There are a thousand tips out there for how to cope with a breakup. They’re handed down through generations – from older sisters, from wiser friends, from your aunt who appears every Christmas with a wise glint in her eye and a glass of sherry. There are medical articles, listicles, even wikihows. But while everyone has a notion of what to do to heal themselves after a breakup, putting that into practice can be hard.
It doesn’t help that our social media feeds are littered with messages about “self-care.” Self-love and authentic care of yourself are essential parts of any healthy breakup. But this care often looks messy, complicated and long. Frustratingly, it’s a lot harder than posting a hot pic of yourself on Instagram and watching the likes roll in (as fun as that might be). While having a night in with a facemask and bubble bath are important self-soothing techniques, they are only part of a wider project of authentic care.
Self-care after a breakup requires a significant amount of work. And when you are hurting, the last thing you may want to do is work. Being in the midst of a breakup inevitably involves a little bit of self-doubt, and maybe a little more anger with yourself. Our natural instinct may be to look back on our actions with shame, regret and, perhaps worst of all, curiosity. There is always the nagging question of why things didn’t work out – and, what we could have done to fix it.
I like to think that I’m quite good at dealing with breakups.
I try and force myself to sit with the pain, confronting the things that hurt me and the things I did that hurt the other person. It’s a profoundly uncomfortable experience. It’s also a healing one. However, full confession, I also have the worrying tendency to think I can just decide that I’m not sad anymore. This inevitably leads to the following: getting dressed up, drinking slightly too much as a ‘confidence booster’, getting increasingly sad about my ex while dancing and then crying on the train because no one tries to flirt with me.
Whether you initiate the break up or not, it is easy to self-blame. A relationship not working, even with someone you care about deeply, can lead you down the endless rabbit hole of asking why. My gut reaction is always the same: that I’m never going to find someone who will love me or find me attractive again. When you’ve been in a relationship, it can be frightening to be alone. So, like many people, my reaction is to seek external validation.
In recent years, being single has entered the vogue of popular culture. In my mind, there are two classic frames. Either you’re a pining mess always yearning for someone you can’t have, or you’re someone who is completely at home with their freedom. You’re the Fun Hot Single Friend! You have as much sex as you want! You have flings with interesting people! You tell stories at the dinner table about your escapades! With characters like Ilana from Broad City, Nola from She’s Gotta Have It, Alice from How To Be Single or even Fleabag from, well, Fleabag, as examples , a wave of writing, television and film has celebrated being single authentically. For women and for LGBTQ+ people especially, there is a world out there of relationships to have, of mistakes to make, of hurts to experience and learn from. Being single is, more and more, something to aspire to rather than to be ashamed of.
Freedom is one of the most wonderful parts of being single. But for me, it’s too easy to get trapped in that. My instinct is to throw myself into new experiences and new people. Instead of embracing freedom, I’ve come to realise that this is me running from it.
This is why lockdown has been a strangely empowering experience for me.
Without clubs, bars and crucially, other people, I haven’t been able to go down the tried and tested route of a club or a bar or a pub where someone is interested in me. Even dating apps have fizzled. While I have done my share of swiping, not being able to meet people in person makes it hard to keep conversations alive.
It’s been an important moment – understanding how to be okay with not wanting a relationship. And learning that the antithesis of that is not always throwing yourself into casual flings.
For me, it’s been a time to learn how to be alone without any external validation of my attractiveness, my funniness or my worth as a person. Those deep-seated insecurities are alleviated when you’re being dated or flirted with. Now, I’ve had to learn how to draw from that within myself.
Perhaps the most crucial thing I’ve learned is that freedom isn’t just about physical and sexual liberation (even though that is incredibly healthy and important). It also looks like focusing wholly on your own needs and your own pain. After a break up, it can also look like evaluating your mistakes in a healthy way.
Lockdown is a difficult experience. Not being able to see your loved ones, having no outside stimulation and being trapped in one spot can be very detrimental. But with the right resources and support, it is also an opportunity to really reflect on what brings you joy.
From a purely self-love perspective, lockdown can be a good opportunity to dwell on what makes you happy. To my surprise, for me, that has been learning to sit with my loneliness. Being single during lockdown has been empowering. Most importantly, it is a lesson that we all have the things within us to fulfill ourselves – by ourselves.