In her illuminating writing manual, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott recounts the story of a woman who goes to the zoo and sees a male gorilla sleeping against the bars of his cage. The woman is so entranced by this magnificent beast that she reaches out to touch him, whereupon the gorilla wakes up, grabs her arm, and mauls her half to death before zookeepers can intervene. Days later the woman is still in the intensive care unit when a friend comes to visit. “God, you look like you’re in a lot of pain,” says the friend sympathetically. “Pain,” says the injured woman, “you don’t know pain. He doesn’t call, he doesn’t write….”
Ah, yes, the exquisite agony of heartbreak. We who have experienced it know that romantic love is a fall-in, crawl-out proposition: When you’re bonding with that special someone, everything is wondrously effortless; when the relationship hits the skids, getting through an ordinary day feels like climbing Everest without supplemental oxygen. But every instance of heartbreak can teach us powerful lessons about creating the kind of love we really want.
Mind you, just having your heart broken won’t get you a degree in love-ology. If you learn nothing from heartbreak, you’ll keep repeating the same old painful subject matter in one bad relationship after another. If you refuse to love at all, you will guarantee isolation and pain, rather than preventing them. The only way to graduate from Heartbreak Academy is to really master the material, and that means absorbing crucial lessons about your true self, your true needs, and the nature of true love.
Course offerings from the Heartbreak Academy of Emotional Pain
There are many ways to get your heart broken, all of them highly educational. Breakup 101 will teach you all about the discouragement and guilt that set in when you end a relationship that just isn’t working. In Situational Heartbreak 165, you’ll learn about the pain that occurs when you and your loved one are separated by circumstances such as geographic distance or (God forbid) death. Then there’s Advanced Conflict 206, a combat-training course you enter when you and your significant other become locked in a war of wills. Most unpleasant of all, in my opinion, is Unilateral Torture 262. This class starts when you’re deeply in love, investing full trust and openness in a relationship, and suddenly your partner calls the whole thing off or simply stops calling at all. It’s like getting hit by a truck, only way slower and more humiliating.
Study Guide: How to Make It Through Heartbreak Academy
I was in my first semester of Unilateral Torture 262, a class I’d taken three or four times already, when I stumbled across a concept in a psychology textbook that finally allowed me to learn my lesson and move on. I don’t remember anything else about that book, but I recall one crucial sentence perfectly. “Some patients,” it said, “mistakenly believe that their loneliness is a product of another person’s absence.” I stopped and reread this maybe ten times, but it still baffled me. I could have sworn that my loneliness was a product of my ex–significant other’s absence. If not, then what on earth was it?
Finally, slowly, over the next several days, weeks, years, the light dawned: My loneliness, and the antidote to it, did not come from the significant others I’d loved and lost. I’d been emotionally isolated before I ever fell in love. Something about certain people helped me lower the drawbridge over the moat that separated me from the world, but in the final analysis I was the one who’d actually done the trick. The power to bring me out of solitude—or to push me back into it—had never belonged to any other person. It was mine and only mine.
This realization is the most important thing you need to get through Heartbreak Academy with minimum effort and maximum positive effect. Realizing that your heartbreak is not a product of the other person’s absence brings the pain into an arena where you can work with it, instead of riveting your attention on some missing lover you may never see again and could never really control. Each time you find yourself longing for the love that was, asking yourself the following study-guide questions will help you learn the lessons of heartbreak and move on to a relationship that works.
Study Question #1: How Old Do I Feel?
Most often, heartbroken people are unknowingly grieving a loss or trauma rooted in childhood or adolescence. That’s because we tend to fall in love with people who remind us of those who cared for us—even badly—when we were young and totally vulnerable. We become childlike when we feel securely adored, letting go of all inhibition. The failure of adult relationships is often caused by the dysfunctions we internalized as children, and the devastation we endure when we’re rejected almost always opens ancient wounds, making us feel as bereft as an abandoned little kid.
If you ask yourself how old you feel when you’re in the worst throes of heartbreak, you’ll probably find that a surprisingly low number pops into your head. Whatever the age of your grieving inner child, it’s your job to comfort her, as you would help a toddler or a teen who had lost a parent. Do small, practical, caring things for yourself: Listen to a song that helps you grieve, schedule a play date with your best friend, wrap a soft blanket around yourself and let the tears come. Most important of all, give your childish self the chance to talk. Open your journal or visit your therapist, and let yourself express your anger and anguish in all its irrational, immature glory.
As you do this, you will almost certainly find yourself grieving losses you suffered way back when, as well as the one you’ve just endured. This is good: It means that you are finally progressing beyond ways of thinking and acting that didn’t work for you early in your life and still aren’t working today. Acknowledging and comforting that younger self is absolutely essential to easing your pain, recovering from your wounds, and finding new sources of healthy love.
Study Question #2: What Did My Lost Love Help Me Believe About Myself?
Look back on the time when you were falling in love, and you’ll realize that though much (or some) of your time with your lover was fabulous, the relationship made you happy even when the two of you were physically apart. The really potent part of love is that it allows you to carry around beliefs about yourself that make you feel special, desirable, precious, innately good. To graduate from Heartbreak Academy, you have to learn that neither your ex-beloved nor the fact of being in love invested you with these qualities. Your lover couldn’t have seen them in you, even temporarily, if they weren’t part of your essential being.
Make a list of all the things you let yourself believe when you saw yourself mirrored in loving eyes. Write them as facts: I’m fascinating. I’m beautiful. I’m funny. I’m important. Realize that you chose to believe these things in the context of your relationship, and now that the relationship is over, you have another choice: either to reject a loving view of yourself or to believe the truth.
But, you may say, what if these positive things aren’t really true at all? What if the truth is that I’m hopelessly unlovable? Well, let me remind you that when you believe you’re an insignificant bird dropping on the sooty gray pavement of life, you feel unspeakably horrible. On the other hand, when you opt for believing what love once taught you about yourself, the core of your despair is replaced by sweetness, however bitter your subsequent loss. I say, use what works. Self-concept is a self-fulfilling prophecy: When we let ourselves believe that we’re wonderfully attractive, we act wonderfully attractive. By letting yourself believe the most loving things your ex ever said about you, you can get rid of the bathwater but keep the baby, honoring and preserving what was precious in your relationship, while letting go of the pain.
Study Question #3: What Did My Relationship Give Me Permission To Do?
Being in love is so intoxicating, that special person so compelling, that lovers often drop some of the obligations and rules that dominated their lives before they met. When you’re in love, you may forget that you don’t usually allow yourself to splurge on perfume, or write poetry, or be wildly sexual, or say no to invitations you’d rather not accept. When your relationship is over, the bleak prospect of going back to the rules can drive you to the brink of despair, making you pine obsessively for your lost love to return and free you again. Eliminate the middleman. Free yourself.
You can start by making another list. This time write down all the forbidden things you allowed yourself to do when you were madly in love with someone who was madly in love with you. Now give yourself permission to do all those things anyway.
Nothing can make your trip through Heartbreak Academy easy or painless. Grieving will always hurt, but it is not mindless torture. It’s more like panning for gold. Recurrent floods of sadness and anger gradually wash away the rubble of the defunct relationship, leaving only the bits of treasure: the remembered moments of real communion, a new understanding of your own mistakes, a clear picture of the dysfunctions you will never tolerate again.
Letting these precious things emerge naturally means that you will retain the real love you’ve received, even as you let go of your former lover. And realizing that you hold the keys to your own healing will keep sadness from becoming despair and help you master the lessons a broken heart can teach. It means the relationships you create after that will be more trustworthy, the unavoidable losses less devastating.
“The world breaks everyone,” Hemingway once wrote, “and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” A broken heart is simply a heart that has a chance to become stronger. It’s a heart that is more self-sufficient, more open to the truth, and more capable of lasting love.