A TED talk on how to fix a broken heart has been making the rounds on many a forum devoted to heartbreak and divorce. The speaker, Guy Winch, is a psychologist who also recently authored a Scientific American article on how to recover from romantic heartbreak.
Guy advises his audience to take an active role in healing themselves from heartbreak rather than merely coping (via time, social support, or substances), a perspective that I heartily endorse.
The bulk of his advice on how to do that, however, is centered around just one technique — “negative reappraisal” as he calls it — which is about adjusting the idealized perceptions you hold of your ex and your former relationship by reminding yourself of all the imperfections.
Please consider whether the technique is appropriate for you before using it. It may be inapplicable in your situation or even unhealthy for you.
First, what is “negative reappraisal” and what’s good about it?
Guy points to research aimed at understanding how we might reduce feelings of love for our ex, since he believes that that is the core issue that keeps us from moving on after heartbreak.
He says the paradox is that we often do the exact opposite and reinforce those feelings of love by stalking our ex, poring over old images, and reliving our best moments. Love is like a drug and like addicts feeling withdrawal symptoms, we instinctively hunger for those good times and keep dwelling on them.
The solution to getting over heartbreak, therefore, is to “make a list of the person’s faults as well as of the shortcomings of the actual relationship” and to whip them out whenever we find ourselves having idealized thoughts.
Negative reappraisal appears to be a variant of cognitive reappraisal, an emotion regulation strategy to nudge emotions back toward baseline by changing how you’re framing your situation. The focus is on developing a realistic perspective and to refuse to be misled by one’s instincts.
The major plus of this technique, then, is the emphasis on managing one’s mindset and building the ability to see things as they really are, which helps develop resilience and good judgment.
But negative reappraisals don’t apply in many cases of heartbreak
Guy doesn’t say so but he is focused on a very specific type of situation, one where the broken-hearted person got dumped or abandoned and is still pining for his/her ex-partner and idealized relationship.
Needless to say, the strategy he offers doesn’t work in many cases. For instance, consider a widow who lost the love of her life; asking her to reframe how she views her past isn’t going to help reduce her feelings of love. Or say a divorced person who is looking to move forward but is just mired in grief even if they no longer have any feelings of love for their ex.
Negative reappraisals can even hurt your long-term healing
Often it’s the case that one or both ex-partners in a serious breakup demonize the other party so as to vindicate themselves. It’s sadly easier to deny that one’s ego has been bruised than to acknowledge the hurt and to share some responsibility for the way things panned out. Unfortunately, in that state of self-vindication, such people can and do pick new partners who aren’t right for them or with whom they repeat the mistakes of their former relationship. Their hurt also lingers like a dark shadow, erupting in other forms or places.
I’m worried that negative reappraisals can exacerbate this situation; they can seem like an invitation to keep bitching about one’s ex rather than engaging in the healthier (but more difficult) task of processing one’s hurt and grief, letting go, and learning valuable lessons about one’s own behavior in relationships.
Guy Winch goes a bit too far, in my opinion, when he advocates making up explanations for the end of the relationship so as to achieve closure and accept that it’s over. The whole point of reframing a situation is to see things as they really were and to overcome skewed mental perceptions. Sometimes that means doing the hard inner work of learning from the breakup and experiencing emotional growth, rather than circumventing that via a negative reappraisal.
It’s not surprising then that negative reappraisal, while effective in reducing feelings of love, increases other unpleasant feelings because it can “feel wrong (unpleasant), unbalanced, unfair, and even disloyal,” as Guy himself states in his article. That doesn’t sound like a recipe for a healthy healing journey, one that should ideally culminate in forgiveness, peace, and optimism.
Please seek out multiple perspectives
If nothing else, I hope this analysis encourages you to always seek out multiple perspectives on your healing journey after heartbreak. It’s important to look inward and figure out what works best for your particular situation. One size simply doesn’t fit all.