How NOT To Heal Heartbreak
One of the most common sentiments expressed after going through a breakup or divorce is, "This just means something better is coming." While well intentioned, such an idea is a temporary balm and a set-up for future suffering, or what has been called "idiot compassion."
Coined by the late Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and popularized by his student, Pema Chödrön, idiot compassion involves enabling someone with false comfort in order to avoid the real issue at hand. More specifically for this topic, it conjures false hope during a time of heartache.
As humans, we rely on storytelling; in fact, as author Jonathan Gottschall has written, if a story doesn't exist, we'll invent one to bring order to our universe. We like patterns, especially ones that we have some semblance of control over. The problem is, reality doesn't necessarily work this way, which is why in Buddhism the major crisis of humanity is the type of suffering created by our ignorance of the world.
Promising "something better" — meaning "someone better" — causes the person experiencing heartache to transfer current pain to a future idealized person. The amount of pressure carried into that next relationship is tremendous. Comparisons are unavoidable. If that person does not live up to the expectations defined by the ex (or the emotional cravings the ex never offered), the excuse then becomes "that wasn't really him/her. That's next for you." And so on.
Part of this problem is derived from the concept of "the one," as if there's one person destined for you to meet. Such a hopeful aspiration is emotionally draining — no one person can live up to every expectation, especially if emotions are being carried over from a previous relationship. There's no "one." It's the one you choose that matters.
It's impossible not to carry some of the weight of the past; our experiences define who we are, and it's important to know what you're looking for in a relationship. But comforting yourself by envisioning an ideal scenario that hasn't happened yet creates two major problems:
1. It enables you by thinking that billions of years of history have led to this moment when you are guaranteed something tremendous. Thinking we're owed anything by simply being born is a function of a privileged ego.
2. It does nothing to heal current pain; it's merely an ineffectual balm, when what you really need is antibiotics.
The best solution I've found — what helped me get through a divorce — is mindfulness meditation. This style of sitting is no easy task: instead of avoiding emotions, you "sit with" them as they arise. Instead of running, you're forcing yourself to make friends with your fears.
An amazing shift occurs with diligent practice, however. As you start to separate the cause of your pain (your ex) with the feeling of the pain itself, you begin to realize that the pain has been experienced before. By removing the cause you understand the sensation. And once you inherently know the feeling as something already inside of you, you are no longer overwhelmed by it. You might not like it, but you have a tool to deal with it now, and are no longer oppressed by it.
During times of pain and crisis, mindfulness is powerful medicine. Yet it works wonders during time of calm and peace, as well. Call it preventive medicine.
This isn't denying hope for the future. A positive outlook does wonders for a person. It just cannot be used as a replacement for your present. If it is, you'll always be chasing a future that's guaranteed never to show up, because you haven't confronted the past. Wondrously, our brain offers the cure for the very condition it creates.