How To Recover From A Breakup (Timeless Lessons from The Stoics)

It happens to all of us. We’re happily coupled one day, madly in love, walking hand in hand in a lovely spot as the light dies from the sky and the city is set alight with streetlights and the gentle warm glow emanating from nearby windows. Then there is a spat, a mistake is made, we arrive late one time too many, or circumstances beyond our control result in a breakup. Whatever the reason, whoever made the decision, the fabric of this lovely tapestry we call our relationship is torn.

So now what? you may wonder. Now, we heal. But how? By turning to ancient wisdom. Here’s advice from the Ancient Stoics on how to heal from a break up:

Don’t Make Things Worse

“How much more harmful are the consequences of anger and grief than the circumstances that aroused them in us!”— Marcus Aurelius

The first rule of holes, goes the adage, is that “if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” This might be the most violated piece of wisdom in the world. What most of us do when something goes wrong or is inflicted on us, is make it worse—first, by getting angry or feeling aggrieved, and next, by flailing around before we have much in the way of a plan. 

Seneca’s line was “How does it help…to make troubles heavier by bemoaning them?” Try not to add angry or negative emotions to the equation. Don’t react for the sake of reacting. Stop digging. Don’t call and text them 500 times. Don’t download every dating app and rush to line up someone new. Don’t go on a social media rampage. Remember, we always have a choice: Do we focus on the ways we have been wronged, or do we look for lessons, do we find aspects of the relationship to be appreciative of? Will we wait for someone to save us, or will we listen to Marcus Aurelius‘s empowering call to “get active in your own rescue—if you care for yourself at all—and do it while you can.”

Alive Time or Dead Time?

“We cry to God Almighty, how can we escape this agony? Fool, don’t you have hands? Or could it be God forgot to give you a pair? Sit and pray your nose doesn’t run! Or, rather just wipe your nose and stop seeking a scapegoat.” —Epictetus

The bestselling author Robert Greene says there are two types of time in our lives: dead time, when people are passive and waiting, and alive time, when people are learning and acting and utiliz­ing every second. Every moment or situation that we did not deliberately choose or control, presents this choice: Alive time. Dead time.

During a breakup, every part of us wants to complain about how terrible the situation is. How this shouldn’t be happening to me. How it’s unfair. How we wish we would have done this or that differently. But it’s this attitude and thinking that creates dead time we can never get back. It’s easy to be angry, to be aggrieved, to be depressed or heartbroken, to hide under the covers and watch Rom-Coms for weeks.

But all the talk of: I don’t want this. I want ______. I want it my way—this accomplishes nothing! Instead, choose alive time! Shift the talk to: This is an opportunity for me. I can learn and grow from this. I will not let this be dead time for me.

No Shame In Needing Help

Don’t be ashamed of needing help. You have a duty to fulfill just like a soldier on the wall of battle. So what if you are injured and can’t climb up without another soldier’s help? —Marcus Aurelius

No one ever said you were born with all the tools you’d need to solve every problem you’d face in life. In fact, as a newborn, you were practically helpless. Someone helped you then, and you came to understand that you could ask for that help. It was how you knew you were loved.

Well, you are still loved. There are other soldiers—people who have dealt with the same pain—ready to help you climb out of this. You can ask for help. You don’t have to face this on your own. If you need help, comrade, just ask.

Stay Focused On The Present

Don’t let your reflection on the whole sweep of life crush you. Don’t fill your mind with all the bad things that might still happen. Stay focused on the present situation and ask yourself why it’s so unbearable and can’t be survived. — Marcus Aurelius

When you look back at some of the most impressive, even scary, things that you’ve overcome and endured, how were they possible? How were you able to see past the danger or the poor odds? As Marcus described, you didn’t fill your mind with negativity, you didn’t let the whole sweep of the situation crush you.

A character in Chuck Palahniuk‘s novel Lullaby says, “The trick to forgetting the big picture is to look at everything close up.” Sometimes zooming out and grasping the big picture is important, the Stoics say. Other times though, it’s counterproductive and overwhelming to be thinking of everything that lies ahead. So by focusing exclusively on the present, we’re able to avoid or remove those intimidating or negative thoughts from our frame of view.

A man walking a tightrope tries not to think about how high up he is or how far the other side is. Like us, he’s better off putting one foot in front of the other.

Accepting What Is

“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.” — Epictetus

“Don’t seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it actually will—then your life will flow well.” — Epictetus

Stoicism, first and foremost, teaches us that we can’t control or rely on anything outside what Epictetus called our “reasoned choice”—our ability to use our reason to choose how we respond and reorient ourselves to external events. Something happened that we wish had not. Which of these is easiest to change: our opinion or the event that is past? The answer is obvious. Accept what happened and change your wish that it had not happened. Stoicism calls this the “art of acquiescence”—to accept rather than fight what happens.

And the most practiced Stoics take it a step further. Instead of simply accepting what happens, they urge us to actually enjoy what has happened—whatever it is. Nietzsche, many centuries later, coined the perfect expression to capture this idea: amor fati (a love of fate). It’s not just accepting, it’s loving everything that happens.

Which brings us to…

Always Love

“Hecato says, ‘I can teach you a love potion made without any drugs, herbs, or special spell—if you would be loved, love.’” — Seneca

In adversity, it’s so easy to hate. Hate defers blame. It makes someone else responsible. It’s a distraction too; we don’t do much else when we’re busy getting revenge or investigating the wrongs that have supposedly been done to us. Does this get us any closer to where we want to be? No. It just keeps us where we are — or worse, arrests our development entirely.

You know what is a better response to something you don’t like? Love. That’s right, love. For the parent that let you down. For the bureaucrat who lost your paperwork. For the group that rejects you. For the critic who attacks you. The former partner who stole your business idea. The bitch or the bastard who cheated on you. Love.

Love. Love. Love. Love. Why? Because, as the Beatles put it, “In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Think of Martin Luther King Jr., over and over again, preaching that hate was a burden and love was freedom. Love was transformational, hate was debilitating. “Hate,” he said “is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life and your existence. It is like eroding acid that eats away the best and the objective center of your life.”

There is almost no situation in which hatred helps. Yet almost every situation is made better by love—or empathy, understanding, appreciation—even situations in which you are in opposition to someone.

And who knows, you might just get some of that love back.

The Obstacle Is The Way

“While it’s true that someone can impede our actions, they can’t impede our intentions and our attitudes, which have the power of being conditional and adaptable. For the mind adapts and converts any obstacle to its action into a means of achieving it. That which is an impediment to action is turned to advance action. The obstacle on the path becomes the way.” — Marcus Aurelius

The mind is infinitely elastic and adaptable. Through a breakup, you have the power to use the Stoic exercise of turning obstacles upside down, which takes one negative circumstance and uses it as an opportunity to practice an unintended virtue or form of excellence. For example:

If something prevents you from getting to your destination on time, then this is a chance to practice patience.

If an employee makes an expensive mistake, this is a chance to teach a valuable lesson.

If a computer glitch erases your work, it’s a chance to start over with a clean slate.

If someone hurts you, it’s a chance to practice forgiveness.

If something is hard, it is a chance to get stronger.

Try this line of thinking and see whether there is a situation in which one could not find some virtue to practice or derive some benefit. There isn’t one. Not even in the ending of a relationship you didn’t want to end. Every impediment can advance action in some form or another.

Stoic Exercises:

Philosophy is not just about talking or lecturing or reading long, dense books. It is something men and women of action use—and have used throughout history—to solve their problems and achieve their greatest triumphs. So we’ll leave you with a couple of action items to help you overcome this trying time:

Journaling:

Epictetus the slave. Marcus Aurelius the emperor. Seneca the power broker and playwright. These three radically different men had at least one habit in common: Journaling.

Epictetus told his students that philosophy was something they should “write down day by day,” that this writing was how they “should exercise themselves.” Seneca explained to a friend that when darkness had fallen and his wife had gone asleep, “I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by.” Then he would go to bed, finding that “the sleep which follows this self-examination” was particularly sweet. And Marcus, he was the most prodigious of journalers, and we are lucky enough that his writings survive to us, appropriately titled, Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν, Ta eis heauton, or “to himself.” As he put it, “Every day and night keep thoughts like these at hand—write them, read them aloud, talk to yourself and others about them.”

Tim Ferriss, one of the most vocal modern proponents of Stoicism, has explained the value of journaling:

“I don’t journal to “be productive.” I don’t do it to find great ideas, or to put down prose I can later publish. The pages aren’t intended for anyone but me. Morning pages are, as author Julia Cameron puts it, “spiritual windshield wipers.” It’s the most cost-effective therapy I’ve ever found. To quote her further…: ‘Once we get those muddy, maddening, confusing thoughts [nebulous worries, jitters, and preoccupations] on the page, we face our day with clearer eyes.’”

Whether preparing for the day ahead, reflecting on the day that has passed, clearing our eyes from muddy and maddening thoughts, reminding oneself of the wisdom we have learned from our teachers, from our reading, from our own experiences—journaling is Stoicism. You really can’t have one without the other.

Along with joining great company, journaling has been proven to deliver some powerful benefits:

[*] A study from Cambridge University concluded that writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events results in improvements in both physical and psychological health.

[*] Researchers at the University of Arizona published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine their findings that keeping a journal after a ­divorce not only helped people make sense of the experience emotionally and move forward, but also resulted in lower heart rate and higher heart rate variability – associated with ­better health

[*] Dr James Pennebaker, author of Opening Up by Writing It Down, found that as well as lowering depression and anxiety, journaling strengthens the body’s T-lymphocytes—the cells responsible for the immune response to antigens (foreign substances) in the body

So get out a pen and a journal and push yourself to write about the difficult stuff, the uncomfortable stuff, the burdens you’re carrying around. You’ll be surprised by how much wisdom you’ll cultivate, just from within yourself, as well as the load you’ll take off your shoulders.

Contemplate A Sympatheia (connectedness with the cosmos) Perspective:

When the astronauts of Apollo 8 became the first humans to orbit the moon, it was a profoundly shocking experience for astronaut and terrestrial viewer alike for reasons wholly unexpected by both. Astronomer Fred Hoyle predicted that shock twenty years earlier when he wrote, “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available…a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”

Frank White, one of those millions of viewers on Christmas Eve 1968, coined it The Overview Effect. But this fascination and mesmerization with Earth’s place in the cosmos goes all the way back to the dawn of humanity. That fascination eventually found its way into the journals of Marcus Aurelius, who reminded himself repeatedly about the limitations of the individual perspective and challenged himself to experience the world from a cosmic perspective—the view from above, as he often described it.  

It is humbling to look at the world from the cosmic point of view. “Think,” Marcus wrote, “of time in its entirety, of which a brief and momentary span has been assigned to you; and of the works of destiny, and how very small is your part in them.” It’s Similar to the message Carl Sagan’s famous talk about The Pale Blue Dot. Powerful people and all of our most cherished accomplishments seem trivial when we take the view from above. This can be a great source of relief, especially during hard times.

Seneca believed it to be the way to make all your problems, even the really vexing and painful ones, seem less severe. All you have to do, he says, is: “Draw further back and laugh.”


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