically. I’m sure their person right next to them getting shot out and not being able to get away from that situation. When they got back from that, they were not okay, psychologically.
I think that this situation of feeling trapped in this traumatic event, emotional space, just being stuck day-to-day, getting traumatized over and over again. There’s your ex, and it’s so painful and, “I feel like I’m dying, and my ex is with somebody new. And I have to see it over and over again.” It is the emotional and relational equivalent of being trapped in a hot air balloon and getting shot at by the Germans.
Now, the good news for you is that you are an adult, and you have options. Even though it doesn’t feel like you have options. You have options. You can look for a different job. You can move to a different town. You have control over where you live and what you do. Even if you choose not to do something differently, as an adult, you are exercising the power to make that choice to stay in that situation. My recommendation to you is twofold. First of all, that you do everything in your power to create boundaries. The second is that you actively take charge of your perception of control.
With regards to boundaries and control, and I’m sure you’ve thought through those, we’ll just brainstorm. Can you talk to your boss about moving to a different part of the organization or potentially changing your schedule, working from home sometimes? Are there opportunities to limit your contact with these people? In your personal life, can you fill your free time with things that help you create that sense of distance: little road trips, go camping on the weekends, or something so that you’re able to change your environment and cultivate a sense of safety and distance outside of your job. Even if it is only for two or three days, you have some respite from that.
Then, the second piece of this is in addition to setting boundaries where you can, is cultivating a sense of control, even if you decide not to change your circumstances. Imagine for a moment that, as is true for all of us, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. You do not have to go to work tomorrow. As a matter of fact, if you’re at your desk right now, you can stand up and walk out of there whenever you want. You are free to go. You can pull the fire alarm on the way out just like the rebel in the 1980s teen movie. You don’t have to pay your rent. You don’t have to pay your mortgage. You can literally, right this very second, stand up, go home, throw some clothes in the back of your car. You can drive to a different state. You can drive to a state where your friend lives and live in her basement for the next three months. You could rent a room somewhere and start all over again. You could take all the money out of your savings account, and buy a camper van, and live in that, and just hit the road, and go find a quiet campground in the middle of Idaho, and just live there, and grow your beard. You can do any of these things, literally, anything.
Now, there might be consequences to these decisions. You might damage your credit. You could go into debt. It could be harder for you to continue in your chosen career path. But you won’t die. You will not. You can get a different job in a restaurant, or retail, or doing something to pay the bills. You will start all over again. Now, when I said all of this, your automatic response might have been, “No, I can’t do that. That’s totally irresponsible. That is foolish. That’s dumb. No, I’m not that kind of person.” Those are your values piping up that say, “No, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to live that way. I have too much invested here. I’ll lose my 401k. I won’t have health insurance. I’ll…” Whatever. There are reasons but those are not rules. Those are not. You’re not in a prison cell. Those are your values saying, “It is actually more important to me to stay here in the situation for all of these reasons than it is for me to exercise my control to leave this situation.”
That is 100% okay because you’re exercising your choice to stay. You are consciously saying the pain that I feel day-to-day about being in this environment is actually a better choice for me than letting go of this job right now and making major changes in my life. It totally changes the frame when you are consciously getting up every morning and saying, “I am choosing to do this today because it is worth it to me,” rather than feeling like a victim. The point of this exercise is not about what you do or don’t do, it’s that you feel like you’re making a choice to be there and understanding on a conscious level that you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. You’re choosing what you want to do because this feels like the healthiest decision for you right now.
It could also be that you’re saying, “Okay, I’m going to do this today but this is not a long-term sustainable plan for me. But for the moment, this is what I’m doing, and I’m going to buy myself some time. I’m going to be very motivated to move heaven and earth, and spend my weekends firing off resumes, and networking, and doing whatever I have to do to change this.” That’s okay, too, but you’re not a victim. You have control. You have choices. And you can really do whatever you want. Consciously being aware of that as you go through your day is a powerful psychological buffer. Even if it doesn’t change your circumstances, it can change your feeling of empowerment and control.
I hope that you think about that and maybe consider trying it. Just to help you get through this really patently, objectively, really difficult time because you’re not in a hot air balloon, you’re in an airplane. Right now, you are circling over that field over and over. Remind yourself of that.
I have so many more questions from people. And I’m sad that we can’t talk through all of them because there are just so many wonderful questions. I am going to hang on to everything that you guys have sent in. There are a few other, sorts of, variants of questions that we didn’t get to today, but I’m hoping that we can do this again on another upcoming episode.
Now, if you have questions for the podcast, around breakups, or really any other topic, please get in touch with me. You can leave a voicemail for me again, 720-443-1110. You can track me down on Facebook facebook.com/drlisabobby. You can get in touch with me through my website growingself.com. While you’re on the website, you can take advantage of the other free resources that I have for you around breakups or relationships are all kinds of stuff. We have online quizzes, we have interactive videos. you can sign up to get information. We have lots of articles on the blog around all kinds of topics: breakups, relationships, careers, and more. You can also watch the first video of my Heal Your Broken Heart Program that’s on growingself.com, or you can find it at breakup-recovery.com.
As always, if you found this podcast to be valuable, it would mean so much if you would subscribe to it, review it on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts because your review will help someone else find the show in their time of need. That is what this is all about. So, on behalf of them, thank you for your support. I will be back in touch with you in a couple of weeks with another episode of a podcast. But until then, thank you so much for your questions, keep them coming. I’ll be back in touch soon. Okay. Bye.
[Outro Song: Into the Sun by Tristen]
- Dealing with an Unexplained Breakup
- Having a conversation with your ex is possible. But if they were good at communicating in the first place, you would be having honest conversations about your relationship before the breakup.
- Some people fear being honest and brave because of their partner’s reaction. So they convince themselves that breaking up is the solution.
- If you want to have the “closure” conversation, do it. But if you think that you won’t feel more resolved from that conversation, contemplate on your own thoughts and trust your judgment and intuition to decide what the truth really was.
- Try writing out why they really broke up with you. You might not ever get closure from your ex, but you can create closure for yourself by doing this kind of inner work.
- Decide that this is done, limit your exposure to new things that can hurt you, and create a sense of control around this. Then, you can move into the grieving process.
- Seeing Your Ex with Someone New
- It is rarely helpful to you to get information about your ex after the breakup. Ask people to respect your boundaries.
- As humans, we are designed to bond on a physiological level with others. From a primal level, being replaced by a rival is the equivalent of a life or death situation.
- Not all feelings are reliable sources of information about how you should be.
- The first step to healing is to understand what is happening to you on that primal level and why you’re feeling unglued by just educating yourself around it.
- Have certain mindfulness skills, rebuild your self-esteem and self-worth, and give yourself opportunities to do kinds of work that can help you disengage from that primal survival drive part of yourself into this other part of your mind that you empower to have more control.
- Getting Hung Up on Your Ex
- Your survival drives flare into action when replaced by a rival.
- Seeing your ex with someone new over and over again is the emotional equivalent of being trapped in a hot air balloon and being shot at by the Germans in World War I.
- Create boundaries for yourself so that you can heal. Then, take charge of your perception of control.
- You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. But there are consequences to these decisions.
- Choose what you want to do because it feels like the healthiest decision.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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