After a broken love, but also after the loss of a loved one, an unfulfilled wish for life, or the loss of a job, we can break our hearts. A difficult and sad process, This article shows us that understanding the recovery process – turning a broken heart into personal growth – offers perspective and how self-protection works.
A struggle to hold back pain
Sometimes our hearts break due to the sudden collapse of our world; a situation to which we suddenly have to relate without any form of preparation. The other time our hearts break gradually and we are subject to a gradual process of loss. In the latter case, we slowly realize that there is no escaping the outcome. Before we face loss, we fight to hold back the pain. We all do. If we can avoid pain, we choose to do so.
Experiencing difficult feelings
So is Saskia, who tried to avert threatening heartache for years. Her story shows which phases precede acceptance. Her story also shows that in the end we cannot avoid experiencing the difficult feelings and that experiencing them ultimately helps us move on.
‘I would have wanted children,’ said Saskia.
She narrowed her pale green eyes and waited closely for my response. I felt a tightness as if my reaction would determine the further course of the coaching process. Saskia, a small, slender woman in her mid-forties with long black hair and bright red lips, had entered the room rather thoughtfully and looked around to see if she liked the arrangement.
She started her story about her parents who had always been there for others. When both her father and mother were unemployed due to circumstances, and they as a family had difficulty making ends meet on a limited budget, her parents actively supported other families who also struggled to make ends meet. The ideology that you not only live for yourself but that you live for a community was born in Saskia.
She had also tried to create a connection with others, such as her parents had in her own life, but she did not experience it. Neither in her private life nor in her working life did she feel comfortable. There had been so many reorganizations at her workplace in recent years that she was now reluctant to go to work. There was an atmosphere of ‘every man for himself. She wanted to do something new, but she had no idea what. That’s why she wanted to talk to me. She sighed deeply as she asked herself aloud what the meaning of her life was.
In that first conversation with me she was mostly lethargic, but now and then she made firm statements. Those statements betrayed a strength and zest for life that was given little space in the conversation because her despondency took over again. When I asked her to describe a motivating picture of the future for her, I noticed that she used little imagination in her answer. I said that to her too.
‘Fantasizing is useless,’ said Saskia.
The firmness with which she made this statement astonished me, but also made me curious.
“What experience do you have with pointless fantasies?” I asked her.
She replied that she had wanted children. Pain and sadness filled her face as she spoke of this. From the rest of the conversation, it appeared that the unwanted childlessness had been a heartbreaking experience for her, and that at times it still was.
Protection by not fantasizing
It was palpable why Saskia had protected herself by no longer fantasizing about her future. She had found that accepting “that’s the way it is” with the least amount of resistance had worked for her, especially during the period after she and her partner had separated. But the radical way in which she put aside every wish and need since then also cost her something essential.
Her self-protection also cost her something. At some point, we also have to face the loss associated with this – temporarily effective – form of self-protection. Protection may have brought us a lot, it may have been necessary to survive at a certain stage. But when we go too radical, the battle we fight is no longer something in the outer world but something in our inner world.
We are in conflict with the natural growth process in ourselves and with what spontaneously presents itself in us to be indulged. The protective mechanism then becomes something that works against our sense of well-being.
For example, we all use defense mechanisms, especially when our hearts are broken. When we recognize that we are trying to hold back pain, we can see for ourselves whether we want to do something about that protection. In my experience, we feel most comfortable when we increase our personal freedom and master our fears. That means we need to find other ways to protect ourselves.
I told Saskia that it was up to her if she wanted to see what other options she had at her disposal. She was already familiar with fighting and protecting. And what if she surrendered to the moment a little more often? What if she didn’t determine in advance what was and wasn’t wanted, but let herself be surprised by what presented itself as a wish from within. And with those questions, we ended that session.
Help with acceptance
When disaster threatens, it is useful to first check whether you can escape the pain that comes with a broken heart. Is there a chance that struggle will yield a different outcome? Which attitude and/or actions lead to a potentially different result? Throwing in the towel too early doesn’t do you any good, any more than you keep fighting against your better judgment.