The secret to healing a broken heart may just be a matter of looking back to our younger selves.
A while back, I got smacked with a broken heart.
I don’t need to tell you what it’s like: the grief, the fury, the obsessive obsessing. You catch yourself staring into space like a shell-shocked bush baby. Bursting into sobs when a waiter asks what you want for lunch. Knowing beyond doubt that you’re a flabby warthog who will never again find love. Wondering if warthogs are allowed to join enclosed religious orders.
In the middle of all that, I got a rare chance to meet up with my three oldest and best friends. (Full disclosure: margaritas and Quelf were involved.) As the evening went on, full of laughter and warmth and good conversation, I was flooded by a wave of nostalgia. I missed those long afternoons of our childhood when the four of us were invincible Kate, Sara, Alyssa, and me. We were smart and fun and confident. Back when guys and breakups weren’t even on our radar.
Why can’t we feel like that now? I wondered.
Somewhere around the age of nine, girls get life down to a fine art.
We know exactly who we are. We’re writing poetry, building the ultimate cat gymnasium, proving Fermat’s Last Theorem, having burping contests with our friends and really trying to win. Because that’s our jam. We’re passionate about the environment or filmmaking or mapping the human genome.
Then, boom — the hormones hit and we forget it all.
As psychologist and writer Mary Pipher puts it, “Adolescence is when girls experience social pressure to put aside their authentic selves and to display only a small portion of their gifts.”
Here’s what I realized: to heal my heart and spirit, I would need to remind myself who that amazing kid was before she lost track of her true self. I’d need to get back in touch with her tastes and ambitions and passions, and start building them back into my life.
When it comes to healing a broken heart, it’s all about letting her lead the way. And it starts with three essential steps:
1. Talk to her again.
Start a journal and free-write about the things you loved as a kid. What did you crave? What did you love to do? Let your memories pour out without editing anything. Try to recall sensory details: who were you with? Where? What was the weather like? Include the smell of the grass, the sound of the ocean, the taste of your favorite candy.
Try writing in character as your nine-year-old self. (Or whatever age feels right to you.) How would you describe yourself? What’s going on in your life? Are you in your bedroom? At camp? Somewhere else? Who’s around? If you had complete freedom at this moment, what would you be doing?
If words aren’t working, try creating a collage or scrapbook. Images may jog your memory more effectively than words. Any old artwork or photos you’ve saved can be gold.
Chat with friends and siblings who remember the old days. Conversations with the people who’ve known you longest can sometimes bring back long-forgotten details.
2. Make a to-do list of childhood activities and goals.
When you think back to the childhood experiences that you remember, notice how they make you feel. Pay attention to the ones that still give you that flicker of excitement (or glee, or longing, or even envy). Those are the ones that are part of your core being. Write them down.
Some will be easy and cheap to do. (Examples from my list: “Buy tiara to wear grocery shopping”, “Plan water balloon fight w/Sara, Kate & Alyssa.”) Others may take a little more time, effort, or money. (“Sign up for riding lessons,” “write a novel,” “join the Sherlock Holmes Society of London.”)
Did you always want to learn welding? Find yourself a class. Did you want to be a poet, an architect, a wildlife rehabilitator? Start taking those dreams seriously. Track down groups and communities that will support you.
3. Go outside and play.
Here’s the one absolutely essential rule: You have to actually do the things on your list. That’s where real healing starts.
Does playing like a kid seem embarrassing? Are you worried that some concerned bystander is going to sneak up on you with a straitjacket? I get it, I really do.
Don’t worry. Just take a deep breath and keep gluing chocolate chips onto your friend’s face in a decorative pattern.
As all artists know, play is not just for children. It’s powerful. It creates, reveals, and renews, and it’s the best way to reconnect with your authentic self.
Here are some examples from my notebook.
“I Wanted To Be a Trapeze Artist.”
There are clubs, schools, and camps all over the country that offer trapeze classes for beginners. Google “Cirque du Soleil classes” and you’ll find a bunch of intriguing possibilities. Many of these programs will also give you a taste of tightrope walking, juggling, and other circus-y thrills. And you don’t have to be an athlete to try them.
“I Loved Bouncing On the Bed.”
Wheee! If you have a fragile bed frame and/or low ceilings, you may want to try a trampoline instead. Or check online to find a local gymnastics class. If the sensation of flight is what you crave, then mere bouncing may not be enough. You may need to get out there and start hang-gliding, parasailing, or skydiving.
“I Was In the Best Secret Club Ever.”
Adults can have secret clubs, too. All you need to start one is a friend (who can keep a secret). From there, things can get as elaborate as you want. Make sure you have a secret hideout. Yes, you could just meet up in the living room, but it’s much better to pick a place like the roof, the attic, or the space under the stairs. Bring in some blankets and apples.
Underneath all the pain and heartbreak, that confident nine-year-old kid is still there inside you.
Take her seriously. When it comes to healing a broken heart, it starts by celebrating the talented, complex, amazing person you really are at every age.
For more reading on finding yourself, read this powerful essay on how we can make ourselves small in the pursuit of love — and how we can fix it.