The most painful experience of my life came from a breakup.
I know what you’re probably thinking. There are many worse things that can happen to someone than going through a breakup.
Here’s the thing:
I agree with you.
But when you’re going a breakup, you don’t really think of the other things that can happen in life that may be worse than heartache. All that matters at that moment is that you’ve parted ways with the love of your life, and it sucks.
It doesn’t just suck. Going through a breakup is excruciating.
But before you succumb to the pain and give up on love, you first need to know about the different stages of a breakup. If you’re unsure of what happened and why you broke up in the first place, you’re in stage three. If you’re denying the reality of the situation, stage four. But if you’re starting to appreciate the moments you have on your own, you’re all the way to stage ten of the breakup.
According to some of the world’s best psychology experts, there are twelve ugly (but completely normal) stages of a breakup.
I’ve put them together in this one comprehensive article so that you can understand the feelings you’re going through may feel terrible but are completely normal.
Most importantly, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Let me explain.
12 stages of a breakup
You may have known it was coming. You have felt like something was a bit off.
But it doesn’t change the first stage you need to go through:
The shock of the breakup.
You’ll say to yourself, “I can’t believe this is happening to me! Sure–some things weren’t perfect, but we were good together!”
Licensed clinical psychologist Suzanne Lachmann describes the overwhelming pain of experiencing shock: “Shock is a primal response to a sophisticated loss. It’s the result of being inundated on all levels—all five of your senses overload while questions you can’t answer rain down on you, to the point at which you just short-circuit.”
Who can blame you for experiencing shock? Breaking up with someone can literally feel like you’ve lost a limb.
So if you’re experiencing shock, don’t worry. There’s nothing wrong with you for feeling it. It’s the inevitable first stage we all need to go through.
This brings us to the next stage of a breakup: pain.
The pain can be physical, mental and emotional. It’s the kind of pain that you desperately want to escape from. Yet you can’t. It’s overwhelming, and no matter what you do, it’s there.
The psychologist and author Guy Winch explains why the suffering of heartbreak is so painful:
“In some studies, the emotional pain people experienced was rated as equivalent to ‘nearly unbearable’ physical pain. Consider, though, that while physical pain rarely remains at such intense levels for an extended duration of time, the pain of heartbreak can linger for days, weeks, and even months. This is why the suffering heartbreak causes can be so extreme.”
As you can see, the pain you feel is completely normal. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It is going to pass. Time is your friend, and you will continue to move through the stages of a breakup.
It brings us to stage three:
You know you’re in stage three because the confusion has started to set in.
A range of questions will come to mind, from “what did I do wrong” to “why didn’t I see this coming?”
Licensed clinical psychologist Suzanne Lachmann explains why you’re feeling so confused:
“Initially, you remain driven to understand what happened, at any cost. The drive to know is consuming and can come at the expense of rational thoughts and behaviors.
“You must understand why this happened, maybe beyond anyone’s ability to explain it. You fixate on things your ex said at various times that you see as contradicting the breakup, and you hold onto them now as if they are gospel.”
Moments will come when things make some sense, yet clarity is short-lived and you find yourself asking many questions again.
The constant confusion is very difficult to manage.
But, as with all of the stages of a breakup, this feeling will pass. Over time you’ll develop more clarity over the relationship and what went wrong. You’ll learn from it.
For now, give yourself a break. Everyone feels confused at some point during a breakup.
You’ve gone through the shock of breaking up. Then you felt overwhelming pain. This gave way to confusion.
Now you’re in a state of denial. You refuse to accept the reality that you and the love of your life are no longer together.
You look for something to do, some way to let your ex know how you really feel about them.
You simply can’t accept that it’s over. You hope with every ounce of your being that you can save the relationship, even at the expense of your own sanity. You postpone grieving about the end of the relationship because it’s just too heartwrenching to face up to. You decide instead to stick with the unrealistic expectation that your relationship can be saved.
This is the stage of denial. You’re living your life based on a false hope that you and your ex can get back together.
Yet, during the stage of denial, you may notice small moments of the next stage. Although it seems a little disconcerting, actually the next stage is something to celebrate.
The next stage is madness. It’s when you’re starting to free yourself from the grip of the breakup.
Did I just say that the stage of madness is something to be celebrated?
Yes, I did.
Let me ask you:
Have you done any of the following, or something similar?
- deliberately making your ex-partner jealous by flirting with his friends or other people?
- drunk-calling them while crying, bargaining, or emotional blackmailing?
- begging for them to take you back?
- doing things that are against your principles just to gain attention?
According to Eddie Corbano, an expert in the field of breakup recovery, the madness phase can be categorized into three:
- wanting them back
- undoing things
- fixing things
Here’s why the madness stage is something to celebrate.
You’re doing stupid and inexplicable things because you are starting to accept that you and your ex are no longer together. You’re getting a bit desperate because, somewhere deep down, you know there’s not much more you can do to save the relationship.
Although it’s painful and you may feel silly for doing crazy things in the name of love, it’s all part of the process. Be grateful for the mad moments, because they represent a piercing of the illusion that you and your ex are still together. You’re starting to accept this, deep down.
Has anyone ever tried to make you feel guilty for being angry?
They probably weren’t going through a breakup at the time.
How can you be anything but angry when you and the supposed love of your life have parted ways? Why wouldn’t you feel angry about the excruciating heartbreak you’re going through right now?
Instead of denying yourself the feeling of anger, instead, embrace it.
Feelings of anger are the beginnings of creative power. If you accept and embrace the anger, it will spur you into action.
As for what that action is, this is completely up to you. I recommend Ideapod’s free masterclass on embracing your inner beast to learn how to turn your anger into a powerful ally.
The masterclass taught me that my anger is something to be cherished. When I went through my breakup, I wish I had have given myself more permission to feel angry about it. It would have motivated me to do things in life to help me move on more quickly.
In any case, the point about anger is that it’s a normal stage of the breakup process. It’s part of your psyche’s defense mechanisms against the pain of what you’re going through.
If you’re feeling anger, it’s a good sign and it’s something to be cherished. You’re completely normal for feeling it.
After feeling anger, you may start to experience feelings of numbness. You simply feel exhausted. Emotionally drained. Physically tired.
The pain that was once the focus of every train of thought has given way to stasis.
This happens when you’re feeling a combination of resignation and withdrawal. Resignation because you’re now starting to accept the reality of the breakup. Withdrawal because you know you must welcome the pain.
Lachmann describes how it feels: “You feel numb, spacey, and unfocused, so your autopilot function takes over to help you get through what you have to get through. That’s your survival instinct kicking into gear.”
It’s an incredible insight, knowing that numbness is actually your survival instinct. This is your body putting you into a state that puts the pain of the breakup to the side so that you can get through the day.
You can do a lot when you’re in auto-pilot mode. Of course, it’s not the optimal state to be in. You are probably not experiencing very much joy. But you’re surviving. You’re here. You’re getting on with life.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with numbness.
The stages of your breakup are now starting to make sense. You’re beginning to understand what happened and why.
Everything you’ve endured has led to this moment: you are finally accepting that you need to let your ex go.
At the moment of acceptance, you are feeling a lot better. As Corbano says, you’re not “quite out of the woods yet, but there’s significant relief.” It’s “understandable if you take into account that the majority of the emotional turmoil is caused by the excruciating over-thinking process and the inner conflict of wanting them back. This conflict has mostly been resolved by this stage.”
Now that you have been through anger and madness and started to accept what is happening, you can begin to allow yourself to properly grieve the ending of the relationship.
According to psychologist Deborah L. Davis:
“Grieving is how you gradually let go of what might have been and adjust to what is. And over time, your outlook will naturally shift: From ‘I must demonstrate I am a worthy mate for her/him’ to ‘I can reclaim my own sense of worth.’ Grieving is what sets you free from the pit of despair.”
This is perhaps, the most crucial stage of a breakup. It is the beginning process of letting go.
You’ve lost something so important to you. You are allowed to grieve for it.
You don’t necessarily feel resigned to the breakup. On the contrary, you are starting to see that something good has actually come out of it.
You’ve started appreciating the time you have for yourself, fulfilling your needs, and figuring out what you want for your life from now on.
You are seeing your value again.
At this stage, you might even feel grateful for the lessons the breakup has given you.
According to psychotherapist Elisabeth J. LaMotte:
“As painful as a breakup feels, it can be liberating to admit the reasons you are better off without your ex. Even if you thought they were the One, there were surely some obstacles and flaws in your relationship, and it frees up emotional energy to admit these shortcomings.”
11. Taking responsibility
You’ve stopped looking at your relationship with rose-colored glasses. Now, you see things objectively.
You realize the reasons why the relationship didn’t work out. And surely, some the reasons were because of you.
This is one sign you are getting over the pain of the breakup.
“It is also liberating to acknowledge your role in the relationship’s demise. Even if your ex is 90 percent to blame, owning your part in the process is a way to make sure you learn from the relationship and position yourself for a healthier romantic future.”
Taking responsibility on your end of the relationship takes real maturity. It’s been a long road. But now, you’re ready to be an adult about it.
(If you want some help in taking responsibility for what’s happening in your life, check out our bestselling eBook: Why Taking Responsibility is Key to Being the Best You.)
More importantly, it’s a sign you’re ready for the next and last stage:
12. Letting go
Finally, here you are.
Everything you went through has led you here.
Despite feeling—many times—like you were not making progress, you actually were. It just didn’t feel like it, but there was a reason for all the pain, confusion, and mistakes.
The final stage is letting go.
You must do it as gracefully as you can. Otherwise, you’ll continue stuck in a rut, pining after a relationship that has ended, even if you refuse to.
Psychotherapist and dating coach Pella Weisman says it beautifully:
“Breakups can be heart wrenching and take us to the very core of our deepest wounds. It is very challenging work, but if you can manage to allow yourself to be with the pain, and use the pain to help you heal… then the end of a relationship can be an enormous opportunity for growth.”
5 genuine (and realistic) pieces of advice when you’re going through a breakup
The truth is, dealing with a breakup is a different process for everyone. What might work for you won’t necessarily work for everyone.
But we’ll try to guide you anyway. Here are 5 genuine (and realistic) pieces of advice to get you through the toughest heartbreaks of your life.
1. Block them.
Cut off all kinds of contact. Unfriend, unfollow, and block them everywhere.
Prolonged contact will only delay your moving on process.
According to relationship therapist Dr. Gary Brown, you should not see, talk, or even hear from your ex for at least 90 days.
“I would advise that you not see, talk to, or communicate at all — including through any social media — for a minimum of 90 days.
“[It will] hopefully give you enough time to grieve the loss of your relationship without the inevitable complications of clinging to a false hope that it is going to work.
“You are going to need that time to help you get over the initial and natural emotional hurdles we all go through when we experience a loss.”
It might be tempting to check in on them, but talking will not help the situation any better. You’ll only end up confusing each other or prolonging the agony.
2. Stop comparing your pain to your ex’s.
This is one of the biggest mistakes people do. They always think that the person who seems to be hurting more is the loser.
It’s not a competition. We all deal with pain differently. And even if you’re the one who hurts more, that’s perfectly okay.
Marriage and family therapist Spencer Northey, says:
“You don’t ‘win’ the breakup by being the one who experienced less caring, less attachment and less vulnerability.
“It’s OK to lean into the loss of someone who was important to you. Recognizing the value of what you lost in the breakup will help clarify what you want when you are ready to date and be in a relationship again.”
So don’t waste any more time thinking about your ex’s progress or who is moving on faster. Focus on your own healing.
(Interested in finding out the signs to look for that indicate when it’s time to leave a relationship? Check out our article.)
3. Stop making excuses.
Don’t justify your partner’s behavior. Don’t blame the timing. Stop making excuses for the breakup.
Closure and answers are overrated. The relationship ended for the reasons it did.
Break up coach Dr. Janice Moss says:
“The natural inclination is to seek closure, spend weeks or months and maybe even years trying to understand what happened and playing the relationship events over and over like a ticker tape scroll.
“Even though it is difficult, it is much better to admit that the relationship has simply failed.”
Instead of using all that energy overthinking every conversation or circumstance, choose to focus on moving forward.
4. Accept that it is going to (sometimes you will) be crazy.
Don’t set such high expectations on yourself. Breakups are not the time to uphold a moral compass.
The truth is, you are going to do something stupid, or crazy, or even pathetic.
Pain, wounded pride, and confusion will lead even the most righteous person to do the craziest mistakes.
According to relationship expert Elina Furman:
“The key to getting through a breakup is accepting that you are going to be a crazy maniac for the next three to six months of your life.
“There’s no skipping steps so even if you think you’re over it right away, you’re probably not.”
So give yourself a break. Trust your own process. You must learn things your own way.
5. Don’t mask your feelings by compensating.
No amount of junk food will heal your broken heart. Casual sex will only leave you feeling empty. Parties are a nice distraction, yes—but they don’t make you forget.
Don’t mask your pain by compensating on other things.
According to couple’s therapist Laura Heck:
“As a culture, we are taught to ignore or mask unpleasant emotions by indulging in activities that help us temporarily escape. Your feelings are intended to be felt, so feel them. Lean into the sadness.”
Putting band-aids on your wounds will not do anything. You have you face your issues before you can resolve them.
The key takeaway: You’ll learn a lot
It might not feel like it now, but breakups teach us beautiful lessons.
It teaches us what is truly important in love—what we want and need in someone, what we need in ourselves, what kind of partner we want to be.
Most importantly, it allows us to get to know ourselves better.
Pain is the greatest teacher, after all.