When I was 41, I let go of a relationship with a man I deeply loved for 12 years. I let go after he promised to meet me at a condo for sale on the North Side of Chicago to see if we should live in it together—the first step we’d taken towards the commitment I’d been asking for more than a decade—and then promptly stood me up. Twice. His actions forced me to an epiphany I never wanted to have. It beat me over the head with a truth I’d spent years pushing down into my belly, confirming for me what I knew I had to do. Problem was not only did I not want to do it, I didn’t know if I had the stones to go through with it.
I had to let him go.
It was the biggest, hardest risk I’d ever taken. Because I knew there were only two ways leaving the greatest love I’d ever known could go: I could either hit the jackpot and find the love and commitment I’d always dreamed of having with someone else, even though I believed deep down it just wasn’t in my cards (one of the many reasons I stayed). Or, I could wind up spending the rest of my life alone. At a perpetual table for one. Forever.
Faced with these options, I dug deep and realized that, while I loved this man, he would never give me what I wanted. And I’d had enough. I was weary of waiting for something he didn’t have to give. Of negotiating relationship pennies on the dollar. Of wasting more time. Of deferring my hopes, dreams, needs, time, and energy for someone else’s. Of sitting on the sidelines of my life.
I was tired of being afraid.
I had this epiphany the second time he stood me up at the condo, and it rang in my ears like a siren call, like wind chimes in the desert. It inspired me to find the courage I needed to believe real love was possible. To bet on myself for the first time in my life, using the self-love I didn’t even know I had to let go once and for all.
If you’ve also struggled with letting go of love—or you’re even struggling with it right now—you are likely asking the very question I asked after I went through this experience myself: Now what?
The way most people deal with heartbreak
Whether we let go of another person or they let go of us, we tend to respond in a way that does not serve our best interests. Consider this:
If we’re the one being let go, we are (rightly) devastated. Feeling like we’ve been sucker punched, we try to understand why. What happened? Especially if we didn’t see it coming, because chances are we’ve not gotten a good enough explanation; does one even exist for why someone we love no longer wants us?
Even if we received the bad news under the best of circumstances—by a kind soon-to-be-ex who genuinely cares about letting us down gently, and not via text or voicemail or social media, or from another person via some backstabbing game of whisper-down-the-lane—we still get the ultimate message: We’re alone now. And it hurts. Like three pairs of hands with long metal picks stabbing away at our insides. Like driving fast over a steep drop we didn’t see coming, and that seems destined to end in catastrophe.
If we’re the ones doing the letting go, there’s not a lot of mercy there either, simply because it’s our choice. To the contrary, sometimes it’s even worse, because we have the rest of our lives to wonder whether we did the right thing or made the biggest mistake of our lives. Nothing was forced on us. Instead, we actually chose it—a new life we thought would make us feel better, but much to our dismay, dropped us at the bottom of an active volcano, alone and afraid. Because after perhaps an initial feeling of relief comes seller’s remorse, and then the same hands and sharp metal objects in the gut. Our internal critics cringing. We think to ourselves, “Oh. My. God. What have I done?”
In both scenarios, doubt, fear, and panic engulf us like flames. Our heart palps so hard, we contemplate a trip to the emergency room. We question whether we’ll survive or be whole ever again. Whether there’s a way back. Whether our ex will have us, if we change our minds or if they do, depending on who let go of who. We wonder whether we’ll find new love with another person. If that’s even possible. Or whether we really want to. After all, how will be able to trust again?
In the face of this uncertainty, we drink. Eat. Hole up or drug up or worse. Forget hygiene. Cry. Play the victim. We indulge ourselves in self-sabotaging behaviors of all kinds. And spend a lot of time analyzing why the other person—the one who let us go or we let go of—didn’t give us what we want, instead of analyzing why we picked them and stayed as long as we did. We wonder who we are, if we’re not [ex’s name] and [our name]. We either vow to never date again and then hold ourselves to it—wasting precious months or even years, perhaps even our best. Or, scared, lonely, and seeking distraction from our angst, we rebound date, which nine times out of 10 puts us right back where we started.
In other words, the way most people deal with heartbreak is… not well.
We’re hard-wired to struggle in the face of letting go, especially when it comes to love
And yet, here’s the truth. None of this behavior is our fault because we are hard-wired to feel bad when love is gone. Studies have shown that:
- We’re addicted to love. Which can explain why we do less-than-rational things in the face of losing it. In fact, one study showed that, under an MRI scanner, the brains of the heartsick can resemble the brains of those experiencing cocaine withdrawal.
- Heartache really does ache. Another study showed that parts of the brain usually associated with pain lights up when participants looked at photos of their ex-loves. Indicating that the physical pain associate with heartache is legit.
- People in long-term relationships tend to regulate each other’s biological rhythms. That’s why letting go can throw your entire physiology out of whack, disrupting your sleep, appetite, body temperature, heart rate, and immune system overall.
Both quantitative and qualitative research also show that there are no quick and easy fixes for a broken heart. Recovery takes time, and if you’re like most people at least I know, it’s probably going to suck.
With that said, in the wake of letting go, most people resign themselves to the fact that there’s very little they can do for themselves other than grin and bear their way through it in all the detrimental ways I outline above. Take their lumps and bumps and hope that time truly does heal all wounds, like all well-meaning friends and acquaintances are quick to point out. And that, somehow, someway–barring a vow of religion, celibacy, or worse–they don’t make the same mistakes again.
What you can do to set yourself up for success after letting go
But what if I were to tell you there was a better way? One that will help you not only survive the aftermath of letting go, but actually thrive in terms of setting you up well for your next pass at love. Ensuring that you don’t make the same mistakes twice and that you actually find the love you want.
The truth is that while there’s no way around feeling the pain of heartbreak or fast-tracking the recovery process, there is a way to use the experience positively and productively. And that’s to use it to cultivate self-love. Because when we don’t love ourselves, we don’t always act on our own behalves. It’s only when we DO love ourselves that we can ultimately get where we want to go –and give and receive healthy love from another person.
Now, I’m not just talking about the generic “pamper yourself” or “feel good” kind of self-love. While there’s certainly a place for that (who doesn’t love a good spa day, right?), I’m talking about a different kind of self-love. The kind that gives you the safety you need to move forward with boldness, and the courage and confidence to take the risks inherent in letting go. Because letting go involves risk. Sometimes, it involves us taking the biggest risks of our lives.
For me, I didn’t just let go of my relationship – I let go of my entire universe, hoping the odds would be in my favor wherever I went or whoever I chose to be with next. It involved me betting on myself, that I could and would ultimately find the love and life I always wanted but never thought was possible, while I was stuck in a relationship going nowhere.
When you cultivate self-love in this way, you open up doors that you once thought were closed to you. You put yourself in a position of power versus weakness. You give yourself the chance you deserve (even if you don’t believe it yet, self-love will change that) at reclamation. You set yourself up to be happy, no matter what the outcome. You begin to make better choices for yourself because you’re not beholden to or co-dependent on another person for your day-to-day joy. You learn that happiness comes from inside of you and not from someone or something outside of you. In loving yourself, you also make yourself most attractive to viable partners who want what you do and who offer you something solid.
Self-love with intention is the key.
When you stay focused on learning how to love yourself during this period of heartbreak, you won’t suffer just for the sake of suffering, or risk coming out with nothing on the other side. Instead, you’ll learn valuable lessons about who you are, what you want, and why you make the choices you do when it comes to dating. That way, you’re assured not to make them again. See how that works?
With that said, if you’re not sure how to get started loving up on yourself, here are some great steps to take out of the gate of a failed relationship, so you set yourself up for the win the next time loves comes knocking.
- Acknowledge your role in the relationship. After all, it’s only natural to conduct a post-mortem after a relationship ends. It’s practically reflexive. As you do, remember that it takes two to tango and no one person is never fully to blame for the outcome. That’s why it’s critically important to acknowledge and own your mistakes, so you don’t risk making them again with someone new. Stay focused on your own actions and motivations, and not your ex’s. Spending an unnecessary amount of time trying to understand another person will only lead to more angst and frustration. Even if you ask them outright why, for example, they ended things—if they’re even willing to talk it through with you—there is no guarantee you’ll be getting honest answers. Instead, stay focused on getting your own clarity and closure and understanding what you can do differently in future relationships.
- Grieve the loss. Whether you called it or your partner did, you’ll need time to experience that grief around the life you had and/or thought you’d have with your ex and the heaviness you may feel in light of the fact that it’s gone or won’t happen. Here’s where leaning on your support system and engaging in activities that bring you joy or offer you necessary distraction when things get too intense can be helpful. Like, for example, calling a sympathetic friend to talk things through, watching a movie you know will make you cry because you’ve got a good one caught in your throat and just need to get it out. Head to the gym for a hard workout or take your dogs for a long and loving walk. Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut to experiencing grief. Like the old cliché, it really does take time. But if you allow yourself to sit in it and process and to feel bad (because that’s all part of it, no way around it), you’ll eventually feel the fog start to lift. And you’ll know instinctively when you’re ready to toss your hat back into the dating ring.
- Understand and change limiting beliefs. This is a biggie and potentially the most meaningful of all of these steps. Because understanding our beliefs gives us a window in why we choose and do what we choose and do in relationship. If, for example, we don’t ultimately believe we’re worthy of love with a healthy person who has something valuable to offer us, we’ll make that a self-fulfilling prophecy, because we are always building a case for what we believe—whether we realize it or not. For example, when I left Hector, I had to let go of the belief I was too old, at 41, to find love again. To uncover your own limiting beliefs, ask yourself important questions and answer them honestly, because this exercise is about growth and discovery and not judgement. Ask yourself, for example, “Why did I choose this relationship? Why was I silent in asking for what I wanted and needed? Why was I okay with it being on the other person’s terms, and very rarely on my own? Why did I stay for longer than I should have? How can I let go so I can move forward without making the same mistakes?” Use what you learn to create new beliefs that will serve you more effectively in finding the right partner and relationship.
Once I cultivated the love I needed for myself and moved through all of these steps, I was not only able to let go of my 12-year relationship but muster up the courage I needed for online dating which allowed me to find the love and gloriously imperfect (because nothing is perfect!) marriage I always wanted with a wonderful man who was uniquely right for me.
It was only in the letting go, that I could realize the possibilities. And you can too. If you work through these steps, you’ll be ready!
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Jill Sherer Murray is an award-winning writer and speaker who studies creativity, relationships and self-growth. She is also the founder of Let Go For It®, a lifestyle brand dedicated to helping individuals let go for a better life. Jill’s TEDx talk as well as her advice column, Big Wild Love: Let Go For It® were created in service to her loyal and growing fan base, who seek support in the act and the art of letting go for the love they desire and deserve. Follow Jill @letgoforit on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.