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As anyone who’s been through one knows, there’s no rule book on how to get over a breakup. You might resort to watching The Holiday or Midsommar one, two—okay, five—times hoping it’ll magically mend your broken heart, but grieving the loss of a relationship just isn’t that simple. It involves a roller-coaster of emotions, and the path to recovery is as unique as your connection was, Habiba Jessica Zaman, LPC, a therapist based in Tucker, Georgia, who specializes in trauma, tells SELF.
“Our healing time will depend on factors like the meaning the relationship held as well as the length of it,” Zaman says. Especially if you experienced any milestones with this person—like if you lost your virginity to them, for example, or they were the first romantic partner you lived with—it can be really challenging to imagine your life without them, she says.
If you’re reading this in hopes of being happily single by tomorrow, we’re (truly) sorry to say there’s no such quick fix. That said, there is good news: You will feel like yourself again (and be better off in the end; you broke up for a reason!) and there are things you can do to gradually find your way back to happiness. Aside from sobbing into your best friend’s shoulder and calling emergency meetings with Ben and Jerry (which, yes, can provide some legit, temporary relief), here are some actionable steps you can take to make this journey even a little less unbearable.
1. Give yourself permission to feel your feelings.
Anger. Emptiness. Confusion. Grief. These are some of the very valid (and extremely uncomfortable) emotions that people often try to dodge after a relationship ends. “A common misconception is that people believe they have to stop thinking about [the pain] or stop dwelling on it to be happy and move on,” Sarah Gundle, PsyD, New York–based clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, tells SELF. “But you actually have to feel [and process] your feelings in order to understand and accept what has happened.”
One way to create a space for this reflection (and wallowing) is to set a timer for 10 to 20 minutes and just…sit (or lie) there. Feel whatever you’re feeling and think whatever you’re thinking—with curiosity, not judgment (it’s called emotional acceptance and it’s real). Many of us don’t realize the relief that can come with not denying or suppressing our true emotions any longer, as SELF previously reported.
And remember: You’re not just mourning the loss of a relationship, but also the hopes and expectations you had for your future—maybe you dreamed of moving in together or starting a family with this person. “So give yourself grace and compassion during this difficult and confusing time,” Dr. Gundle advises.
2. Reconnect with things that make you happy.
It’s easy to become so engrossed in coupledom that you abandon the simple pleasures you used to enjoy on your own, like bed rotting with a steady stream of comforting Netflix shows or baking a batch of your signature banana muffins.
To be clear, “People shouldn’t be ignoring their hobbies or the stuff that brings them joy just because they’re in a relationship,” Dr. Gundle says. But, of course, it’s possible you may have put some of your solo interests on the back burner: Maybe you haven’t hiked in a while because your significant other is such a homebody. Or perhaps you pressed pause on your bedside guitar sessions when you started sleeping at their place every night.
Instead of dwelling on what’s lost, it can be helpful to reframe this period as an opportunity to reignite your personal passions, Andrea Liner, PsyD, a Denver-based clinical psychologist who specializes in breakups, tells SELF. Or better yet, step out of your comfort zone with a new hobby, like learning a language or making shitty crafts. Think of it as a chance to date yourself and rediscover what truly lights up your life, Dr. Liner says.
3. Focus on creating new memories.
Fixating on the past is a natural part of the breakup experience—and one that can tug at your heartstrings—which is why it’s important to make new memories that aren’t tied to your former partner. So rather than visiting that old date-night spot you used to frequent with they-who-shall-not-be-named by yourself, for example, invite a group of friends to join you, Sam Bolin, LCSW, CEO of The Linthicum Counseling Center in Linthicum, Maryland, tells SELF. This way, you can indulge in that spaghetti carbonara or tiramisu ex-free—and still with great company.
You can also look for some new go-to places that don’t remind you of your former partner every five seconds, Bolin suggests. (We’re just going to leave these fun solo date ideas here for ya.)
4. Don’t wait for “closure” before letting yourself move on.
Perhaps you’re expecting an apology for the way things ended, or maybe you’re hoping they’ll reach out to elaborate on why they suddenly “lost feelings.” Unfortunately, you may never get the “sorry” or explanation you’re seeking, which is why your recovery shouldn’t be dependent on that closure.
Instead, “Your perception of why it ended is what is most important,” Terri Orbuch, PhD, a professor at the University of Oakland who researches interpersonal relationships and the author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great, tells SELF. So rather than waiting on your ex to tie the relationship up in a bow, Dr. Orbuch recommends examining the partnership more holistically—and particularly paying attention to your compatibility (or lack thereof).
Think about why, exactly, things didn’t work out, she suggests. Maybe you have totally opposite communication styles (you’re reserved, they’re confrontational), or perhaps you wanted completely different things for the future. Getting clear on the reason(s) the relationship ended is all the “closure” you need, while playing the blame game or getting hung up on the idea of resolution can keep you stuck in a cycle of resentment, Dr. Orbuch says—which will make it even harder to let go and heal.
5. Think twice before hooking up with your ex post-breakup.
Oh, and speaking of ending things on a healthier note: Don’t booty call your ex. Fine, we shouldn’t tell you what to do (and every breakup is unique), but that steamy post-breakup sex will probably “just be confusing and keep your relationship, or lack thereof, in a state of limbo,” Dr. Gundle says. “And in order to get real closure, you need to actually end it.”
6. Give yourself some space from the relationship.
Many of us hope we can stay good friends—or at least be cordial—with our ex-partners. After all, we’ve spent weeks, months, or years getting to know and love them (and their little quirks). However, setting boundaries is important for truly embracing a fresh beginning, Michaela Decker, LMFT, owner and therapist at Vesta Counseling in Tempe, Arizona, tells SELF.
“A good start is to reduce communication to only what is necessary.” In other words, keep the conversation limited to specific things like getting your stuff back, then end the discussion. Or, even better, consider appointing an intermediary (like a mutual friend or family member) to be your proxy for arranging logistics temporarily, Dr. Liner adds.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all recommendation for whether or not to delete an ex’s number or when to block them on social media. (For what it’s worth, though, one study found that people who continued to be Facebook friends with their ex experienced more distress, negative feelings, and sexual longing.) Just be mindful of how keeping the option of contacting them open is affecting you, Decker says: If their cheerful selfie is sending you into a spiral or you’re constantly fighting the urge to stalk their profile for a relationship status update, those are signs that it’s time to limit your access to them (or go no contact altogether)—at least until you’re in a better place.
7. Write a letter to your ex—but don’t send it.
Jotting down all of your honest feelings—even the really ugly and intimate ones—and directing them toward the person who caused your heartbreak can help you make sense of the complicated thoughts and unanswered questions lingering in your mind, Dr. Orbuch says.
“Basically, get all of what you want to say on paper or even on [the notes app in] your phone,” Dr. Orbuch suggests, whether that includes how much you’ll cherish them as your first real love, say, or (conversely) how you’re now seeing all of their red flags. She also recommends deleting or throwing the letter away, rather than hitting “send” or hand-delivering it to their doorstep. The goal isn’t necessarily to contact your ex, Dr. Orbuch explains, which could, again, delay the healing process and prevent both of you from moving forward. Rather, the point is to liberate yourself from the weight of unresolved emotions and unspoken words. (Think of it as a cathartic exercise: A safe space to say any and everything you’re feeling.)
8. Surround yourself with as many supportive people as possible.
Sure, during the early stages of a breakup (when you might be feeling too hurt and overwhelmed to talk to anyone), withdrawing from those around you is a natural reaction, Dr. Gundle says. Still, it’s important to remember that your loved ones are your safety net during difficult times, and they can provide support in ways that only those who really know (and love) you can.
A common reason why a lot of people hesitate to ask for help, according to Dr. Liner, is the fear of “burdening or annoying their networks.” Obviously, your best friends are, well, your BFFs for a reason, but if you’re still worried you’ll bother them, here are some expert-approved healthy ways to vent.
9. And don’t be afraid to contact the friends you’ve lost touch with.
Okay, maybe you kind of ghosted your buddies when you were in the thick of a whirlwind romance. Or perhaps you had a toxic partner who didn’t want you spending time with anyone else but them. Either way, there’s no shame in reaching out now and owning your mistake if you need to, Dr. Liner says.
For example, you might say: “I know I stopped prioritizing our friendship while I was in my relationship and I really regret that. I’d love a chance to reconnect with you if you’re open to it.” Or “I got really caught up in having a significant other and now see that it wasn’t cool of me to disappear on you like that.”
10. Get rid of any physical reminders of your ex…
“The healthiest coping mechanism is getting rid of everything associated with this person,” according to Zaman. That doesn’t necessarily mean trashing everything they touched but, for example, it might be time to finally delete those old texts or saved voicemails—the things keeping you tethered to the hope of getting back together. Constantly revisiting these old memories “can hinder your ability to move on with your life without this person in it,” Zaman says.
11. …or at least hide those mementos.
It’s also completely understandable if you’re not ready to part with all the stuff that’s tied to them. Maybe you want to keep that expensive necklace they got you for your birthday or the concert ticket stub from your first date, for example. In those cases, Decker suggests stashing these mementos in a box (out of sight) until your emotions have died down. That way, you can make a less impulsive decision about what to do. (And if you’re still tempted to dig out your ex’s old T-shirt that you always slept in, ask a trusted friend to either hide or hold onto it for you.)
12. Don’t pressure yourself to date again if you’re not ready.
Being single again might seem scary. However, jumping into a rebound relationship too soon, Decker says, can backfire when you haven’t yet fully processed your breakup. “This can lead to additional stress and regret that will further complicate the healing journey,” she explains.
So how do you know when it’s time to hit the dating apps again? The short answer: “When you consistently experience more positive emotions than negative ones, such as you often find yourself laughing and feeling more like yourself,” Decker says. Another positive sign is when you consistently think of your past love life without strong reactions like intense anger or sadness.
Now, you may very well find “the one” or just have a great time hooking up even while you’re still in pain. Ultimately, though, dating will feel best if you’re looking to genuinely enhance your life—not just fill a void of loneliness.
13. Consider finding a therapist if you don’t already have one.
We understand that therapy isn’t accessible to everyone, but “having an unbiased, neutral, third-party observer is instrumental in gaining a deeper understanding of what happened, what your role was, and how you can learn and grow from it as you pursue future relationships,” Dr. Liner says.
Aside from offering you a safe space to express yourself, a therapist can also teach you effective strategies for coping with stress, anxiety, sadness, or low self-esteem. Through the therapeutic process, you’ll also gain the self-awareness necessary for forming healthy romantic partnerships down the line, Dr. Gundle says.
At what point, exactly, is it time to call in a pro? As a general rule of thumb, according to Dr. Gundle: After a month or so of not feeling any better—meaning that you’re still overwhelmed by intense emotions or continuing to isolate yourself from friends and family, she says. However, you should definitely seek help ASAP if you’re in extreme distress—as in, you’re “not eating or sleeping, missing or struggling at work, experiencing major changes in mood or personality, or having intrusive or suicidal thoughts," Dr. Liner adds. (Not sure how to go about getting mental health help? This guide on how to find an affordable therapist is a good place to start.)
14. Finally, try to be patient and trust the process.
Last but not least, it’s important to be realistic and know that the pain won’t go away overnight, no matter how diligently you follow the above advice. So, as best as you can, just take it one day at a time, Dr. Orbuch suggests. It’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel right now, but we promise you’ll feel like your wonderful self again eventually—and knowing that you can get through hard things might make you stronger than ever.
If you are struggling with feelings of depression and need someone to talk to, you can get support by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or by texting HOME to 741-741, the Crisis Text Line. If you’re outside the United States, here is a list of international suicide helplines.
Originally Appeared on SELF