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Psychologist Guy Winch knows how to fix a broken heart
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The first week after my breakup, I listened to psychologist Guy Winch’s Ted Talk over and over. Then I read his book on the same topic, How to Fix a Broken Heart. (You can read more of my thoughts on it here.) He writes about society’s tendency to dismiss emotional pain in adults, specifically the deep pain of heartbreak and pet loss. Winch says, “Surviving heartbreak isn’t a journey, it’s a fight.” Read our conversation on the importance of self-compassion, healthy distractions, and resisting the urge to scroll through those old photos.
We need to talk
Jillian Anthony: You write about how heartbreak is a serious emotional injury, and yet it’s ignored by our coworkers and our friends expect us to get over it really quickly. I found that interesting because almost every single one of us has been through heartbreak, so we all know how it feels. So why is that people tend to treat it like it’s not very important?
Guy Winch: It’s not just heartbreak—we tend to minimize emotional pain in most of its forms. And when it comes to heartbreak it’s something we really associate with the young: teenagers, first love, Romeo and Juliet. We tend to have this very unfortunate misconception that as you get older, we become more resilient to things like heartbreak. That flies in the face of everything we know. In the book I actually address heartbreak and pet loss. They are experiences that elicit grief reactions that are, for some people, extraordinarily substantial. And yet they’re not sanctioned by society. There is no one I know who will go into work and say, “I need the day off because my cat died.” And yet the New England Journal of Medicine reported a woman last year who showed up in the ER with heart attack syndrome, which mimics an actual heart attack, that was brought on by the grief of losing her dog. So we know physiologically, psychologically, experientially that these can be extreme forms of grief and loss, and yet societally it’s not something we take seriously.
So basically we expect each other to age out of heartbreak?
It’s not that we age out of heartbreak, it’s that we age out of emotional pain. It’s like, once you’re an adult, whatever the thing is that’s causing you emotional distress, just get over it.
I feel like I have treated myself that way during this [breakup]. This was a very important person to me, but I have also had probably six breakups in my life. I’ve been through this so many times it’s almost laughable that it feels this painful still. Why is it that they never seem to get easier?
If you broke your arm six times, would you expect the sixth time to be any less painful than the first time?
Right, and that’s the thing. It’s a loss, it’s an emotional wound, there’s absolutely no reason the experience of it might be less painful. What you might hope to gain is a certain amount of wisdom or coping mechanisms so that you will be able to not make mistakes that people tend to make, and hopefully accelerate the recovery.
You talk a lot about why our minds sometimes work against us when we’re trying to recover from this kind of pain.
When we touch a hot stove when we’re kids, our mind’s job is to prevent us from touching the hot stove again. And it will do that by constantly reminding us of how painful that was, so that we don’t forget that stoves are hot and dangerous. So when it comes to heartbreak, your mind’s goal is to keep the memories as fresh as possible so you don’t make the mistakes again. Your goal is to reduce the presence of that person in your thoughts as much as possible so that you can move on. You’re literally at opposing ends of what’s going on. So you have to know when to override what your thoughts are telling you, when to ignore the brilliant idea of “Wait! But his cousin was getting married. I wonder if she showed up in the dress we once spoke about two months ago. Let’s go on Instagram and stalk everyone.”
Right, and that takes almost superhuman willpower.
It’s very, very difficult. There’s an R&B singer called JP Saxe who just released his single “Same Room,” and the first two lines are, “I watched a Ted Talk on heartbreak, he had a smart person accent, he said, ‘Don’t look through the photos,’ and then I looked through our photos.”
Was that about you?
We did a whole interview. When we spoke he said, “The minute you said, ‘Don’t look through the pictures,’ I was just going, Oh but I have to, I have to.” It’s a very strong urge and I always say to people, as long as you know to fight, good. I don’t expect you to succeed. It’s like when you’re trying to quit smoking. It would be great if you don’t pick up a cigarette, but most people will sneak a puff here or there. Just get back on the wagon as soon as you can.
How does that tie into the fact that we’re literally addicted to this person?
It’s not just that we are brain chemically-addicted to this person—that thinking of this person does something to the pleasure centers of our brain and our neurochemistry—but psychologically also we’ve defined ourselves and our lives within the context of that person. So we really have to work extraordinarily hard to decouple from something that has been coupled very much to the core of who we are and our daily functioning in the world.
How true is it that time is the only thing that actually matters to get you over an emotional injury like this?
I think that’s absolutely untrue. I’m sure you’ve either experienced or have encountered people who six months after a breakup, a year after a breakup, seem very much in the same place they were after day one. Time can help, but the reason I wrote this book is there are many other things we can do to accelerate the process and to soothe the distress of it as we go. We should refrain very much from doing the things that will set us back, and there are many. The thing about emotional wounds is, if you think back to the time where you had a toothache, your tooth is not going to hurt, but if you think back to the time that you were very upset about anything, even if it happened 20 years ago, you will start to feel that. Emotional wounds can be easily reactivated and it makes them harder to get over.
In the book you write about how even if you haven’t spoken to your ex for two decades, you can pull up pictures of them and use that as an escapism tool in your life that’s harmful.
I literally had a session with somebody yesterday who is going through a breakup and said, “It’s funny, I just keep thinking about my first boyfriend and that was years and years ago.” And it’s not funny. It makes a lot of sense. It’s a distraction. We love the idea of being in love and we will try if possible to take it and just transfer those feelings wholesale onto another person. And then you start to think of the old boyfriend and, ah, they were so great, why did we break up again? It’s about decoupling and literally lowering the addiction and eliminating it so that we are not tethered in that way, until we hopefully fall in love again in the future with someone with whom that can be spent.
And would you say that no contact with that person is one of the best ways to do that?
Yes. The idea is you want to try to move them out of your head and have them not be a player in your life and not be present in your thoughts. The best way to do that is to have no contact. People say, “What if I want to be friends?” And my response is, you can’t be friends right now—you simply cannot. You still have feelings for that person, you still have heartache associated with them, you still have a lot of work you need to do to reform your identity, to reclaim your life, to reformulate how you do things. Once you’re completely over them, if you want to be friends, be friends. And the vast majority of people, once they’re completely over them, do not have a specific interest in being friends.
Sometimes I’ve been preoccupied with my [post-breakup] timeline and making sure I’m doing okay and kind of measuring up, and I know that’s not the healthiest way to think about it. Could you speak on any common themes or timelines that people go through?
It’s a very individualized thing because I know people who take a very long time to get over a very short relationship, or take a short time to get over a long relationship, because different relationships serve different functions to different people. Somebody who has rarely had relationships in their lives and finally had one, and it seemed like, Oh, finally, Etta James is singing “At Last,” and six months later it breaks off—it could be devastating for them because they really feel, given their life’s history, this was their one shot. Whereas somebody who goes from relationship to relationship and knows they tend to find new ones, that might be different for them. Some relationships become [isolating]; they don’t have a lot of friends or work colleagues, their entire existence is their partner, so when that breaks up they’re left very bereft.
You talk about the importance of self-compassion during this process, and that’s something I’ve always struggled with.
Self-compassion is super important because you are going through a very painful experience. Of course you deserve compassion. It can be taxing for your friends because they really care about you and there’s not much they can do, so sometimes they can get frustrated if you’re not moving past it quickly enough by them, but you should always be compassionate toward yourself. And if you did spend a night stalking somebody on social media, then in much the same way as when an alcoholic falls off the wagon, it’s much more important to forgive yourself and get back on the wagon. Negative self-talk rarely has much utility. Compassion can be: I understand why I did it and it’s very hard to avoid that compulsion, and I really want to try to avoid that next time. Now, what can I do to distract myself?
You mentioned distraction. How important is it to eventually just be really busy and get going?
I think distraction is important when you are feeling compelling urges to look at social media, or you’re ruminating on that thing they said for the 100th time. The distraction can be short—it can be a crossword puzzle or a memory task—and usually after a few minutes of that the compulsion has left, and you can then try to go about your business again. So distraction is useful in the micro, and in the macro I think it should be more purposeful. There’s a lot of reforming that has to be done, reconnecting to old interests and old friends, structuring weekends so they don’t feel lonely or isolating, finding new interests, redefining what the new you wants to do or be about.
More about the author: Guy Winch, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, author, and in-demand keynote speaker who is a leading advocate for integrating the science of emotional health into our daily lives, workplaces, and education systems. Dr. Winch's viral TED Talks, Why We All Need to Practice Emotional First Aid and How to Fix a Broken Heart have been viewed over 16 million times and his books, The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem (Amazon KDP), Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014), and How to Fix a Broken Heart (TED Books/Simon & Schuster, 2018) have been translated into 26 languages. Dr. Winch's work is frequently featured in national and international publications and media. He also writes the popular Squeaky Wheel Blog on PsychologyToday.com.
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