After a breakup, one big question that commonly plagues the newly single is this: What did I do wrong?
The end of a relationship is a period rife with self-doubt and self-loathing as we try to identify our own culpability, says Jesse Kahn, LCSW, CST, director and sex therapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in NYC. "Often, people use breakups as evidence that they are unloveable." This is of course not true—breakups are a normal part of life—but in the midst of grief, many people tend to take the loss personally. That's why, according to Kahn, learning to love yourself again is an essential step in the healing process.
To help you along the way, we reached out to mental health and relationship experts to share the self-care practices they recommend to anyone going through a breakup to help show themselves a little love:
Give yourself credit for the little things
"Sometimes, in the thick of emotional challenges, a person can use all of their energy just to get out of bed each day, feed themselves, and get back into bed," says LGBTQ+ mental health expert Kryss Shane, LMSW. So right after a breakup, things like taking a shower, walking the dog, or brushing your teeth might feel as energy-sucking as a CrossFit workout. That's OK. No need to get down on yourself about it. Instead, celebrate those little wins.
But (and this is important!), "If this goes on for more than a couple of days, you need to seek out a mental health care professional," she says. "They'll be able to help you take steps toward healing."
Go to therapy
"Mental health care isn't just for getting you out of the pits of problematic situations. It's also for harnessing your power and channeling it into the direction best for you moving forward," explains Shane. Plus, a therapist is equipped to help you process your pain and grieve in a way your non-therapist friends are not, she says. If cost or location is a barrier, you might try a therapy app like Talk Space or BetterHelp.
Invest in your physical health in other ways
"Start small," says Shane. "Commit to flossing four times a week. Decide to eat one healthy meal a day. Move your body more."
You might even buy a little kid's chore or potty chart and give yourself a sticker each time you hit your goal, she says. "You can choose sparkly or scented stickers to up your game or give yourself a point each time you meet your goal." It might sound silly, but Shane says, "It's a great physical representation that you are totally capable of meeting whatever goal you set your mind to!"
Call up your friends
"It can be so, so beneficial to reach out and connect with friends when you're feeling the loss of a relationship," Kahn says. Being able to talk about the breakup and your current mental and emotional state with someone who cares about you can help you feel supported, he says. "Those bonds can be incredibly nourishing."
But be cautious about sharing every single thought about your ex that enters your brain with your pals. New York psychologist Marianna Strongin, Psy.D., PLLC, notes that excessively talking about your ex can, at a certain point, stall healing. That's why Kahn says, "Make sure you're talking about other topics, not related to your ex, as well." Trust; the friendship will be better for it.
Hang out with your people
"Making plans with your friends and family during heartbreak is a great way to keep from hermitting, which can stall progress," says Shane. Your move: Ask your pals to hang. She recommends sending a text like: "Hi! Do you have any plans Tuesday night? I'm going through a breakup and could really use your support and company right now."
"Your friends love you [and] want to show you that they love you, but they're not mind-readers," she says. "You need to clue them in to the fact that you want some extra attention and time together so that they can show up for you!" Fair.
"An important part of breaking up is not judging yourself," says Kahn. "Whether that's judging yourself about productivity, how 'well' you perceive yourself to be dealing with your breakup, or how 'well' you practice self-care, judging yourself rather than having self-compassion isn't going to speed up the process," he says.
When a judgmental thought enters your mind, acknowledge it, then replace it with a positive thought. For instance, "I am doing the best I can. And I am doing great." Or, "I am in the process of becoming the best version of myself."
Write it out
Ah, yes, page processing. "Writing can be one of the most sacred and healing spaces in one's life. Having the space to free-write can give you insight into your breakup, your current feelings, and why your breakup is so painful," says Kahn. Do a breathing exercise (like box breathing), he suggests, then get scribbling.
One study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine examined writers post-divorce and concluded that writing specifically about the split is more beneficial for your mental health than any other kind of writing. So you might try writing on the following prompts:
- In what ways did your ex make you a worse version of yourself?
- In what ways did they make you a better version of yourself?
- How can you hold on to these beneficial qualities while letting go of the qualities that no longer serve you?
No, really. "Things like math, math games, and sudoku utilize the logic and motor skills parts of your brain," explains Liz Afton, LMSW, psychotherapist at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center. "If you're thinking about your ex, redirecting your focus to a different part of your brain can lessen the intensity and emotional pull related to the heartbreak." Plus, it lets you develop a new skillset!
If worst comes to worst and you are without your phone when you begin to spiral into nostalgia, try counting backward from 300...by 7's.
Read books about breakups
Strongin offers one important caveat: "Don't use this as a way to keep talking or thinking about your ex. It's also possible this keeps you from moving forward." So, if these tear-jerkers make you feel trapped, hopeless, or pessimistic instead of understood and hopeful, try a different genre. For example...
"In your relationships, you probably did a decent bit of (sexual and nonsexual) fantasizing about things that included your ex," says clinical sexologist Megan Stubbs, Ed.D. For instance, maybe you had your next five years mentally mapped out, or maybe you liked to think about them bending you over a Mercedes Benz. Regardless, Stubbs says reading content that works on your "fantasizing muscle" is a fun way to create new daydreams that don't involve your ex. A fan of erotica, she recommends Literotica. "It's one of the great treasure troves of the internet," she says. For book-length stories, check out Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson, Diary of a Submissive by Sophie Morgan, The Assignment by Evangeline Anderson, and Say Please by Sinclair Sexsmith. If one-handed reads aren't your thing, try out an actual fantasy genre novel instead.
If solo sex fell to the wayside when you started having partnered sex with your ex, waving goodbye to your partner means waving goodbye to sexual pleasure. But it shouldn't! "Your ability to be sexually satisfied isn't tied to anybody else; you can seek out, and receive pleasure from, having sex with yourself," says Stubbs. If it's been a minute (or heck, years) since your last personal playdate and you're feeling shy, Stubbs has a piece of advice on getting started: "Just do it." That could mean massaging lotion into your legs, oil into your pubes, or simply brushing your hair, she says. "But making time to be with and explore your body, in any way, is important."
Go to a sex shop
According to Stubbs, this is a post breakup double whammy. "It's retail therapy and an investment in your sexual self," she says. "The goal is to buy something that makes you feel sexy, sensual, and attractive again after a breakup." If toys are new to you, Stubbs recommends vulva owners get a classic external vibrator (like the Hitachi Wand or Le Wand Petite) and penis owners try a masturbation sleeve (like the Tenga Egg or Fleshlight). Otherwise, just get the toy you feel most drawn to—you'll be more likely to use it.
Have sex with new partners
That's right! Despite what you might've heard, rebound sex isn't inherently bad. "It's bad if you're using it as a distraction or to get revenge," Stubbs says. But, "Making new memories and new sexual memories with someone else, while connecting with your own body, can be really fun and transformative after a breakup."
If you're planning to get under someone to get over someone else, don't be a dick: Make sure the "rebound" is aware of your heartbroken status, says Stubbs. Not only is that the most fair thing for them, but it'll also prevent you from getting into a sticky situation that post-breakup you probably doesn't have the energy to deal with.
Do a social media cleanse
When a breakup is fresh, seeing what your ex is up to can trigger a shitstorm of emotions. Save yourself from the agony of witnessing your ex's Life After You by blocking, muting, unfollowing, and/or unfriending them—and any of their friends or family—on social media. Shane assures us, "It's not petty. It's self-care."
In fact, a 2012 study published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking surveyed 464 participants and found that staying friends with an ex on Facebook was associated with a more difficult emotional recovery from a breakup and less personal growth, compared to those who unfriended.
If you're nervous about making this digital boundary and enforcing the no-contact rule, you can always send a text like: "Hey! I just wanted to let you know that I unfollowed you on Instagram. Until I heal from this breakup, I need a little space from your content. Hope you understand." When your heart is healed you can always go back and click "follow" if you feel moved to do so.
Get rid of your ex's stuff
Yep, including that shirt of theirs you still sleep in.
But that doesn't mean throwing it all into a firepit and lighting it up. "The goal isn't to be vindictive. The goal is to remove any reminders of someone who no longer serves your happiest life," says Shane. So if it doesn't put your safety at risk, put their stuff in a pile and arrange an exchange or drop-off, she says. Otherwise, donate it to charity.
In addition to intercepting future thoughts that might be triggered by having their stuff around, according to Kahn, "The actual process and ritual of cleaning and removing your ex's belongings from your space can be cathartic."
Remember the bad times
This is tough to do when you're mourning a breakup and missing someone, but it's important not to put your ex on a pedestal. It's time to remind yourself of your ex's complete inability to put the dishes away, general self-absorption, closed-mindedness in bed, or whatever it might be. Why? Because thinking of past partner's negative qualities is more effective for getting rid of "love feelings" compared to thinking of their positive traits or other general distractions according to a small study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
But don't linger in this negative thought place for too long. Reminding yourself of the bad times may help you fall out of love faster, but the researchers found that distraction is the best way to increase positive overall outlook in life. Meaning, think your judgy thoughts, but then throw your energy into something else—bowling, birdwatching, or whatever it may be.
Skip any song or TV show that reminds you of them
If The L Word, The Big Bang Theory, and every single Bright Eyes song might remind you of your ex, do yourself a favor and skip it! Listen and watch something else. The experts promise, there will be a day when you'll be able to ogle Shane, eye-roll Sheldon, and dial up Conor Oberst without remembering your old boo's snuggly chest and bad breath. But that day is not today. So, thank you, next.
Give it time
There's no official timeline on how long it will take you to get over an ex. The good news is, according to science, eventually you will. In a study published in the Review of General Psychology1, researchers found that the more space you get from a breakup, the more you heal emotionally. They wrote in the conclusion, "We have a mechanism in our brains designed by natural selection to pull us through a very tumultuous time in our lives...it suggests people will recover; the pain will go away with time."
So, as Kahn says, "Try not to judge yourself for how long it's taking you to get over your ex." Instead, take comfort in knowing that you will not feel like this forever.
Gabrielle Kassel is a sex and wellness writer and certified CrossFit trainer. She has a degree in English and Women & Gender from Smith College, and her writing on sex, identity, and wellness have appeared on Cosmopolitan, Well Good, Health, Shape, Women’s Health, Greatist, Healthline, and more. She's become a morning person, tested over 300 vibrators, and worn her vaginal ~essence~ as perfume—all in the name of journalism. In her free time, Gabrielle can be found reading romance novels, bench-pressing, and pole dancing. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.