Loss is never easy, and the loss of a relationship is one of the most painful experiences we can endure. As I explain and teach in depth in my mindbodygreen breakup course, the pain around breakups is rarely about only the breakup itself. Rather, these are times when any past rejection pain we've experienced in life tends to resurface. This is not our psyche's way of torturing us. It's how we heal: Each transition or loss triggering a past loss or pain that needs attention.
Given how painful a breakup can be, it's understandable that most people fall into the most common default mode for handling pain, which is avoidance and denial. For some, this might look like checking out through alcohol, spending, or food. For others, it's spending more time on the internet. But for the population who find their way to my work—which are those who are prone to anxiety—the go-to response for managing pain is to travel up into their heads by obsessing or, as I like to call it, ruminating. In the cool chambers of the mind, the messiness of the heart is kept at bay. At least for a while.
Because very few people were taught as children how to manage emotional pain, the psyche devised a brilliant defense mechanism for handling hurt, which is staying in the head. Nearly every client I've worked with says something like, "I'm always in my head," or "I can't stop the constant worry and chatter." This is a clear indicator that the mental space became a retreat many years ago during the painful time of childhood (and childhood includes pain for everyone on some level, even those who had loving parents). Instead of actually grieving and acknowledging their pain, they now overwhelming turn to ruminating.
What does ruminating look like?
I'll give you an example: A young man comes to me for a coaching session. He says something along these lines: "I broke up with my girlfriend a few months ago, and I've been in so much anxiety since. I know it was the right decision—it wasn't a healthy relationship—but I can't seem to move on."
"Tell me about your grieving process," I say.
"I ruminate about the relationship a lot. I think about what I did wrong and what she did wrong. I know I shouldn't be following her on social media, but I do, and I know she's trying to make me angry. I keep playing out different movies of times when we were together, which mostly weren't very good. Why can't I move on?" he asks.
Here's what I tell him: You can't move on because you haven't really grieved. Ruminating isn't grieving. Thinking isn't grieving.
Grieving is an embodied experience that moves the pain out and through, whereas ruminating is a "head" experience that keeps the pain stuck. Ruminating—that is, obsessively going around and around in your mind on one particular storyline, like thinking about what you or the other person did "wrong"—creates mental stagnation and prevents the grief from moving through you, thus preventing you from moving on. As a culture, we don't know how to guide people through grief, so instead of grieving in a healthy way that allows people to let go, most people end up ruminating. It's the biggest mistake people make when trying to get over an ex. All of the movies in your head are a protection against the feelings in your body.
In order to heal, we must be willing to feel our pain.
Even breakups that occur for good reasons need to be grieved, which means allowing yourself to feel the physical pain that lives in your heart about the relationship ending. That's not easy to do, but it's the medicine that will move this through you.
What this looks like in practice is different for everyone, but it always includes slowing down to an organic pace—as opposed to a technological pace—closing your screens, turning inward, and allowing yourself to cry, move, draw, or even just breathe through the pain in your heart. Whereas ruminating entrenches the pain and makes you feel locked and tight, grieving has an entirely different quality; it's slower, calmer, and when you come out the other side of it, you feel a sense of lightness and release.
As we approach this holiday weekend, pay close attention to your tendency to ruminate as a way to protect against emotional pain. Transitions, and especially holidays, are times when we're particularly vulnerable to falling into old thinking patterns around an ex. This is because transitions, as times of loss, remind us of other losses; meanwhile, holidays, especially autumn holidays, tend to trigger feelings of loneliness and nostalgia.
But this is also a profound opportunity for you to move through another layer of healing around an ex. This requires noticing the ways that you distract—include staying busy and spending money—and making the conscious choice to turn inward each day and ask, "How am I feeling?" Take time to slow down, to breathe into your body, and to write in your journal. These are simple actions, but they're the most powerful steps you can take to break free from the stronghold of an ex and free yourself to move into the next stage of your life.
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