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1: What is heartbreak?
Heartbreak is a very strange distress. It is exquisitely painful, and yet we cannot find an injury on our body. It is like one big emotional pain but it also seems to spark off hundreds of other emotions. We hate the feeling of heartbreak, and yet we find ourselves compelled to go over and over memories, ideas or fantasies which make the feeling worse. What is going on?
I can remember a relationship that ended after two years. Emotionally it fizzled out, so neither I nor my ex felt heartbroken. However, directly afterwards I had another relationship that lasted only four months but completely wrecked me because I had believed I would be with that girl forever. She used to talk about marriage, and at the time she probably meant it. I created a future
in my imagination where we were a happy couple with a passionate romance and an exciting social life. I thought about what our kids might look like. All this thinking and fantasizing built up a strong network of neural pathways in my brain. As far as my nervous system was concerned, I was already married to her. When I found out she was two-timing me, in an instant my dreams and ideas seemed ridiculous. Added to all my lovely future fantasies was a huge negative feeling: Cancelled. The meaning of the pictures in my head flipped. All I could see was her in bed with another guy and think what a fool I had been. As I lay awake going over and over why this had happened, I was reinforcing how sad I felt and what a loser I must be. I felt terrible, and then even worse because I didn't know if the feeling would ever end.
One day I said to myself, "This is ridiculous! I've got to stop!" But the thoughts wouldn't stop. I didn't want to think about her, but I couldn't help it. I realized that I wasn't in charge of my own brain. I was powerless while it buzzed away. This was one of the experiences that led me eventually into writing this book. I wanted to get my mind on my side, instead of having it keep me awake at night.
When an important love relationship ends, a range of different responses is triggered. We feel loss and pain. Our normal ways of thinking about the world are disrupted. Our balance is upset, and our feelings change from one minute to the next. We pine for our ex-lover, then we are overwhelmed with anger at them. One minute we are desperate to see them, the next we can't bear to have anyone mention their name. This volatility and confusion add to the misery.
Heartbreak is caused by the end of a relationship. It can also be caused when we fail to get a relationship we fervently desire. It can even happen slowly when we realize that we are in a relationship from which all the love has gone. However it happens, after the shock, it takes some time for reality to sink in. Then we experience a welter of feelings. We can be angry, sad, devastated, despairing, distraught, desperate, remorseful, regretful, ashamed, embarrassed. The emotional bombardment is overwhelming.
In the long term, we have a natural way of dealing with these feelings. We have an emotional mechanism that allows us to recover from losses and from pain. If we didn't have it, the whole world would be in mourning forever! Bereavement, parting and suffering are unavoidable parts of our life experience. The natural way we recover is by grieving.
How grief heals
Grieving is a specific process by which we gradually let go of our attachment to the people (or places or things or even possibilities) we have lost. Of course, in the first shock of heartbreak it is not much comfort to be told that things will improve in time. We might not be ready for our feelings to improve--part of us might not even have accepted what has happened yet. And even once we do accept it, it is possible to misunderstand grief. Grief happens one bit at a time. You feel bad for a while and then it stops. You feel fine, then you feel sad again, then the sadness stops. It is important to know that grief works like this, so that we are not frightened that it will carry on forever. It won't. It will stop. But while it does happen, it is important to our recovery.
You see, we experience only as much sadness as is necessary for our feelings to adjust as far as they can at any one time, then the feeling stops. When we have become used to that amount of change and loss, the unconscious lets us feel a bit more, and so on, until we have fully absorbed the whole significance of the loss. By the same token, when grief does stop, there is no need to feel guilty that we didn't care enough. Some people have told me they feel guilty about feeling all right so soon after a loss, and I have to tell them not to worry, and reassure them that they are simply being well looked after by their unconscious mind.
This process of grief can be divided into four stages. The first, denial, is where we try to reject what has happened. In the second, we accept it, but still feel angry about it. In the third stage we acknowledge our sadness, and when we reach the fourth we have accepted our loss and are able to look back and enjoy the happy memories we have.
The trouble with heartbreak, however, is that the natural process of grief does not always work properly. People can get stuck, repeating the same painful feelings over and over again. I first understood why this happened when I was working with a woman whose second husband had left her for a younger woman. Her first husband had died. As we worked together she told me, in a hesitant and ashamed tone of voice, that it had been easier to recover from being widowed than it was to recover from being left. When her first husband died her world was changed forever, but his love for her, and hers for him, was not questioned. It was an extremely painful loss, but an absolute one.
When her second husband left, it called into question the love they had had together, and the fact that he was still living in the same town made it all the more difficult for her to forget him and move on. It is these sorts of questions about the past and the future that can make heartbreak so painful and complicated.
None of us can avoid feeling some pain and sadness at the end of a relationship we cared about--as we will see, a certain amount is even necessary. But this book is dedicated to helping you avoid the unnecessary repetition of pain and distress. It helps you change the way you think and feel about the past and the future by working with your fundamental systems of thought and feeling. Better still, as you make these changes and understand them, you prepare yourself for a richer and stronger relationship in the future.
The three core systems of human being
I remember attending a conference of psychotherapists and hypnotherapists nearly fifteen years ago and being struck by something most peculiar. There were lots and lots of different speakers and nearly all of them were clearly caring, intelligent and competent therapists. However, it became apparent that each of them understood human beings differently. That seemed to me a bit odd. After all, psychotherapists spend all their working lives dealing with human beings, so you might expect them to know and agree about what human beings are. But it was clear that there was no single, agreed understanding of what a human being is.
That conference inspired me to do a considerable amount of research in psychotherapy and philosophy to discover if there was a central understanding of what a human being is, about which we could all agree. While I was doing that, a number of American researchers were making very important breakthroughs in understanding the connection between the mind and the body. Bringing together all this research added up to a rich and complex set of insights into the human being. And, as well as the philosophical and psycho-biological findings, it also let us produce a practical method to heal a broken heart.
The essential insight is this. Human beings are in essence a combination of three things:
The conscious mind;
The unconscious mind;
The physiological system of the body.
These three systems coexist and interrelate. Our intelligence and our emotions function in each of these three systems. All our magnificent potential as human beings lies in these systems, and an understanding of this simple model of the human being is all that is needed to begin to learn how to make lasting personal change.
You could also say that these three systems are simply different aspects of the same thing, or three parts of one system. And it is equally true that there are other important and subtle processes in our being that we are not discussing here. But we will talk about these three systems here because it is the easiest and most useful way to understand what is going on in heartbreak, and how to recover and move on.
The conscious mind
We do our active thinking in our conscious mind. The conscious mind is our immediate awareness of what is around us, and the thoughts and pictures we use in our head. It is the voice with which we talk to ourselves, the ideas we are paying attention to, and our ability to make decisions.
It is the part of ourselves with which we are most familiar, and yet in a way it is our most mysterious part. Scientists have tried for decades to understand how it works and to locate it exactly in the body. Philosophers have tried for centuries to define consciousness. Technologists have struggled in vain to replicate consciousness with artificial intelligence computers. A lot of questions remain to be answered, but we can now make a clear definition of the conscious mind.
The conscious mind is two interdependent processes: awareness, and the creation of meaning. The first is fairly obvious. Consciousness is always awareness of something--we use the word "conscious" as a synonym for awake or aware. The second process is not so obvious, partly because making sense of things is an aspect of our awareness. For example, as I type this sentence, I can see a vase of flowers on the table next to me. I don't usually pay attention to the fact, but it is I who gives meaning to my sensory impressions and hence sees them as flowers.
A more dramatic demonstration of this would be what happens when I interrupt that process. One of my favorite routines in my stage show is to hypnotize a man to fail to recognize his own girlfriend (or the other way around). With hypnosis I am switching off that part of the meaning-making process that recognizes people. My hypnotic subject still sees a woman, but he does not recognize her because we understand what we see only when we bring meaning to it. All perception, whether real or imaginary, is made up in part of the meaning we give it.
The unconscious mind
The unconscious mind stores and runs the programs of automatic behavior that we use to live our lives. You could say that it is the part of our memory, thinking and mental activity of which we are unaware at any one time.
Human beings have evolved the ability to carry out tasks without using deliberate intention. We could spend hours considering all the different alternatives open to us every day, but we don't have the time for it. In order not to waste our days considering millions of choices, we've developed a capacity for automatic responses.
For example, we tend to have the same sort of breakfast every morning. We don't ask ourselves, Shall I have a boiled egg? Shall I have some cereal? We only ask these questions on special occasions or holidays. On ordinary days we have the same thing we normally have. We usually take the same route to work, read the same newspaper and listen to the same radio station. We have habits of cooking and eating. We have habits to tie our shoelaces and comb our hair. We do a thousand and one daily tasks without having to think about them, simply by using habits. Habits keep our lives running smoothly.
The unconscious mind is where we store and run the habits we have created. It is our autopilot. You don't have to think about the knot in order to tie your shoelaces; you do it on autopilot. When you were a small child you had to concentrate fiercely to tie your laces properly but now you literally don't think about it. You brush your teeth on autopilot. You can even drive to work, perfectly safely, while thinking about your plans for the day ahead. Your autopilot watches the road while you are thinking about something else. As soon as the autopilot spots something potentially hazardous or unusual, it calls your full attention back to the road.
The basic mechanism of these habits is association. Our unconscious mind remembers when we do two things together, and if we keep doing them together, pretty soon the first one triggers the second. In the morning the alarm rings and we get up and go to the bathroom. We go into the kitchen and switch on the kettle. Soon we make bigger habits out of lots of little ones all joined together.
These habits are useful because they free our conscious minds to think about other things. But as we shall see, sometimes we need to change or override them. Many of us as children were ordered to eat every bit of food on our plate, for example. Many adults continue to let this habit run their behavior. They carry on eating even when they are no longer hungry and they end up eating more, and weighing more, than they want to.
When you are heartbroken, lots of unhelpful habits in your life need changing, and we are going to show you how to do this.
Excerpted from How to Mend Your Broken Heart by Paul McKenna, Ph.D., and Hugh Willbourn, Ph.D. Excerpted by permission.
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