How to Navigate a Breakup

How to Navigate a Breakup | A Relationship Therapist’s Story and Tips on How to Cope

Written by Lauren Aldridge, MA, MFT-C and co-written by Alysha Jeney, MA, LMFT

How to navigate a breakup isn’t as black or white as we have often heard. Breakups cause the painful stuff that countless poems, songs, books (and now this blog post) talk about. A broken heart is a universal human experience. It seems to also be one of the many inevitabilities of life- so why does it feel so uniquely isolating when you yourself are navigating one?

Well to start, we know that isolation is the crux of many mental health issues/crisis. When isolated, we can fall victim to ruminating and repeating powerful and often subconscious trauma stories and feelings that only make us feel more rejected and confused. We as relationship therapists see people stuck in this place regularly. We hold space for our clients’ range of emotions that seem to pop up automatically, while they try to heal and make sense of the end of a relationship that was once very meaningful to them.

Love isn’t perfect; nor is it easy. We can all fall in love hard in the beginning but once the work is required to sustain the spark and understanding, most of us struggle at executing. It is a well-known fact that divorce rates in Western countries sit at around 50% (Forbes, 2023). So it stands to reason that most, if not all of us will navigate a meaningful breakup at some point in our lives. To separate from a person you care(d) deeply for and who you have shared intimate pieces of your life with is no small thing. It brings up many conflicting emotions and can feel at times like you’re being tossed around on the deck of a ship in a storm scrambling for solid footing.

huge wave at daytime

Breakups can feel like they split us open- they make us feel raw. They invoke a unique kind of grief, because although it is “final”, we often don’t get the closure we feel we “need.” I personally know this feeling, and less from the empathy I experience from my clients anxiously mulling over “how to navigate a breakup” in session, but more from my own experience of experiencing a recent breakup myself.

A relationship therapist’s story on heartbreak:

Here’s something you may have never thought about, but one of the most interesting processes of being in this profession is having to navigate our own relationships while simultaneously holding space for other’s. It’s having to be the guide in facilitating intimacy and depth between two vulnerable human beings, all while working through our own life transitions in our own relationships. We have to find a graceful space to separate the two parts of us at times, so we can be effective, safe and supportive therapists. We are trained to know the difference between effective self disclosure, (when the therapist shares something about themselves for the purpose of relatability, connection and to mirror vulnerability to clients) and “dumping” onto clients our unprocessed feelings we just need to get off our chest. (PS. If you feel your therapist is more the latter, passing judgments and/or sharing something about themselves that makes you feel uncomfortable rather than validated, that is a counseling red flag!)

The reality is, my clients do not need to know about how I felt after I got a parking ticket last week, or about how moved I felt after seeing the wild flowers on my run this morning. More importantly, my clients don’t need to know about the sadness I have personally experienced when I have sat with intimate relationships professionally, while mine had been slowly slipping away.

They may have benefited from me sharing that seeing them fight so hard for something I felt I did not have in my own partnership, invoked admiration and hope for me. While on the other hand, they wouldn’t benefit from me letting them know that it also exacerbated my frustration and loneliness at times, as I had to face the harsh reality of my partnership struggling with having that level of dedication to work.

During my recent breakup, it was a very strange duality to help couples connect and grow in my professional life (something am I still full heartedly passionate about), all while feeling disconnected from these concepts in my personal life. On harder days, it was confusing and the work I was providing felt hollow; I would leave work feeling like an imposter filled with self doubt. “How was I able to help folks navigate their intimate relationships, talking ad nauseum about healing and connection, when I could not crack the code of my own partnership?” It was like being on the other side of a thinly veiled curtain I could not glimpse behind.

To make this point know, in our industry we call this “counter-transference,” which basically means because we are human, we may experience our own triggers while navigating our client’s process. The good news is, we vow as professionals to always be aware of these experiences, as well as work on our personal healing through avenues such as our own therapy, consultation with other professionals, spiritual depth work, etc, so we don’t unintentionally harm our clients. Now having spoken to other couple therapists about this unique process, I know I am not alone in having experienced the counter-transference when we are supporting couples while our own partnerships are struggling! I also know I am not alone in how powerful of a tool this irony could provide. How to navigate a breakup while also holding objective and supportive space requires a lot of self awareness and self care as a professional, but for the sake of being vulnerable here, I want to shed light on the human underneath the therapist hat.

Believe it or not…We couple therapists, go through breakups and dysfunctional relationships at times, too.

After all, we are human right? For the purpose of practicing what I preach as both a human and as a therapist, I believe vulnerability is the only way to grow and learn. I wanted to be vulnerable in sharing an impactful piece of my personal life to shed light on the fact that the human experience does not discriminate and even if your therapist doesn’t directly tell you that they know what you’re going through the next time you navigate heartbreak, chances are… they do. 

As I reflect more I understand part of my challenge was separating “Lauren the therapist” from “Lauren the human”. Navigating my recent breakup has been challenging in the sense that Lauren the therapist is analyzing, exploring and trying to make sense of, while Lauren the human is simply riding the waves and trying to cope. When feelings of disappointment in myself for not “being the expert and living my example” come up, I feel pressure to compartmentalize these two identities. Keep them separate.

In the professional therapeutic setting, I have to separate my emotional self regardless of what I’m personally going through to be able to support my clients objectively. In my personal life, it is very difficult (and futile) to distinguish where these identities blur or separate and I have to bring both of them to the surface while I do my emotional unpacking.

I have come to the realization that I am living exactly what I challenge my own clients to do. I am going inward and being honest with myself. I’m not judging myself for not having all the answers to life’s hardships and the reality truly is, the end of my relationship does not undermine my ability to be an effective therapist. Just like the end of your relationship does not undermine your ability to have a stronger relationship in the future. Choosing to do the right thing for me was hard- excruciating, even- but for the sake of honoring my deepest authenticity, I am living the example I aim to set for my clients. I am doing my best and allowing my relationships to help me learn more about myself. 

In the spirit of truth, some days it was hard to choose to “show up” for my clients during that chapter of my personal life. At moments, I felt exhausted, and sometimes fearful I would not have the room or ability to hold space for my clients who I cherish, but to my surprise, continuing to honor my commitment to show up for all their rawness has been, in fact, the most healing part of this process for me!

Being a therapist and witnessing genuine connection from folks who lay it all out on the line for the sake of healing is remarkable. Loving each other, and most importantly loving themselves through it is even more incredible. My clients know that it is a hard process, and gut-wrenching at times, but they show up for each other anyway. This is where I believe my clients teach me just as much as I teach them. Not only do I get to experience my own heartbreak in my personal life— feel my subjective emotions and work through the confusing grief, but I also get to witness other people’s subjective emotions as a observer and guide. I get to open my heart to sharing a unique bond (even if our professional relationship is one-sided), as well as facilitate a safe space which is something we all need when we are feeling lost. This process helps me understand different pieces of my own breakup from seeing and experiencing my pain through different lens.

Experiencing the deep and at times murky waters of our healing, there is something more beautiful and powerful than words- it goes beyond most “left brain” conceptualizations of the human experience. This unfolding invokes sort of primal understanding and I get to bare witness to it as well as feel it. In the counseling process it is not in the absence of sadness, pain, or stress that bring awareness, change and healing, but in fact it comes when we  embrace those very things we have been taught to shove down.

So, what should clients understand about their therapists? Well for one, you teach us a lot too. You help remind us of the beauty in vulnerability, the tenacity and strength of healing, as well as help us see things from different lens that continue to support us in our personal and professional growth. 

And in essence, remember that we are walking (or have walked) the same path that you are. There are roadblocks, and hurdles, and sometimes mountains to climb in everyone’s lives. There are moments of pure joy and deep sadness that we have to move through, too. Regardless of what we do for a living, we are all truly connected.

So thank you clients, for ironically helping me navigate a breakup, even sitting on the other side of the couch as your support system.

Below are some tips on how to navigate a breakup on your own, with tips on how to cope.

​​​How to Navigate a Breakup | Tips on How to Cope

Tip #1: Ask yourself what this breakup brings up for you.

What story is being repeated over and over and where is this story even coming from? Is it fair to say that this story is an old story that gets triggered whenever you experience hardships? Is this story about your worthiness or past rejection? Is it a mistrust of humans? Perfectionism maybe? Is it possible that this story is only validating your past trauma?

An even bigger question, is it possible for you to look at this situation in any other way? (Example: How can this breakup teach me the opposite of my trauma story?) How do I avoid continuing to perpetuate my old trauma and look at this breakup from a new lens and not an old one.

Tip #2: Ask yourself if  it’s possible that you saw this coming or had gut feelings but you didn’t listen to them.

If so, this is NOT an excuse to beat yourself. Sometimes lessons aren’t always obvious in the moment (can we say “hindsight is 20/20?) Guilt or shame are never going to help you, and in fact, it’s only going to make your healing last a lot longer if you beat yourself for not doing x, y, or z.

Instead, if you felt as though you had suspicions about this relationship, but didn’t listen to them, just simply sit with this and ask yourself from a curious space, why didn’t I? What was I afraid of? Is it possible that you were rushing into this because you felt you needed this relationship? Is it possible that you don’t listen to your internal gut feelings because you are often disconnected from that part of yourself? Is it possible you didn’t want to “fail” at this relationship so you wanted to push through the red flags? Maybe you’re realizing you struggle with speaking up or setting boundaries. If so, why? Whatever comes up, be kind to yourself and try to find space to make the decision to be more loving and and aware of your intuition moving forward, because your intuition may actually be your best friend in guiding you to a healthier version of yourself… thus a healthier relationship.

Tip #3: Compile a list of lessons you have learned (or need to) from this experience.

Are there relationship patterns you see in your past? Is there a particular “type” that you are drawn to? Ask yourself if it is possible that this “type” of person may have attributes of anyone else you know in your life. A parent maybe? We often strive to not date people like our parents if the relationship wasn’t healthy, but we often subconsciously draw those people to us because this type of functioning is all we energetically and emotionally know. If we want to break certain habits and patterns in our relationships, we have to start looking inward about our unmet needs. About our own identities and roles in relationships. Sometimes it’s helpful to understand more about our coping mechanisms (ie. People pleasing due to having parents that wouldn’t listen or accept us), verses our actual authenticity (desire to be seen and respected). Often times we a don’t even know that we are trying to work through our pain from past wounds (from parents or past partners) in our current relationships…

When trying to identify lessons, ask yourself if there were any ways you could have shown up in you relationship that cause disconnect, inauthenticity or mixed messages? If so, address why these things may have been challenging for you. Find the root.

Nietzsche said “To live is to suffer. To survive is to find some meaning in the suffering”. To use our pain for connection, rather than isolation- that is the collective challenge of being a human and you may be able to find true meaning in your pain if you look for ways in which this heartbreak has helped you learn.

Compile a list of who you want to be in your next relationship and honor these changes for yourself. Remember, it’s important to grow  and learn from breakups, not dwell in shame and isolation. You deserve to be loved and no one is at fault, but rather relationships show us things we have to learn about ourselves in order to be accepting of the love we deserve and want.

Tip #4: Compile a list of needs and wants you have from a relationship moving forward.

Make it a commitment to yourself to advocate for these needs, just as much as you work on your own development. Again, work through unpacking why accepting this kind of relationship or love is something that may be challenging for you. Sometimes we feel we will never find it, so we settle. Sometimes we are too eager to be in our happily ever after that we are blinded. Sometimes we don’t even know what we need or want and expect our partner to explore that for us. Whatever your case, be kind to yourself. This is the work we all have to do. 

Tip #5: Journal and/or talk to someone such as therapist or guide.

Having support right now is crucial. Can’t say this enough… but don’t isolate yourself. Be aware of the stories you tell yourself while you’re journaling or talking to someone. These stories are not as real as you feel they are, but rather they are a memorialized story lodged in your nervous system and mind from past trauma. Being able to separate the two is key in your healing journey and a trusted therapist can support you in learning how to do this.

Also, when we let others bear witness to us- all of us- it is powerful. This is why therapy can be so transformative- for another person to sit with you, raw and unfolding, and say “I see you and I honor you” is everything. Our brains like it. Our bodies like it. It is what we are designed for. But here’s the kicker- you must let people see it. Vulnerability is one of the greatest challenges many of us will face. It is so scary, and yet holds the key for so much. Remember, us therapists go through our own turmoil, too, so we truly do get you. 

Tip #6: Forgive.

This one can be tricky; but it will bring closure to you regardless of ever getting validation from your ex. They may never give you what you feel you need; they probably didn’t give you what you needed when you were together, so why expect anything different now that you are broken up?

Forgiveness can be a powerful tool in learning how to see this relationship as a lesson/gift in your journey, rather than a wound that has now debilitated you for the rest of your life.  Forgiveness does not have to be two people coming together and finding closure together. Forgiveness is about intentionally learning how to restructure your thoughts and feelings for your greater good. Otherwise we are repeatedly stuck in fight/flight/freeze and resentment becomes our state of being.

As Nelson Mandala says, “Resentment is like drinking poison and expecting your enemy to die.”

Need more help with this concept? (Talk to usTalk to us!)

Tip #7: Rebuild with Empowerment.

Your ego is probably really hurt right now, and that’s ok. You may feel completely broken, hopeless and angry. In order to rebuild with empowerment and compassion, you need to allow yourself the space to grieve. Grieve ebs and flows. Give yourself time and patience, but also set a date when you feel you’re going to honor a change in your life. On that date, you begin to pick up the pieces of the broke puzzle and decide to not let past trauma keep you stuck in past behavioral/emotional/mental victimhood that it has related to for years. I often say, “victimhood and empowerment are on the same coin,” we just have to learn how to flip it. You got this and we are here to help!

Tip #8: Reframe. Reframe. Reframe.

Change really does occur when we can change our neuro-pathways in our brain. We have to exercise mental gymnastics everyday. Catch yourself in story; alter it. Visualize yourself happy, in a new healthy relationship and feel that energy. Embrace that energy in your state of being. Practice mindfulness, exercise and meditation.

Tip #9: Set Boundaries.

A breakup is an ending, so for your benefit, keep it that way. Until you don’t feel emotionally charge when you think of this person or your past relationship, our advice is to keep a firm boundary in separating  your life. Don’t follow this person on social media, don’t text or call, say our final goodbyes in person or if that isn’t an option, write them a letter and encourage yourself to set boundaries in creating your new life without this person. (And yes it is supposed to be hard….)

Want to chat with us? We are happy to help you if you’re questioning “How to negative a breakup!”

One thought on “How to Navigate a Breakup

  1. Thank you Alysha for showing your own vulnerability here as a person navigating life and relationships like the rest of us. I am getting so much out of this, it’s very helpful.

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