Over a series of blog posts, I have been looking at each of the "7 Stages of Grief" as described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and how they relate to a breakup. This week I'm exploring Stage 2, Pain & Guilt.
Disclaimer: This is a personal account of my experiences and is in no way intended to replace professional support from a trained physician or therapist.
My Story: Pain & Guilt
I sit here, 6 weeks after what I call the end of our relationship. The end being when we finally talked, when we finally said good bye. If you've read my previous posts, you'll understand what I mean.
I've been to the salon today. I changed to dark hair since the break up. My friends own the salon and I would have considered this is safe space. But music plays. I've not been able to listen to music for all of 2023. It is now May 10th as I write this. Music mean lyrics, lyrics mean association, which leads to feelings and memory triggers. "Who knew" by P!nk plays and it hits me in the gut. My stylist talks to me about Thailand and this triggers me. My ex left me 2 weeks after a miscarriage to go and find himself in Thailand earlier this year. Whenever I hear the word it makes me feel sick.
No matter where I am: work, at home, out walking, the salon, grocery shopping, wherever I am, the memory follows, he follows. Because it wasn't a straight forward break up, because he disappeared instead of talking to me; only to open the wound and talk to me months later, I feel like we broke up twice. Because of this, it feel like I'm going through the grief cycle all over again. I just go back and forth between all of the stages. Last week I felt like I was on "'the Upward turn". This week I feel like I'm in "Pain and Guilt".
On Monday I was collapsed on the cold wooden floor of my living room, pleading to a deity to bring him back while at the same time, feeling immense guilt for mourning a man who could have treated me much better. Today it just hurts. Today I feel stuck again. In pain at the loss of someone I cared for but guilty for being in pain over someone who did not care about me.
But here I sit, 6 weeks along. I'm in survival mode, sure. But I've done 6 weeks. I can do 6 more. And 6 more. And 18 weeks will turn into 52 which will turn into years. Eventually, this will all be a distant memory. This pain; I probably won't even remember either. I will only have these words to remind me.
In these moment of calm, these moments of clarity, I have hope. The story had a plot twist, he wasn't the one. You're on a new adventure now.
What is Pain and Guilt?
Guilt is the emotional response that accompanies feeling responsible for a negative outcome. You can feel guilt for many reasons such as hurting someone's feelings, doing something you think it morally wrong or failure to do what you think you should have. In terms of a break up you could feel guilt for how it ended, if you were unfaithful or for moving on. You can even feel guilt for putting yourself through a relationship that was not right or for not leaving sooner.
When we are going through a breakup or any traumatic event, we will often say that we are hurt. Generally using the word "'hurt" to describe the emotional pain we are going through. Research has found that the same area of the brain is activated during a breakup as with physical pain. Understanding what is going on in the brain during a breakup may not take away the pain but it may offer some insight to why you feel how you do. For further reading on what happens in the brain during a break up, click here.
7 Ways to Cope with Pain & Guilt
Understand that Breakups are Normal. It's rarer for a relationship to last a lifetime. Sometimes even the happiest of couples, the people we think are perfect for us, end in us parting ways.
An end of a relationship doesn't necessarily need to be seen as failure. What if you reframed your break up and said your relationship had been completed rather than failed? Instead of agonizing over what is gone, ask yourself what did you learn from your last relationship.
Say goodbye to the future you were going to have with them. One of the hardest parts of a breakup is knowing the plans you had will never happen. Maybe you had planned their birthday or were working towards living together. Whatever your future was going to be with them, that's no longer part of your story.
Think about what you are holding onto. What can you let go of?
Breakup ritual. There are so many practices at the start of a relationship that we work through: exchanging numbers, going on a first date, declaring your feelings, being exclusive, making it official, moving in, getting engaged or married.
We mark the beginnings but not necessarily the end. Rituals can help us come to terms with the end of a relationship. Esther Perel talks more about breakup rituals on her YouTube channel, link here.
Take time to think about your breakup ritual, what could you include?
Empowering Thoughts. Taking control of our thoughts is no easy feat. We cannot control automatic thoughts, those thoughts that spring into our minds when we least expect it. However, we do have power over the next thought we have.
Write down your negative thoughts and think of an empowering thought you can replace it with. Here are some examples to get started:
"I'm never going to find anyone, I'm going to be alone forever" could be replaced with "I am healing and I will have love again when I am ready".
"I'll never have what I had with him with anyone else" could be replaced with "What I had with him was unique but I will have something equally special with someone new"
Come to terms with the breakup. Often in the months after a break up, when the initial shock has worn off, we forget the pain and look back with rose tinted glasses. We can put our ex's back on a pedestal and our brains can be flooded with memories of all their good attributes.
In order to move on, we need to come to terms with our breakups and not dwell in the past. Get a pen and paper and write answers to the questions below. And be brutal.
Reconnect with yourself. What do you enjoy doing? What hobbies have you given up in making space for your relationship? What did you used to do with your time? Reconnect with friends, take a class, join a gym, join a social group.
Meet Up is a great app to make new friends or go online to check out events and classes in your city. Can you run a 10K or take a dance class or join a book club?
Set Yourself Goals. Think about the year ahead, how do you want to be feeling and how can you get there? Break the year into one month, six months and one year, and write down where you want to be at each stage. This is your time to focus on you and shape your life in the way you want.