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Over the years, I noticed a glaring problem with these “how to get over your ex” guides: they usually contain little to no tangible value. They are either sales pitches disguised as content or fluff pieces full of cliches like “get back out there,” “love yourself,” and “socialize more.”
Don’t get me wrong, these platitudes can help you get over your ex, but they also put forth a nonsensical and dumbed-down notion of what breakup recovery actually looks like.
Sorry but it’s much more complicated than just “going out there and focusing on yourself.” It’ll also take much longer and be far more emotionally taxing than most people think — another detail that too often gets left unsaid.
So regardless of how you approach it, your breakup will suck. But there is a solution to make that suckage less, err… sucky. Actually, there are many of them. But one I recommend is a solution called meaning creation.
Interestingly, meaning creation is embarrassingly underrated, if not completely ignored, in the breakup advice space. Yet I’m convinced it’s the solution for most challenges people face post-heartbreak.
Let me explain.
The Creation And Destruction Of Relational Meaning
Meaning is the feeling you get when you’re doing or participating in something that feels greater and more important than yourself. Something that, after your death, will be remembered and may live on without you.
Now relationships — they form the basis of meaning in our lives, especially romantic ones. The more central to your existence your relationship was and the deeper bond you shared with your ex, the more meaning you associated with that relationship. (1)
Therefore, when you lost it, you also lost the meaning you associated with it. And once you lost that meaning, you literally lost a part of yourself — a part of your identity.
Soon after I had my heart broken oh-so-long ago, I found myself aimlessly floating through life, feeling empty and like nothing I do matters. At certain points amid the nauseating nights I spent shit-faced, I genuinely considered ending it all. I constantly wondered, what’s the point of being here anyways?
This is how losing a part of yourself feels like. But the shit show doesn’t stop there. Hell no. I’d go as far as to argue that every prevailing post-breakup challenge manifests itself because you lost a part of yourself.
Obsessive thoughts and rumination, self-belittlement and verbal self-flagellation, uncontrollable yearning for reconciliation, sporadic bursts of anger and aggression, even addiction, anxiety, depression, and hopelessness — all of these things are borne out of a person’s crisis of meaning. (2) (3) (4)
Hence, escaping or averting this crisis is paramount.
Escaping Or Averting A Crisis Of Meaning
A way of doing this is by creating new meaning to patch up the holes where the old ones used to sit. There’s just one problem: it’s fucking hard. Not only is it painful, but accomplishing such a feat takes months, sometimes even years. That’s why getting over a breakup takes so long in the first place.
But here’s the good news: we’re meaning-seeking creatures — we’re literally wired to attach meaning to everything that happens in our lives. So in a way, meaning can be generated everywhere.
Let’s say your friend compliments you on your new sweater; that must mean they care about you. Or say your boss praises you for that badass Excel spreadsheet you made; that must mean you’re a valuable employee. Or if your dad tells you how he’s proud of you; that must mean you’re a good son.
I could list a dozen more examples here, but you get the point. Meaning is omnipresent. But the more important question is that of practicality: how exactly do you create new meaning? And how do you then steer that meaning in a positive direction that improves your life?
Enter, the four pillars of meaning.
Getting Over Your Ex With The Four Pillars Of Meaning
Wholly based on Emily Esfahani Smith’s pillars of meaning and the works of existential philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, these are belonging, purpose, narrative, and transcendence.
Below is unpack these pillars and explain how you can leverage each to generate more meaning and, as a result, get over your ex faster. Generally speaking, the more pillars you erect, the faster you’ll achieve these outcomes.
But before springing on that journey, it’s wise to educate yourself and set some optimal preconditions for meaning created to flourish.
Optimal Preconditions For The Pillars Of Meaning
The amount of meaning garnered is directly correlated with the amount of stability cultivated. The more stability your life has, the easier it will be to generate new meaning. The less stability your life has, the harder it will be to generate new meaning.
Therefore spawning a decent dose of stability is paramount. And while there are many ways you can do it, below are three I found most compelling.
1. Get Some Space Away From Your Ex
Here, I suggest applying what’s called the no contact rule. And while I already wrote an entire guide about it, here’s an abridged version.
From now on, don’t call or text your ex anymore. Don’t engage with their social media. Avoid any “accidental” encounters. Get rid of every item that may remind you of them. Avoid places that trigger painful memories.
In cases where a clean cut with your ex is impossible — like when you live or work together or have kids or pets — only communicate when you need to make a decision or agreement around those logistical matters. Avoid mindless chit-chat and keep your conversations short, to the point, and business-like.
2. Get Your Basic Shit In Order
This means heavily investing in five key life areas: sleep, exercise, diet, hygiene, and well-being.
- Sleep. Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Sleep for 7 to 8 hours a night. Invest in quality sleep supplements and sleep-aid devices if need be. (5)
- Exercise. Get or stay in shape. Take up jogging, join the gym, work out at home; I don’t give a shit. Just don’t let yourself go.
- Diet. Start or maintain healthy eating habits. My usual advice is to simply cut or limit sugar, carbohydrates, processed and fried shit. (6)
- Hygiene. Shower, clip your nails, smell nice, buy new clothes if your old ones are worn out, take care of yourself. A breakup is no excuse to be a slob.
- Well-being. Take some time off work if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Assert your boundaries more often. Cut back on booze, drugs, and social media. Get new hobbies and/or re-engage with old ones. Get your own place if you’re of ripe age and have the means for it. If you don’t have any significant daily responsibilities — child-rearing, school/college, a job/business — go and get some.
For a full guide on getting these basics in order, read: A No Bullshit Guide To Self-Care After A Breakup.
3. Get A Grip On Your Emotions
Here’s one way of doing it: whenever you feel depressed, sad, jealous, anxious, angry, whatever; go somewhere private and let yourself cry, scream, and punch shit. And then keep crying, screaming, and punching shit until you’ve let it all out. Don’t judge yourself during these moments. This is how you feel your emotions. And you need to feel them to eventually heal them.
Feeling your emotions may take a few minutes or hours. It varies from person to person since we all experience breakups differently (more on this in my article on the stages of a breakup). Don’t rush things or pressure yourself. You’ll also want to repeat this activity multiple times throughout the following days, weeks, or months because painful emotions will regrow over time. That is until you’ve got over your ex completely.
- When it comes to forgiveness, forgive your ex for their mistakes and yourself for yours. Now, this doesn’t mean forgetting whatever happened. It simply means deciding to accept it and then remaking that decision in every moment of weakness and anger.
- And when it comes to gratitude, all it takes is reserving a few minutes every day to think about what you’re grateful for. This can be anything, although the more specific you can be, the better. Then, when you have a few things in mind, either write them down or repeat them to yourself aloud. Keep doing this for at least a few weeks.
Onward to our pillars of meaning.
Meaning Pillar #1: Belonging
Belonging refers to a couple of things.
For one, it means having and leaning on a support system — a group of friends, family, peers, and/or professionals that you trust and feel safe with and who will actively listen to your concerns, give heartfelt advice, and consistent emotional support.
Don’t underestimate the importance of such a system. There are heaps of evidence proving that people without one are more lonely and isolated and, on average, feel like their lives are less meaningful. (9)
So begin reaching out to people and form your own support system. Get new friends, reconnect with old ones, spend more time with your family, etc. When done, or if you already have a support system, lean on it.
The other thing belonging refers to is being a part of a meaningful community. Churches and religious groups, volunteer and charity groups, political organizations, local hotspots, specialized niche clubs, business seminars and masterminds — all of these are solid examples.
So go and join some communities. I know this is sometimes frustrating and awkward, especially if you’re an introvert like me, but fucking force yourself to do it. You’ll be glad you did. The bigger, more participatory, and active a community is, the better.
Look especially for ones incorporating activities like dancing, hiking, swimming, or gymnastics in addition to discussions. Those are proven to expedite breakup recovery compared to communities where everyone just sits around twiddling their thumbs and scratching their heads.
If you don’t have access to in-real-life communities, those found online are actually a decent alternative, granted you’re passionately participating in group discussions and making connections with individuals there.
Surprisingly, dating also plays a major role in establishing one’s belonging pillar. Though I recommend you withhold from it until it begins to feel fun and exciting.
This way, you minimize the risk of getting into a rebound relationship, using dating as a means of distracting yourself from pain, or as a way to gain an ego boost and make yourself feel worthy again.
On a final note, many people argue that being friends with your ex also provides support for the belonging pillar. This is true, but it also makes getting over them exhausting. Thus, don’t be friends with your ex post-breakup.
To expand on this idea: only be friends with your ex when there are absolutely no shards of emotional attachment or the desire for rekindling things present on either side.
Meaning Pillar #2: Purpose
Another way to generate meaning is through living with purpose. Now, I get that purpose sounds like this deity of grand cosmic motherfucking significance, but it doesn’t have to be. I like to approach it more realistically.
For me, purpose is something we make up in our heads. It’s essentially when we decide that something is important for us, and then we do that because we feel it’s important, even if we have to give up a few things for it.
Sound simple, sure. But living purposefully requires a lot of self-reflection and self-knowledge. Each of us has different values, beliefs, characters, insights, and experiences that shape who we are. And so, each of us will have a different purpose.
But how does one find it? Well, here’s a way I gravitate to the most: hone in on an intersection of three critical areas: what you enjoy doing, what you’re good at, and what other people value. Basically, find a greater end for which you are ready and willing to suffer for.
Think, what is this end? Getting better at dating and relationships? Overcoming your insecurities? Improving your health? Excelling in your career? Fighting for a cause or movement you believe in? Nurturing and growing a friendship?
How are you going to use your time? How are you going to think about your life? How does your breakup change your perspective on your priorities? How can you make this painful period the best thing that ever happened?
Figure all of these things out, and immense meaning will follow. Otherwise, you’ll only suffer pointlessly — without deriving any value from it. And that will make getting over your ex much, much harder.
But be warned! Most people have a tendency to idealize and overestimate their puprose once they find it, which sometimes handicaps their other, equally important concerns. So here are three general truths to help you stay grounded during your search for purpose and after you find it
- Purpose won’t solve everything. While it is required to lead a happy and fulfilling life, by itself, it’s just not enough.
- Purpose changes. You never just find yours and keep it for the rest of your life. Chances are, what you find meaningful now likely won’t be what you find meaningful years later.
- Purpose isn’t singular. Meaning, you can have many purposes. You can feel as though you’re using your time meaningfully doing various things. Nothing wrong with that.
Meaning Pillar #3: Narrative
Narratives help us make sense of our breakup and understand why our relationship unraveled. They are fundamental to our search for meaning. We all have this primal desire to impose order on disorder, to find patterns in the static.
We see our ex’s face in a crowd of random people and think it’s actually them. We hear their voice in the halls of our home and weave together asinine theories about how that must mean they still love us. We’re perpetually taking pieces of information and plopping a layer of meaning onto them.
To paraphrase the psychologist Dan P. McAdams, we’re creating internalized narratives about ourselves and our lives — personal myths that make our current situation more comprehensible and easier to digest intellectually. (10)
How can we now leverage our own personal narrative? By creating one that leads to outcomes that improve our lives. And before you look at me like I have 12 noses or something, the answer is yes; building such a narrative is quite possible.
You get to decide what narrative you’ll use to explain why you broke up, what it means, and how it will affect your life. And all it boils down to is the story you tell yourself.
Here are two examples to illustrate my point.
A narrative that leads to negative outcomes: “I broke up because I’m a needy and worthless wreck. I’ll always feel this way. And I’ll never trust and love another person again — too much is at stake; it’s just not worth it.”
A narrative that leads to positive outcomes: “I broke up because I made a few mistakes, as we all do. And even though I suffered immensely, this breakup was a great opportunity for personal growth. Thus, I am grateful for my ex being in my life. I am a more resilient and knowledgeable person for it.”
Note that what we’re doing here is not the same as thinking positively and telling ourselves how our breakup was a fucking amazeballs experience. This is an oversimplification that misses out on the ethical implications of our current situation and causes us to lose touch with reality.
The goal here isn’t to craft a positive narrative about what happens but to craft a narrative that creates positive outcomes for ourselves. You don’t want to delude yourself about your breakup; all you want to do is be able to look back at the son of a bitch and say that at least something good came from it.
Meaning Pillar #5: Transcendence
[Burps and reaches for a can of cheap beer] Have you ever gazed upon the stars at night and felt this eerie and nauseating feeling that you’re merely a random spec of space dust floating around a vast and incomprehensible universe that couldn’t give fewer shits about you?
That’s transcendence, baby!
Now you might expect the feeling of insignificance in the face of such an uncomfortable truth to suck all meaning out of you. But surprisingly, it does the opposite — it fills us with a deep and powerful sense of meaning.
There are many ways you can experience such transcendence. Mediation, journaling, certain gratitude practices, and prayer are popular methods. Negative visualization works pretty damn well too. Talking to a therapist or some other professional can also be effective. (11) (12) (13)
Still, from what I gathered, you don’t necessarily have to do any of that, although it can’t hurt. For me, my most transcendental breakthroughs came while I was having a simple stroll outside or while I was home on my couch daydreaming or reflecting on my day.
Umpteen philosophers expressed that when you’re in a transcendent state of mind, the barriers between yourself and the wider world around you dissolve. Many even went on to argue that when you reach this state, you also experience what’s called an ego-death — the mental preparation before your actual death. (14)
A preparation that is unequivocally needed — because one day, everything will truly be lost: your job, health, friends, family, and sex drive. Oh, that damn sex drive! In the end, you’ll even start losing yourself and your sanity and come ever closer to your inevitable demise, the sweet kiss of death.
Most people want to prevent these changes — they want to protect themselves from loss. But they don’t know that it’s all in vain. Because all they’re really doing by trying to protect themselves is reaching for an unchanging, static future. They’re clawing for immortality. And, as the philosopher Allan Watts proved with his Backwards Law, that never works out.
So instead of cocooning yourself, welcome and embrace your loss. Reflect on your mortality and death regularly. And be grateful you even had a relationship in the first place — not everyone has that privilege. All this sounds counterintuitive as hell, but it will help you get over your ex.
The Grand Meaning Jest
The true beauty of cultivating new meaning after a breakup is that when you acquire enough of it, it renders your ex and your dead relationship meaningless.
You start to prioritize and focus on other, arguably more important things in your life, forcing your relationship to forever fade into the background, along with its emotional pull on your heartstrings.
But here’s the punchline: all that alluring meaning you used to cobble together your victory road out of grief is nothing but a mirage. A ghost.
The truth is that life has no inherent meaning. It’s us who make it up because we care. Because someone has to fucking care. Because the world clearly doesn’t.
I like to think of it as a healthy and empowering form of delusion — a delusion that fends off one’s crisis of meaning and all the problems that emanate from it.
So here’s to deluding yourself further. Here’s to imbuing your life with an unwavering sense of meaning. Here’s to a reinvention, a new beginning for you. And here’s to your annoying sighs and eye-rolls…
…Because I know you won’t believe me when I say this, BUT… you really are going to be okay. It’s just a fucking breakup.
Sooner or later, a day will come when you’ll think back to this period and smirk, perhaps even fart out a chuckle, because you’ll know how unimportant it is in the grand scheme of your life.
More Resources For Getting Over Your Ex
- My Breakup Recovery Cheat Sheet: a quick guide with over 40 tips on how to emotionally recover from your breakup and what to expect along the journey.
- My Radical Recovery Course: an online course that teaches you how deal with your suffering effectively and heal from your breakup.
- 8 Stages Of A Breakup And How To Navigate Them: probably one of my most popular breakup recovery articles. It outlines exactly what you can expect when you begin your healing journey and how to best tackle some common obstacles that just might come your way. A must-read!
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