How to embrace post-break up traumatic growth
Positive psychology practitioner Ruth Cooper-Dickson explores some of the emotions and behaviours that could be blocking us from thriving
By Ruth Cooper-Dickson
Since the pandemic hit, we’ve heard lots in the mainstream media about post-traumatic growth, but there have been quite a few misconceptions about this that feed into toxic positivity. So, let me be clear: I am not writing a piece that suggests that, following a break-up, you should all experience post-traumatic growth – meaning you will discover a new hobby, dramatically change your life or have an epiphany and all will be good with the world!
However, I hope that in sharing my experiences and my skills as a positive psychology practitioner, we can at least know how to work through what can be the most difficult time in our lives to find potential and opportunities we never thought existed.
Break ups are never easy. Regardless of the circumstance, even if it was you who decided to end it. Saying goodbye, and all the emotions and life-changes that come with that, can be difficult. Even if the relationship was traumatic and negative, it doesn’t make the break up any easier.
I have had to navigate dating – and break-ups – during the pandemic. You can have all the coaching qualifications and experience in the world, but it doesn’t make it any easier and I’ve had to work much more harder than with previous break ups. But being able to reflect and apply my positive psychology knowledge should help me respond better in the future and, I hope, support you in your post break-up growth too.
FIRSTLY – WHAT IS POST-TRAUMATIC GROWTH?
Post-traumatic growth (PTG) is exactly that – our personal growth following adversity. However, PTG is often discussed in a way that generates high expectations for recovery. When used flippantly, it can create the idea that we should all be stronger and happier following adversity – whatever that might be.
Post-traumatic growth is real, but we need to manage our expectations around it and understand that it can be viewed as both a process and an outcome. We also need to acknowledge that everybody is unique and that, even if we all experienced the same trauma, our health, history and a whole range of other factors contribute to how quickly or sufficiently we might bounce back.
BUT IS BREAKING UP WITH SOMEONE REALLY A FORM OF TRAUMA?
In positive psychology and trauma-informed coaching, we often talk about trauma with a little ‘t’. Trauma doesn’t have to be on the magnitude of being involved in a natural disaster or fleeing from a war-torn country. Trauma can be anything that has a seismic impact on an individual’s life and that somehow changes how individuals view themselves and their world.
Think about it: if you’ve been in a long-term relationship where your home, social circles and family relationships are all tied to the partnership, separating will be hugely significant. But it’s the same with short-term relationships too – perhaps you really believed you had found ‘the one’ and your hopes and ideas have been shattered? Perhaps it was a whirlwind romance. Whatever the circumstance, a break up can 100% be considered a traumatic experience.
SO HOW CAN WE GROW FOLLOWING A BREAK UP?
Making new connections
If your relationship was tied to your friendship groups, it will take some time to meet new people and rediscover new social circles. Don’t force this, or panic that you suddenly need to fill your diary with social engagements. I kept a blend of seeing people when I felt like it, sometimes just taking a whole weekend for myself in solitude. As we get older, it can be harder to find new friendship groups, but one way I did this was by joining a local triathlon club, which has increased my social interaction and had me not only meeting new people but moving my body.
Finding new meaning and purpose
We forget the impermanence of life and that most relationships will come to a natural end, whether that is through a break-up or through death! A book which completely changed my perspective was When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön.
Exploring a new sense of direction
If you’ve been a relationship for a long period of time, this may take you time to navigate. In the past, post-break up, I have made some momentous decisions such as moving to Australia and starting my own company. Just remember to take your time to discover what you now want from your life and what the next chapter is for you.
If you’re into journaling, setting yourself journal prompts might help to gain clarity:
- List 10 things that inspire or motivate you
- What three changes could you make to live according to your values?
- What important life lessons have you learnt from past relationships
CHANGING YOUR PERCEPTION OF YOURSELF
When we go through a break up, we can go through a period where our inner critic shouts: ‘we are not good enough’, ‘not good-looking enough’, ‘not thin enough’, ‘not smart enough’. We need to learn to shut that down and cut through to give ourselves some much-needed compassion, which can be both soft and strong.
Surround yourself with a network of people who are kind, positive but also honest.
I spent most of 2020 working with a coach on my attitudes to dating and how I want to show up in a relationship. This also included my own boundaries, in terms of what I felt was acceptable and unacceptable. When the relationship ended, after a period of grief, I’ve been able to reconnect with those beliefs and my boundaries are still very much intact.
To find out more about how Ruth’s coaching can help you through a break-up or any other challenges in life visit https://ruthcooperdickson.com