Collage by Minna

Bummer truth time: Being heartbroken is honestly one of the worst things that can happen in life. If you know right from the start I’m being truthful, then maybe all of this forthcoming talk about how to turn a really crappy experience into something empowering will seem less like lilting fairy-speak and more like reality. Without spending a bunch of time telling you about the relationship endings where I was destroyed and crying nonstop and didn’t think anything good could possibly come of any of it, I’m going to take a shortcut and promise you: Everything in here really works.

Let’s start off by talking about what your heart does for you. Besides pumping all your blood so your cells get oxygen and nutrients and you don’t die on the spot, your heart is also, metaphorically, the capacitor of all your emotions, the place where the internal YOU resides. It is the home of your fortitude, resilience, bravery, self-respect, and softness. It’s where you give and receive—and being good at both of those things is important, because real love of all kinds involves exchange.

So when your heart is broken, your aorta may be just fine, but all the experiential things associated with this crucial organ turn into a hot mess. That may seem obvious, though when you consider this study that shows our brains process the pain from heartache the same as they do the pain from physical injury, feeling romantically busted is kind of serious.

To be able to love freely, bounce back during tough times, and fearlessly explore the joy in all things…well, I guess there are some people who just get all that right away. The rest of us need an ass-whipping to understand how to do it. And that’s how heartache can become an empowering experience.

We all know or have heard of at least one person (not naming names) who got their heart broken and became a little hard and jaded, and they possibly got a really weird tattoo that may or may not involve a zombie hand holding a rose, busting out of a grave bearing a banner with the phrase “R.I.P. Love” to commemorate the experience, and after enough time has passed, you just feel a little sorry for them for having to carry their scars so publicly for so long. That isn’t you! So start by saying thank-you to your banged-up heart for teaching you how to be a hero (and avoid bad permanent art).

Now let’s get started. Here’s what got me to the other side, and might get you there too:

Realize that thoughts drive your behavior.
Whatever you believe you are fundamentally, that is the truth. This isn’t where you go, “I fundamentally believe that I am Drew Barrymore,” because that is crazy talk. This is where you go, “I’m awesome, and I might be hurting right now but it’s OK, because I’m going to be better in the long run,” or “I’m a sad loser who doesn’t deserve a damn thing because it’s all gonna get taken away anyway.” Whichever one—or some variation—you choose, you will act it out somehow or another, and you will be treated accordingly. It’s entirely your choice!

Develop compassion.
Now you know what it feels like to feel like garbage. So you can recognize that feeling in others, and empathize. It strangely becomes a healing experience for both people when this happens. You get over your heartbreak even more, and so do they.

Discover that you are loved.
Go ahead and try to reject this because it sounds corny and you don’t like feelings. I’m sorry, it’s just the objective truth of the matter. When you understand that you are loved, that there are, really, people who love you, that you DESERVE their love, and that you really do have huge, undying support in this world, from your friends and/or family and/or pets and/or God if you believe in that, the love that you lost begins to feel smaller in comparison. Some ways you can do this:

  • Say thank you. When you express gratitude for things you have in life, that appreciation will become happiness. Genuine happiness that comes from you and isn’t bestowed by outside forces (like certain people who once used to make fuzzy caterpillars dance in your stomach and now are total a-holes who ruined your heart) leads to bigger and better things, things that actually matter in life. What these things are will look different for everyone: Better grades? More confidence? Finding a little bit of peace with your mom? Whatever they are, they’ll put you in a more positive frame of mind for generating whatever it is that feels good to you personally. Even if you have to force yourself to keep a journal of three things you’re thankful for every day, and one day it’s “I’m thankful for veggie chili,” at least you’ve got veggie chili on your side.
  • Ask your friends for help. Your real friends are going to listen to you, and then shut you up when it’s time to stop talking about it. They will call you at night and listen to you cry, and then remind you of all the good things you have going on in your life. They will help you stay strong and ignore your ex’s late-night texts. They will pay you amazing compliments that almost feel too good to be true, though deep inside you know they’re right—they see who you actually are.
  • Hang out with animals. Animals rule. They love your affection and want to return it.

Learn how to be alone.
You’re no longer half of a pair, and you’re still at least somewhat functional. Yes, you need your friends (especially right now, and now’s the time to depend on them to help you out when you’re sad, which we talked about above)—you’re not an isolated hermit whom no one loves. As much as you can, get into that space of You Power, because enjoying solitude is an important life skill.

When you’re alone, the things that are exciting to you as an individual will become beacons of inspiration, if you let them. Whatever you deem your “work”—and it can be anything: personal collage projects, tracking down awesome comics (hint: Ron Regé Jr.), acing your history paper, beating the top score on that video game, concocting the perfect Pandora station (Top Girls + Diva Dompé + Enya + Grimes + Tomita + Sun Araw), focusing on emotional growth, powering through your Netflix documentary queue, getting your Tumblr in shape with some homemade custom CSS, or exploring some aspiration that doesn’t have a shape but is right now just a “feeling” inside you—starts to have focus, detail. These are the things that come to the forefront when you can be happy by yourself. You can burn all your anger and sadness as fuel, and this “work” becomes a rocket that transports you to your personal goals.

Plus, not everything is better if you share it with another person. All those fries are yours. And you get to explore whatever you want on your own time, go into your dream world, sit in the bookstore and scheme up random correlations between subjects, dress up for the special occasion of bonding with your favorite pinball game…it’s like being five again, only you know how to cross the street by yourself and not get hit by a car. These small things are glitter treats for your independent spirit, and you’re the only one who can provide them. In other words, you learn that you are your own source of validation, and that you decide when you’re cool, which is always.

Developing your independence means you know how to protect and take care of yourself, you’ll be able to lead when the situation arises, you dress better because you don’t care what anyone thinks, you’re able to make decisions for yourself without consulting seven and a half people first, you learn how to share without being weird about it, and generally you just get radder. Seriously, you know those people who are nice to everyone yet mysteriously don’t seem to need company every minute of the day? How do they do that? Maybe they got their heart broken once.

Develop your will.
You’re not really supposed to have all this self-control in life right now. It’s not your job to be calm and rational and know how to cope with everything and have the perspective that it all “happens for a reason” (it drives me insane when people shrug and say that—why would you hand over your power of choice to some outside force, aka “the universe”?). However, it is important to have the experiences that give you the chance to cultivate self-discipline, because knowing how and when to bite down and power through really comes in handy in life. Mentally getting a grip and refocusing—even just distracting yourself, if that’s the best you can do sometimes—takes hard work. You don’t have to take the high road all the time, but it’s good for you to be able to quit checking your ex’s Twitter or Facebook, because it hurts to keep looking. Plus, you can’t pass your driving test if you’re crying over your ex.

Find what you’re really made of.
It’s always good to have a starting point from which to measure everything that comes after. Do you wallow? Want to smash stuff? Say horrible things to your ex that you really wish you could take back? Good news! You’ve gotten a chance to identify parts of yourself that show up only when you’re in mega pain, and now you know what lives inside you. When else do you get to do that? The fantastic thing is, once you see who you really are, you can make a better decision about who you want to be. Also, you get to see where you’re solid and dazzling, and can still be nice to someone who might not deserve it. Maybe you realize you’re worth something better than what you previously had. Maybe, actually, you’re stronger than you ever thought you were. Nice work, A++. I knew you had it in you. ♦

Whatever it is, if it’s following your heart Liz Armstrong will tell you to GO FOR IT. She lives in Los Angeles, writes for a living, believes no amount of glitter is too much, and currently aspires to better pinball chops.