There's something unique about common experiences. On a planet packed with billions of people, each living encapsulated inside his/her own head, the idea of an experience that we all share is pretty mind-blowing.
Granted, not all of these shared undertakings are positive. In fact, many of them involve feeling like you're crawling through varying vestibules of Hell.
Take breakups. Ask any living person, anywhere, and they can tell you how breakups feel -- like utter sh*t. It's pure awfulness -- rejection and pain and loss so bad you can barely fill your lungs with anything but bile. Still, it's a marvel when you think about it -- from the hidden Amazonian tribesmen to the highest Wall Street moguls, every one of these billions of people will tell you the same thing about breakups: They f**king suck.
Still, as with anything, there are a few truths that can help ease the pain, no matter your situation (or geographic location).
1) Pain is inevitable... but suffering is optional.
It's profoundly unnecessary to say this, but here it is anyway: Breakups HURT. They crush your chest and cleave your heart and twist your bowels with an exquisite, visceral pain. When you think about it, of course there's pain -- something has literally died, something you created and nurtured and made your own. It may not have existed anywhere but inside your head (and hopefully someone else's), but now it's dead. And so you grieve.
The grieving part is gonna happen no matter what -- I have no good news there, other than "It fades with time, so try not to pass that time by hurling your skull against a cement wall."
What doesn't have to happen, however, is the suffering. The suffering is a separate entity from the pain -- rather than the simple, raw agony that accompanies loss, suffering is sneakier and more insidious. It usually takes the form of questions that your head forms about you, and then pounds you with until you're ready to carve up your brain with a fork. "Why did I not see it sooner? Why couldn't I make it work? Why do I only fall in love with complete wastes of humanity? Why didn't he want me? Why didn't I want him? Why wasn't I good enough? Why am I so unlovable? WHYWHYWHYWHYWHYWHATSWRONG WITH MEEEEE!!!???"
This part -- this cunning, savage number that your mind does on you -- is suffering. It's an onslaught of questions with no answers -- or rather, answers you may never get (and won't like if you do). And it can go on forever, these soul-crushing peace-slaughtering queries -- if you let it. Banishing the Voice of Suffering isn't easy -- in fact it's near-impossible to keep such an air-tight leash on your mind that it never once bludgeons you with a self-negating cudgel. But you CAN recognize that all this marinating in rhetorical agony is getting you exactly nowhere (other than to the pharmacy for Xanax refills). The trick is to identify the suffering every time it starts up, and mentally tell it to go to hell. And who knows -- maybe once you've pinpointed where all this suffering lives, you can burn its goddam house down.
2) Beware the word "deserve."
When it comes to unnecessary suffering, there's no word quite like "deserve." It typically comes up as "I deserved better" or "I don't deserve better" or even "he doesn't deserve me" or "I don't deserve him," etc etc the list goes on.
The problem is that the whole notion of "deserving" a person or type of relationship is a trap -- it has whatever meaning we choose to heap on it at the moment. Who really "deserves" some fantasy relationship where everything works out til death? Who doesn't? Sure, there are some general truths -- no one deserves to be abused or mistreated. But outside the circle of real maltreatment, the idea of "deserving" this person versus that one is pretty perfidious when you think about it -- the concept assumes that we all have some ranking that stacks us up against each other, and it's on each of us to align ourselves accordingly as part of some larger cosmic order. Which is pure, uncut BS.
So here's a thought -- let's blackball "deserving" in all its life-mucking glory and just start from scratch: We all get one life, and we will fill it with people. Some will stick around, some won't. What that means or doesn't mean is anyone's guess -- but it sure doesn't mean it's because we all deserved it.
3) Running from a breakup will never make it go away.
We do a lot of things to cope with breakups. Eat, sleep, drink, drink more, go to shrinks, go to bars, go to random guys' apartments after going to bars, change cities, change hair colors, change boob sizes, the list goes on.
Some of these things are harmless, and some aren't. But we resort to all of them for the same reason: We will do anything to get away from pain. Ever stubbed your toe and then hopped up and down like a three-year-old on amphetamines? Sure you have - the movement helped quell the pain. And despite the fact that breakups have no sharp edges or protruding nails, the pain they leave behind is brutal (see Truth #1). One study even found that breakups cause pain that's equivalent to getting scalded with hot coffee. Fun!
The good news is that the healing is comparable as well -- your coffee-blistered hand and your wounded psyche will both require time and patience, but both will get better. The bad news is that there's nothing to do but wait. Filling your life with distractions may be what you need during the waiting period -- but they can also prolong the injury. It's not easy to recover from flesh-eating Ebola when you're out mainlining tequila 'til 3 AM -- same with your breakup. Before the "All better!" part comes the throbbing agony. And once that passes, you'll need some convalescence to sit and let your emotional white blood cells stop the rot.
You can do all this now, or do it in a year (or ten) -- but who really wants to have burn blisters a decade after the damn coffee was spilled?
4) No doubt you've got a great story about what happened -- just remember that it's not true.
We humans are master storytellers. We create elaborate narratives of love and heartbreak and betrayal and victimization and triumph over adversity and good guys-versus-bad guys, and then we do a funny thing: We apply them to our own lives. "Oh, it was so tragic! He used me! And then threw me away! Or maybe I threw him away! And then he tried to get back at me with my friend! Or maybe he tried to win me back, but I went for HIS friend! And now I'm leaving him in the gutter, good riddance!"
These potboiler tales continue ad nauseum for a reason -- we absolutely love them. They're the subject of 80% of our conversations (the other 20% are discussing the love stories of other people). We can't get enough of this sh*t. We bathe in the sumptuous drama and lap up the juicy theatrics. And most of all, we use it to make ourselves feel good -- who doesn't cast herself as the heroine in her own stories?
There's nothing wrong with stories -- hell, I'm a writer, I'm the first to say that they're one of my reasons for waking up in the morning. The problem is that a great story can translate into a crappy life...if you genuinely think your story is the truth. While rules can't exist without exceptions, I can pretty much guarantee that the story you've made up about your last relationship (particularly around why it ended) isn't a full representation of reality. It has a vantage point, and an opinion, and a clear bias. You are not the shining hero in anyone's stories the way you are in your own. And not to go all Rashomon, but there's a reason for that (who wants to think of herself as the villain?)
You don't have to give up your story, or rewrite it -- just be willing to admit that some, if not all, of it is a load of crap. And whatever you do, don't force your story on other people -- particularly your next date.
5) You don't have to forgive your ex (or yourself) -- but if you do, you have a shot at happiness.
I've talked to a lot of people about a lot of breakups. And I've come to one conclusion: There really is no limit on the number and variety of awful things human beings can do to each other. Sleeping with best friends, sleeping with prostitutes, secret wives in other cities, secret STDs, emotional abuse, flat-out physical abuse, abandonment, stalking -- you name it, we do it.
There's really nothing funny about feeling used and/or abused by another person -- and while your story about the relationship may not be 100% true (see above) the emotional wounds you received are there nonetheless. But at the end of the day, there is the simple fact that you are no longer in the relationship (one hopes.) And so the issue really isn't about what he or she did to you -- it's what you're left with as a result of it. Which brings us to forgiveness.
Just about every mantra and meditation guide and relationship self-help manual says this, and unfortunately, they're all right: If you don't forgive your ex, you will bring anger or fear or pain from that relationship into your next one. And the one after that. And the one after that. And on and on until you die. Sucks - but there's just no way around it.
A good tip to remember: Identifying the need to forgive isn't the same as forgiveness. So just forgive the bastard already - he's already taken up enough of your time.
Follow Melissa Lafsky on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Lafsky