Looking back, it almost seemed like a dream. A terrible dream like I had never had before. It was a breakup, and to me, it was death.
Oh, sure. I’d had hard times, and I’d been emotionally flooded before, but nothing like this. I felt blindsided: a mixture of shock, confusion, anger, agony, and terror all battling for supremacy. All because my partner of 12 years said those two words: “I’m leaving.”
But for me, this wasn’t just a matter of heartbreak. I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP). And, for HSPs, I believe that breakups can be completely debilitating.
Why Breakups Hit So Hard for Highly Sensitive People
I know: everyone hates breakups. Sensitive or not, they’re (almost) always rough. But when you’re a highly sensitive person, breakups are more than that — they can completely overwhelm your system.
Because highly sensitive people feel everything so deeply, the pain of rejection and separation are as keen as a broken leg. Science already confirms that emotional pain is as real as physical pain. Add into the mix an HSP nervous system that processes stimuli deeper and more thoroughly than most people, and you have yourself a molotov cocktail of heart-wrenching feelings.
If you’re highly sensitive, you may have experienced this. Ever found yourself completely unable to focus, get up, leave the house, or maybe even get out of bed after a breakup? Ever feel like it physically wounded you?
Yeah, that’s exactly why going through a breakup is different for HSPs.
So how are we supposed to cope? How do we last through those long, fruitless days? Survive the hollowed out chest and the empty bed? Where is there a soft place to land?
8 Ways to Survive a Breakup as an HSP
Five years after that dark day, I can look back with kindness, insight, and compassion. Not only did I survive something I thought I never would, but I’m thriving.
And I think I know why. I think I’ve learned what it took to heal — and what might help other HSPs do the same.
If you’ve recently had a breakup and are struggling, my heart goes out to you, my fellow HSP. I know the pain you’re in. Here are eight things that helped me get through to the other side of heartbreak. I hope they’ll help you too.
1. Soothe your nervous system
When emotional pain hits, your body is flooded with a chemical cocktail of stress hormones. This is the same cocktail you’d get if you were in physical danger: adrenaline and cortisol go screaming through you as if you were being hunted down by a saber-toothed tiger.
To counteract this primal and (very reasonable) reaction, you need to soothe your nervous system. Reset your brain and restore your body to a place of calm.
How? Do the things that make you feel good, peaceful, and calm. Things like:
- A massage from a trusted platonic friend (or a professional)
- Restorative or yin yoga
- Hugging a pet
- Spending time with a friend who always makes you feel positive and supported
- Forest bathing or a gentle walk in nature
- Any soothing personal rituals like a hot shower, spiritual cleansing, or meditation
These are balms for sensitive souls struggling with heartache.
2. Go cold turkey on the ex
Oxytocin is sometimes called the love hormone. It’s responsible for the bonding between parent and child, and between lovers. And guess what? Separation from people we have bonded with causes pain similar to drug withdrawal.
Just like withdrawal, there’s only one way through it: you have to go cold turkey.
A few months after my breakup, I told a friend that even though I knew it was for the best, if my ex called to say, “Let’s get back together,” I would say “Yes!” Even as I said it, I knew it sounded crazy. It was the oxytocin talking.
Her wise reply? “Of course you would say yes. Because you just want the pain to go away. And you think getting back together will do that. You need to remind yourself of why the breakup is worth it.” So I stopped all contact, blocked my ex on social media, and only communicated legal necessities via email.
When the hurt is fresh, you need to take time to heal. Seeing them over and over again will only rip the band-aid off an open wound.
3. Remind yourself: you won’t always feel this way
No feelings are final. Don’t get caught up in the story that you’ll never not be heartbroken. Give yourself time and space to feel the sensation of grief in your body and know that, as they say, this too shall pass.
As one of my favorite spiritual teachers, Pema Chödrön says, “You are the sky. Everything else is the weather.”
4. Professional support networks are vital
I cannot recommend a caring professional support network highly enough. Of course, friends and family can help us through our dark days. However, investing in professional support (as much as is possible for you) will work wonders. Health professionals are trained in holding space for people’s suffering and big emotions in ways that your friends and family can’t.
Therapy or counseling will help smooth the transition. If you truly cannot afford these services, many countries offer free counseling over the phone and online. There is no shame in accessing professional services to get the support you need.
5. Loneliness, anxiety, and grief are okay
Learning to be okay with loneliness, to be comfortable with uncomfortable feelings, and actually feeling hard feelings is a skill. A dear friend calls it “sitting in the tension.” And when you do, you realize it’s safe to feel big, hard feelings.
6. Reconnect to who you are
Discovering who I was without my life partner of 12 years was a big undertaking. I had spent so long enmeshed in our relationship that I didn’t really know who I was without him.
I had to reconnect with the essence of who I am. I began to meditate daily, to connect with the wisdom and insight of my highest self. I began to journal every morning. Some helpful questions I reflected on were:
- What are your values?
- How do you like to spend your time?
- What are the most important things in your life?
- What can you do today to take one step closer to who you want to be?
These insights reconnected me to who I am as a person, without my partner.
7. Understand attachment
As the darkness begins to lift, you may begin to wonder (as I did) why your relationships hold a certain pattern. Why am I attracted to emotionally unavailable people? Why do I lose myself in intimate relationships? And how can I stop these painful patterns?
Understanding the science of adult attachment theory truly changed my life. In essence, there are three styles of attachment that play an enormous role in how we relate to others. (The styles are secure, anxious, and avoidant, if you’re wondering). Knowing which one you use will help you understand many of your behaviors toward the breakup and your ex — and also what kinds of steps will or won’t help you feel whole on your own again.
As an anxiously attached person, I was nervous and shaky on my own, and I was constantly seeking reassurance in the wrong places. Understanding attachment helped me trust myself, gave me better communication skills, and eventually led to happier romantic relationships.
8. Heal your codependency
Do you have a tendency to overgive? To lose yourself in relationships? To have wishy-washy boundaries and not stand up for yourself? Me too. And it turns out, those are signs of codependency.
Codependency means you tend to rely on one person — often your partner — to meet nearly all of your emotional needs. In most cases, that also means you end up enabling that individual’s own irresponsible behaviors, because you’re not in a position to stand up to them or draw healthy boundaries. It’s a lose-lose situation.
Codependency is not just an HSP issue, and not all HSPs have it. But we do often struggle with setting boundaries and occasional people-pleasing behavior. In my case, I was experiencing codependency and I didn’t even know it.
I was always so afraid of love leaving that I did everything in my power to make it stay. This gave way to people pleasing, not getting my needs met, someone else always calling the shots, and walking on eggshells.
I never wanted to go through that again. So I wrote a list of all the ways I can have a healthy relationship. These included:
- giving myself unconditional self love
- maintaining independent hobbies
- practicing conscious communication
- asking for what I need, even if it causes difficult conversations
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And again, if you worry that you may have lived with codependency in the past, speaking to a therapist is the most reliable way to break that pattern.
Yes, HSP, You Will Love Again
No highly sensitive person is doomed to a life of heartbreak — we can heal and thrive like anyone else, but the path to get there is sometimes long.
Remember, you are worthy of loving, nourishing relationships. Be gentle with yourself as you transition through this breakup phase. It won’t last forever. And know that more grace and ease is waiting on the other side.