I lived the first 29 years of my life closed off.
And when I say closed off, I mean really closed off. In short—I endured many traumatic events throughout my childhood. In order to survive I dissociated. I lived this way not because I wanted to, but because I had to. Most of the time this dissociation was completely involuntary and could be triggered with something as simple as a sound or the way someone touched my shoulder.
The specifics of this are meant for another piece of writing; however, I bring it up here to signify the impact of having the first person I ever trusted walk right out of my life.
Cue: how a breakup changed my life.
1. It (The Breakup) Kicked Down My Wall.
You know those walls we build around ourselves for protection? I had a big one. I trusted Bob (let’s call him Bob) enough to let him climb right over my wall. I’m pretty certain he was the first person I ever truly let in (or over!). When he left, he smashed the wall down on his way out.
It was an emotional landslide; it brought everything to the surface. I felt every single emotion I had dissociated from over the past 29 years all at the same time. And I’m not being dramatic—if you’ve been here, you know this feeling. If you haven’t, I’m sure you can imagine it.
The bad part about a wall crumbling is the rubble that is left behind. The good part is the opportunity it provides to re-survey and re-evaluate. The two years that followed became a process of intense self-reflection for me. I was forced to dig deep and look at why my walls were so high, why I had so many, and why they were impossible for everyone to climb.
Ever heard the phrase, “You can’t unring a bell?” After living my life so dissociated and having someone I loved
so much walk away, everything was different. I learned things about myself, my coping mechanisms and my boundaries that I have no choice but to apply to every aspect of my life as I look ahead.
2. I Had to Learn How to Miss Someone.
In a letter I wrote to Bob, I told him that he had to “learn how to miss someone.” The irony of the situation is that
I actually had to learn how to miss someone, and I didn’t even realize it at the time. In order to miss someone, I think there has to be some sort of connection between you and that person. And because I had lived my life so closed off,
I was never able to open myself up enough to anyone in order to really miss them. (Sounds crazy, right?)
But, having opened myself up to Bob, I found myself deeply missing him. It was so excruciating I can’t even put it into words.
On the flip side of the coin, I told Bob he needed to miss someone because he hopped from one relationship to the next, so dependent on whoever he was with at the time. That always scared me. I began to wonder if he was with me simply because he didn’t want to be alone.
I’m sure we can all relate a little to the first or second example. I now think it can be really healthy to allow ourselves to miss someone. When we miss someone, it’s a good reminder of what we value in those around us and who we want surrounding us in our lives as we move forward.
3. I Had to Learn How to Be Alone.
After the rubble cleared, I so badly wanted someone to make me feel better. I wanted someone to be there. I wanted someone to tell me it was going to be okay. The operative word being “someone,” because I didn’t want to do it myself. I think it is so instinctual to jump into someone else’s arms when the person we have built trust, emotions, and a life with just leaves—simply because it’s too painful to think about doing anything else.
I moved into a one bedroom apartment alone; Bob had already left the country. I lay awake on the floor and let the pang of loneliness wash over me night after night; usually the loneliness would follow me into the next day. Sometimes in the most unexpected moments I’ll still feel it now.
And so I’ll say to everyone what I had to learn to say to myself every day: be alone; it’s okay. We need to become friends with ourselves; learn our intricacies, what makes us sad and happy. Learn what makes us tick. Learn what moves our souls.
We need to use those moments of loneliness as opportunity to understand who we are as individuals.
I observed this exercise with a group of yoga teachers once where Person A stands in the middle of a large circle of people (hang on, this is relevant). Person A has to stand inside the circle and make eye contact with each person on the outside of the circle, one at a time. The tricky thing is that Person A can’t move their arms up or avert their eyes or talk or laugh. It looks easy but it’s so hard. Person A just has to stand there and let people see them.
When I was alone I felt like I was both in the circle and on the outside of it, looking at and seeing myself for the first time. And only growth can come from that kind of vulnerability. I encourage everyone to take steps to do this if the opportunity presents itself. It’s a chance to be reminded of how wonderfully brave we are.
4. I Had to Learn How to Love Myself.
This, above everything else, was the hardest. The breakup ripped me to shreds. I became a shadow of my former self. I felt exposed, raw, and overwhelmingly disposable. Also (as I discussed before), I was alone.
Failing to take into account Bob’s shortcomings, I began blaming myself for everything that happened. From there, things really began to negatively spiral.
I basically had one choice—to continue kicking myself while I was down or to learn how to love who I was no matter what mistakes I had made in the past. Elizabeth Gilbert once said, “Don’t blame yourself for what you couldn’t learn before you were ready.” I kept that in my back pocket every time I went to ridicule myself for a past choice or behaviour I wouldn’t make in this moment today.
Another great piece of advice I received was to become my own biggest cheerleader. I have great friends and, as a result, an amazing support system. However, I still have thousands of thoughts running through my head from the moment I wake up in the morning to the minute my head hits the pillow, and only I can control these thoughts. No one else. I started the slow process of re-framing every single negative thought that went through my head, every single day. I looked at
this way of re-framing my thoughts as a long-term investment.
Once I learned how to show myself kindness, compassion, non-judgement, and eventually love, I started focusing on positive reinforcement. I used to be my own worst enemy and biggest critic, but now I am my biggest advocate. We need to play for our own team!
5. I Had to Learn Where to Place My Focus.
A huge part in learning how to love myself was learning what to place my focus on. During the breakup I was left with so many unanswered questions, which caused me to make drastic assumptions fueled by emotion and insecurity. I found myself backsliding over and over again because I became focused on what Bob was feeling and how I could fix it. (He did not want me in his life and I didn’t understand that.) It was terrible to see this person who said they loved me and who I looked to for confirmation and acceptance switch their feelings at the drop of a dime.
As a result, I inadvertently gave Bob the say in how I viewed myself, even after he was long gone. How many times in our lives have we done this?
I worked so hard to shift this focus. Recognizing I had absolutely no control over what Bob was thinking and feeling was the hardest thing. Especially because we were coming from a place where our lives were so intertwined. I started to build a strong foundation with roots in self-affirmation. If there was one thing I could always control, it was how I talked to myself.
For example, I did make big mistakes. But I did my best with the information I had available to me at the time. Just because I had made big mistakes did not mean I was a bad person. It meant that I was someone with a sensitive heart who had walked through fire over and over again. I felt terribly guilty that my mistakes hurt someone I cared deeply about. But focusing on these past mistakes was futile.
I had to learn to both forgive myself and focus on what I could change moving forward.
All this being said, knowing something is entirely different than believing it. Bridging that gap was difficult. There was a point in time when I really thought that I was pure evil. I remember my therapist looking straight into my eyes and asking me if I truly believed that. I didn’t; that’s just what self-loathing does.
I now feel as though I really am lucky. We are given choices everyday to respond to and focus on things in the way that we choose. How great is that?
6. Out of Destruction Comes Gratitude.
I think the term gratitude has become trendy, and as a result, diluted. This is not a fluffy paragraph where I’m going to talk about finding gratitude in blooming flowers and chirping birds right off the get-go. That is BS. Finding gratitude is a slow build; we have to put in the work!
During the breakup, I watched this video that did a study on a set number of participants. These people had to write a paragraph about someone who positively influenced them. After they wrote the paragraph they had to call the positive influencers. Their happiness levels were measured before and after the study. Surprisingly, everyone’s happiness levels increased after the phone call.
I know it’s just one study, but this was a reminder that working to be thankful can affect things in a big way. The breakup broke me open in so many aspects. I was at the lowest of my lows. However, I do feel that because I had experienced such deep pain (and for the first time in my life, deep feeling) it opened a path for me to begin to experience deep joy and thankfulness. (And let me reiterate—I’ve been through things way worse than a breakup on paper. The breakup simply acted as the straw that broke the camel’s back.)
I was hurting—yes. But I had such a solid support system of friends who listened and were there for me when I needed them every single day. I had a therapist who became both a sounding board and big source of encouragement. At the heart of it, I also had a place to lay my head every night, along with food, water and safety.
I still had a beating heart.
Bringing things back to basics really helped. After I started taking time to be thankful I noticed my perspective changed in small ways. It sounds cheesy, but now I’ll catch myself stopping at the side of the road because the sunset is just that beautiful. Sometimes I’ll stop and listen to the violinist in the subway station because the music catches me off guard. The small things in life knit together to become the big things. The world turns and life is bumpy and learning how to focus on what we are thankful for really can change everything.
If there is one thing I am committed to, it is my growth as an individual. It’s crazy to see how something so difficult can bring so much positive growth—if we become invested in being the change.
A breakup did change my life. It changed my life in a big way.
May we all continue to endure big changes and through these changes grow, adapt and learn.
Author: Cayla Schafer
Volunteer Editor: Keeley Milne; Editor: Emily Bartran
Photos: Esra Erben/Flickr