Ramon Casas, Decadent Young Woman After the Dance, 1899
Ramon Casas, Decadent Young Woman After the Dance, 1899

some thoughts on heartbreak and recovery

Originally posted by Elaine Wang on Substack.

What we love is the idea we have of someone. It’s our own concept—our own selves—that we love.” — Fernando Pessoa

While traveling in Lisbon last month, I stumbled upon Fernando Pessoa in the Jerónimos Monastery. I had some notion of his great stature in the Portuguese literary canon but mainly knew him as the guy with the weird glasses. Crossing paths with his corpse felt serendipitous, so I read some of his writing. His words have been churning in my brain ever since. 

The idea that love is tied to our image of our selves ran counter to everything I wanted to believe about love. Love is selfless, love is transcendent. But I think what he’s trying to say is that we first love an idea that’s generated from within our subconscious. It’s something we value deeply, an intrinsic part of our soul. We look for the embodiment of this idea externally, in the people we date. We project it onto them based on certain characteristics.

Part of what makes finding love so hard is that most of us don’t have a sense of what this idea is a priori. We know certain traits are appealing—e.g. a sense of humor, a creative mind, a certain physique, etc.—but it’s entirely possible for someone to check the boxes on all these attributes and still fail to light a spark. There’s something that exists on a subconscious, almost spiritual level that we’re seeking. We don’t know what it is until we find it. And when we’re convinced we see it in someone, we fall in love. 

I was telling my friend Maia about the disappointment of dating someone I really liked and who seemed to really like me, only for that… not to be the case. 

Me: I don’t get how they can find you attractive, feel like you have chemistry, enjoy spending time with you, and still decide it’s not worth the effort.

Maia: Well, I think you can like someone, but they don’t inspire your imagination. 

This resonated with me not because it described the guy I had been dating, but because the reverse of that statement described me. For whatever reason, this guy sparked my imagination. “I like his vibes” was how I described it when we first met. It sounds cliché, but that’s because I couldn’t pinpoint precisely what about him I liked so much. It was an amalgamation of attributes that formed some idea of personhood, a way of being, of seeing the world, that deeply affected me. Of course, I barely knew him. I was projecting this image onto him based on what I knew about his likes and dislikes, his way of speaking and behaving, his way of carrying himself. 

Breakups and rejection cause a particular soul-crushing pain because the future conjured by our imagination can no longer exist due to the person who sparked it walking away. It’s like the artist’s muse disappearing from both life and the canvas, from the present and the future. And since we are all artists of our own lives, it can feel self-annihilating.

From Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet:

The feelings that hurt most, the emotions that sting most, are those that are absurd: the longing for impossible things, precisely because they are impossible; nostalgia for what never was; the desire for what could have been; regret over not being someone else; dissatisfaction with the world’s existence. All these half-tones of the soul’s consciousness create in us a painful landscape, an eternal sunset of what we are.”

After the end of my longest relationship, my coach walked me through “the golden shadow” exercise (related, I’m sure, to Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow self). He had me address my ex-partner out loud and tell him everything I missed about him. He then read my words back to me, but instead of addressing my ex, he addressed me. It read something like this: 

Dear Elaine,

I’m sad that we separated. Even though you are very hard on yourself, I see a lot of good in you. You’re a great listener. You have a very calm presence that I find soothing. I love your taste in movies. I love that you’re open to trying new things. You are thoughtful with your gifts. Like when you got me hand warmers because I was always cold in the office. I love how you go with the flow. You are non-argumentative. You clean up my messes in the kitchen. I can always trust you to get things done when you say you will. You’re patient. You’re relaxed. I will miss your cat. I will miss your presence. Your smell. Your hugs.

This exercise seemed silly. It was jarring to hear my words spoken back to me. But it did help me recognize that I was projecting certain qualities I valued onto another person while disowning them in myself. Hearing my words read back, I saw that they could equally describe me at my best (except for the cat).  

Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature.” — Plato’s The Symposium

As much as I admire the ethos of romantic love described by Plato—we were split at birth, and love is the search for our other half—I think it’s an illusion that someone out there is walking around with something you don’t have but desperately need. The thing we’re searching for already exists within our own selves. If we can figure out how to access it, then we can recover from the pain of a breakup and have a better chance at finding love. The search for a partner then becomes a search for someone who can work with what you already have, rather than someone who will “complete you.”

The million dollar question, of course, is how do we access the parts of ourselves that we’ve (consciously or not) disowned? It’s a personal journey, but I’ve found that there are two things I can do to feel more whole. 

  1. One is becoming aware of the qualities I admire that I don’t think I possess and making a conscious effort to embody them, even if it’s just to see what it feels like to be that type of person. It’s deeply uncomfortable but gets easier with practice. For example, I was very anxious and wanted to become a more easygoing person. So I looked at what people who were easygoing were doing and mimicked some of their behavior: I would take a 15-minute break in the middle of the work day and lie down on my couch, doing nothing but staring at the ceiling.
  2. The other is finding an activity—something I already enjoy but have underinvested in or something I’ve always wanted to try—and to pursue it wholeheartedly. At a transitional point in my life, I wanted to become a better biker so I could bike-commute to work. Can’t say I’ve overcome my fear of New York City drivers, but the two hours I devoted to this activity every week gave me so much joy, energy, and confidence, I felt like a new person and began to change the script I had about myself.

It’s so easy to limit ourselves, to think: I am this and not that. I loved someone and will never love again. When we’re stuck in that mindset, we need to introduce a new element—a new way of being or doing—to expand our imagination beyond what it already knows.