A couple weeks ago, I received an email from Catherine,* a young woman suffering from the heart-wrenching pain of losing her first love. In the email, she told me how her boyfriend had recently broken up with her. Even though the relationship was not a positive one (he broke her trust, flirted with others, gave less than he took, etc.), she was crushed by the relationship’s end. She knew she was better off without the him, but that knowledge didn’t make the loss easier to bear. She wrote,* “Being with him was like a high. It wasn’t a healthy situation and ultimately he didn’t make me happier, but I am still sick after losing him.”
Immediately upon reading her email, I was transported back to a time in my life when I was young and desperately in love for the first time. That first love is a wild thing, so consuming and intoxicating, and the end of it was like the worst kind of withdraw — a physical and emotional ache that felt endless. Heartbreak is always hard, but the first time is the worst because you haven’t yet survived it, and it feels like you’ll never get past the pain.
Reading Catherine’s email, I could remember just how it felt to be in her shoes. Even though I’d been the one to end the relationship back then, the pain had been raw and real and it had felt as if nothing would ever ease the ache. Straightaway I wrote her back, hoping I could used what I learned from my first heartbreak (and many subsequent heartbreaks!) to help her cope with the loss. The most important thing to remember, I wrote to her, is this: one day you will feel better. It might take a long time (it’s different for every situation), but it will happen. You will also find love again. It might not feel like it’s possible in the midst of losing that first love, but it will happen.
Of course, most of us have heard these things before. I know how meaningless these words can sound when your heart is breaking, so I offered up some practical advice to help her manage the heartache:
- TAKE A SOCIAL MEDIA TIME-OUT.First and foremost, social media is a gateway to checking up on your ex — something that’s never healthy or productive. If at all possible, delete him or her from your accounts so you aren’t tempted to look at (or accidentally come across) updates. It might sound extreme or petty, but if it helps you get through it, who cares what your ex thinks? Also, avoiding social media in general for a little while can be helpful; it’s really hard not to compare where you are to where others are. Seeing pictures of happy, smiling couples will only reinforce any loneliness you’re feeling.
- FIND A NEW SOCIAL OUTLET.When you’re newly single, you have a lot of extra time on your hands. All the time you used to spend with or talking to your ex is now free time. This can trigger loneliness and sadness, which is why it’s important to find new ways to spend all of that down time. Some ideas: make more plans with friends; join a local group or club; check out meet-ups in your area; join a recreational sport team; sign up for classes at your local college; take creative classes (art, dance, etc.). Whatever you do, it’s important to find positive ways to spend your time. This can be tough if you’re more introverted, but at least give one or two things a try.
- SPEND TIME WITH HAPPY PEOPLE.It might sound counterintuitive to surround yourself with joy when you’re feeling sad, but the more time you spend with happy, positive people, the more their happiness will rub off on you. It’s been proven that happiness is contagious and, from personal experience, I know this to be true. When you’re hurting, it’s very tempting to spend time alone or maybe even with other people who are in a negative state of mind (it might feel like they “get” you), but you’ll benefit the most from surrounding yourself with uplifting people.
- DON’T FORCE FRIENDSHIP (RIGHT AWAY).One of the questions Catherine posed in her email was whether or not she would be able to be friends with her ex. When you’re losing someone who has become a big part of your life, it’s hard to envision not having them (even in some form) as part of your social circle. However, unless the break-up is 100% mutual, it’s not the best idea to focus on creating a friendship right away. In the future, a friendship might come to be, but post-break-up, this shouldn’t be something you worry about. This is the time to focus on you, not your ex.
- AVOID “NEVER AGAIN” THOUGHTS.After a break-up, it’s hard not to have thoughts like “I’ll never see him again” or “I’ll never kiss him again,” but these are not help for two reasons: (1) you never know what will happen — I’ve reconnected with many an ex, which is generally not a good idea, but it does happen — and (2) those kind of thoughts only stir up more despair. These thoughts make up “all-or-nothing” thinking, and they make you feel as if there is no other option other than “never again.” Try to avoid these thoughts at all costs; they will only bring you down.
- WRITE DOWN WHAT YOU WANT.After a particularly tough break-up, I once wrote down everything I wanted in the next guy I was going to date. And guess what? The next guy I met had almost every single trait! It sounds a bit unbelievable, but it worked for me and I know it’s worked for others too. Instead of focusing on what you’ve lost, you’re redirecting your attention to what you want — which makes it much more likely you’ll get it. Plus, if you’re struggling with staying present (as one does during heartbreak), focusing on the (positive!) future is much better than dwelling on the past.
- DO NOT CONTACT HIM / HER.This can be incredibly difficult (especially if you were in a relationship in which you were in constant contact with one another), but don’t do it. Delete the number; remove the email from your contacts; block social media accounts if necessary. Have a break-up buddy — a friend you can call/text when you want to reach out to your ex and use that buddy often. Also, don’t give in to any excuses. You don’t need to tell your ex about a funny article you saw or a video of his favorite celebrity. You don’t need to ask her, “Hey, what was the name of that place where we…?” or wish him a happy random-holiday-that-no-one-cares about. No contact. No excuses.
- START DATING AGAIN.Even if you don’t feel ready, it feels nice meet new people and go on dates and it gives you something to do other than sit around at home and wallow in your new single status. Dating isn’t always fun and it’s a lot of work sometimes, but getting out there will be good for you — and you never know, you might just meet the love of your life! Important reminder: when on dates, do not talk about your ex. First of all, this is just rude. And, secondly, this new guy or girl doesn’t (yet) care about your pain. Save your sob story for your friends and try your best to have a positive attitude with new people.
- COMBAT YOUR ANXIETY.You might be feeling more anxious than usual, post break-up. Your life has been turned upside down in some ways and this can be hard to cope with. When you’re feeling anxious, try focusing on your five senses. When your anxiety is bad and you feel panicky, it helps to pay attention to things happening right this moment (what you can see, smell, taste, feel, and hear). It won’t completely take away the pain, but it’ll bring you out of that endless cycle of panic that can come with the heartache. Try your hardest not to focus on the past (it’s over) or the future (it hasn’t happened yet), and you’ll feel a lot less anxious.
- HAVE A HOPEFUL HEART.Remind yourself (over and over again) that it will get better and you will find love again. It’s hard to believe this in the midst of heartache and pain, but it’s true and telling yourself this (even if you don’t 100% believe it) will help you have hope. And when you have a hopeful heart, any pain is a lot easier to deal with. Hope can also help you take it one day at a time. Use a hopeful attitude to remind yourself, “I can get through today,” or, when it really sucks, “I can get through the next hour. Or ten minutes. Or one second.” Hope is really powerful!