Your boyfriend or girlfriend has just dumped you. Initially, you feel numb and in disbelief that the relationship is over. As more time passes, you cycle amongst sadness, anger, and feeling okay. Despite the relationship being over, you continue to follow them on social media. On the one hand, it relieves the anxiety of wondering what they are up to, but you also recognize that it is keeping you from moving forward.
Does any of this sound familiar? Moving forward after the end of a relationship can be a long, painful, and frustrating process. In my blog post today, I will discuss the treatment approach I use when working with folks who are having difficulty moving on after a breakup, and provide some practical tips for how to cope.
When working with individuals looking to heal after the end of a relationship, I have found Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to be highly effective. The ACT approach centers on the notion that pain and suffering are an unavoidable part of human existence, and in spite of that we can cultivate a rich, meaningful life. Rather than identifying and changing your thoughts (as is the focus of cognitive therapy), ACT teaches you how to create “space” for your thoughts. This allows you do better evaluate what thoughts are helpful versus unhelpful, and have unhelpful thoughts have less of an impact on you. Having that space also allows you to do more of things that are important to you.
How can this help when going through a breakup? In the early stages after a breakup, and often times for a while after, your thoughts are consumed by that person. How are they feeling? Are they struggling too? Have they moved on? If it has been a long time since the breakup, we may feel shame or frustration for continuing to think about that person and try to push those thoughts out of our mind. However, this doesn’t work! Let’s say for example, I tell you not to think about a pink elephant. Think about anything except a pink elephant. What are you thinking about? A pink elephant! Because the act of trying to push something out of our mind involves thinking about that very thing.
Instead, try allowing that thought or image to be there, but in a different way. In ACT, we learn skills called defusion and mindfulness. Oftentimes we are so “fused” with our thoughts we believe we are one with them, that they are fact, or that we need to act on them. Not the case. Our minds generate something like 50,000 – 70,000 thoughts per day – isn’t that incredible? And imagine if we acted on every thought our mind generated. That would be pretty bad, right?
Instead, we learn to be aware of our thoughts, but not get “hooked on them.” We let go of the judgments about what it means we are having these thoughts, and judgements about the thoughts themselves. We notice that the thoughts are there, and this what our mind does – generates thoughts. And then, we allow them to pass.
Below are some ways to practice defusion:
- Put “I am having the thought that” in front of any self-statements.
- Imagine your thoughts typed out on a computer screen, and then imagine yourself changing the font and colors.
- Repeat a word in which you tend to use when judging yourself harshly over and over aloud until the word becomes meaningless.
Below are some ways to practice mindfulness:
- Imagine yourself sitting by a stream. Imagine your thoughts on a leaf in the stream, and allow them to float away.
- Imagine yourself sitting on the beach. Imagine your thoughts written in the sand, and watch the tide wash the writing away.
- Imagine yourself lying on a blanket in a field on a warm day. Imagine your thoughts on clouds, and allow the clouds to float away.
At this point you may be thinking, okay, so I am working to allow my thoughts to be there, but is that it? No, that’s not it! When we are feeling sad or anxious, our tendency is to withdraw and not let other see us that way – to hunker down at home, in front of the television watching Netflix, eating a bowl of ice cream. Those behaviors seem like they help us to cope, when actually they maintain depression and anxiety.
So, go against what your mind is telling you to do (defusion!) and get active! And don’t just get active, get active doing things that matter to you. A relationship (and subsequent breakup) can sometimes take you away from things that you value. Is health something that is important to you? Join a bootcamp or running club, or sign up for a cooking class. Is family important? Schedule lunch with a family member or, if they are far away, book a trip to see them. As I see it, you have two choices. You can feel sad or anxious and do nothing, or you can feel sad and anxious and be doing something that may improve your situation. Just because you don’t feel like doing something, doesn’t mean you can’t do it (again, defusion!).
If you are struggling with the end of a relationship and live in the Austin area, please give me a call at 512-521-1531 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss your situation and see if I may be able to help. Below I have also included links to some ACT resources if you found my suggestions helpful and would like to learn more about it.
*Note: Defusion and mindfulness strategies are taken from ACT Made Simple by Russ Harris, PhD