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How to Survive a Break Up

All things are difficult before they are easy - Thomas Fuller

Ezra had recently experienced the break up of a long-term relationship.

I found myself in the middle of what I call a ‘dump and flush’ first session.

It’s not uncommon for new clients to almost ‘vomit up’ all the hurt, anxiety and worry they have kept bottled up for months, possibly years.

Finally making the decision to reach out for help and give themselves permission to be open, honest and real, can, for many, be an almost overwhelming experience.

Previously private and contained but powerful, suppressed feelings often release and bubble up, like escaping gas or scalding steam, into the environment of the therapy room.

‘It’s like he’s died but there’s no dead body, no grave and no end to the pain. His ghost is haunting me on Face book. He pops up all the time, going places, seeing new people and rubbing it in my face.

The whole thing stinks. There’s a huge hole in my life where he used to be and I feel empty inside. I just can’t imagine going on without him.’

Ezra’s words were heartfelt.

Break up is like bereavement

Let’s face it; break up is a kind of death. Something has ‘died’; the relationship, the lifestyle, the home, the shared relationships and the future expectations.

Don’t be mistaken. This can be grief, big-time!

And ‘complicated grief’ too, complicated by the fact that the deceased is still around, living a separate life and forging new relationships. Social media doesn’t help with its constant updates and shifting status reports.

Ezra looked defeated. Dark circles under her eyes suggested sleepless nights.

‘Yes it is worse at night,’ she said ‘I can just about cope in the day but, at four o’clock in the morning, it’s overwhelming and I feel like the pain will go on forever.’

There’s a good reason problems can feel overwhelming at night. Between the hours of 11pm and 7am, the rational brain is programmed to settle down and sleep, leaving the emotional brain free to play. But, without the stabilising influence of the left hemisphere, the dreams of the right brain can turn into nightmares.

We all regress a little at night and our inner child can have difficulty coping with adult problems.

‘But what do I do to get over this?’ cried Ezra. I’m over 40 for heavens sake. I can’t start all over again. I’m running out of time and I feel like this pain will go on forever!’

‘Sounds like you need some emotional first aid.’ I said. ‘If you accept this is a grieving process, it might help to know a bit about how grief works.

There are three main models of grief

The first one, ‘the linear model’, starts with numbness, shock and disbelief and travels through all the big emotions of denial, anger, guilt, depression and then finally acceptance that life goes on, albeit in a different way to the life originally anticipated.

Then there’s ‘the oscillating model’.

Like a swinging pendulum, emotions can shift from coping to not coping, from anger and despair, sadness and guilt, into a kind of pragmatic, ‘sorting out the things to do list with a sense you might be finally moving forward. As the pendulum swings between loss and restoration, with time, it begins to stay longer in the restorative zone.

Finally there’s the ‘hole in my world’ model.

People often describe a gaping chasm where the loved one used to be, like a huge hole in their life. They expect the void to shrink with time. Often, the hole doesn’t get smaller but their life expands around it.’

All good therapy is about shifting perception.

Ezra was in a state of ’emotional hijack’. She was now seeing her life through a lens distorted by emotion and grief.

I live in a 16th century cottage. Some of the little windows panes have bulls’ eye glass in them. When I look through those panes of glass, I can still make out the flowers in the garden but the image is bent and altered from reality.

So it is with the large emotions which have the ability to bend and distort our perception.

My primary task for Ezra was to hold up a metaphorical mirror and calmly reflect back another view so that she would see herself with greater clarity and have a sense of the bigger picture.

I had explained how she had been enveloped by a kind of grieving process. Travelling through this could be very painful but is both normal and natural ….and survivable.

Ezra’s life wasn’t over. I was further away from the problem and could see a young, attractive and talented woman, with an independent income, a home and children who loved her. She had family and friends, hobbies and many social connections.

But, for the moment, Ezra couldn’t see that.

‘Life is full of transitions changes and endings.’ I told her

‘It hurts, I know that. You may not ‘get over it’ as you say, but you will certainly learn to live your life around it. This is a chapter in the long story of your life. The end of something is, by definition, the beginning of something new. But you do need to gather your resources now and treat yourself well.

You know when they give the safety talk on a plane. They say, if the oxygen mask comes down, be sure to place it on yourself before trying to help others.

It’s time to mobilise all your internal soldiers now, Ezra and get them marching in the same direction.

Try setting yourself some small and achievable goals. Meet a friend. Think about the things you enjoy doing…. and do more of them, while you wait for the pain to settle.

The story of King Solomon‘s ring

I told Ezra the story of King Solomon’s ring.

It’s a tale that contains a piece of ancient wisdom that helps when dealing with loss and grief. It also helps when you’re trying to find a strategy to survive a break up.

Jabeen walked into the old bookshop. It was dark and warm inside. A familiar musty aroma of age and wisdom hung in the air.

There was something comforting about being surrounded by so much knowledge. The shelves were lined with books in various states of wear.

Some, tattered and torn, leafed by unseen fingers from a distant time, books well loved and often read. Some looked like new, lovingly restored, re-bound, and protected for future generations.

As her eyes drifted along the shelves, something drew her attention to one particularly threadbare volume. Reaching up high and pulling it down amongst a cloud of dust. This book had lain undisturbed for many years it seemed.

Arabic characters on the cover intrigued her as she opened the first page with a sense of expectation. She settled into a comfortable armchair. This felt like a very special book. She could just make out the faded print…….

‘In a distant land, far off, a long, long time ago, there lived a king. Solomon was his name.

He was surrounded by all the riches and wealth, wives and children, servants and courtiers that a man of his stature and status required.

But he was not content.

For every time he looked around at his insurmountable wealth, good fortune and blessings, he felt ecstatically happy…………yet in that moment he would become terrified that this happiness could not last. He would then fall into a deep despair.

And when the despair was upon him, he feared it would never leave.

Finally he called the wise men of the palace to him.

‘You do not have all of my blessings and yet you seem content and at peace. I command you to give me the secret of your happiness.’

The wise men withdrew to a quiet corner where they pondered and debated for many days. At last they called the palace jeweller, instructing him to make a golden ring with a particular inscription.

When the ring was ready, they returned to the king, presenting it to him on a silver platter.

The king placed the ring on his finger.

It was a good fit, this purest of metals reflecting golden light into his eyes. The king was bathed in a sense of joy and wonder at his good fortune.

And then, as he examined the ring more closely, he could just make out an inscription

The wise men glanced nervously at each other….

‘gam ze yavor’ (this too shall pass)

In that moment, the king was plunged into deep despair.

‘Why do you torture me so!’ he screamed at the wise men. ‘I demanded to know the secret of happiness and you bring me despair!’

‘Please, your majesty. Look again’ pleaded the wise men.

The king allowed once more his gaze to be drawn to those words…

‘gam ze yavor’ (this too shall pass)

In that moment, the king saw the truth and a sense of deep calm and contentment fell upon him.

‘Thank you o wisest of men’ said the king.

And Jabeen closed the book with a smile.

Oh, and one more thing Ezra; you might want to be a Facebook free zone for a while.

Frances Masters

Frances Masters is a BACP accredited psychotherapist with over 30,000 client hours of experience. Follow her @fusioncoachuk, or visit The Integrated Coaching Academy for details about up coming training.