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When Leaving Your Ex, Love Yourself

Self-compassion eases the pain of a breakup.

My first two columns for YouBeauty.com were largely descriptive (telling you about research rather than about actual ways to improve your relationships). This week, we’ll start getting prescriptive, diving into what you can do to heal when relationships end.

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There are two reasons we’re tackling this topic today:

First, an important new study has demonstrated that love—literally—hurts. The emotional pain following a romantic breakup is associated with the same brain regions designed to detect physical pain.

Second, my own research focuses on how people cope with divorce and romantic breakups, and we have some interesting new findings that I want to tell you about. Divorce and breakups have the potential to be among the most difficult experiences life can throw at us; they also have the potential for liberating us and for promoting growth in ways we never envisioned possible.

How we navigate the end of a relationship has important implications for whether we get stuck on the loss, spinning in desolate circles in our minds, or whether we come out of the forest of separation with hope and vitality.

To begin, the study I mentioned: Ethan Kross and colleagues at the University of Michigan studied the brain activity of 21 women who experienced an “unwanted breakup” in the prior six months. These women were studied under two basic conditions. In the first condition, they saw pictures of their ex-partners or a close friend while their brain activity was recorded using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).

In the second condition, brain activity was studied when participants experienced a warm or hot sensation on their forearms. In this condition, the hot sensation actually hurt—it was painful! The authors then compared the brain activity between the two conditions: Viewing pictures of your ex and experiencing the pain of heat applied to your forearm.

Prognosis: The pain associated with viewing pictures of your ex after an unwanted separation (i.e. staring at their pictures on Facebook for hours on end) was represented in the same regions of the brain associated with physical pain. For your brain, there is little distinction between physical pain and the pain of social rejection.

QUIZ: What's Your Relationship Style?

OK, doc, good to know, but how the hell does all this help me? My husband is packing the car, threatening to take the kids, and my life is going to complete crap.

Yes, this really sucks. In fact, I can’t convey how much this sucks with only the stupid keys on my keyboard. In my research lab, we’ve worked with hundreds of adults experiencing a divorce or a breakup of some sort, and the immediate pain can be just awful.

From this work, we are also beginning to understand why and how some people can start coping well over time. Our new findings suggest that an important key for freeing yourself from the pain of a separation is to be, or to become, compassionate. In particular, you need to be compassionate toward yourself.

We studied 109 divorcing adults over nine months, and we asked each person to make a four-minute recording telling us exactly what was on their minds about their separation experience. A team of judges then coded these recordings for the presence of self-compassion. Self-compassion is defined by the presence of self-kindness, an awareness of one’s place in shared humanity, and evidence of emotional equanimity.

People who are self-compassionate forgive themselves for their faults and foibles; they recognize that their divorce, as painful as it is, is part of the overall human experience defined by its tremendous peaks and valleys; and, they experience painful emotions without becoming “stuck” on the pain—sad or angry feelings bubble up, get recognized and are permitted to pass in time.

In short, self-compassion is the opposite of beating yourself over the head about what you did wrong (or didn’t do right) and becoming entangled in your emotional pain. We found that people rated high in self-compassion did remarkably well over time no matter how distressed they were about their separation at the start of the study.

This last point is important; the finding is not a circular effect whereby “happy people do better over time.” Rather, no matter how distressed people were to begin with, those with a high degree of self-compassion recovered better over time.

Why am I so excited about this self-compassion business? Well, self-compassion can be learned, and there’s a great deal of interest in teaching compassion as part of contemporary psychotherapies as well as understanding its role in the positive health benefits of meditation.

MORE: Your Complete Guide to Meditation

When our relationships end, we can unlock some of the deepest feelings of pain—pain that our brain encodes as a bodily sensation—by cultivating self-kindness, understanding our own experience as part of the larger human experience and experiencing our emotions without getting sucked into them. These are not easy tasks, but they have the power to transform our lives, especially when we’re trying to heal from a difficult loss.

Here’s your assignment for this week: Can you try some self-compassion? Let me know how it goes.

 

Copyright David A. Sbarra, Ph.D., April 4, 2011

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