It Might Sound Masochistic, but Exposure Therapy Is a Tried-and-True Way to Get Over an Ex

Photo: Getty Images/Elitsa Deykova
It took me time, the support of loyal friends, finding the right therapist, and seeking out new and daring experiences (ahem, a boudoir photo-shoot session) in order to get over my ex. Picking up the pieces of my fractured heart and self-esteem and starting anew was quite the process after the breakup—but I expected so much. What I didn't anticipate was the need to actually take a step backward—into my failed relationship—in order to take two forward.

While the aftermath of the split was still fresh, I replayed everything in my head: every conversation, every warning sign, and, yes, every single date we went on. Even though my ex's status in my life had shifted to past tense, I was emotionally crippled by the thought of eating at certain restaurants or even just walking by certain buildings that reminded me of him. Of us. But eventually, I no longer wanted to avoid so many physical places and emotional pockets of my brain. I wanted a fresh start for these, too. So I decided to relive our dates as a form of exposure therapy.

First I went to see a movie at the theater where we went together one cold December night. The flashbacks started rolling in immediately: the movie we saw, what we ordered at the concession stand, what we wore that night, and so on, and so on. But once the house lights dimmed and the movie started, new associations with this place—which I couldn’t even think of without crying just months before—started to form.

“Part of what makes breakups so hard is that if feels like you lose a part of yourself. Creating new memories helps build back this relationship and connect back to the fact that you are whole and complete." —therapist Marissa Moore, LMHC

One therapist says it totally makes sense that I found emotional relief by overwriting my "us" and "we" memories with "me" versions of them. Doing so helped me rebuild my relationship with myself. “Part of what makes breakups so hard is that if feels like you lose a part of yourself," says Marissa Moore, LMHC, of Therapy Brooklyn. "Creating new memories helps build back this relationship and connect back to the fact that you are whole and complete.”

I kept reliving our shared experiences, either by myself or with a trusted friend, despite the exercise rarely feeling easy. But over time, I learned to let go of my attachments to him. After all, these were just places, right? And despite the locations existing firmly in their exact same spots, I was starting to move forward.

In fact, what I did is hardly an uncommon course of action for people navigating normalcy after a traumatic experience—including a breakup. Clinical psychologist Sameena Groves, PhD, of City and Country CBT, says it's a version of exposure therapy, which is a behavioral approach to help people confront their fears. For example, let's say I'm afraid of dogs. An exposure-therapy exercise might have me going to a pet store or standing in a dog park for 20 seconds. Anything along these lines makes for a new memory that “competes” with previous learning.

“You may not have been afraid, per se, of your memories with your ex, but you may have been trying to avoid thinking about them nonetheless,” Dr. Groves says. "Intentionally re-creating your previous experiences likely gave you a new association that shows up alongside your older memories.” In other words, by overwriting my emotional experiences, the restaurants and the movie theaters I went to on special dates with my ex just became ambiguous mental cues, making them less painful.

Not only did my date-redo extravaganza provide me with new memory associations, but Dr. Groves says it was a creative pick-me-up to propel me through my heartbreak. “If nothing else, getting out and having fun experiences by yourself or with your support network could help to boost your mood,” she says. Basically, here's your excuse to start planning an epic Galentine's day party now.

Here are tips for getting through a non-breakup from your non-relationship. And here's what happened when one editor saw a hypnotist to get over an ex.

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