“A difficult lesson in life is learning how to let go of broken relationships, our pasts, and even parts of ourselves.” – Unknown
The 21st of November was my birthday, can’t believe I am 36 years old already, like where does the time go? I sat and just looked back at which had been my best year thus far. With that realisation, to my surprise, I began to experience a faint sort of sadness. I grieved over a tiny loss of myself—that cocky, self-assured 25-year-old who had just been promoted to Sage Projects Manager having no idea what lay before him. The infinite potential that lay before me. The intensity of expectations that I didn’t know what to do with.
The reality that I faced though is that the 25 year old me is now gone. And they would never come back. I would never get to feel that feeling for the first time again. I would never get to fall wildly in love with my job in a way that both excited and terrified me at the same time.
There was a sweet, cocky ignorance to my younger self that has been irrevocably lost. And despite being lost for the best reasons, it still made me sad. For a few moments, I silently mourned my past the way one mourns a distant relative’s death.
And then I moved on.
I’m no stranger to loss. I don’t think any of us are. I’ve watched family members and friends die. And I’ve had romantic relationships end in a spectacular explosion and I’ve had them end in a long, drawn out silence. I’ve lost friendships, jobs, cities, and communities. I’ve lost beliefs—in both myself and others.
Every loss is a form of death. In every case, there once existed an experience—a thing, an idea, a person—that brought your life meaning. Now it no longer exists.
Coping with loss always involves the same dynamics. In every case, whether it’s the loss of a friendship, a career, a limb, whatever—we are forced to reckon with the fact that we will never experience something or someone again. We are forced to feel an internal emptiness and to accept our pain. We are forced to confront that horrible, horrible word: “Never.”
“Never” hurts because never means that it cannot be changed. And we always like to think that things can be changed. That possibility makes us feel better.
“Just work a little bit harder!”
“You just have to want it enough!”
These phrases give us a lil’ kick in the backside. They say if you don’t like it, get out there and change it.
But “never”? Never means it’s over. It also means it’s gone. Never means forever. And that’s really hard to bear.
You can never bring a dead person back to life. And you can never hit ‘reset’ on a broken relationship. You can never fix a wasted youth or redo a past mistake or un-say the words that destroyed a friendship.
When it’s gone, it’s gone. And it will never be the same, no matter what you do. And this, in a real psychological sense, destroys a small piece of you. A piece that must eventually be rebuilt.Relationships don’t end because two people did something wrong to each other. Relationships end because two people are something wrong for each other. Tweet Me
We’ve all been through breakups before. And we’ve all, in our moments of weakness, pined for our exes, written embarrassing emails/text messages, drank too much on a Tuesday night, and silently cried to that one love song that reminds us of them. Yet what most people don’t get is that relationships don’t end because two people did something wrong to each other. Relationships end because two people are something wrong for each other.
But why do breakups hurt so bad? And why do we find ourselves feeling so lost and helpless in their wake? This post will be covering coping with all loss, but because the loss of intimate relationships (partners and family members) is by far the most painful form of loss, we will primarily be using those as examples throughout.
But first, we need to understand why loss sucks so bad. So I’m going to whip out an epic bullet point list to set everything straight:
- To be healthy, functioning individuals, we need to feel good about ourselves. To feel good about ourselves, we need to feel that our time and energy is spent meaningfully. Meaning is the fuel of our minds. When you run out of it, everything else stops working.
- The primary way we generate meaning is through relationships. Note that I’ll be using the term “relationship” loosely throughout this post. We don’t just have relationships with other people (although those relationships tend to be the most meaningful to us), we also have relationships with our career, with our community, with groups and ideas that we identify with, activities we engage in, and so on. All of these relationships can potentially give our lives meaning and, therefore, make us feel good about ourselves.
- Our relationships don’t just give our lives meaning, they also define our understanding of ourselves. I am a writer because of my relationship with writing. And I am a son because of my relationship with my parents. I am a Zimbabwean because of my relationship with my country. If any of these things get taken from me—like, let’s say I get shipped to North Korea by accident (oops) and can’t write anymore—it will throw me into a mini identity crisis because the activity that has given my life so much meaning the past decade will no longer be available to me (that and, you know, being stuck in North Korea).
- When one of these relationships is destroyed, that part of our identity is destroyed along with it. Consequently, the more meaning the relationship added to my life, the more significant its role in my identity, the more crippling the loss will be if/when I lose it. Since personal relationships generally give us the most meaning (and therefore, happiness), these are the relationships that hurt the most when lost.
- When we lose a relationship, that meaning is stripped away from us. Suddenly this thing that created so much meaning in our life no longer exists. As a result, we will feel a sense of emptiness where that meaning used to be. We will start to question ourselves, to ask whether we really know ourselves, whether we made the right decision. In extreme circumstances, this questioning will become existential. We will ask whether our life is actually meaningful at all. Or if we’re just wasting everybody’s air.
- This feeling of emptiness—or more accurately, this lack of meaning—is more commonly known as depression. Most people believe that depression is a deep sadness. This is mistaken. While depression and sadness often occur together, they are not the same thing. Sadness occurs when something feels bad. Depression occurs when something feels meaningless. When something feels bad, at least it has meaning. In depression, everything becomes a big blank void. And the deeper the depression, the deeper the lack of meaning, the deeper the pointlessness of any action, to the point where a person will struggle to get up in the morning, to shower, to speak to other people, to eat food, etc.
- The healthy response to loss is to slowly but surely construct new relationships and bring new meaning into one’s life. We often come to refer to these post-loss periods as “a fresh start,” or “a new me,” and this is, in a literal sense, true. You are constructing a “new you” by adopting new relationships to replace the old.
- The unhealthy response to loss is to refuse to admit that part of you is dead and gone. It’s to cling to the past and desperately try to recover it or relive it in some way. People do this because their entire identity and self-respect was wrapped up in that missing relationship. They feel that they are incapable or unworthy of loving and meaningful relationships with someone or something else going forward.
- Ironically, the fact that many people are not able to love or respect themselves is almost always the reason their relationship failed in the first place.
Toxic vs Healthy Relationships
To dive into why some people have such a hard time dealing with loss, we need to understand a simple dichotomy:
- A toxic relationship is when two people are emotionally dependent on each other—that is, they use each other for the approval and respect they are unable to give themselves.
- A healthy relationship is when two people are emotionally interdependent with each other—that is, they approve of and respect each other because they approve of and respect themselves.
Toxic relationships need drama to survive. Toxic people, because they don’t love or respect themselves, are never quite able to completely accept the idea that someone else could love and respect them either. And if someone comes around giving them love and respect, they don’t trust it or won’t accept it. It’s kind of like that old Groucho Marx trope: “I’d never join a club that would have me as a member.”
What happens is these two people who don’t love and respect themselves OR each other begin to feel really insecure around each other. What if she leaves me? Or what if she realises I’m a loser? What if she disapproves of the pizza I ordered?
As such, these people need a way to consistently test whether or not the other person actually wants to be with them. These tests are accomplished by creating drama. In my head, drama is when someone creates unnecessary conflict that generates a false sense of meaning for a short period of time. Yet because drama doesn’t last. The underlying insecurity remains. So pretty soon, the toxic couple will need another injection of drama to keep the farce of a meaningful relationship going.
Healthy relationships avoid drama because they find that unnecessary conflict detracts from the meaning and importance already generated by the relationship. Healthy people simply don’t tolerate drama. They expect each other to take responsibility for themselves. Only then can they really take care of each other. I always say, you can pour from an empty cup. You take care of you so you take care of the next guy.
Healthy relationships, instead of inventing conflict to affirm their love and mutual support, minimise conflict to make more room for the love and support that is already there.
Toxic relationships are addictive because drama is addictive. Like drugs or gambling, drama is unpredictable; it is numbing and distracting, and it hits you with unexpected rewards of joy or excitement. This is why toxic relationships are diffivult to let go or process.
But something else happens when we’re caught up in a drama spiral. As we up the ante and the drama increases, we become more emotionally dependent on the person, not less. We invest so much into the drama that we come to believe that our partner is far more important to our well being than they actually are.
Incidentally, people who don’t know how to let go of a relationship are often those who were in a relationship with someone who was either abusive or completely disinterested. That’s because, in these relationships, a breakup changes nothing. When they were together, the person spent all of their time and energy trying to win their partner over. After they split, they continue spending all of their time and energy trying to win their partner over. Same story, different day.
Similarly, people who are unable to accept the loss of their relationship will badger their ex and instigate drama with them to re-live the sensation of that relationship. But they need to create that drama again and again to keep that feeling alive.
Drama, of course, can infect other relationships as well. People create drama at work to overcome their insecurity of not being valuable or appreciated. People create drama with authorities or governments when they feel an existential insecurity. And people create drama with themselves when they imagine they aren’t living up to some sort of past glory.
So How Do You Get Better at Accepting Loss?
- Understand that our memories can lie to us and convince us that EVERYTHING WAS TOTALLY AWESOME BACK THEN, even though it wasn’t. The usual mantra, “I miss the good ol days” is a scam. If you have ever gone back to your high school or a reunion, you will see how lame you probably were back then.
- Surround yourself with people who love you and appreciate you for who you are. Not who you were, or who you can be, but who you are presently. What that means is you have to reconnect with people who care about you. It’s these people and these activities that will carry us through and be the emotional bulwark as we begin the hard process of rebuilding ourselves. This sounds easier than it is. Because when you’ve been destroyed by some loss in your life, the last thing you want to do is call up your friends to go get a beer. Or to call mom and admit that you’re a total failure.
- Invest in your relationship with yourself. Basically, how do you treat your own body, mind, and emotions? This is the time to join a gym, to stop eating tubs of ice cream, to get outside and get reacquainted with your old friend called sunshine. It’s the time to sign up for that course you’ve always wanted to sign up for, to read that book that’s been sitting on your nightstand for six months, to finally floss for the first time ever. Now is the time to also let yourself feel sad or angry or guilty without self-judgment. And if you find it hard to get motivated to do all these things, use your loss as motivation. If you’re the victim of a disgusting breakup, well, self-improvement is the best revenge against any ex. Or you’ve lost someone close to you tragically, imagine what they would have wished for you and go out and live it. If you’ve lost something dear to you in your life, or aged out of a time of your life when you felt important and wanted, commit to building something even better for yourself today.
- If you were stranded on an island and could do whatever you wanted to do—do that. One of the healthiest things you can do after a loss is get back to basics: do something for the simple pleasure of doing it. If no one was around, if you had no obligations on your time or energy at all, what would you spend your time doing? Chances are you aren’t doing much of it. And that’s part of the problem. Get back to it.
- If you lost an intimate relationship, don’t be afraid to stay single for a while. After losing an intimate relationship, many people’s natural inclination is to immediately fill the void with either another relationship, or by seeking a bunch of attention, affection, and sex. This is a bad idea. As it distracts one from the healthy activities listed above. If you’re on the wrong side of a breakup (or even worse, you lose someone to tragedy), even if the relationship was healthy and secure, you need time to recuperate emotionally. And it’s hard to do that if you’re immediately throwing your heart to the next person who comes around. Stay single a while. Learn to spend time on yourself again. And only re-enter the dating world when you’re genuinely excited to. Not because you feel like you have to.
Eventually, Everything is Lost
Life is a long series of loss. It’s pretty much the only thing guaranteed in our existence. From moment to moment, year to year, we give up and leave behind former selves that we will never recover. We lose family, friends, relationships, jobs, and communities. We lose beliefs,experiences, perspectives, and passions. And ultimately, we will one day lose our existence entirely.
If you think back to a hard time in your life, recognise that to get out of those hard times, you had to accept losses. You had to lose relationships and pursuits, you had to lose a lot of meaning in order to create greater, healthier meaning. In that sense, all growth requires a degree of loss. And all loss incites further growth. The two must occur together.
People like to see growth as this euphoric, joyous thing. But it’s not. Real change brings a mixture of emotions with it—a grief of what you’ve left behind along with a satisfaction at what you’ve become. A soft sadness mixed with a simple joy. With that said, a happy birthday to me and a toast to the man I was and the man that I will be.
Hope you and yours are safe, lets catch up in the comments section of via email.