Nothing breaks like a heart-how can Schema Therapy help?
Absolutely nothing breaks like a heart. The end of a romantic relationship and the ensuing heart break is one of the most painful experiences a person can live through. In my time as a Clinical Psychologist, I’ve supported many through breakups, and I’ve lived the loss of love firsthand too. I don’t write this article from a therapeutic high horse but do hope it will help you identify how to move forward from loss.
Why do break ups hurt so much
Break ups hurt for a range of reasons. At the core, is the loss of our adult attachment person and it’s natural to feel abandoned and at bay when this occurs. A breakup can shatter hopes for the future (moving in together), can put future goals into question (having a baby) and can make us question the past (did they really love me?). Despite the hurt, there are steps you can take to reduce the intensity and move forward with courage.
Healing from grief-what gets in the way?
In Schema Therapy, we talk about dysfunctional modes or sides that thwart us. There is the side that seems helpless (helpless surrenderer mode), the side that over analyses (Overanalyser mode) and the side that shuts down emotionally to detach from pain (Detached Protector mode). The intention of the coping mode is to protect our Vulnerable side, which is the part of us that may feel small and helpless during difficult times.
In the short term, dysfunctional coping modes can fleetingly give us a sense of either control or relief. Very soon though, they make us feel worse because they don’t address our core needs, usually around being soothed, heard and understood. Maladaptive coping modes may also prolong grief.
Fortunately, we have healthy and functional modes too, namely our Healthy Adult side and Happy Child side, that can help us overcome adversity and also to grow from grief. Our Healthy Adult side is our wise mind. It’s the part of us that is kind and compassionate but also protective, productive and sensible. Our Happy Child side is our joyful, spontaneous fun side that creates a zest for life and lifts our mood. When we’re in our Happy Child mode we feel loved, contented and at ease. Though this part can feel like a scarce resource when grieving love, we need it more than ever.
Below are examples of the typical dysfunctional modes that can get in the way of healing from grief and how we can use our healthy coping modes (the Healthy Adult mode and the Happy Child mode) to help us heal from grief.
The Demanding Critic
The critical mode can expect us to simply dust ourselves off and just let it go. We may expect linear progress and for each day to be better than the last. The critic asserts “you should be over it already,” “stop being pathetic,” or “toughen up.” Unsurprisingly, when our critic beats us up, our Vulnerable side can feel shame and sadness. The critic also sets the stage for dysfunctional coping modes, which can hinder the grief process.
What your Healthy Adult Mode can do instead
The antidote to self-criticism is compassion. First call to mind or write down all the unkind things your Critic mode is saying (“stop being so pathetic,” or “They left because I’m so selfish”) then close your eyes and imagine a friend or a loved one responding to these criticisms. What would they say if they heard you voice your critical thoughts?
Mara beat herself up for causing the break up and felt like a fool for not seeing it coming. She thought, “Was it because I was too needy and demanding? Maybe he left because I gained weight.” Mara wrote down her criticisms and realised she was being too harsh. She imagined her grandmother responding with comforting words, she imaged her best friend giving her a hug. This increased sense of feeling supported and in turn increased how much compassion she had towards herself.
Catch and bypass the dysfunctional modes
The detached protector mode
A person may become detached or emotionally numb in an attempt to protect themselves from vulnerable feelings. In the short term, a person may feel relief they aren’t feeling much anymore. The trouble is that when we suppress negative feelings we suppress positive ones too and are left feeling empty.
This mode unwittingly preserves the grief because there is little chance to experience it and adapt to it (i.e. process the grief). Instead, the grief usually manifests in negative ways such as anxiety, unexplained panic attacks, or a general feeling of flatness and lack of meaning.
What your Healthy Adult Mode can do instead
Instead of denying or ignoring the painful feelings, make space in the day to experience some of the painful feelings. It may help to spend time alone, listen to music, connect with nature, look at photos or do some writing. It can be difficult to pinpoint feelings but doing so can help make sense of what is happening and help regulate painful emotions, which helps soothe our Vulnerable side.
Reflecting on negative feelings needn’t be a lengthy exercise. It can feel more bearable to start slowly and allow the grief to come out a bit at a time. Though it can be frightening, allowing painful feeling to come to the surface can help them run their course.
In my work with clients, I teach them to both connect with painful feelings but also skills to manage them. Some simple things you can do at home are engaging in mindfulness or other soothing activities.
Over analyser mode
As a way of coping with the vulnerable feelings we can attempt to detach by over-thinking or over analysing. Questions common to this tortuous mode are: Was there someone else? Was it something I did? Did they ever really love me? Why didn’t I see this coming?
This busy headedness detaches a person from their emotional pain and gives us an illusion of control because we are “doing something.” The price for this is feeling exhausted and tortured. Like the detached protector mode, the grief may prolong because there’s less opportunity to feel the painful feelings and to adapt to them.
I find a person is particularly prone to this mode when they are blindsided by a break up. My sense is the newly broken hearted over analyse not because they’re gluttons for punishment with too much time on their hands. Instead they are trying to make sense of what happened, to seek closure and ultimately to feel safe that it might not happen this way again.
Unfortunately, this analysis paralysis is rarely soothing. Even where an ex is able to give a reason it is rarely accepted and instead picked apart. As relationship therapist, Esther Perel, says, “Nascent love listens with an eager ear. Scorned love listens with an unforgiving ear, and attributes ill intent to every move,” in “The State of Affairs: rethinking infidelity.”
Mara dated Mark in an intense head over heels romance. When he went away on a brief holiday he suddenly became distant. She attempted to raise it which only made him angry and colder. A few days later he all but stopped contact. She spent nights ruminating about the possible reasons he’d dropped off so suddenly. Was it her? Was there someone else? What changed his heart? The more she ruminated the more miserable she became which only fuelled her worries.
What your Healthy Adult Mode can do instead
Should you just let it go? If only that worked! Instead process the grief by making sense of what happened (with the available information). One way to help process your grief is to do some writing to connect and make sense of your feelings.
Questions to reflect on are: What are the array of feelings you are currently experiencing? What are you most afraid of? What buttons is this break up pushing (abandonment, failure, defectiveness and shame). What are you most confused about? What are you grateful that happened/or didn’t happen? If a friend were going through this, what might you say to them? How have you come through difficult times in the past?
This will help “move through” the emotions and help reduce their intensity. It may seem hard to imagine now but in the future it will serve to mark progress as you’ll be able to look back on these days and see how far you’ve come.
Helpless Surrenderer mode
When we're in this mode we tend to feel helpless and hopeless while we wallow in sadness and replay the relationship in a form of torturous nostalgia ("we were always so happy, now I won't be"). A person can get stuck in the lost opportunities of the relationship and feel helpless about the future ("we were going to go travelling, now I'll never go"). The ex-partner is often elevated and idealised ("they really were the The One"), which amplifies the loss. This mode often accentuates the grief because we feel hopelessness and dis-empowered to meet our emotional needs ourselves.
What your healthy adult can do instead
The vacated relationship leaves behind a loss but also a set of unmet psychological needs (i.e. feeling connected, heard, understood etc.). It’s important to acknowledge what was lost and to find constructive ways of meeting our needs ourselves as this will help soothe our Vulnerable side.
Make a list of the voids (unmet needs) your former partner left behind. For example, they listened to work problems (needs: felt validated, accessed problem solving), they were someone to go to brunch with (need: company), they were going to be travelling companion (need: adventure). Then think about all the ways you can now realistically meet your needs either through yourself or others. For example, seeking a mentor, initiating regular catch ups with uplifting friends, or engaging in solo travel. Seeking opportunities to meet your needs again will help you grow around the grief.
Spend an afternoon with your Happy Child mode
What brings you joy independent of a partner? What activities are doing when you are at your happiest? The answer to these questions will let you know how to get back into the Happy Child mode (the joyful part of ourselves). For me it’s making playlists (cue my upbeat heart break list playlist).
For some, it’s exercising, adventure, nature or even Marie Kondo. For others, it can be new experiences, being creative, learning, laughing or socialising. Engaging in these uplifting activities can help brighten your mood, which in turn reduces time spent in dysfunctional coping modes.
After thinking about the voids Mark left in her life, Mara decided to make some changes. She missed going to their favourite breakfast place so she started a monthly brunch date with her friends instead. She missed the reassurance he gave her about her body despite her insecurities. She joined a kick boxing class to feel better about herself. She signed up to a 'women in business' support group to develop her ideas rather than discussing them with him. She was happiest when dancing and joined a Latin Dancing class, something Mark would never have done! As the seasons changed, grief still ambushed her sometimes but she had grown from her grief.
What do I need right now?
What advice would I give to a friend in my situation?
What coping modes (i.e. critic mode) are getting in the way?
What has helped me get through hard times before (i.e. past break ups)?
What is one thing I can do today to soothe myself in a constructive way?
If this is triggering for you or you feel unsafe please consult your GP or if urgent present to your local emergency department or call Lifeline on 131114.
Tena Davies is Clinical Psychologist and Certified Schema Therapist. See https://www.tenadavies.com/schema-therapy for more information or check out my Schema Therapy Explainer video here.