A breakup is not fun. It’s a boo-hoo story. Am I making light of a painful human experience? Yes and no.
Without question, breakups can be very painful. Some people sink into deep depression when they separate from someone they love. Some stop socializing.
Others try to eliminate their pain with a series of sexual encounters. Some drink. Some do drugs. Some even kill themselves. Nothing to laugh at in these scenarios.
Or is there? This may sound callous, but the truth is, that the feelings we experience after a breakup are all part of a made-up story. By the way, I’m including myself in this.
One of the most painful breakups of my life happened in 1990. I was living with a woman I was crazy about. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was just plain crazy. Here’s what I mean.
I had intense feelings for my girlfriend. I longed for her when she wasn’t with me. I loved talking with her, going on dates with her, having meals with her, and making love to her. I thought she was my dream woman.
One day, she announced that she wasn’t happy in the relationship. She had decided to move out. I was devastated.
I was living in Toronto at the time. I decided I would move to L.A. to pursue my acting career and get as far away from my ex as possible. So that’s what I did.
When I got to L.A., I discovered that my mind and heart were still in Toronto with my lost love. I didn’t know how to let her go.
I had an awful time in L.A. even though I got an agent, began to score some acting work, and made interesting new friends who were well positioned in Hollywood.
You see, I was obsessed with Tracy. That was her name. I thought about her 24/7. Really. I dreamed about her at night, and I woke up missing her in the morning.
I’ll confess something to you now that I don’t like to admit. I cried everyday that I lived in L.A. Yup. At some point each day, I would break down and weep.
It got so bad that I started seeing a shrink, a wonderful woman named Amy. Sometimes, I would spend the entire session with Amy talking about Tracy and crying.
My state of mind and emotions colored my perception of Los Angeles, and I started to hate it. I saw L.A. as superficial, alienating, lacking intellectual stimulation, art, and real culture.
It’s easy to find proof of my perceptions. But, let me be clear. They were just that – perceptions. Made-up stories.
Was I really longing for Tracy? Or, was I I whipping up a firestorm of emotion and creating a huge drama about an image of Tracy, the idealized woman who got away? Today, I know it was the latter. And, I can laugh at it.
When someone leaves a partner, it triggers feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy in the person who is left behind. Those feeling create negative self-talk. The self-talk creates an elaborate drama, a story.
The jilted person is the sad character in that story. Sad character equals victim. And when you are fully committed to playing the victim in your drama, you get to throw a pity party to end all parties. It feels awful and unconsciously gratifying at the same time.
You don’t have to buy any of this. I’m describing my subjective experience. But here’s what I’ve come to believe.
My observation of many friends, acquaintances, and strangers over many years has shown me that I am not the only person who creates and lives into romantic woe-is-me stories. I’ll go so far as to say that people in the Western world are hard wired to create and revel in stories of unrequited love.
Am I saying that we are hardwired to enjoy pain? Yes. A fascinating book that explores this subject is, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love, by Robert A. Johnson.
The author is a Jungian psychotherapist who has done an extensive amount of relationship therapy. The premise of his book, We, is this. Western culture’s concept of romantic love is based on one work of literature, the tale of Tristan and Iseult, written in the 12th century.
Tristan is a Cornish knight who travels to Ireland to bring home the Irish princess, Iseult, for the Cornish king, Mark, to marry. He found the fair maiden and was dutifully bringing her home to her groom-to-be.
Enter a love potion that both Tristan and Iseult wet their lips with. Voila! The two fall hopelessly in love, and begin an affair that continues even after the princess becomes Mark’s queen.
What does this ancient story have to do with me and you, modern relationships, and breaking up in the 21st century? Everything, according to Robert A. Johnson. The myth of Tristan and Iseult gave birth to the romantic notion of the one that got away.
Johnson points out that we’ve been programmed to strongly desire the partners we cannot have. That dynamic certainly has played a big role in my life. What about yours?
We presents a compelling argument for the theme of the lover beyond our reach that permeates much popular music. No one sang it better than Billie Holiday in her rendition of the Rogers and Hart tune, “Glad To Be Unhappy.”
Unrequited love’s a bore,
and I’ve got it pretty bad.
But for someone you adore,
it’s a pleasure to be sad.
At this point, some of you may be saying, “That’s nuts! Who, in their right mind, would be happy being sad?” I totally get it. None of us are comfortable with the thought that rational beings would create stories that make them feel pain and hold on to those stories.
But are we rational beings? I don’t believe we are. And I’m smart. Yes, I’m smart, and I’m not rational. I’m often a puppet to my emotions, and I’m a storytelling machine. We are all storytelling machines. Feel free to tell me I’m dead wrong. You are entitled to your story.
Let’s get back to the Tracy story for a moment. I spent the better part of a year crying about, day and night dreaming about, and idealizing the woman who got away. Then, one night, I shifted my thinking and broke the spell.
Here is the spell breaking abracadabra. I stopped asking, “Why did Tracy leave me? What’s wrong with me? What am I lacking that made her leave?”
I replaced those incantations with. “I’m a smart, warm, funny, loveable person. I am complete. I do not need someone to make me feel whole. I enjoy companionship and love, but I am not dependant on it for my happiness.”
Those “magic words” lifted a weight from my shoulders. They made a dark cloud above my head disappear and replaced it with a radiant light that made me smile.
My outer experience had not changed. I was still single. The only thing that changed was my STORY.
LONELINESS or SOLITUDE
Want another magic spell that will empower you? Here it is. Change your self-talk around the experience of being alone. This is so powerful that it can banish loneliness forever. Really. Being alone is a neutral experience. Our self-talk defines it and gives it meaning. It will feel like loneliness when your mind focuses on what you do not have.
You don’t have a partner. You don’t have a friend. You don’t have a loving family. Don’t, don’t, don’t. Feels shitty.
What you always have is the power of choice. Choose to view the neutral state of being alone this way. Affirm thoughts like, “I am so lucky to have peace and quiet. I can read a book, watch a favorite movie, or just do nothing without answering to anyone. I can focus on creative work without interruption from anyone.”
I know. I know. Many people will have a hard time framing their aloneness the way i just suggested. That’s okay. It takes practice. If you commit to it, and do it, you may be amazed at how good you will feel.
Here’s another take on this to prove that loneliness is a story that you can change without changing your outer circumstances. Think of person you know, or may have known, or may have learned about in the media. A person who was surrounded by loving friends and family and was still terribly unhappy, even lonely.
I recall a story in Toronto a few years ago about a brilliant woman who was a successful therapist, considered stunningly beautiful, and had a loving husband and children. One evening, she threw herself in front of an oncoming subway car. I would venture to guess that she felt terribly alone at that moment. Her story led her to despair. By some miracle, she lived.
Remember. Alone is neutral. You create a story around that neutral state by calling it loneliness or solitude. Which will you choose?
LIFE AS A RORSCHACH TEST
Let’s kick this storytelling idea up a notch. Play along with an open mind, and see what comes up.
What if we really are storytelling machines who create our reality with the language we speak to ourselves? What’s the language we use when thinking about other people? Do we see people as they really are? Or, do we create an image of who they are in our heads and project it onto them?
Does that sound farfetched? It isn’t. It’s closer to the truth than you may imagine. Think about the gender tension in our society today. Men and women are very polarized. Not everyone. But, a large segment of society feels a widening gap between the sexes.
The “Me Too” movement has many people on edge. There are men who don’t know how to communicate with women without offending them. Do they tell a female colleague that they find her attractive? How do they express that feeling? Words and phrases that were once accepted, even invited, are now considered demeaning and offensive. Same words. Different frame. Different perspective.
Don’t ask if the “Me Too” movement is fair or unfair, good or bad, right or wrong. The “Me Too” movement just is. It’s a real experience at a particular moment in time. A valuable question to ask, a question that can help men and women grow and communicate better with each other, is this. What gives birth to any movement that challenges people to create a new dialogue with each other?
I offer you this perspective. As storytelling machines, people project identities onto other people. They meet someone and immediately begin to interpret who that person is in their own minds. They create a story about the other person, project that story onto them, and assume that’s who the other person really is.
We have stories called Mom, Dad, Husband, Wife. What do those words mean? Depends on who is using them. The very words, man and woman, mean totally different things in different cultures.
If you lived in Thailand, you would add another gender to the mix, the Kathoey, or ladyboy. It refers to one of the many transgender people who live and are, for the most part, accepted as members of a third gender. A fascinating Thai story.
Consider for a moment that life is a Rorschach test. Another name for it is inkblot test. It is a tool for psychological testing. A person looks at an inkblot image and tells a psychologist what she sees. Obviously, many people see many different things.
You and I meet. We immediately create an image in our heads about each other. Then, we project our images onto one another. We start to believe that the image is the other person. Actually, our image is a made-up story. My identity conforms to as many stories as the people I meet. The same is true for your identity.
Can we ever really know each other? My answer is that we can experience each other, and that the expedience becomes richer when we receive the other person without imposing our own stories based on our judgements that are based on our past experiences.
A life enriching goal is to get beyond story and learn to fully “listen” to other people. I don’t mean listening with your ears and mind only. I mean listening with your eyes, your heart, your skin, with your whole being. That kind of listening transcends anything rational.
It demands an awareness and a willingness to receive another person’s energy without filters, without armor, without judgement.
If we allow ourselves to experience people like that, beyond our stories, for even a flickering moment, we will know at the core of our beings that we are all ONE.