Interview with Alex Theberge, MFT, licensed psychotherapist about emotional pain from break up
What is emotional pain?
Emotional pain is a loss. Everyone goes through some grief process when there is a relationship ending. If there was a really important relationship with deep love, strong attachment, strong connection, then that loss is big – we can compare it to the death of a loved one. The gravity of that can be really tremendous and it can be a really painful process to essentially come to a closure. Now, our bodies and minds have a way of dealing with grief. We are designed to deal with loss and overcome it and move on, but it takes time.
I find that we are our own worst enemies. We tend to get in the way of the grieving process, which includes feeling really sad and feeling really miserable and crying a lot and having a lot of different feelings that come up with regret, guilt, anger, and anxiety. All of these emotions can come up, but in a culture that doesn’t really spend a lot of time dealing with emotions or allowing emotions, it can be really challenging for people to accept that that is normal and allow this process to unfold naturally.
People tend to do things like going to escape this. A classic example is when there’s a breakup you go right into dating someone else, just escape the pain by getting really infatuated with a new person or by having a lot of sex. Other people will do it with alcohol and drugs. The problem with that is when we are not actually going through the full grief process, we’re short-circuiting it. We carry around this baggage with us into the next relationship or further into our life because we never really process that ending. There’s a wound that is still raw and it has just been covered. I see that a lot, especially if someone has a style of dealing with breakups in an avoidance capacity or approach. We look into one ending and then it brings up all these losses from the past.
Is there a difference between emotional pain from a breakup and emotional pain when someone dies?
Yes, the differences are that pain from a breakup was a choice to end it and that brings up other feelings to make it more complex. When you are dealing in the area of intimate relationships, there is an attachment system that’s activated. The attachment system is a core to partnering up with someone and eventually having our own children. There are neurobiological systems in place that make those relationships more important than others. Lovers are one of the most important relationships for the survival of the species. Those very powerful emotions and feelings and insecurities are activated. You could say, it is more complex than death for those reasons.
What is the right way to get through the grief process?
I don’t think there is one right grief process. Grief is very unique to the individual, and even culturally there are a lot of differences in processing grief. But the general principle is to get in touch with the feelings that are coming up and releasing them – allowing emotions to move. The obvious one is sadness. You break up with your partner, there is a lot of sadness and so a release of sadness often comes in the form of crying. Allow yourself time or even make time just to cry, scream, or wail, whatever you need to do. That’s the quickest way to get it out. You can also try talking about it – with a therapist, with friends, family. Just talking about feelings can be a release. Journaling or writing about it is another way of releasing. In one way or another, it is taking what’s inside out. A lot of times people are afraid of their feelings because it feels overwhelming and unsurvivable, but the reality is the amount of grief in any ending or loss is finite. The processing of grief is just draining that pool over time.
How long does going through the grieving process usually take?
Everyone is different, but I have a rule of thumb for shorter relationships. If you’ve been together for 5 years, it could take 2 and a half years to recover from emotional pain. Obviously, if you’ve been together for 40 years, it is not going to take 20 years to overcome that, but in shorter time frames, I generally find it can take as long as half the duration of the relationship to really get back to a sense of who you are without the other person.
Is there anything else that someone can do for themselves to move on?
I recommend spending some time reflecting on what you learned from the relationship. Learn about yourself, learn about the relationship in general, learn about people. There are often important lessons. Why didn’t it work out? What was my part of it? It is very easy to look at the other person, but it’s important to ask yourself how you may have contributed to the relationship’s end. How did I contribute to this not working out? What was my part of the equation? Really harvest those lessons and learn them so that when you go into the next relationship, you have grown. You are a stronger person and you’re a better partner because you’ve done the work of learning from your mistakes. Many people don’t do that work and then they find themselves repeating the same pattern over and over. With different partners, but the same problems come up and that’s because they haven’t really taken the time to reflect.
Are there any other exercises or tips you would suggest?
Journaling is a very powerful one. Spending some time just thinking about what happened and how you are going to work on your own. Thinking about it, allowing the feelings to come up, and really sitting with those feelings. Literally, just sit there, don’t do anything, no distractions. Call up an image or a memory of your ex and allow whatever feelings that are there to come out or whatever thoughts are there to come out. So there’s actually quite a bit you can do on your own.
And what is the worst thing that people can do when they are trying to recover?
I would say, the worst thing from my point of view would be diving into an escapist addiction or diving right into another relationship without having had any space to do the work.
And would you suggest seeing an expert when somebody is dealing with emotional pain?
It depends on the person. If you want to work through it with another person, it’s a great time to start therapy. It is a naturally introspective period, you are vulnerable, you are rawer emotionally and it actually can be a great time to start that kind of work. In my experience, pain and suffering are the greatest motivators to do personal healing. If someone finds it hard to function in their day-to-day life that it becomes more of, “Okay I need some help.” Or they are falling into the same harmful patterns and need help handling things differently.
Knowing all the information, is it easier for you personally to deal with emotional pain?
I might know what to do, but my feelings are as strong as everyone else’s. I learned a lot from my breakups and when I look back, I see the growth that is really meaningful for me. It taught me something about myself, my relationship, and today I’m a better partner. Knowing about it doesn’t make it easier, but it shows you what to do about it.
Alex Theberge, MFT, licensed psychotherapist
In his own words: “I’m a Therapist in San Francisco. I’ve been practicing for 15 years, and I work a lot with relationships and breakups and coaching people through essential healing. I do a lot of work with plant medicine and kind of intentional work – it is one of my specialties. I also write a lot about emotional pain, use traditional mental health, and alternative healing modalities.”
You can connect with Alex here: https://www.transcendentcounsel.com/