“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need…” (Jagger / Richards 1969)
How was your Valentine’s day? Full of romance and chocolate and the chance to tell your loved one how much they mean to you? You didn't get involved, it's a cynical marketing tool to help you part with cash, and put you under pressure at the same time? Or a cruel reminder of the love you lost, the hopes you had and a future that looks bleak?
I hope it was one of the first two (the romantic in me says the first, the realist thinks the second is probably ok too) but if it was the third, read on:
So how do you fix a broken heart? A night out with friends, alcohol and a good moan is traditional. Good friends will drag your sorry self out of the house, tell you how great you are, how crap he/she is, and in the gin-soaked rhetoric of the moment you do have some sense of having ‘dodged a bullet’. Unfortunately, this is rarely a permanent fix. The morning after the night before has the same doubts and sadness, but now accompanied by a vague sense of anxiety, and a distinctly unhealthy combination of nausea with a craving for junk food (we’ve all been there!)
I often have clients come to see me for help with depression and anxiety following a break-up, and while solidarity, connection and offloading with friends is important, as a therapist, have something else to offer. My job is to ask the right questions and, if you want to heal your heartbreak, then you can ask some yourself.
We never talk to anyone as much as the conversations we have with ourselves but our questions to ourselves are often problem-focused and can be really unhelpful:
- What are the causes of this problem?
He/she unable to commit, he/she is immature, they met someone else at work, they never listened to me, they're selfish, a narcissist…
Or worse still
It’s all my fault, I’m not nice/pretty/clever/thin (delete as appropriate) enough
- What difficulties do you have to overcome?
My confidence is ruined, I’ll never find another partner, I’ll never trust another partner…
- How did this problem arise? (this is a great one post break up, we can keep that stuff going all night)
If only he/she hadn’t…, If only I had…, it all started with that Facebook post… etc etc
- Who is responsible for this situation?
Well, he is, the lying, cheating… I blame her parents, they never loved her enough, he hasn’t had a good example… It was his friends, leading him into trouble, they never liked me anyway…
- What does not work?
I always do this, I keep making the same mistakes, I always choose the wrong men/women (which leads us nicely back, in a slightly obsessive loop, to question number 1)
So let’s change the questions to solution-focused, rather than problem-focused ones.
- What would you like instead?
This is really important because if we’re focussing all our energy on the problem, all we’re doing is practising that problem. And how practised do you really want to get at feeling hurt, let down and full of righteous indignation?
What do I want instead? Is so simple and can be really powerful. Instead, I would like to feel happy. I would like to enjoy my day. I would like to feel full of energy and confidence. Even acknowledging these basic wants can make us much more likely to notice them when they arise and gives us a sense of control.
- What are your goals?
Now we can get more specific. I would like a relationship that is calm and loving. I would like a relationship with trust and openness, I would like to feel listened to, for example. See how much more empowering these solution-focused thoughts are? As with the first question, when we acknowledge these positive intentions we are of course much more likely to notice them (“I would like to go on holiday to Greece” suddenly makes us notice adverts for flights and accommodation that fits the bill) but we also, straight away feel like we are, in the words of the advert, worth it!
Maybe your goals aren’t relationship-based, maybe your goal is to be financially secure, physically fitter, academically more accomplished? We’re all different but if you ask yourself the right questions, you will have your own useful answers.
- How will others realise that I am moving towards my goals?
This is a great question. It can be hard to tell yourself really positive messages sometimes but taking the focus away can help. Who would notice? colleagues, family? kids? And what would they see? Would you be more engaged in meetings, would you have more time to talk to your kids, would your mum notice how chatty you are on the phone? What would you be doing differently that they would notice?
- What already works well? (What have you already done?)
In our saddest moments, it can be really hard to acknowledge the parts of our lives that are ok. We all have that obsessive, negative part of our brain that kicks in when we feel under threat. We all have bad days, but if we have bad days, then by definition, we must have some that are better? The key here is rather than to try to analyse what went wrong on the bad days, is to ask what was different on the good days? What are the exceptions? I had a client recently who realised when I asked her this question that a really simple difference made her feel much happier. After a long pause, and some deep thinking… she realised that the only time she felt ok was when her phone was off and she couldn’t check for messages from her ex. Then she was engaged, interested and motivated in her work. Another found that, on reflection, when she planned her weeks' meals she felt much calmer and more confident.
We’re really good at waiting until we ‘feel like it’ to take positive action, but when we ask ourselves the right questions we often find that the positive action comes first, the feeling shows up later.
- And last but not least. What would be a small sign of progress?
Now I’m in no way making light of how miserable relationship crap can feel, and Rome wasn’t built in a day and all that, but, if we’ve asked ourselves those first four questions, then it becomes a much smaller step to make some forward progress. Use your imagination, go on, I dare you. Make yourself a nice cup of tea, give yourself some lovely quiet uninterrupted time and imagine a preferred future, write it down maybe? (What would I like instead? / What are my goals? / Who notices? / What have I already done?) and see where that thought process takes you… I would bet money that your amazing, solution finding, complicated, wonderful brain will start to join the dots, and come up with some fun, interesting, joyful plans for the future… even if they’re just small ones.
I’m sorry you didn’t get what you want, but if you ask yourself the right questions, you might find, you get what you need…
If you'd like to work with me to get over a break I'd love to talk to you. Please give me a call, drop me a message or just go ahead and book a free initial consultation to find out more about how a short course of solution-focused therapy can make a big difference.