By Amy Alkon
Q: My boyfriend of three years cheated on me, and when I found out, he dumped me. I’m getting over it, but boy, it’s a slow process. Some days, I’m fine, and others, I feel super sad or really angry. Is there some way I can speed up my recovery so I can get on with my life?—Wasted Enough Time
A: You wish him all the best, which is to say you hope that a giant scorpion crawls out of the sand and bites his penis.
It’s understandable that you’re feeling overdue for a little emotional fumigation. But consider that there’s an upside to the downer emotions and not just for the dry cleaner who’s about to buy Crete after getting the mascara stains out of all of your clothes.
Though we tend to see our gloomier emotions—like sadness and anger—as “bad,” and the “whoopee!” emotions, like joy and happiness, as “good,” evolutionary psychologist and psychiatrist Randolph Nesse explains that emotions are neither good nor bad; they’re “adaptive.” They’re basically office managers for our behavior, directing us to hop on opportunities and avoid threats through how good or crappy particular things make us feel. As Nesse puts it, “People repeat actions that made them feel happy in the past, and they avoid actions that made them sad.”
Nesse believes that sadness may, among other things, be evolution’s version of a timeout. Note that a term psych researchers use to describe sadness is “low mood” (though it would more helpfully be called “low-energy mood”). Sadness, like depression, slows you down; you repair to your couch to boohoo, lick your wounds and seek comfort from the two men so many women turn to in times of despair, Ben & Jerry.
And yes, there’s value in this sort of ice cream-fueled Kleenexapalooza. Being sad is telling you, “Don’t do that again!”—while giving you the time and emotional space to figure out what exactly you’re supposed to not do.
Because your emotions have a job to do, you can’t just tell sadness and anger, “You’re no longer wanted here. Kindly show yourselves out.” They’ll go when you show them that they’re no longer needed, which you do by reprocessing your painful experience into something useful. Unfortunately, there are some challenges to this, because when you’re upset, your emotions and all the things you’re emotional about become a big tornado of stuff whirling around in your mind “Wizard of Oz”-style.
But what do we humans understand really well? Stories. And it turns out, studies on coping with breakups by communications researcher Jody Koenig Kellas find that creating a story about the relationship and the breakup seems to help people adjust better and faster. Essential elements in this seem to be relating your complete story in a “sequential” way (in order), having a narrative that hangs together and makes sense and illustrating it with examples of things that happened and giving possible reasons for them.
The need to mentally organize what happened into a detailed and coherent story pushes you to reflect on and make sense of your experience in ways that less directed thinking does not. What seems especially important for moving on is making meaning out of the situation—turning the ordeal into a learning experience that gives you hope for living more wisely (and less painfully) in the future.
Kellas’ results dovetail with decades of research by psychologist James Pennebaker, who finds that “expressive writing” (similar to what Kellas recommends) speeds people’s recovery from emotional trauma. But say you hate to write. Research by social psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky finds that recording your story (say, with the voice memo app on your phone) also works. You could also just tell the story to a friend or a homeless guy at a bus stop. (Give him a few bucks for lending an ear.)
Finally, consider the difference between healthy storytelling, used to find meaning in what you went through so you can move on, and unhealthy “rumination”—obsessively chewing and rechewing bits from your relationship without insight, solutions or relief. Psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema finds that this builds “a case for hopelessness,” prolonging distress and recovery.
A powerful way to unbuild a case for hopelessness is by recognizing that you have some control over what happens to you. You get to this sense through accountability—admitting that you have some responsibility for your present situation (perhaps by ignoring red flags and letting wishful thinking run the show). Sure, blaming someone else probably feels more gratifying in the moment. Unfortunately, this tends to lead to insights with limited utility—such as the revelation that Cheerios, oddly enough, do not actually cheer you up (not even when paired with a lactose-free milk substitute such as Jim Beam).