The headline ‘when you are engulfed in flames’, is actually the title of one of my very favourite David Sedaris books but I have always felt that it aptly summed up what it is to be heartbroken. “Heartbreak” always seems like kind of a soft, passive, Jane Austen state – a lot of flinging yourself onto couches, or crying while looking out a window. And both of these things are true. But heartbreak is actually an incredibly visceral, physical state to be in – it’s a rage and sorrow like no other. You feel it in your very core, in your bones – it affects your sleep, your physical health, your mental health, how you view the world and how the world views you. The good news? It doesn’t last forever. The other good news? It makes you a better person. Yes, heartbreak is like most things that can be defined as character building – e.g. a shit show you learn from.
I have only experienced heartbreak in this classic relationship state but luckily, I’ve had one minor heartbreak and one absolute flame-out, so I feel equipped to write about this. (I’m going to waffle on for a bit here about love but if you are in need of some practical advice, stat, then please accept this virtual hug and then scroll down to the Practical Help section.)
When I was in my early-to-mid twenties, I shudder now to think how inadvertently callous I was to people going through heartbreak. I’d never dated, let alone been in love, so I viewed heartbreak the same way I viewed people who get sad about sports – it was just a different world to me. Then it happened, and then I got it.
I remember sobbing to my therapist at one stage – and yes, you WILL be knee-deep in female clichés by the end of this story – about the pain I was in and she gave me this pearl of wisdom. “When you go into a room, you will now be able to tell who has had their heart broken and who hasn’t,” she said (over my tearful hiccups). “Getting your heart broken will make you kinder and more empathetic with so many other situations in your life, because now you understand what pain is.”
This is true – heartbreak is par for the course in life. It gets us all in the end, because heartbreak is loss and you don’t get out of this life without experiencing loss at some stage. Heartbreak is proper grief – it is the death of something you valued and so you must treat it with the respect and care it deserves. Emotional pain takes a real toll on your body and you need to work on healing yourself, just as much as you might after a physical accident.
As you get into your thirties and beyond, break-ups stop being good gossip and start becoming tragedies. Unpacking your life from someone else and all the wonderful and mundane things you did together feels completely unnatural and wobbly; like watching a baby giraffe take its first steps, it feels like you are suddenly learning how to be a person by yourself again. And this isn’t just for females, by the way – all genders get equally knocked back by break-ups. In fact, females are often better off because we have good friend groups and are given more societally-accepted space to feel sad after a break-up. It can be MUCH harder for men, who grow up being told all sorts of bullshit about emotion. (By the way, this is not an excuse for you to message your ex. Never message your ex. That way madness lies.)
Download the Break-Up Boss app
Created by Zoë Foster-Blake, the Break-Up Boss app sends you reminders every day at a certain time which range from hilarious to motivational. It also has a Wheel of Emotions you can consult, including options like ‘WTF Just Happened,’ ‘I Can’t Do This,’ and ‘I Hate Them.’ You click on the emotion and then you’ll be offered some options and then there is a beautiful essay or series of tips that will make you feel less alone/crazy. You can also buy the book. I did all of that.
Practise the box breath
After a failed engagement (the big heartbreak), I got into a really cool and healthy habit (!) of crying my entire walk to work, crying in the toilets before work and then having quick morning and afternoon tea cries as well, before repeating the whole thing on the commute home (Yes, I was blessed with a very understanding boss!) But when I needed to not lose my shit at my desk, I used the box breath and honestly, it was a phenomenal tool for whenever I felt the rising panic/emotion in my chest.
How to: You breathe in for four slow counts, hold that breath for four slow counts, exhale for four slow counts, and then hold for four slow counts before repeating the whole thing a few times. It works on two levels – one, giving your brain the counting trick to focus on helps settle your thoughts and secondly, properly inhaling and exhaling (so that your stomach moves up and down, not your chest) calms your nervous system.
Reach out to friends
Getting through loss requires a good mix of alone time for processing but also a good amount of community support. Make a plan to regularly see people – once a week is a great, more is better but not always possible. Pick people and places where you feel safe crying.
Cry a lot
It’s very good for you and it needs to happen. Are you a solo crier or a friend’s shoulder crier? Are you all of the above? The more you try and bottle up your emotions, the harder the toll is on your body. You have to feel your emotions, rather than fear them.
Make a plan for the lonely time
As the very wise Rachel Green once said, “The nights are the hardest, but then the day comes and that’s hard too.” When you are suddenly shoved out of Couple Town, there will be times when being solo feels totally unmanageable. For me, it was Saturday nights. If I didn’t have plans on a Saturday night, I would feel the panic creeping over me throughout the day and then I would do anything, anything, to avoid being home alone. I would contact any friend I could, like an emotional-attachment limpet. Finally, I had one Saturday night when I was home alone and it was okay. It wasn’t great, but I survived it. Slowly, it got easier. But I needed a lot of help to begin with and so might you – work out what your lonely time is or what your lonely triggers are, and plan for them.
Find your pop culture tool box
I stumbled across The Good Wife and it really helped me to watch a woman going through hell forced to pull her shit together. Luckily, heartbreak is a VERY well-known concept in pop culture, so you will be spoiled for choice. Personally, I would avoid romantic comedies for a good wee while as they just reinforce the message that Couple = Good, Single = Bad. Seriously, once you’ve been dumped, you become VERY AWARE that every movie happy ending involves a couple and/or wedding – it rarely, if ever, involves a woman falling in love with her own life and being fine by herself. Eff You, Hollywood! Pay my therapy bills, you turd!
Ahem. But luckily, television offers better options. And music? PLEASE! Without heartbreak, we’d have empty airwaves. I’m literally writing this while listening to a playlist called Sad Taylor Swift Songs To Cry To. Hello, Adele??? Sam Smith?? Ariana Grande? John Mayer? Beyoncé’s alternatively vengeful/devastated masterpiece Lemonade? Rihanna’s Anti? Lorde’s Melodrama? And this is only from the past 10 years! People have been sad for truly centuries and by God, is there the good art to show for it.
P.S. Here are our recommendations for rage viewing, should that be your cup of tea right now.
Read this stunning advice column
The question is “Why Don’t The Men I Date Ever Truly Love Me?” and, Reader, I have sent this to one million people (fine, one million women) because it so beautifully sums up the ‘Be nice, don’t ask for more’ bullshit that females feel they need to accept in bad relationships.
“It’s time to forget about being loveable. And in fact, it’s time to forsake someone else’s idea of what gives you a spark or no spark. Block the “other” from this picture. No more audience. You are the cherished and the cherisher. You are the eminently loveable and the lover. You are a million brilliant sparks, flashing against a midnight sky. Stop making room for someone else to sit down. Fuck “good” partners. Fuck waiting to be let in. You are already in. You are in. Cherish yourself.”
Don’t be afraid of therapy
I’m slightly wary of putting this on the list because I know that mental health services are busy and expensive but I can say without a doubt that going to therapy is the best money I have ever spent. I have no doubt that I a) wouldn’t be in the healthy relationship I am now or b) would’ve been brave enough to be a freelance writer without having a professional help me wade through the nonsense I had trapped myself into believing.
Friends are a wonderful help but they can only ever offer advice based on their own experiences – and their experiences aren’t your experiences, and their relationships aren’t your relationships. Plus, friends usually want to spare your feelings and that’s not helpful for growth. A good therapist will help you unpick your learned behaviours and beliefs and patterns, so that you can work your way out of repeating the same mistakes.
Don’t text your ex
I cannot stress this enough. You will never get the explanation or response you deserve. You will just delay your grief process by holding onto hope. In saying that though…
Don’t judge yourself if takes a while to end things for good
In the wise words of Jerry Seinfeld, breaking up is like trying to knock over a vending machine. Sometimes it takes a couple of attempts to do it properly.
Endorphins are your friend! If you’re feeling fragile, try something like yoga or Pilates – good for core strength but still calming for the body. If you’re still in flight/fight mode following heartbreak, then running can just make you feel more panicked. However, if you know that high intensity works for you, go for gold. Long walks listening to podcasts are always a great idea for the mental/physical health.
I know, is there a worse thing to be told??? Time is the only salve for heartbreak, unfortunately. In the words of Winston Churchill, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Or the oft-quoted “This too shall pass.” The thing is, it does pass. Even the worst pain is only temporary. Yes, you live with the effects of loss forever but it does sharpen your gratitude, heighten the enjoyment of the good days that follow – and they always, always, always follow.
For a full year after my engagement ended, I felt like I had a thick, heavy blanket over my heart. Then one day, it wasn’t there. It wasn’t an instant realisation, more like a slow awareness that I felt like myself again. Sometimes the heavy blanket comes back – if something sad happens, if I write an upsetting story that sits in my soul for a while. But I’m not afraid of the blanket anymore. Because now I know how good life feels without it. Some years are about thriving, some years about surviving. And you don’t get one without the other.
This poem, I feel, aptly sums up what waits on the other side of heartbreak:
“Someone can be madly in love with you and still not be ready. They can love you in a way you have never been loved and still not join you on the bridge. And whatever their reasons you must leave. Because you never ever have to inspire anyone to meet you on the bridge. You never ever have to convince someone to do the work to be ready. There is more extraordinary love, more love that you have never seen, out here in this wide and wild universe. And there is the love that will be ready.” Nayyirah Waheed
If you have break-up survival tips you would like to share with the Capsule community, please email [email protected] and we can compile a list of tips for readers going through a rough time!