“The best way to get over someone is to get under someone.”
In the past, this has worked for me. When I’m trying to get over heartbreak, it’s when I finally start liking someone else, the breakup-spell loses its grip.
I think I fall in love too easily, but also have a slight tendency to be what my mum calls a ‘flibbertigibbit’.
I’m happy if I’ve got a shiny object to bring back to the nest – a bit of a sex magpie.
However, this time, it isn’t working. I’m trying to get over the Whippersnapper by dating other people, but it’s just making me miss him more.
Whatever I try to tell myself about him just being a normal guy, there really was something special about the chemistry we had.
When I’m with other guys, it just doesn’t match up and I miss WS more than ever. There’s something horribly sad about looking across a pub table (or worse, a bed) and wishing the person smiling back at you was someone else, who you can no longer have. It makes me feel bad for them, too.
It’s so sad and ironic – he told me his body image problems make him wish he was somebody else, but I spend so much time wishing other people were him.
“It’s OK, you’re just not ready to be dating yet.” One of my friends said.
But it feels like Catch 22. I shouldn’t be dating as I’m not over WS, but dating is the only way I know, to get over him.
As dating hasn’t worked, I decided to try celibacy instead. Maybe what I need is some time on my own, to get my head together.
How am I going to get over him, if I can’t be distracted by new men?
What am I going to use instead?
No, I’ve already given that quite a thorough go.
What else could I do? I have all these painful feelings. If only I had some way of managing them.
Then I remembered I’m a CBT therapist.
Oh my God! I could use CBT!
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The type of therapy I use every day at work. (Not cock and ball torture, on this occasion.)
I don’t think CBT is usually applied to heartbreak like this. There are some niche relationship things that CBT has been researched for, but usually, when I assess a patient and their main problem is relationship-related, I refer them for counselling instead of CBT.
But CBT has been very well-researched for anxiety and depression. And what is heartbreak, if not feeling bloody miserable, with a bit of obsession thrown in?
First, I needed to break the problem down.
It’s helpful to map out a problem like this, because it helps you see the vicious circles keeping the problem going.
For example, I find it harder to eat when I feel bad. Then, I can’t concentrate at work, because my brain is trying to run on less petrol. This means my mind is flitting about all over the place when I try to work, and inevitably flits onto him. Then I have a thought like “I’m so pathetic, I should be over this already,” which makes me feel really bad, then I can’t eat…
The first place I can try and break the cycle is eating better. Sometimes I don’t get hungry, and then, hours later, hunger punches me in the stomach and I feel sick and faint. Then I try to eat but it feels like food turns to straw in my mouth. I’ve been trying to remember things I used to enjoy eating, and gradually build better food routines back in, and it has got better.
I feel bad when I mess about on WhatsApp, re-reading messages, overanalysing his latest profile picture. I think about things I wish I’d said or wish he’d said.
Even just seeing he’s online makes me think oh great! He’s safe and well!
And then hang on, why is he online? Is he messaging a new lady?
When he’s not online I think of course he’s not online, he’s probably out with a new lady.
Previously I had blocked him, and it did help, as I knew we couldn’t talk, so I spent less time having imaginary conversations. I didn’t want to re-block him though – a few weeks ago I said he could always contact me if he felt suicidal, and even though I don’t think he would, I don’t want to kick the ladder away now.
I decided to delete him from my phone in as many ways as possible, but so he wouldn’t know and could still contact me.
I deleted our entire conversation on WhatsApp. WhatsApp was like “woah, are you sure about this?”. Yes. I thought, as my shaking finger hovered over ‘Delete all messages’.
Next, I deleted him from my phone book.
Now I can’t see if he’s online, and I can’t see if he’s changed his picture. I already felt better within a day of doing this.
There were a handful of texts we sent, so if I really wanted to, I could find his number in my inbox. However, now it would be a real faff to contact him, so I have been spending less time composing fantasy messages in my head.
One of the staples of CBT is Thought Challenging. Basically, we think we’re like computers that passively, objectively record what’s happening around us. But actually, what we notice and how we make sense of it is massively influenced by all kinds of things.
Our brains have to take mental shortcuts all the time, to process information more quickly. Usually this works well, but sometimes these shortcuts make us feel worse.
For example, we pay more attention to potentially threatening information, because there was an evolutionary benefit to that; when the cavemen were sitting around a fire and heard leaves rustling, it was the caveman who thought fuck, that could be a sabre-toothed tiger! and ran away, who lived to pass on their genes. The trouble is, it makes us feel disproportionately anxious, every time we hear the modern day equivalent of leaves rustling.
We also notice things that fit with our existing beliefs, and disregard things that don’t, because it’s quicker than constantly readjusting all of our beliefs.
Thought challenging works to help you see if your thought is accurate or balanced or helpful. When you notice you’re feeling bad, in CBT we would get you to write down the situation, your emotions, and what thought came into your head when you started feeling bad.
Then you would write down all the evidence for your thought (which is easy) and all the evidence against your thought (which is much more difficult). Then you come up with a new thought, which takes into account both sides of the evidence.
For example, when I think “I’ll never get over this”, my new thought is “actually, every time I’ve felt like this before, I did get over it.”
As well as exploring whether a thought is accurate, it also works to explore whether a thought is helpful. I keep thinking “I’m pathetic, I should be over this already.”
There’s a concept in CBT (it’s actually from ACT, which is a new corner of CBT) which I really like – clean and dirty discomfort. Clean discomfort is just pure, feeling bad. Dirty discomfort is feeling bad for feeling bad.
If you have to have a grazed knee, why rub your own grit in it? If you feel bad, you feel bad, and you probably have a good reason. If you beat yourself up for feeling bad, you still have all the original bad feelings, plus lots of new ones.
Fighting images with images
In the past, CBT focused on thoughts as words. We challenged thoughts by putting them into sentences and working with them that way.
More recently, there has been more research into images. Lots of us think in images as well as words. We know from brain scans that some parts of your brain don’t know the difference between things you’ve experienced and things you’ve imagined. For example, when they got people in brain scanning machines to imagine certain objects and then look at them, some of the same parts of their brains lit up.
We know that imagining things can produce the same physical response as the experience. If I think about getting hair out of the drain, it can make me retch as much as really getting hair out of the drain. If you’re hungry and you imagine a roast dinner, it can really make you salivate. If you think about sex hard enough, it can produce some of the same sexual responses as actual sex.
Sometimes, I was finding standard thought challenging wasn’t working for me. I realised it was because my sad thought was an image, and I was trying to challenge it with a sentence.
For example, one evening I was lying in bed watching Netflix and thought God, I am so comfortable. Then I thought I wish WS was here and had an image of us spooning. Then I started thinking we never watched Netflix together. Maybe if we had, he wouldn’t have broken up with me.
I tried to think it’s OK. One day I won’t feel like this and will be happy again with another man.
I still felt miserable. I realised my new thought was just an abstract idea – it was no match for my emotionally-charged image of being held by a living, breathing Whippersnapper.
So I decided I needed to beef up my reframe with an image. I imagined myself watching Netflix whilst being spooned with a nice man from my future, who I’m happy with. It helped.
Now, every time I miss WS and have a memory or image of being happy with him, I picture myself with a nice man from the future. I try to make it a different man each time, so if I do meet the man of my dreams, I won’t say excuse me, you’re not the man from my reframe.
I try to make it realistic by imagining a guy who is only slightly above average attractiveness. Or if he’s fit, maybe he’s wearing a jumper I don’t like, or something like that.
One of the most upsetting images my subconscious has helpfully created for me, is WS with another woman. This is usually accompanied by the thought he’s probably forgotten me.
I’ve already slept with someone else, so what I really fear, is being meaningless or insignificant to him.
Now, when that image comes into my head, I counter it with a new one: I imagine him in 5 years’ time, thinking about me and then masturbating. While silently weeping.
Why not? I’ve got just as much evidence the second image is true as the first one.
I used to think ‘closure’ was a bullshit, made-up concept, invented by things like Dawson’s Creek. Now I do believe closure is a thing.
One helpful thing Mike said to me, was that closure is about going through the process, not going through the content.
Sometimes, we can think I can’t get closure, until I’ve said this or done that.
I can’t move on, until I know why he did this or ask him that.
Knowing or saying certain things might help, but actually, closure is about processing the feelings, not processing or getting new information.
Becoming comfortable with unsaid things, unresolved questions, is closure.
I’ll let you know when I’m there.