By Kendall Coffman, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Overcoming Heartbreak: 7 Stages of Healing
Heartbreak can leave us with a hollow and cold feeling as well as a loss of a sense of self. No one is immune to this most human experience of all – the loss of love. It can expose your most vulnerable parts, keep you in a negative emotional loop, and leave you with feelings of hopelessness. However, it is crucial that you know that you are not alone in this. You are not broken or “damaged goods,” but instead, you are a collection of all the difficult and beautiful experiences that have gotten you to this very point.
7 Steps to Overcoming Heartbreak
The healing process varies from person to person, but self-help expert and psychotherapist Gael Lindenfield, in her book Your Pocket Self-Esteem Guide: Increase Your Confidence; Transform Your Life (2021), outlines seven steps to healing that you can use as a guide along your particular journey to emotional recovery:
Keep in mind that there is no “quick-fix” to heartbreak and loss. Still, understanding where you are in your own healing journey may help you make a few empowering steps towards your own happy ending.
As Lindenfield (2021) points out, the first task in any healing journey is to explore the nature of your hurt and acknowledge what we perceive to have happened. At this stage, you don’t want to spend time and energy devoted to blaming or pain-numbing. Instead, you want to truly explore the core emotional response occurring within you. It might be helpful to remind yourself that you are merely trying to explore your own perceptions of events and memories, and not necessarily the truth of an event. For example, notice if your response to a breakup centers on negative self-talk and shaming language (e.g., “I am not attractive enough” or “I don’t deserve to be happy”).
Once you have explored your perception of your pain, you may naturally flow into the expression stage on your own. At this stage, the key is to slowly allow yourself to feel the pain or emotion connected to the event or heartbreak. Allow yourself to listen to that sad song in the bathtub or reminisce about old memories as long as you don’t find yourself taking an active role in shame or self-blame. Express your broken heart; feel your feelings.
At this point in the healing process, it is crucial that you reach out for help to a friend, family member, or therapist. You may only need someone to hear you tell your story and be present with you, while others may need a few words of encouragement to feel comfort. In some circumstances, you may need your friend to help you begin to trim the branches that your ex-partner grew into your life. Guy Winch said in his 2017 TedTalk entitled “How to fix a broken heart” that it is crucial that we not glorify or make our former partners into idealized heroes. Instead, we should reflect on why they were not a good partner and why they may not have brought happiness into your future. It is time to delete those photos off your phone.
It is now time to start “making up” for all of the pain and hurt you have received or experienced up until this point. It is important to allow yourself to engage in a little self-indulgence. You are allowed to enjoy things. Give yourself permission to find some light. Here are a few examples that some of my clients have incorporated at the compensation stage:
- Listening to “feel good” music
- Taking a long bath with candles or essential oils
- Going for a walk in the park
- Sharing a bottle of wine with a friend or group of friends
- Taking yourself on a solo-date and treat yourself
- Planning a trip
At this point, you may find yourself well on your way to a mended heart. You may also be ready to start putting the heartbreaking events in perspective and allowing yourself to write a new ending to the story. Here are a few questions you could ask yourself:
- Have I been thinking about the event(s) as though it was more or less significant than it actually was?
- How do I want to re-negotiate relationships in the future?
- Have I given myself the same level of compassion and grace as I would give to someone I love?
- Do I need to spend more time at any of the earlier stages?
As Lindenfield (2021) explains, the objective of channeling is to find constructive ways to apply the positive benefits you have gained as a result of the emotional pain you have experienced. Some examples include
- Implementing new relational boundaries
- Giving back to your community or engagement in a group you joined
- Writing a blog about your experience to help others
Although you may have made it to the final stage, that does not mean you have to force a fake or inauthentic act of forgiveness. This stage is not only about forgiving those who have emotionally hurt you but equally about forgiving yourself for whatever negative thoughts you have harbored towards yourself. Forgiveness does not require that you verbally make amends with other people; you can do this step alone in your own private sacred space.
Use these steps as a running guide and spend time processing them independently or with a therapist. Healing is a messy journey and has no timeline, so trust your gut. In the words of Brene Brown, “you are imperfect, you are wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.”
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your grief in this moment of heartbreak, or if you’re feeling stuck in the healing process and unable to complete it, it may be time to reach out to a therapist. Click here to search for therapists in your area who can help.
Brown, B. (2010). The power of vulnerability. Link: https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_the_power_of_vulnerability?language=en
Lindenfield, G. (2021). Your pocket self-esteem guide: Increase your confidence; transform your life. HarperCollins Publishers.
Winch, G. (2017). How to fix a broken heart. Link: https://www.ted.com/talks/guy_winch_how_to_fix_a_broken_heart?language=en
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