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Lessons from 'Heartbreak Academy'

  • Story Highlights
  • Sometimes heartbreak is rooted in issues from childhood or adolescence
  • Listen to a song that helps you grieve, write down your feelings
  • Reflect on what your relationship taught you
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By Martha Beck
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Oprah

(Oprah.com) -- Do you have trouble with love? Can't quite figure out what keeps going wrong? Maybe it's time to take a love lesson from Heartbreak Academy!

A heartbreak can be a chance to teach yourself lessons about the love you need in your life.

Ah, yes, the exquisite agony of heartbreak. We who have experienced it know that romantic love is a fall-in, crawl-out proposition: When you're bonding with that special someone, everything is wondrously effortless; when the relationship hits the skids, getting through an ordinary day feels like climbing Everest without supplemental oxygen.

But every instance of heartbreak can teach us powerful lessons about creating the kind of love we really want.

The only way to graduate from Heartbreak Academy is to really master the material, and that means absorbing crucial lessons about your true self, your true needs and the nature of true love. Learn more about Heartbreak Academy.

How to make it through Heartbreak Academy

I was in my first semester of Unilateral Torture 262, a class I'd taken three or four times already, when I stumbled across a concept in a psychology textbook that finally allowed me to learn my lesson and move on. I don't remember anything else about that book, but I recall one crucial sentence perfectly. "Some patients," it said, "mistakenly believe that their loneliness is a product of another person's absence." I stopped and reread this maybe 10 times, but it still baffled me. I could have sworn that my loneliness was a product of my ex-significant other's absence. If not, then what on earth was it?

Finally, slowly, over the next several days, weeks, years, the light dawned: My loneliness, and the antidote to it, did not come from the significant others I'd loved and lost. I'd been emotionally isolated before I ever fell in love. Something about certain people helped me lower the drawbridge over the moat that separated me from the world, but in the final analysis, I was the one who'd actually done the trick. The power to bring me out of solitude -- or to push me back into it -- had never belonged to any other person. It was mine and only mine.

This realization is the most important thing you need to get through Heartbreak Academy with minimum effort and maximum positive effect. Realizing that your heartbreak is not a product of the other person's absence brings the pain into an arena where you can work with it, instead of riveting your attention on some missing lover you may never see again and could never really control.

Your Heartbreak study guide

Each time you find yourself longing for the love that was, asking yourself the following study-guide questions will help you learn the lessons of heartbreak and move on to a relationship that works.

Study question #1: How old do I feel?

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Most often, heartbroken people are unknowingly grieving a loss or trauma rooted in childhood or adolescence. That's because we tend to fall in love with people who remind us of those who cared for us -- even badly -- when we were young and totally vulnerable. We become childlike when we feel securely adored, letting go of all inhibition. The failure of adult relationships is often caused by the dysfunctions we internalized as children, and the devastation we endure when we're rejected almost always opens ancient wounds, making us feel as bereft as an abandoned little kid.

If you ask yourself how old you feel when you're in the worst throes of heartbreak, you'll probably find that a surprisingly low number pops into your head. Whatever the age of your grieving inner child, it's your job to comfort her, as you would help a toddler or a teen who had lost a parent. Do small, practical, caring things for yourself: Listen to a song that helps you grieve, schedule a play date with your best friend, wrap a soft blanket around yourself and let the tears come. Most important of all, give your childish self the chance to talk. Open your journal or visit your therapist, and let yourself express your anger and anguish in all its irrational, immature glory.

As you do this, you will almost certainly find yourself grieving losses you suffered way back when, as well as the one you've just endured. This is good: It means you are finally progressing beyond ways of thinking and acting that didn't work for you early in your life -- and still aren't working today. Acknowledging and comforting that younger self is absolutely essential to easing your pain, recovering from your wounds, and finding new sources of healthy love.

Study question #2: What did my lost love help me believe about myself?

Look back on the time when you were falling in love, and you'll realize that though much (or some) of your time with your lover was fabulous, the relationship made you happy even when the two of you were physically apart. The really potent part of love is that it allows you to carry around beliefs about yourself that make you feel special, desirable, precious, innately good. To graduate from Heartbreak Academy, you have to learn that neither your ex-beloved nor the fact of being in love invested you with these qualities. Your lover couldn't have seen them in you, even temporarily, if they weren't part of your essential being.

Make a list of all the things you let yourself believe when you saw yourself mirrored in loving eyes. Write them as facts: I'm fascinating. I'm beautiful. I'm funny. I'm important. Realize that you chose to believe these things in the context of your relationship, and now that the relationship is over, you have another choice: either to reject a loving view of yourself or to believe the truth.

But, you may say, 'What if these positive things aren't really true at all? What if the truth is that I'm hopelessly unlovable?' Well, let me remind you that when you believe you're an insignificant bird dropping on the sooty gray pavement of life, you feel unspeakably horrible.

On the other hand, when you opt for believing what love once taught you about yourself, the core of your despair is replaced by sweetness, however bitter your subsequent loss. I say, use what works. Self-concept is a self-fulfilling prophecy: When we let ourselves believe that we're wonderfully attractive, we act wonderfully attractive. By letting yourself believe the most loving things your ex ever said about you, you can get rid of the bathwater but keep the baby, honoring and preserving what was precious in your relationship, while letting go of the pain.

Study question #3: What did my relationship give me permission to do?

Being in love is so intoxicating, that special person so compelling, that lovers often drop some of the obligations and rules that dominated their lives before they met. When you're in love, you may forget that you don't usually allow yourself to splurge on perfume, or write poetry, or be wildly sexual, or say no to invitations you'd rather not accept. When your relationship is over, the bleak prospect of going back to the rules can drive you to the brink of despair, making you pine obsessively for your lost love to return and free you again. Eliminate the middleman. Free yourself.

You can start by making another list. This time, write down all the forbidden things you allowed yourself to do when you were madly in love with someone who was madly in love with you. Now give yourself permission to do all those things anyway.

By Martha Beck from "O, The Oprah Magazine," February 2003 E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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TM & © 2009 Harpo Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Get more advice from Martha Beck. She is the author of "Leaving the Saints," "The Joy Diet," "Finding Your Own North Star" and "Expecting Adam."

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