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getting over a hard breakup

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The mind has a pretty straightforward way of processing common events – those that happen regularly like sitting in traffic, getting a spam email, exchanging passive-aggressive comments with a coworker, or even getting into that same old argument with your mother. These are the simple things that your mind knows how to process. The series of emotions is pretty cut and dry. You’re annoyed, then you’re over it. But then there are rare experiences, like the grief over losing a loved one, or the pain of a breakup that really aren’t that easy to take in. How many times in a lifetime will your brain have to truly process that? Only a handful if you’re lucky. But that’s also why the human mind kind of short circuits when it is time to process something like that.

When you lose someone, you sometimes wake up thinking they’re still around, right? Even if you had a love/hate relationship with the person, sometimes you only feel the love, and sometimes only the hate, when thinking about them. It’s almost like your brain shatters after difficult experiences, like a breakup, and there is no straightforward path to recovery. You should understand that your mind is working against you in a breakup. It has one goal: avoid pain. Unfortunately, that’s in direct conflict with what you need to do to get over this breakup in a healthy and real way. You have to experience the pain. But nobody is conditioned to ignore their thoughts or do the opposite of what they feel like doing, which is what makes breakups so difficult. We spoke with licensed therapist and author of The Dumping Ground Latasha Matthews, and she shared ways the brain plays tricks on you after a breakup.


Latasha Matthews

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Everything looks better in the rearview mirror

If you’ve felt that the moment you ended a tumultuous relationship, you lost connection with the bad feelings that sent you out the door and suddenly only recalled the good stuff, that’s common, according to Matthews. “People tend to have on rose-colored glasses when it comes to looking at the tough stuff in the relationship after it has ended.  Some might experience relationship amnesia, which could cause partial or total memory loss as it pertains to negative content in the relationship.” It’s also simply painful to relive the bad moments in your relationship, so while there is value in remembering that there were plenty, your mind protects itself by conveniently forgetting those.

getting over a hard breakup

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You want to justify it

It’s only natural to want to think of the reasons you were in the relationship in the first place. If you can only recall the bad things, that can really have you questioning your judgment in partners. And, of course, there were good things. Something drew you into that union in the first place. Matthews says there’s a reason your brain returns to the good times when reminiscing on a relationship. “This is the brain’s way of helping you make meaning of the break-up.” When you’re wondering, “Why the hell did I get into that in the first place?” your memory is ready with the answers.

getting over a hard breakup

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If you’re overthinking it, don’t act on those thoughts

There’s one dangerous and common thing that can happen after leaving a bad relationship: a person cannot get their mind off of it, which can lead them to think “Maybe that’s a sign I shouldn’t have left that relationship.” But, no. That’s no such sign. Your mind just has a tendency to ruminate on events surrounding grief. “Oftentimes people experiencing a break-up go through a period of grieving.  During this grief, individuals could develop obsessive thoughts that cause them to ruminate on their relationship,” Matthews says. Translation: just because you can’t stop thinking about him, doesn’t mean you should call him.

getting over a hard breakup

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You may want to backslide

Remember how we said your brain is conditioned to help you avoid pain? Because of that, it might play this nasty trick on you. “The person might cycle through periods of avoiding the emotional pain by second guessing on if they could have made it work.” There’s comfort in moving backward. Even if it’s not great back there, at least you know what’s there. You know what to expect. You can’t say the same of moving forward. So you might convince yourself you can still make that relationship work with one more try, as a way of avoiding the pain of having to really move on.

getting over a hard breakup

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You can miss him, but nothing more

If you truly think that your missing someone is some cosmic sign that you’re meant to be together, think about this for a moment: you (probably) deeply missed every single ex you’ve ever had for a while after those breakups. And now how do you feel about them? Exactly. “Missing someone is normal, however that does not mean you turn back to the relationship to avoid that feeling,” Matthews says. When you find yourself missing the person, try the slightly uncomfortable exercise of recalling the things that person did and said that caused you to leave the relationship. Then you may not miss them so much.

getting over a hard breakup

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Don’t listen to those thoughts

Deeply rooted in your commitment to that dysfunctional relationship was the desire to have a partner. You wanted to give love and receive love. You don’t want a life without that. So, letting go of something that showed promise of that – it failed, but it showed promise – can be difficult. You may want to hang onto that crappy lifeboat for fear that a bigger, better ship isn’t coming. Matthews says these thoughts are common after a breakup (but, again, no reason to take the partner back). “Some of the negative thoughts one might have after a breakup include ‘I’m never going to find anyone else like my former mate,’ ‘It was all might fault,’  ‘This pain will never go away,’ ‘I’m worthless and I’m never entering another relationship.’” You can go ahead and ignore those.

getting over a hard breakup

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You don’t want to admit you accepted less

Matthews also mentioned that it’s common, after a bad breakup, to deny the negative events that went on, or at least to minimize them. If you are, all in all, a confident and strong person who feels worthy of good love, it might be difficult to admit that you tolerated less than that…and possibly did so for a long time. It’s a strike to the precious ego to recognize, “Maybe, for a while, I didn’t assert the confidence and worthiness I hope to embody.” Admitting that you accepted some rather bad treatment is not easy, so it’s understandable that some don’t want to see that. As a result, says Matthews, you might tell yourself it wasn’t all that bad.

getting over a hard breakup

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Go through the pain, rather than around it

It’s simply human nature to look at a potentially painful situation and say, “Nope!” Instead, you look for other routes. You see this big bundle of hurt in front of you that you have to go through to get over this breakup and say, “There’s gotta be another way.” You might try some of the avoidance methods listed here. Eventually, you’ll wind up back where you started and just have to face the pain. “A roller coaster of emotions is normal after a breakup,” Matthews says. “It is important to honor those feelings and find ways to work through them without avoiding the pain.”

getting over a hard breakup

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Onto the next one? Not so fast

A new relationship can seem like a nice shiny object to take you away from the pain of a breakup. Why waste time thinking about the past when there’s a future option here? Well, because it’s not a waste of time to assess and understand failed relationships. If anything, skipping that part of your processing journey is the bigger waste of time, says Matthews, since it can send you down a path into the same kind of relationship. “People must understand that they need to give themselves time to heal and process their emotions before diving back into another relationship. If you avoid those emotions that could impact your next relationship.”

getting over a hard breakup

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So if you can’t date yet, then what?

Impulsive spending, over-eating, over-drinking, these are probably not the healthiest ways to “process” a breakup (you’re not processing at all when you do them, hence the parentheticals). But you’re going to want to do them, really badly, so you need an alternative. “I’m an advocate for therapy and taking a timeout on dating,” Matthews says. “Journaling, mindfulness, and finding new interests are all good ways to re-center and learn what is important to you.” Taking the time to do that now can prevent repeating mistakes, and even help you learn when to get out of a bad relationship sooner, next time — if there is a next time.

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