I was at a meeting last week and someone asked me if I had any tips for mending a broken heart.
I replied that one aspect that was important was realising that, as humans we all have the capacity to cut-out our emotions when needed. This is because we have an enormous rational frontal brain and an older, smaller prehistoric ‘alarmist’ brain that we can choose to ignore and over-ride as required.
This gives humans huge flexibility – when we are really distressed we can still function effectively, completely ignoring any emotional upset. When necessary, with our huge frontal brain dominance we can also make decisions that might be highly empathic or brutally cruel depending on our circumstances. This capacity allows us to survive horrific circumstances like concentration camps, wars and extreme brutality. We simply cut out our distress, remove it from our attentional focus and push on as if it never occurred. A wonderfully empowering survival skill in terrible times!
However, my answer about mending a broken heart was incomplete. When we have a broken heart, we are not usually in an extreme situation. While we can obviously pull out this strategy when it is helpful, it is also important to remember that one of the very best ways to heal a broken heart is to calmly reflect upon our own contribution, take full responsibility for our part and decide next time to do it very differently.
As strange as it sounds, owning our own contribution and taking responsibility is incredibly healing – it works like nothing else!
Without taking responsibility, people can often fester for decades in cycles of anger, blame hostility, collapse and powerlessness without ever learning the role they played in the break-up. As a result, they never learn to solve the problem or learn to do better in future relationships. It is understanding our own role that ultimately heals us.
Just to take a simple but very common example: often when people have come from difficult backgrounds they are afraid to deal openly with conflict and resist arguing fully for what they believe in and instead just cave-in, comply, accommodate or stay silent (withhold). This means these people never properly share what is going on in their heads with their partner, especially the less acceptable stuff.
Sadly, this can so often be a long-term losing strategy. It means their partner never really gets to know them at a deep, ‘warts and all’ level and when you only know someone superficially it is hard to stay in love with them because there is nothing real to hold onto.
Also, when people fail to stand up for their beliefs it is hard to command respect from your partner and without respect relationships often mess-up badly or fail altogether.
Reflecting on these sorts of mistakes and then learning from them and deciding to do things differently are ultimately our best tools for improving our current and future relationships and for genuinely healing our hearts.