Breaking up is hard to do—yeah, yeah, you’ve heard that before. But have you ever considered exactly why?
Well, part of it might be that your former partner is likely a big part of your identity, explains Gary Lewandowski, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Monmouth University who delivered the TED Talk, “Breakups Don’t Have to Leave You Broken.”
Moving on post-breakup is also notoriously tough because reminders of your past relationship seem to be everywhere, says Terri Orbuch, Ph.D., a professor at Oakland University in Michigan and author of Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship. “If you were living together or you worked out at the same gym—all of those things remind you of the past,” she says.
Also: social media. Enough said.
On top of all that, there are very real physical effects of heartbreak–research shows, for example, that simply looking at a photo of an ex who recently dumped you is enough to activate areas of the brain associated with physical pain. And other reports have shown that “broken heart syndrome” is a quite real physical phenomenon that feels a lot like a heart attack.
Fortunately, there is good news: You can and will move on, especially if you make the following moves.
1. Rediscover old interests.
What did you love doing as a teenager? What passions got pushed aside when you made room for your former mate? Reigniting those interests—or what Lewandowski calls “rediscovery of the self”—is a powerful way to move on since it allows you to reestablish your own identity outside of the one that’s caught up in your partner.
In fact, his research has shown that pursuing dormant interests is a more effective coping mechanism than trying new things, since there’s no guarantee you’ll actually enjoy those new activities or incorporate them into your identity.
2. Eliminate triggers.
Since regular reminders of your ex can deepen your wounds, the solution is to avoid or eliminate them. That means getting rid of furniture, jewelry, or photos that remind you of your former flame, as well as changing your routines. “If you went to Starbucks together, go to a different one,” Orbuch advises. “If you took the 8 a.m. train, take the 7:45 a.m.”
3. Cut ties.
While you may feel like talking or meeting up with your partner may help with closure, keeping in touch tends to ultimately prologue the heartache, Lewandowski says. Think about it like a job: “It would be really hard to be good at your new job if you’re still worrying about what’s going on at your old job,” he points out. “You want to be as successful in that next relationship as possible, and you wouldn’t want your new partner to still be obsessed with their previous relationship either, so you shouldn’t be that person.”
Cutting digital ties is important, too. How important? One study found that folks who Facebook stalk their exes are more distressed, harbor more negative feelings, feel a greater sense of longing, and stunt their personal growth more than those who cut social media ties, too.
“By keeping tabs on them electronically, you’re maintaining those connections in a way that’s not healthy for your recovery,” Lewandowski says. “Your best bet is to go cold turkey.”
5. Change your ‘blame statements.’
What story do you tell yourself about why the relationship ended? Orbuch says most people either blame their former partners (“He couldn’t commit.” “She didn’t treat me well.”) or themselves (“I should have never gotten involved.” “I’m not cool enough.”). But to effectively cope, you need to rewrite your story in “we terms.” (“We weren’t right for each other” or “we were too young.”) “Any of those statements allow you to let go and reduce emotional baggage thought-wise,” Orbuch says.
6. Turn what you don’t have into what you can do.
Similarly, it’s helpful to change your internal dialogue from one about all the things you’ve lost in the breakup to all the things you’ve gained, experts say. “Instead of thinking, ‘I’m so lonely. I’ll never find another partner. What’s going to happen over the holidays?’ Think about the things you now get to do,” whether that’s hanging out more with your friends, making a career move that takes you to another city, or simply appreciating less relationship stress in your daily life.
Lewandowski recommends writing these thoughts down: Research shows that while journaling about the negatives is more helpful than not writing at all, forcing yourself to focus on the positives is especially effective when it comes to moving on, he says.
7. Write letters to your ex—but don’t send them.
Speaking of writing, Orbuch advises writing a letter or letters to your ex—but don’t stamp it or click send. (Seriously. Don’t.) Write down how you feel, how the breakup is affecting you, and anything else you’d hypothetically like to tell that person.
Do it weekly, if you want, so you can record how your emotions are shifting as time goes on. “It has nothing to do with getting the partner back or telling the partner what’s happening,” Orbuch says. “It’s a way of you getting closure and you letting go of a lot of the emotional baggage connected to the past.”
8. Enlist your fan club.
Immediately after a breakup, social support is crucial, says Orbuch, who suggests reaching out to a best friend, parent, therapist or anyone else who can reinforce your positive qualities, remind you why the relationship didn’t work out, and otherwise be a loving sounding board for your woes.
Unlike unhealthy coping mechanisms like turning to booze or sleeping all day, “purging that anger and loneliness and frustration in a constructive way is so important,” Orbuch says.
It’s tempting to throw a pity party when you’re mourning the loss of a romantic relationship. And while you’re allowed to feel sad for a stretch, Orbuch recommends getting involved in something like volunteer work to get your head out of your own problems and into something that helps others. Indeed, research has linked volunteering with less depression, more life satisfaction, and enhanced well-being.