For a while, a broken heart hurts so intensely that the pain is actually physical. You feel the smothering weight of sadness and loneliness, of rejection and isolation. But in addition to those internal emotions, there’s also bodily pain: nausea, headaches, lack of appetite, and an exhaustion so crushing that all you feel capable of doing is laying in bed all damn day.
So when someone tells you that your broken heart is actually making you stronger, it’s usually accompanied by an intense desire to throw something on your end.
How could anyone possibly classify you as being strong, you wonder. You’ve spent days, weeks, and even months sobbing against the wall, crying in bathroom stalls at work, needing your friends and family more than you’ve ever needed them in your life, sometimes staring unseeingly in the middle of a social gathering, unable to feel anything at all.
Who would call that “getting stronger”?
To you, this whole experience feels more like you’re breaking apart, piece by piece.
But here’s the thing about “getting stronger.” We don’t realize it’s happening to us until we’re already through the dark patch. How could you possibly have time to reflect on the strength and tenacity of your soul when all your energy is going towards just getting out of bed in the morning? How could you have any time to do some internal categorization of your supposed mental and emotional fortitude when you’re too focused on trying not to break down at work and on maintaining some semblance of a social life so that you don’t entirely lose your mind?
We romanticize breakups in order to survive. We want the pain and the aching to have meaning, so that it didn’t all happen for nothing. We need a way to wrap our brains around all the heartache. So we think about the movies we’ve seen, the books we’ve read, the sad One Republic songs they play during the montage that follows a breakup scene at the end of a dramatic television episode. And we want to be those people, those characters. We want to stare out of a bus window on a rainy day and experience ~growth~ in a ten-second take. We want to go on a long hike and get to the top of a mountain and then realize it was a metaphor! the whole time for our grieving process, and that now we’re okay. We want to stand alone and stare at the skyline of a beautiful city at night, and smile to the invisible audience watching us, to signify that we will get through this because we’re ~strong~.
But in real life, breakups are ugly.
The days are shitty and uneventful. You’re alone much of the time. Much of your grieving happens behind closed doors and you are the only one who will ever witness it. Falling asleep is impossible for a long time, because you’re still getting used to the fact that there is no longer a warm body beside you or a soothing, familiar voice to wish you good night. Work days are impossibly long.
Sleep is the only respite, and it is brief and not restful. Social outings are exhausting and obligatory for a long while. Nothing about the pain and sadness and loneliness is romantic. It’s just full of suck.
There are some really beautiful moments that happen throughout this time, sure. But they’re sparse, and sprinkled amongst so many rough days that we are fairly unaware of them. The healing happens slowly, because this is real life. We are unaware of the growth and the change happening within us because it is happening in quiet, unremarkable moments. Nothing about it is seemingly courageous or awe-inspiring. It’s just regular life. But it’s regular life that we’re forcing ourselves to go through and continue showing up to, despite the heaviness that sits on our shoulders. And that is where the strength is coming from, bit by bit. Each time we get out of bed we’re getting stronger. Each time we cry in the bathroom stall and then shake it off and go back to our desk, we’re getting stronger. Each time we force ourselves to go be with our friends when all we want to do is stay home and wallow, we’re getting stronger. Nothing about this behavior is sexy or fascinating to watch. It doesn’t turn ours into an exceptional story or turn us into some outstanding character. We’re just us, surviving despite how sad we are, how heavy our heart is.
But that is what true strength really is. It’s not for show, it’s not for the benefit of someone else, it’s not incredible our admirable. It’s small, and secret, and quiet. It’s average. It’s human. But that’s exactly what makes it so comforting. Sometimes we go through our breakups and our heartaches and we wonder why it’s not as fascinating and as beautiful as the stories we read and watch. We think that we’re never going to get better because we’re not matching up with what we expect heartbreak to be like. But when you think about it, the monotony of your pain should be comforting. It means you’re doing it right, that you’re on the right track, that you’re experiencing what millions of humans before you have experienced. Maybe you’re not going to come out on the other side of your heartbreak and create an Eat, Pray, Love kind of phenomenon. But the important thing is, you’re going to come out on the other side, and you’re going to understand in such a deeper way what it means to be strong, what it means to be brave, what it means to be tough.
It means getting up, showing up, and living – when there’s no promise of admiration or glory or fascination from others. You’re doing it just to do it, you’re doing it because somewhere inside of you, you know that you’ll make it through, that you’ll be okay, that you’ll survive.
You are building strength, slowly, steadily. And maybe there’s no Snow Patrol playing in the background, maybe there’s no close up shot to portray your growth on your face. But it’s real, your new strength. More real than anything you’ve ever watched or read or listened to. Your heart was broken, and your story probably fell very short of extraordinary. And that’s exactly why you should trust it. It’s real life, not a movie. You’re almost there. Stay strong, and just keep getting out of bed.