The question As soon as I started writing this letter I could feel the hot tears generating in their ducts. I’ve got great friends and family, but I need an outsider’s take.
I was seeing a man, for a few months. This ended around eight weeks ago. He was unhappy living in this country and had plans to move even before we met, which he was always very open about, and I was aware the entire time that he was emotionally unavailable and planning to leave. So I feel I should have been prepared for the end of the relationship when it happened.
For about a month I felt OK about it. I was thinking about him less and less each day and was considering dates with other men. But now, I feel things have started to go backwards and I can’t understand why. I now feel more heartbroken, lost and sad than ever before. I think about him almost constantly. I miss him more than I ever thought possible. My heartbreak is disproportionate to the amount of time we spent together.
I always felt I would never be in danger of unrequited love. But, now that he is gone I feel completely crushed. I want desperately to be free from this feeling.
Philippa’s answer You managed your feelings for a whole month by overriding them with your logic, but sometimes trying to suppress a feeling is like trying to contain water in a paper bag. It is not a long-term solution. What’s happened here is the Mrs Logic part of you is trying to tell you what you should be feeling, but the feeling part of you is having none of that. It might not make sense to you that your heart is broken, but that alone, unfortunately, will not make this flood of feelings subside. Humans are more complicated than equations – we have emotions that we cannot make sense of and I’m afraid you must accept that even though you rationally think it most unreasonable, you experienced his going as a great loss.
Sticking with the water metaphor, the paper bag has burst and the water is overflowing. But now you are going to take control of the tap. You will need to open the tap and let the feelings out otherwise the pressure will build up – but you are going to control where and when. You do this by setting a timetable for it. Weep, rage and mourn at the same time every day for half an hour. In fact, you must mourn and grieve then, even if you don’t feel like it. But the rest of the time when you find yourself regretting, yearning, wanting, weeping, obsessing, you must instead concentrate on your breathing. Notice your out-breath, then the in-breath. Then slow down your out-breath, but breath in normally. Next take your focus to the top of the breath, the time when you are neither inhaling nor exhaling, then to the bottom of the breath. Your mind will wander, the tears may still sting, but each time, take your focus back to your breath.
Other activities you can do when the unrequited love threatens to invade are complicated mathematical problems, crosswords and other logical “right-brain” activities. On first awakening, if you find yourself brooding, jump out of bed and exercise with a video, concentrating on the instructions and getting out of your mind and into your body. Another good distraction is doing a realistic, observed pencil drawing of your shoe. Don’t worry what the drawing looks like, but concentrate on the looking at the shoe, observing it, recording all the details. It will require your full concentration.
In your daily grieving half-hour, it’s time to reminisce about your relationship. You could make a shrine; light a candle; weep; write him a love letter that you will never send – anything, but no more than half an hour a day and only at your allotted time. Be strict, set alarms. In this way while you are having your feelings and working through them you are also gaining control of them. Your emotions will no longer be ruling you, but you will be the boss of them. It will take determination and willpower, and like any skill you will improve with practice.
You were so good at telling yourself it didn’t make sense to have any feelings about this that you managed to keep those feelings at bay for a month. That got me wondering – what other feelings have you managed to keep in that paper bag? Is there anything else you told yourself it was unreasonable to have feelings about? There might be other traumas piggybacking on your grief, which may partly explain why your feelings are so intense. You may need to do more mental unpacking.
If you were in therapy with me I would ask you to tell me about all the losses and disappointments you have had in your life. Rather than running away from these demons, when we face them and learn how to regulate our emotions around them, they won’t have so much power to pop up and bite us on the bum.
And maybe in some of your grieving half-hours you can get a friend or family member to hold you while you weep. You don’t have to do this on your own.