As I opened my eyes, I found myself lying in the middle of a circle-shaped earthly place. When I rolled on my side and looked up, I saw big and bushy trees above me and an infinite gaping sky dotted with stars. When I looked down, I saw the ground blanketed in pinecones and twigs and patches of half-stomped grass and dead leaves from which the evening moon kaleidoscoped.
As I looked around, I saw a bonfire in the middle of the circular area I was thrown into. By whom or what, I have no idea. Around this bonfire sat dozens of indistinguishable and unfamiliar faces. The only one painted in color was the face of my ex.
Suddenly the dream scene shifted, and I found myself beside her. Her hair was radiating, and her face was touched by a golden glow of the whirling flames that swallowed up the whole area in supernatural beauty.
My ex and I were sitting on a wooden crate, and then I noticed our legs were touching. What the fuck, I thought? Confused by this, I made eye contact with her.
At that moment, nostalgia spurred through my bloodstream. Melancholy engulfed me. And I began to shiver. The air got warm and suffocating, like being in a sauna, and the atmosphere obtained a trance-like quality. It felt as if time stopped still. For a moment, I was 16 again.
Yet, in that beautiful moment, I didn’t feel love or lust. All I felt was grief. But this grief was not directed towards my ex. Quite the contrary, it was directed toward me — to a forgotten identity I once knew. And this is where our core lesson resides.
When you get into a relationship, your identity, that is, the aggregation of your personal values (the ideals that guide your behavior throughout life), fuses with your partner’s, creating what’s called a fused identity (1)(2)
And when you break up with your partner, this fused identity rips in half, leaving each person with only a part of who they are. Ever felt a void inside your chest, like there’s a part of you missing? Yeah, that’s the part of your shared identity that’s missing. And feeling into that void is what makes people say that they’ve lost themselves. (3)
When you lose yourself, you feel as though you’ve completely lost control of your life. You feel rudderless and deprived of any clear direction and as though your desires and decisions no longer matter.
Losing yourself calls into question who you are, your value as a human being, and how you perceive the world. And at its core, It launches you into an existential crisis, an identity crisis, a crisis of hope, as you sit at home, next to an empty bed.
The way you get yourself out of this mess, or as they say, “find yourself again,” is by patching up that void in your identity that’s causing you to suffer.
The way you do it is by reconstructing and reevaluating your unique set of personal values. Meaning, you’ll have to find new good values to live your life by, now that the old ones have failed. (Failed being: you can’t say that you value your relationship anymore because there is none).
But why personal values? Well, because they’re the building blocks of your identity. Once you become aware of them and define by which you’d live your life, the whole breakup aftermath becomes much easier to handle — a.k.a., it becomes easier to find yourself again.
Value Discovery Pre Period
Before you begin tinkering with your values, getting perspective on what matters to you, what you should care about, and what you shouldn’t, you must grieve your old identity as I did in my dream.
That’s right; you’re not only grieving your ex after a breakup; you’re grieving your former self too. And as crazy as it sounds, you’ll be missing him/her a lot.
Not in a romantic sense, of course, but in a platonic one. Losing your old self feels like losing a best friend who, despite his loyalty, was a horrible influence on you. And despite wondering what life would be with him/her still by your side, you deep down still know you’re better off alone.
Sometimes I still think of that identity and wonder: what would life be like if I was still an irresponsible, selfish, yet at times quite charming playboy who uses sex and dating to suppress his insecurities, abandonment issues, and low self-esteem?
After some pondering, I even start missing the old self — the kid who got his heart crushed for the first time and, as a result, went on a wild year-long dating spree and surrounded himself with trashy people, way too much junk food, and waaaaay too much booze.
At a certain point after your breakup, you’ll start to think about the same things and start feeling the same longing for your old self as I did. Avoid resisting. This phenomenon will keep playing like a broken record till the end of your life.
At first, grieve, then once you’re over yourself, turn the grief into appreciation, into self-love. You couldn’t be where you’re at without that old self — you couldn’t improve. And, thus, be grateful for who you’re now.
Good vs. Bad Values
I figured it’s good for you to know the differences between good and bad values before continuing with your value discovery and evaluation journey.
Taking notes from the New York Times Mega-bestseller, The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck, good values are 1) reality-based, 2) socially constructive, and 3) immediate and controllable. On the flip side, bad values are 1) superstitious, 2) socially destructive, and 3) not immediate or controllable.
Courage, for example, is a good value. It’s an ideal we strive toward, even though we don’t always live up to it. It’s also reality-based, has the power to save people, and is entirely under our control. Another good value would be integrity. Again, it reflects reality, it benefits others, and it’s entirely under your control.
On the other hand, high status in your social life would count as a bad value. First, it’s not based on reality: you can’t be the high-status all of the time (nor should you attempt to be.) Second, it’s socially destructive because people who want to be seen as high status usually resort to putting people down to feel better about themselves. And third, it’s not in your control. You can’t control how people react to you, nor their opinion of you.
If you look at the above example closely, you’d also find that good values are achieved internally and bad values externally.
More examples of good values: acceptance, friendship, accountability, respect, giving, cleanliness, courage, honesty, integrity, commitment, ambition, vulnerability, creativity, curiosity, patience, wisdom, health.
More examples of bad values: being rich for the sake of being rich, sleeping with a lot of people, and measuring your self-worth by that metric, getting your ex back to feel better about yourself or to get a chance to be the dumper for once, being the center of attention, getting a bazillion likes on your Youtube video, being a manipulative dick to get something from someone, being liked by everybody, stealing money from your grandma to buy a new Xbox.
How To Define your values and find yourself after a breakup
While there’s many value-defining exercises out there, the below three are the ones I personally use, teach and get result with. They saved me from not only my post-breakup crises, but also from a few deeper existential and identity issues regarding my commitment issues and familial issues. Preferably try all three exercises, then commit to at least one that you find the best fit.
1. Gun to the cheek; what kind of life do you want to live?
Imagine this: you’re working at a local corner market, you’re making 14$ an hour, you quit college because it was too hard, and you’re living a sedentary life. No scratch that; you’re not living at all.
Deep down, you want to be a [insert profession here], but you don’t have the guts to go for it; you couldn’t even finish college for that profession. And to make things worse, now you’re suppressing your desires by playing video games all day and gorging on BigMac’s.
Then, one peaceful evening while you’re working, a guy breaks into your store, pulls you over the counter, grabs you by the collar of your shirt, and drags you outside into the empty midnight parking lot.
It was dark when you got dragged out, the pavement layered on the night, black on black. No one could see you. No one was even around to hear you scream. And before you know it, you have a gun pushed to your cheek.
Seconds feel like minutes, and then you hear it; the stranger asking you, almost shouting, “Fill in the blank. How would you want to spend your life if you could do anything in the world? Be honest with me. I have a gun…”
Did you grow up wanting to be a professional cook? Do you want to settle down in a healthy relationship, marry, and have two and a half kids? Do you want to start an online business and travel around the world?
Think about these things for a second, and don’t judge how you envision your ideal life. It is what it is: embarrassing, weird, over-the-top, mundane, whatever. It doesn’t matter as long as this vision is one you genuinely want for yourself.
… Through the cries, “I want to go home’s,” and piss all over your pants, you gave the stranger the answers, his gun still pushing into your cheek, your tears making their way towards the barrel now. You told him your vision of a meaningful and successful life and why you want it.
Now, the stranger pulls out your wallet, takes out your driving license, and says, “I have your license. I know who you are. I know where you live. I’m keeping your license, and I’m going to check on you. In three months, and then in six months, and then in a year, and if you aren’t living the life you value, the life you envision, you’ll be dead.”
You look down and say nothing as the stranger slowly lowers his gun, stands back, and just before he leaves, adds, “your dinner is going to taste better than any meal you’ve ever eaten, and tomorrow will be the most beautiful day of your entire life.”
2. Observe your behavior And scrutinize your decisions
Another way you can go about finding your values is by observing your behaviors. Here’s the deal: your values guide your actions. Therefore to find the ones you hold, look at your actions. Your values will always be reflected in the way you choose to behave.
If you say you want to be a professional cook, but you quit cooking school and went to work at a dead-end job, then there’s a value disconnect. You clearly don’t want to be a cook; you value the routine and whatever other benefit a dead-end job gives you more than busting your brain in school and cutting your hands while dicing vegetables.
Here’s another example. If you can see yourself being a digital nomad, traveling around the world, running an online business, but on the flips side, you just extended the contract with your boss to work as a baker for the next five years, then you’re contradicting yourself. You say you want one thing, but your actions scream another. Therefore it’s clear what you really value.
Here’s yet another illustration from a different perspective. If your ex keeps telling them how much they love, miss, and care for you, yet they never make time for you when you invite them out, nor do they return your phone calls in a reasonable amount of time, then you know where they stand. They clearly don’t value you as much as they say. And thus, they probably don’t want you back, even though they may say they do.
Bottom line: if you want to get a better idea of your values, look at how you’re behaving and how that behavior differentiates or resembles your desires and what you’re saying. That’s how you’ll find the values that underlie your life vision.
3. Ask A Friend about your behaviors
Another offshoot of the above exercise is asking a friend about your behaviors and, based on that, figuring out the values that underlie them. This task doesn’t need to be complicated. Keep it simple.
Here an example of how you might ask a friend to help you know your values better:
Mary, this breakup really hurts, and I’m trying to find myself again. Mind helping me out? It’s no big deal, just answer me this: based on what you know about me, what would you say some of my most prominent behaviors? Am I honest? Am I hardworking? Am I adventurous? Etc.
You can even directly ask people about your values if they know what you mean by that. For example:
Roger, you’ve known me for a long time, mind helping me out? I’m trying to find myself again after this breakup. I know this will sound weird, but, please help me out. From your perspective, what matters most to me in my life? What do you think my personal values are?
As a side note, give the people time to answer these sorts of questions. It’s usually not something one can just spit out from the top of their dome. And, of course, take every answer with a grain of salt. Some people just want to move on to another topic, and others just don’t have enough awareness developed to give you a reliable answer.
Judging your new values
Let’s pretend you want to be a professional cook. Do you want to be a cook because you see how rich Gordon Ramsay is? Do you think being a professional cook increases your social status and makes you more desirable? Or do you simply love food and want to spend your days creatively working with it and create earth-shattering dishes?
Put differently, are you chasing fame, money, and spicy foursomes, OR are you trying to, let’s say, master cooking for the sake of mastering cooking, for the sake of your love for food?
Asking yourself these things will help you uncover the state of the values that underlie the life you want to live. Are they good, or are they bad? Are they reality-based or superstitious? Socially constructive or socially destructive? Immediate or controllable or not? Are they worth basing your life around, or not?
Ultimately, if you’re taking up good values, you’re on the right track. But if you’re somehow taking up all kinds of bad values, then it’s best to reinvent yourself and find better ones.
Embodying your new values
Understanding your values and getting an idea of what they are, which are good and which bad, is not enough. Action and embodiment of your chosen values is an equally important requirement.
You don’t just pick your values out of thin air and magically find yourself basing your life around them. The way you solidify those values is by embodying them through a breath of experiences.
This takes courage. Like the pain that follows opening up for the first time, embodying your values for the first time is equally painful — sometimes even outright scary. But to make things easier, here are a couple of tips on how I would go about it.
Pick one good value to embody. Let’s say you’ve picked honesty. Now set a goal aligned with that value. For example, “for the next ten days, when someone asks me for an opinion, I will give my honest one, even if it feels uncomfortable.” Then track mentally track your progress. Are you living a life aligned with the value you picked or not? Ask this throughout your day.
What tends to happen is that while you’re embodying honesty, the emotional benefits of that value will inspire you to pursue it further, to make even bigger and more extended goals around it. And you’ll repeat with the goal-setting thing until living by that value — in honesty — begins to feel automatic.
At that point, congrats, you’ve embodied a value. Now repeat these things with a new good value. And before you know it, you’ll become a much more improved person.
Ultimately, embodying a value while simple is far from easy. But it is possible with courage. And, in any way you look at the feat, it is totally worth it. Finding yourself will relieve you of your breakup pain, make you more at ease, and give you an overall deeper understanding of yourself that you’ll be grateful for for the rest of your life.
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