Four pillars of healing broken hearts
I certainly didn't set out to become an expert on broken hearts—however life seemed to offer me the opportunity!
Early experiences of heartbreak left me guarding my heart. Later on, I became aware of physical sensations like walls of protection around my heart. Then a number of years ago, in the throes of a breakup, they intensified to mysterious pains—at times, even stabbing pains that took my breath away.
At that point I recognized the profound connection between my palpable physical experience and the emotional pain I was carrying in my heart.
If you are experiencing heartache or heartbreak, know that you are not alone.
Broken hearts are all too common among women today. I'd venture to say that by the time we reach menopause, most women have experienced broken hearts. And may still be carrying that heartache or heartbreak to one degree or another—whether single or partnered.
You may be aware of guarding your heart as you seek out or enter into new relationships (not necessarily romantic relationships), aware of tender wounds that have not yet been healed. You may notice underlying painful patterns in your relationships and wonder if it is possible to change.
So what does it take, healing broken hearts? I won't pretend there's some quick fix or silver bullet. As a wise woman herbalist, I dearly love hawthorn berry as a plant ally to support healing of our hearts. And I’ve found that digging down and doing the internal work of sorting through emotional layers is essential to deep and lasting transformation.
Whatever has brought you to this point, know that it is possible to heal a broken heart. And yes, it is a big commitment. One of the most valuable commitments you’ll ever make. As you begin working through layers of healing and integration, these four pillars for mending broken hearts can help guide your way.
Four pillars for healing from broken hearts
Healing broken hearts is more than just, "Think good thoughts." Deep healing is a process that takes time, attention and patience. Sometimes you may need to look backwards before moving forward because healing a broken heart usually cracks open old wounds, sometimes as far back as childhood.
It can be tempting to fall back into harmful habits or addictions—or jump into the first opportunity for a relationship—anything to ease the pain. Stay alert to that. Until you address the underlying wound, broken hearts can continue to fester much like a physical wound under the surface.
Through my own deep and difficult journey through healing my broken heart, I recognized that healing broken hearts can actually be an invaluable opportunity to come home to yourself—to reset your bearings before moving ahead.
As you embark on that journey, here are four pillars that can guide your way:
- Establishing safety
- Emotional regulation
- Self-reflective information processing
While these four pillars provide a general progression, there may be overlap as you move through the layers. Proceed slowly, knowing you may get into intense territory, and seek support (or professional help) as needed.
Pillar #1) For healing broken hearts, first we establish safety
The first place to start in healing broken hearts is to establish safety. As feminist trauma expert Judith Herman emphasizes, that includes both physical and emotional safety. Creating safety helps to modulate your nervous system which supports the emotional work that leads to deep healing.
Establishing safe space physically
Find or create a physical space where you can be present with your emotions, ideally, in a place where others cannot hear you or interrupt you. Perhaps there is a bedroom or other room where you can shut the door and can create a private place for yourself.
If you don’t have a place in your home, perhaps there is a spot outdoors, in the woods, by a creek, or under a favorite tree. Alternatively, if you don’t have a private space, you may look for a dedicated time when others are not around, where you can shut the doors and be alone.
As a starting place, take time to tend your space, cleaning as needed, sorting and culling things that are no longer needed or no longer serve you. In doing so, you’ll reconnect with the things you truly love, and let others go. Feel free to bring in items that may support your healing—a comfy blanket, an inspiring quote, a special candle or stone.
As you settle into your space in your alone times, take a moment to look around the space you have created to orient yourself in your safe place. The physical act of moving your eyeballs side to side as you look around the room, actually allows your nervous system to relax so you can open yourself to the work at hand.
Creating physical safety also has longer term benefits, as chronic lack of safety can imprint in your nervous system and take a toll on your immune system and hormonal system.
Physical self care
In addition to finding a safe space, it's important to tend to your physical self-care—sleeping at least 7 hours a night, eating regular meals, and taking time outdoors for moderate movement. As you nourish your physical body, you're more able to gather the energy to do the deep, emotional and internal work of healing your broken heart.
Cultivating emotional safety
Create more emotional safety for yourself by being thoughtful about how and when to engage with others and when to step back. Of course, if you are constantly tending to the needs and concerns of others, it is hard to find time for self reflection and self connection. Know that your healing is important and investing your time and energy in yourself is critical.
To cultivate emotional safety, you’ll want to avoid situations or people who tend to bring up criticism, unwanted advice or uncomfortable comparisons which can be harmful for your heart. These types of interactions can easily feed your internal voices that dismiss your experience as trivial—or that say your experience is the exception which no one else can understand. Either way you end up feeling more alone.
Without the added fodder from those interactions, you can more easily quiet your own inner critic.
Establishing safety may sound like a lot to ask of yourself, and you may feel it is undoable. I can say from experience as a single mother working full time, it was hard to find the time and energy to cultivate a safer environment—and once I did, I realized how essential it was for my healing.
To recap, here are some practical ways to establish safety:
- Find or create a physical space where you can focus on your emotional world
- Tend to your physical self care
- Create emotional space by being selective about your interpersonal interactions
- Avoid situations or people who provide unwanted advice or comparisons.
Pillar #2) Grieving from the heart
Within the container of safety that you have created, you may now be ready to spiral down into your heart. In my experience, emotional pain can sometimes be even harder to navigate than physical pain. The next pillar for healing broken hearts is moving through your grief.
Giving voice to grief
Many ancient cultures have rituals of keening or wailing where participants are able to vocalize their grief. Often these are associated with deaths, though not always.
A friend of mine raised in Scotland in a Celtic tradition, leads keening circles throughout the year, providing women a space to move through the deep grief that builds up over time in our lives—and in our bodies.
I was also blessed to participate in grief rituals facilitated by Sobonfu Somé. These rituals lasted a weekend or more in a space teeming with people grieving out loud together. Some would drum, others would sing, others knelt at altars which we made collectively. Individuals were spread throughout the room in child’s pose, head to the ground, while others stood in a supportive role just behind them, but not touching.
Each person was encouraged by the music and one another to express their grief openly—to cry or sob or wail. Participating in these powerful rituals, there was no denying the healing power of grieving.
Allow grief to guide your journey of healing
I have coined the term “Winter of Grief” to describe my process of grieving heartbreak one winter years ago. It began around after fall equinox and continued through the dark time, the inward months of the winter season.
As I spiraled down into my internal world, I found that I touched not only the pain of the current situation, but also the roots that went back much further. Every day, I cried. When possible, I gave voice out loud to the grief so that it could move through me and out of my body.
When working with grief, let her be the guide. If memories come up, acknowledge those as an opportunity for more complete healing. You may find places of tension in your body, where your grief or emotions have been stored.
When possible, allow yourself to vocalize your grief to help release tension in your heart and your throat and to get the energy flowing freely in your body again.
Pillar #3) Emotional regulation to soothe your heart
Intense emotional pain can put your body into a state of fight or flight, bordering on hyper-vigilance scanning for possible threats. You may wish to shut down and close off. To bring yourself back into a relaxed and embodied state, it's helpful to practice regulating your emotions.
By regulation, I don't mean suppressing or turning off your emotions. Rather it's about finding ways to bring your body out of a place of high alert and back into a calmer, parasympathetic state.
Common emotional regulation techniques
Some common techniques for emotional regulation include:
- Focusing on your breath, such as inhaling for a count of 3 and exhaling for a count of 5—or holding a word in mind with your inhale/exhale, such as “calm”
- Tapping your fingertips on your chest around your heart helps dissipate anxiety, resets your energy, and regulates your nervous system.
- Yoga or meditation
- Movement and exercise
Experiment to find which methods you find helpful and enjoyable, and weave one or more into your daily routine. If you wake up in the middle of the night feeling anxious, bring yourself back into your body with your breath or tapping with your fingertips.
Self empathy for your feelings and needs
In addition to these physical techniques, self empathy is a powerful way to regulate emotions. My students often share that they’ve found connecting with their feelings and needs to be transformational in their internal healing.
Here are two simple steps for self empathy:
1. Take a moment to ask, “What am I feeling right now?”
2. Dig deeper and ask, "Which of my needs are not being met?"
Identifying and naming your unmet needs is a way of saying, “Yes, there is a reason for this emotional pain, it’s not all in my head—it's actually valid."
Ready to go even deeper? Likely the roots of your emotional pain may have originated in childhood. Take a moment to connect with your inner girl child and ask her, “What are you feeling? What are you needing?”
If you're curious to explore your needs, and want some support, I suggest you grab a free copy of the It’s Your Time Now! worksheet—which includes my Wise Woman Needs Wheel and some simple yet powerful exercises to help identify your needs.
Pillar #4) Self reflection to understand your patterns
The fourth pillar of healing broken hearts is self-reflection—or self-reflective information processing, as it is known in the trauma healing community.
Self-reflective information processing means looking at your situation through the lens of a witness. Start by noting the memories and feelings coming up in relation to your current heartbreak.
Then begin to dig. Ask yourself questions like . . .
- Where did those feelings show up in your relationship and what happened next?
- What were the outcomes and what were the impacts?
- Do you have similar memories or feelings from another, different relationship? What happened there?
Keep digging to explore what might be recurring patterns. Now, take care—this is not to say that you're at fault!
You can't control the actions of others and the recurrence of difficult feelings. You can explore ways to move through those moments with self empathy and care—and you can understand your patterns and the choices you make.
Modalities for self reflection
My favorite form of self reflection has always included journaling. I filled journal after journal through my healing process. Writing can be a way of expressing emotions that have been held up inside so that you can spiral back through grieving and vocalizing.
Personally I believe there is power in using words to do this type of self reflection—however, I have also found that expressing visually through art is also quite powerful.
Women's circles organized around a talking stick format can also support self reflection with the additional power of being witnessed.
Common in many indigenous cultures (originally, usually around a fire!), in a talking stick format, each woman speaks her truth, uninterrupted. Her words are not analyzed or commented upon. It is a place to be witnessed and heard without feedback or advice.
If you don’t have a women’s circle near you , you could also use this format with a trusted friend who will listen, witness and accept you regardless of what you share. This helps to break down old shame and guarding around the heart.
As you dive into self reflective information processing, choose what style(s) you prefer:
- Visual art
- Women’s circles
- Sharing with a trusted friend
With the information you have from the self reflective information processing, you can begin to strategically address specific patterns that came up, recognize the beliefs that are fueling those patterns, and make wise choices of where to focus your attention.
Coming home to yourself
Heartbreak hurts. And yet, healing broken hearts—while difficult—is a deeply rewarding process. Understanding the experiences that inform your perceptions and choices gives you a sense of power and understanding in your world. When you are grounded in knowing, you can navigate tender moments with more self awareness and empathy.
Remember, you are not alone. There are countless women today walking around with hearts that are aching or broken. It is easy to feel defeated and to collapse into the old stories saying that you're wrong, or not enough, or too much.
However, if you lean into the grief and allow the process of healing your broken heart to open you up to yourself, you start to understand the patterns and underlying old beliefs that may played out in various relationships over time. You then have an opportunity to reset and cultivate a healthier future for yourself.
Healing broken hearts is not a straightforward process. Once you have established safety you may continue to spiral through the other steps of grieving, emotional regulation and self reflection with each layer of healing. Look for the needs that were not met, the recurring patterns—and the underlying beliefs which may have informed them. Armed with this information, you are on the road back home to yourself.
Corinna Wood, seasoned teacher and mentor along the wise woman path–from herbs to self love
"I was initiated into the Wise Woman Tradition at the tender age of 22, by Susun Weed and a beloved patch of nettles. Today, I support women with inner growth and healing tools to ground you in your own innate wisdom, needs and desires. My teachings on heart and soul healing draw on earth wisdom of our foremothers––the shoulders on which we stand––to navigate the challenges we face as women in the world today."