When I was 24, during my second year of living in Peru for the Peace Corps, I went through the worst breakup of my life. I could say a lot about this particular relationship and this particular time in my life, but for the sake of this story I want to share three specific things:
I fell in love with this person in an unprecedented way. I had never before felt so attracted to and so attached to another human being. I suddenly understood all the love songs I’d ever heard.
The intensity of these feelings made it very confusing for me to distinguish between the normal ups and downs of a healthy relationship and the fallout of unhealthy, codependent relationship patterns.
At the time, I was from the United States living in a rural Andean village. I was in my early 20s and didn’t know that much about myself yet. Most days, I felt completely out of my comfort zone. All of this made it incredibly difficult to take care of myself.
Suffice to say, I really suffered during this breakup. We officially ended our relationship just as the rainy season began in the mountains. In the mornings, I woke up heartsick and shivering underneath my damp felt blankets. After lunch, it would really start raining. I sat in my room and watched as water seeped its way up through the cement floor. I desperately missed this person and felt terrified that my feelings of despair would never go away.
I also felt extremely isolated. Although I was surrounded by people, there were pretty strong cultural differences between me and Peruvians. I had no idea how to express what I was feeling to my host family or to the people I worked with, although I’m sure they noticed I was struggling. I lost most of my interest in food and dropped about 20 pounds without trying.
Looking back, it’s hard to say when things got better. After a month of feeling horrible, I asked the Peace Corps for help. Our doctor arranged for me to go see a therapist for a session in sunny Lima. Although one hour wasn’t enough time for me to unpack even the surface layer of my feelings, it did feel good to get out of town, and the rain, for a few days. I arrived back home with the smallest glimmer of hope that I could get through the next few months with my spirit intact.
Other aspects of this breakup would take me years to get over. It was difficult to move on in my life. Opening my heart so widely and getting badly hurt in the process made it feel almost impossible to trust other people. I noticed myself comparing new relationships to the way I felt about my ex, and no one ever seemed good enough.
But going even deeper than that, part of me still thought that I had been the problem in our relationship. If I had been lessy needy, less demanding and less emotional, we would have been able to stay together. The sh*tty voice in my head kept telling me that I wasn’t enough to make this person truly love me back. Back then, when I was feeling this way, I didn’t have the vocabulary to know that this was shame at work in my psyche.
As I now write this message at age 37, I feel so relieved to be in a totally different place in my life. After so many more romantic relationships—both big and small—and breakups, both intense and casual, I’ve landed in a wonderful partnership where I feel valued for being my whole messy, beautiful self. Right before I met my current partner, I spent three mostly single years doing the intense inner work of recognizing how shame operates in my life and learning to override it to find real self-acceptance. My sense is that even if I hadn’t met my current partner when I did, I would still be feeling pretty good about myself right now.
Now, as I look back at my 24-year-old self, waking up shivering and heartbroken under damp blankets, I’d love to tell her a few things to try to help ease her passage through this immensely difficult moment of life.
Here is what I would tell her:
Darling, I’m so sorry you are going through this. It’s so hard. Please know that you will survive the intensity of this heartbreak and live to experience many more beautiful relationships, with yourself and with others.
To you, I want to explain the mechanics of shame. Shame is a parasite that infects us before we are conscious adults, and these underlying mechanics continue to convince us that whenever we are hurt, it’s because we are the problem. Honestly, sweetheart, even though shame is telling you that you are the most flawed human being ever, you really aren’t that special. Either all of us are tragically flawed, or none of us are. We are together in this human soup, navigating the joy and the heartbreak with as much dignity as we can.
(I wish I could give you a copy of Brené Brown’s “The Gifts of Imperfection,” where she breaks all this down so beautifully, but you’ll have to wait until 2010 when it’s published.)
I also want to tell you how a healthy relationship works. This might be confusing, because you have never experienced healthy relationship dynamics before. Loving another person is not about minimizing your honest needs and authentic imperfections so you can appear more desirable for them. A person who wants you on these terms—on the facade of you being perfect—is not comfortable with themselves and will not be able to love you back in the way you need. This is a very painful, but supremely important lesson in your life. Keep practicing self-love until these dynamics change. They will change.
You are not needy. You are not too much. You are exactly right. In a healthy relationship, both people have needs as well as a laundry list of imperfections they bring to the table. Your ability to communicate your needs to your partner, and tolerate the uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability that exposing yourself will bring up, will be a sign of your readiness to truly love. Your partner’s ability to see these vulnerabilities as a sign of strength within you, and to reciprocate in kind, will be a sign of their worthiness to be with you. Keep doing your inner work, slaying your demons as they arise, and you will figure all of this out.
With this, I’ll add how great it is that you have such big emotions, especially around a topic as important as love. These emotions are not a problem. They are deeply intelligent, which will take you far in life. Emotionally unavailable people are the problem. You are attracted to people you want to save. Unfortunately, you will not be able to save anyone. Let them all go, every last one of them, and give yourself space to grieve their unrealized potential. Save yourself. Watch as your self-esteem grows and you attract someone who is already living out their potential.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it’s time to learn about authentic self-care. Self-care is not the rebound relationship that distracts you for a while but ultimately just confounds the pain. Self-care is not smoking pot every night so you can avoid feeling sad. Self-care is not speaking badly about your ex to anyone who will listen. These are all great examples of numbing behavior. Numbing only turns down the volume on your pain, but it will never fix the pain at the root.
Self-care will restore you at the root. Self-care means setting boundaries and practicing extra gentleness when you can’t always hold these boundaries as firmly as you’d like. It means knowing what is good for you (writing your morning pages, eating consistent meals, moving your body in the spirit of exercise, and putting yourself kindly to bed) and repeating that behavior as much as possible.
Self-care means reaching out, again and again and again, to the stable people who keep redirecting you back to yourself. These can be real-life friends, trained professionals, or beautifully written accounts from those who have endured heartbreak and survived.
(To this, I found one of the first copies of “Eat, Pray, Love,” then just published, during this breakup year. Reading about Liz Gilbert’s heartbreak and her magical journey gave me an indescribable amount of hope. So much so, that for the first time in my life, I wrote an author to thank her. To my great surprise, Liz sent me a postcard back! I still have it taped in my Peru journals.)
Mostly, self-care is giving yourself time and space to address the underlying trauma that is being triggered by your current heartbreak. Your willingness to feel is a sign of your healing, because as adrienne maree brown says, “In my experience, healing happens when a place of trauma or pain is given full attention, really listened to.” You are worthy of being listened to, but often, that listening has to start with yourself.
Again, lovely you (lovely me), this is a rough time. There is no way to minimize or sugarcoat that reality. However, you will not only survive the tough years that are to come, but you will use them to grow in your capacity to feel compassion for all beings who are suffering. Heartbreak is perhaps our most relatable shared trait, and within it there’s a deep well of connection. It might be the place that saves our world.
Soon enough, you will realize that this compassion goes deeper than loving and being loved by another. Compassion is the bedrock of your being, the truth of your truest self. The only way to find it is to lose what you think is keeping you afloat. You will flail wildly upon letting go. However, when you hit bottom, it won’t be at all like you thought. It will feel solid to the point to of unbreakable, but it still be soft. You’ll finally find yourself in the only place that really feels like home.
PS: While writing this missive, I’ve enjoyed using “them” and “themselves” to express a singular person. More and more, I’m discovering how much language dictates our ability to express our authentic identities. I feel inspired to expand upon the set rules to create more possibilities for us all to exist.