Heartbreak: Why Does it Hurt So Much?


Interintellect Host Michelle Huang on her debut Salon with Brian Toh — and pain, healing, and identity

First published on Michelle’s blog.

“You never really know how it’s going to end. But when it does, you can’t really say you didn’t see it coming. They tell you the amount of love you’re willing to let in is equivalent to the amount of pain you think you can survive. There is some sacred and fundamental truth to that.

But they also never told you how much it was going to f***ing hurt.”

– Excerpt from a story about love

Last night, a few days after Valentine’s Day, I hosted my debut Interintellect salon with my friend Brian. It turned into a 3-hour dialogue to better explore the feeling we all know as “heartbreak”. Ten lovely humans came together in a digital space, to collectively open our hearts and hold space for each other during vulnerable times. We talked about love, the pain that occasionally comes after it, and the healing practices around this injury.

Here are some salient bits, aggregated from our conversation:

Heartbreak hurts so much, not only because you are grieving loss of that person in the present moment, but because you are letting go of all future possibilities and dreams that you once had with them.

Essentially, you are amputating a section of the alternate universes, of “could be” worlds, and the letting go of that is resisted by the inner child that still believes in all possibilities, and of magic. In some ways, you are also grieving losing parts of yourself too: the person who you could be with them, the person you were around them.

This could manifest as feelings of self-betrayal, asking yourself the questions: “How could I let myself fall in love with someone that hurt me so much?” or “Do I need to calibrate my model of the world, because it is not as true as I believed?”

In other words, heartbreak could also be framed as a saved state gone wrong: a version control error of a snapshot of yourself lost in time. When you revisit these old states, you experience falling and hitting the ground over and over again. Physically, you are here, but the emotional body yearns to fulfill its unmet desires in alternate realities still available to us — perhaps, in our dreams or continued imagination. Indeed, will defies the physical plane.

Refactoring these compromised saved states could take the form of getting into new relationships, practicing self love, or developing coping mechanisms.

Healthy ones allow you to move on from these stagnant checkpoints and allow you to transition further in the “game” of life, but unhealthy ones could lead to dangerous loops that recurse back to old patterns or habits that no longer serve us: hitting repeat on a level for the sake of familiarity but never advancing. Sometimes we choose the route of feeling the same pain because we think it is better than feeling no pain at all.

We explored how the language of heartbreaks could mirror our language in love (both inexplicable with words to a certain extent), and what happens when love feeds into a certain dysfunction by examining if our love is coming from a place of fear or fullness. Are we searching for a pain that feels productive? Are we thirsty for something that actually dehydrates us?

Instead, can we reframe triggers as opportunities to appreciate a certain awareness about ourselves, and witness our story of a broken and human heart from a place of compassion?

We talked about how we have handled our heartbreaks, the anger and sadness we felt, and the guilt and shame that we felt about ourselves on top of that. How during times of healing, there is also fear about the version we will become after processing the heartbreak, as we have to go through the process of losing an old identity (“saved state”) and growing into a new one. There is uncertainty around the person we will become, and that scares us.

Perhaps in the back of our head, there is a tiny voice that wonders, “Will things ever return to normal?” As Carl Jung wrote: “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.”

So maybe, we may never be the same, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be any less whole.

But the human instinct is to protect and shield ourselves from the pain, especially if it seems consuming in the moment. During our conversation, someone asked “if love is a requisite to heartbreak, then why even bother to love at all?”

Some answers from our salon-goers: “Because love is worth the pain, and it’s a gift that shows us the extent of our capacity to be human.” “Because love is needed to grow.” “Because it is the same answer to why we should live at all.”

And another drop of wisdom, that maybe it’s not love in itself that is complicated, but what’s attached to it might be — and often is.

After I led the group through a heart-healing meditation, we concluded with closing ceremony, where we let go of our most recent heartbreaks together (there were tears).

As we signed off, one by one, we each gave our parting messages to each other, and to the person we once loved: “[name of person who broke our heart], I love you. I release you, I set you — and therefore, myself — free.”

I have nothing but gratitude for these brave people for showing up with courage and vulnerability, for doing the work, and for inspiring many of the points above. There is some strange comfort and resonance to sharing space to process our heartbreaks with each other.

By engaging in the collective healing of a wound that is so universally experienced, and yet so unique to each individual, this act of togetherness definitely makes the journey of doing This Human Thing a little bit less lonely.