Staying Mindful in the Midst of a Painful Break Up

Posted on June 13, 2009 at 8:41 a.m.

By: Daniela Abbott

By: Daniela Abbott

A few months ago, I received an e-mail from a very good friend. She was in the throes of an unexpected break-up with her boyfriend and was dipping in and out of hope, anger, bewilderment, a desire to cocoon herself from the rest of the world and a counter-desire to allow new relationships to develop.  She and her boyfriend had been dating for four years and were ostensibly on the road toward marriage.  Just prior to the breakup, my friend noticed signs of disconnection.  Over the course of a few conversations, she discovered that her boyfriend had already started a new relationship with another woman while they were together.  He wanted to break up and move on.

The unexpected shift was shocking; there were feelings of disbelief, betrayal, and overwhelm as a once-felt reality changed within minutes.

A month after the break-up she wrote to me,

“I'm finding myself, or more accurately, my mood, shockingly dependent on 'potential men' -- men expressing interest in me. There is one whom I will see in April and another I will hopefully see after that.  Currently, we share a mild Email/phone flirtation. If I hear from them, I'm good. If I don't, I'll get sad. Is this just a recovery stage? Or am I messed up?”

How do you distinguish signs of recovery from compulsion or addiction?  How can you track your coping?  I thought I’d share what we talked about.  (Please note that while my friend’s interest was in men’s attentions, this focus is interchangeable with other things you might do  to feel better.  Examples are:  drug or alcohol use, shopping, gambling, overeating, under-eating, exercising, sex, etc. These behaviors, in moderation, are part of overall life.  Their excessive or exclusive use as your only means of coping becomes problematic).

Here’s what you want to pay attention to:

  • Continue to notice your focus on this or other things; by practicing awareness you will promote objectivity vs. reactivity. That’s important (it decreases the chance that you will be in an out-of-control cycle/addictive cycle).
  • Do you find yourself focused on men’s attentions (or other, “feel good behaviors”) as an antidote to stressful thoughts and feelings? (i.e. for every stressful/overwhelming feeling that comes up, you automatically turn to thoughts of men?) This may be happening. And all you need to do is notice it, breathe, and redirect yourself to the triggering emotion/situation. Be aware of the feelings that are coming up and your need to self-soothe, distract, etc. You are experiencing a HUGE loss and your need for comfort and distraction is normal.

As much as you can, build in a variety of self-soothing experiences. This is an attempt to create balance (to counterbalance) feeling overly focused in one direction; it also helps mitigate the weight of disappointments that might come from that one focus. Go to yoga, make time with girlfriends, go to concerts, join a book club, take-up a foreign language, volunteer for a charity, whatever you like. You need stimulation and satisfaction from a variety of sources.

Finally, don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re grieving. You’re allowed to be a little loopy, distracted, and irrational…fortunately, you have a few good friends you trust to help you through all of this, and to give you feedback when you might be making poor choices (remember:  the Witness Protection Program).

My friend is in her second month of post-breakup “recovery.”  She’s paying attention to her thoughts and feelings, and staying grounded amidst the turmoil.  It isn’t easy. She misses the comfort of what she had. Yet, she is finding ways to care for herself—to make time for her reflections, her solitude, and for the relationship possibilities that present themselves.  She wants partnership; she’s willing to take risks.  And she wants to be discerning about who she chooses to share her life with.

If you or someone you know is going through a period of overwhelming stress or a recent loss, these simple guidelines can help.  If, after reflection, you find that your choices are excessive and are becoming self-destructive, go to someone you trust and share your concerns.  We all need help sometimes, especially when pain is really great, or stress feels unmanageable.  Amazingly, help is often there for us if we allow it.

In appreciation of the full cycle of life, the joys and the pain, and the opportunities to give to and receive from each other.


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