It always hurts when someone breaks up with us, even if it happens after a single date. The more we perceived the person as being ‘right’ for us, the more we pictured ourselves with them, the more we allowed our expectations to build, the greater our heartache and disappointment can be.
It’s natural to reflect about painful breakups in an effort to make sense of them. We try to figure out why things didn’t work between us, what we might have done differently, or whether we missed any obvious signs of a problem. We might conclude the person’s poor relationship history reflected a commitment issue on their part and therefore the breakup had everything to do with them, and nothing to do with us. We might realize we were misled by how affectionate they were but that they were like that only when they drank. Or we might conclude we pushed too hard and ignored their requests to take things more slowly, a mistake we should make every effort to avoid in the future. Reaching these kinds of insights, understandings, and ‘learning moments’ helps us achieve closure and allows us to move on.
But sometimes we have trouble moving on. We find ourselves replaying the breakup conversation in our minds over and over again, feeling the outrage and hurt anew every time. We repeatedly fantasize about the dozens of things we should have said or could have done, and our gut twists in frustration knowing it’s too late to say or do any of them. We stew about the moment they unfriend us on Facebook, or the fact that they reactivated their online dating profile and talk about it with as many people as we can, desperate to share our pain.
The problem with this kind of self-reflection is that replaying the same memories and thoughts over and over again in our heads or with others, yields no new insights, understandings, or learning moments. Doing so just makes us sadder and angrier each time. And worse, it actually damages us psychologically, as it is the equivalent of picking at emotional scars and not allowing them to heal.
Brooding in this way for extended periods actually increases the frequency and urgency with which the same thoughts and scenes will pop into our minds. It also causes an immediate increase in our stress levels and in the amount of stress hormones we release into our blood stream. Further, by spending so many hours stewing instead of doing (problem solving) we also increase our feelings of passivity and helplessness, and increase our risk of getting depressed or remaining depressed for longer.
The bottom line is that while it’s perfectly natural to reflect about the ‘one who got away,’ we have to make sure our thought process remains productive. When we do find ourselves getting stuck, and brooding and ruminating unproductively, we have to be aggressive about breaking the ‘habit’ as soon as possible by using distractions (such as puzzles, memory tasks, or going for a run) to cut off the repetitive thoughts as soon as we catch them. We’ll be able to heal emotionally and to move on much quicker if we do.
Have you ever found yourself stuck in this “brooding” place? What helped you work through it?
Guy Winch is a psychologist, speaker and author of Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter and check out his blog!