avatarEleni Stephanides


Moving Forward and Letting People Go When You’re Anxiously Attached

These insights have helped me come to terms with the dissolution of valued connections

Mark Pan4ratte on Unsplash

People with anxious attachment feel loss and searations intensely — making breakups, or the dissolution of any valued connection, especially difficult.

As writer Esther George put it:

“A breakup can have a huge impact on a highly sensitive person, since we are more susceptible to stress and extreme anxiety. Although healing takes time and often we have to allow nature to run its course, there is no need to prolong the pain longer than necessary.”

As a person who’s grappled with anxious attachment, here are some messages that have helped me through these inevitably crushing and overwhelming periods.

1. Anger has a place in your healing process.

For a period of time, to help ease the negative feelings that followed a breakup, I would try conceptualizng it the way I would a death:

Imagine they were ripped apart from you. Abruptly, inexplicably, cruelly and without warning. The “whys” don’t matter. All you know is they’re gone and not coming back.

Notice how this changes the way you cope. Maybe you send angry texts to the universe. Maybe you plead with it to return them to you. Maybe your mind runs through it 1,000 times, wondering what you could have done differently to stop the severance long before you were ready for it to be over.

The universe doesn’t listen. You’re left with your sadness.

Pure, crushing sadness — a formidable force. It’s understandable that you would want to avoid it for as long as possible. Feeling the full brunt of it is enough to break you apart.

But at some point you need to remove the shield of anger and make space for the weight of the pain. The pain that’s so heavy and so crushing and so necessary to feel.

All you know is that she’s gone. Feel her absence. Mourn it.

I still agree with this to some extent — but I also now think that depending on what happened and the circumstances surrounding the breakup, some amount of anger can have a place in your healing process.

It’s important not to let it derail you. It shouldn’t grow so big that it crowds out all the other emotions that are necessary for you to feel — but banishing it altogether also isn’t healthy.

2. Process the relationship endings.

They’ll leak out in unhealthy ways if you don’t.

There’s no shortcut to getting over pain. It will put you through hell before you begin to heal. If you don’t allow it to, it’ll surface in other ways. You’ll harm others. You’ll harm yourself.

You’ll end up in the bathroom crying at two a.m., while the name of “the one that got away” falls from your mouth again and again and again and again, never to find a safe or satisfying landing.

In the weeks leading up to this, I’d thought I could avoid such a scenario — by behaving in the recommended ways. By ushering myself along, away from the swampy feelings, like a responsible and charismatic life coach of my own self.

I was wrong though. Alone in my bathroom, the grief pushed through my defenses. The queued up hurt poured out from deep within.

It was my senior year of college. Back in the common areas, a party raged. I didn’t want to be with any of the people out there right then; I wanted to be with the girl I was heartbroken over. And at least alone in that bathroom, I could share space with her memory. I could miss her freely, cry, and feel what I’d spent weeks keeping somewhat at bay.

“Feeling deep emotion is our way of processing new information. Being conscious of our emotions, including grief, is how we do the inner work of psychological growth,” wrote Daniel Siegel.

3. Examine your past traumas.

Doing so can help you to see their contribution to your response to the present heartbreak.

Once following the aftermath of a “mini relationship” dissolution, I wrote in my diary:

I don’t know if I miss her, or if I miss everyone from my past who’s no longer in my life, or if I miss someone I haven’t even met yet. Sometimes it feels like I came out of the womb missing that person. Or like I was born with an intense yearning to connect that will never be fulfilled.

I was often launching into a new situation before fully metabolizing the one I’d just left. I did this for years, even though I needed time with the residue left by those cumulative experiences. To heal I realized I had to sit with the disappointment before sending it on its way like a paper plane into the winds of the past — because sidestepping and avoiding only prolong the healing process.

Unresolved feelings from past relationships or not being over an ex make you less present in conversation with new people. I remember how when my college girlfriend came over to my place to study a couple nights after our first kiss, it felt like spending time with the oldest of friends (one whom I was also extremely attracted to). Dozens of first dates in the years that followed felt nowhere close to it.

After we broke up, I continually compared dates with new people thereafter to that magical and mystical night. I felt like I should be over it; enough time had passed since our breakup — but still I was holding onto her memory.

It was hard to tell whether the people I was trying to date were truly incompatible or if my mind was just putting up walls against a new potential connection, without having cleared actual space inside my heart and mind to give them a real chance.

Continued idealization of a past partner shuts us off to the person we’re with. We fail to be present as we’re silently and wistfully counting all the ways this new person falls short of *insert ex partner’s name here.*

4. It’s okay to avoid certain places for some amount of time.

New surroundings give the mind novel details to pay attention to, which helps prevent rumination. “Your memory of a thought is married to the place in which it first occurred to you,” wrote Jennifer Ackerman, author of The Bird Way.

A passenger I once gave a ride to stayed away from a hiking trail that he’d been running at when going through a breakup. If he were to have kept going back to it before he’d healed, the negative associations would have continued to compound upon one another. His mind might have permanently categorized it as a negative place.

For a while I didn’t want to return to the brewery where an ex-partner and I had had our first heated conflict, for exactly this reason.

Once we take that temporary break, we can watch as more positive feelings repopulate and breathe new life into once fraught places.

5. Give yourself grace.

Excerpt from a story I wrote that centered a breakup:

The water falling into my eye felt like a personal affront. She yelled “ow!” in a tone of, “How dare you do this to me?” A voice yelled back from inside her own head— “It wasn’t personal!”

This reminder quelled her anger. Now all she felt like doing was crying instead.

A lot of things felt like personal affronts to her that day: the dog who wouldn’t stop barking, rather than accept her love when she held out her hand; the loud wind that slapped at her face in a seeming attempt to hold her back from returning to her car; the motorcycles — so many of them, and loud engines shooting splinters into the air molecules.

She felt stripped. Like every nerve was open to intrusion from the various unending stimuli of the outside world.

The way you feel after you’ve only gotten two hours of sleep, or when you’ve had six cups of coffee, or when you’ve just been flung in front of a crowd of judges and asked to stare into their faces while an over-screen projector reads them pages from your diary. The spikes and pinpricks have overtaken her entire psyche, covering over the portions that used to light up when she took part in activities she enjoyed.

Loud noises rattle, more so than they normally do. The only thing she wants [to do] is get out of the streets and curl up at home, surrounded and protected by walls once more, walls that don ́t demand you be anyone but your true, at this moment bleeding, self.

Tasks that normally wouldn’t take much energy require enormous resolve when you’re in heartbreak mode. Be proud of yourself for doing things like going on a run, finishing tasks at work, or buying the groceries.

Be kind to yourself and take breaks. Cry. I think that may be the most important one of all. When the moment allows for it, let it out fully.

6. Consider that there isn’t a “one who got away.”

Not always but often, the relationships that didn’t work out, didn’t for good reason. Who you both were and what you both needed at the time didn’t match up. Those versions of yourselves didn’t align. Nothing could have accelerated the process of turning you or them into what the other needed you to be.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from what went wrong and use it to shape future behavior.

While there’s no shortcut to getting over breakups, tending to your nervous system, taking a deeper look into your past, and showing yourself grace can at the very least send your heart on a healthier path towards eventual wholeness.

I hope these can serve as helpful reminders.

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