Amy Chan: ...that the right relationship won't feel like a struggle
Laura: Welcome to Nobody Told Me! I'm Laura Owens.
Jan: And I'm Jan Black.
Laura: When a romantic relationship ends for whatever the reason, we can find ourselves completely devastated. I speak from personal experience.
Jan: I think we all do actually.
Laura: How can we pick up the pieces of a broken heart and move forward with our lives, when even getting up in the morning feels like an overwhelming challenge?
Jan: Our guest on this episode, Amy Chan, found herself jobless, homeless, and single, all at once, when a relationship with her boyfriend ended. Since then, she's not only found a way to turn heartbreak into healing for herself, but for others as well. Amy founded a Breakup Bootcamp to help women heal themselves first and their hearts second. She's now written a book called Breakup Bootcamp: The Science of Rewiring Your Heart. Amy, thank you so much for joining us.
Amy: Thanks so much for having me.
Jan: Tell us more about what you experienced with that devastating breakup.
Amy: About nine years ago, I was living in Vancouver and I thought I was living the dream. The dream to me was climbing the corporate ladder, dating to get married, eventually having children, not needing to work, and just write on the side for fun. I was well on that path. I was in a relationship with someone I thought I was going to marry. We had even discussed the plan that after when we had children, I would stay at home. I had my whole life and plan set out.
The universe, I guess, had a different plan for me. One day that relationship fell apart due to infidelity and I had lost my job a few months prior to that. There I was, I found myself without a home, without a boyfriend, without this future plan that I had set my identity on. When that relationship fell apart, I completely fell apart.
Laura: And then you took a leap of faith and decided to devote everything to that feeling of a broken heart and you started the world's first and only Breakup Bootcamp. I imagine it must have been really hard for you, for your job also, to be focused on trying to heal from this.
Amy: Yeah. Immediately after the breakup, I took a lot of time to heal. I went through an emotional rollercoaster. I went through depression, I went through stages of being completely angry, trying to figure out revenge tactics. It was a really dark space. I even had suicidal thoughts. I hit a rock bottom when I did. I had a meltdown, I had a panic attack, and I was thinking really destructive thoughts. I realized I had a choice to make, I was either going to continue spiraling down or I had to fight to survive.
And so, I did that, I set out to heal. I tried everything from therapy, yoga retreats, psychics, you name it, I tried it. It took time, I think about two and a half years for me to really move forward from that relationship. Even if the emotional intensity subsided, I still had resentment, I was still close-hearted.
I dived in to figure out everything I could. At the end of that journey, I realized that there isn't a place for people to go to after a breakup or divorce, to not just heal, but to learn from that relationship and learn about yourself and the patterns. I learned that the breakup was just a catalyst for me to really dive into this underbelly of healing that I never did. It was a Band-Aid that got ripped off and then I had to deal with the compound trauma of the relationship with my father. All of these things came up at once and it was an opportunity for me.
That's what inspired me to create the world's first Breakup Bootcamp. I wanted something for people to go to where they could leave their apartments and their homes where they're reminded daily of the relationship and be immersed in nature, have a chef take care of you and cook all of your nutritious meals. Have psychologists, hypnotists, energy healers, all of these different experts that can help you move through the process of separation and grief, and then understand your patterns and subconscious beliefs. When you leave, you leave different.
Jan: The Renew Breakup Bootcamp that you started, it's a weekend retreat, right?
Amy: It's a four-day retreat which we were doing in-person, the in-person retreats are on hold now. We're doing them digitally now and it's still a multi-day retreat.
Laura: Why doesn't it work when you're feeling this horrible feeling of a broken heart and your friends say, "Just move on. Just suck it up." It just seems like it's hard to move on from something so traumatic. Again, I've experienced that myself. It seems like you really need to take the time to process it and, as you say, you can reframe it into, "Hey, this is extremely exciting."
Amy: Exactly. I think that the advice, sometimes, friends and family give you, such as, "Just get over it." Or "You're so strong. Just be strong, stop crying. Don't be so upset." Or they vilify the ex. While people are saying these things with well intentions, it actually does a lot of damage, because it's really shaming. Everyone's journey and process of healing is going to be different. If you don't allow that time for you to grieve and process the emotions, the emotions don't just go away.
If you suppress, or you avoid, or you decide that I'm just going to be strong, I'm going to just start dating again, I'm going to move forward, without really honoring that process of grief of separation, those feelings will catch up with you. It creates compound trauma, and you're going to need to deal with it either now, or you're going to deal with it later.
I think it's important to honor that when we have a broken heart, you should treat it the same way as if you had a broken leg. We understand, in North America, if you break your leg, you go to the doctor, you put a cast on it, you rest. You don't just go out and say, "I'm going to run a marathon tomorrow." But for some reason, when it comes to your heart, there isn't this same method and approach of treating it with gentle care, kindness and compassion, and letting time heal it and also seeking support from experts to help you in that process.
Jan: Typically, what brings someone to your Breakup Bootcamp?
Amy: I work with a lot of different women who are either fresh out of a breakup or divorce. Sometimes they are not broken up, they are in a relationship and they feel stuck. Often, they are in a relationship with someone who may have narcissistic personality disorder or exhibit characteristics of narcissism and love addiction as well. About 30% of the women who come are actually not in a breakup at all. Some are actually single and are just sick of the same dating outcomes and want to understand what's happening in their patterns.
The thing is, every single person that comes to Breakup Bootcamp, they think that they're there because of an ex. What they realize after they go through the program is, it's never just about the ex, it's recycled pain. We all have these subconscious beliefs and patterns that either serve us or they don't. When people have the similar emotional outcomes in their relationships that they're not happy with, that's usually a signal that there is a disconnect in those subconscious beliefs and patterns. We focus a lot on what's happening on the subconscious level and how we can rewire those beliefs.
Laura: How can we rewire our brains and make it so that we don't experience that feeling again in another relationship?
Amy: That's a great question. I work with a lot of people who are high achievers. I think high-achieving people have an extra battle they have to go through because they want to just get over it and they feel like there's something wrong with them when they can't. There's this extra layer of shame that they go through. I think first and foremost, it's important to honor the emotions that you feel after something like a breakup that could be very traumatic, they're not good or bad. I think in North America, we have a tendency to label feelings of sadness, or anger, or grief, as good or bad and we try to avoid them. Being neutral and not judging the emotional experience, I think is one thing.
The next thing is relationships aren't a failure. That's what I hear a lot from people who come to Breakup Bootcamp, they feel like they have failed. Relationships aren't a failure. They can end, but it doesn't mean that they're a failure. If you tried your best and if you've learned from it, it is absolutely not a failure, it is character building. It can help you understand what you don't want and what you do want so that you can choose differently and better in the future.
One of the key lessons to learn is to identify, what is the emotional experience that is repeating? The types of people that you've dated might look very different. They might have different jobs, they might look very different, they might have different heights. But if you look at the emotional experience, often you may find that the emotional experience might be very similar to an emotional experience you experienced as a child.
Human beings, we're prone to something called Attractions of Deprivation. This is a theory that we recreate the emotional experiences, the way we were wounded as children, because our psyche is subconsciously trying to recreate the scenario of crime so that it could change its ending. If you experienced chaos in your home growing up, if you witnessed your parents model a relationship and it wasn't healthy, maybe you had an unavailable father or mother, that might be the emotional experience that you're familiar with. Human beings are drawn to what is familiar. You may subconsciously be recreating these situations with people when you're dating and not even knowing that you're just recreating what you had as a child. Once you can identify what the pattern is and to create awareness, that is a very first step to starting to change that pattern.
Jan: You talk about each of us having a different Attachment Style. You say there are three different Attachment Styles that people have, tell us a little bit about those.
Amy: For those who are listening who are new to Attachment Theory, the idea is that by the age of around two years old, we develop an attachment system which will pretty much determine how we relate romantically as adults. Now 50% of the population fall in the Secure category, meaning they're not co-dependent, they're also not afraid of intimacy. In the event there is a problem or an argument, they don't turn it into a catastrophe. They also don't devote their identity and their sense of self-worth to the relationship.
Then there's Avoidant attachment style, that's about 20%-25%. These are people who subconsciously suppress their attachment system. It doesn't mean that they can't be in relationships or want a relationship, but what happens is when someone gets a little too close, they actually will do things that will squelch intimacy called Deactivating Strategies. This might include, if you had a romantic weekend with someone, then for the week after you disappear and go into your cave. Or you might date someone for three months, you're like, "Oh, this is amazing." And then around the three, four-month mark, you start to notice all their imperfections. Or you might chase someone with an impossible future or idolize an ex. These are all ways that you subconsciously suppress intimacy. Those who have an Avoidant attachment style equate intimacy with a loss of autonomy and independence.
Now, the last category is Anxious attachment style. These are people that take breakups the hardest because they put a lot of their sense of identity and self-worth to the relationship. They're often very preoccupied with thoughts of their relationship, their beloved, who they want to be with. They have an inherent fear of being abandoned or rejected at any time. Any time they sense that their connection might be in jeopardy, they will actually do what's called Protest Behavior. This might be ways of establishing connection with their partner so that they can soothe and calm down their nervous system, or they might even punish them. For example, if they don't hear back from their partner in four hours via text, they might say, "Oh, screw you. I'm going to punish you. I'll take four days and see how you like it." The inherent fear, those afraid of abandonment or rejection, they might even reject people before they have a chance to reject themselves.
Laura: Do you think it's better if a couple has the same attachment style or different ones?
Amy: Here's the interesting thing, Avoidantly attached people are drawn to Anxious and Anxious are drawn to Avoidance, they both reconfirm each other's belief systems. It is always best to work towards being more secure yourself and dating someone who's secure. It is on a spectrum, so it's important to note that you might have anxious tendencies. In the event of being in the middle of a pandemic, say you lost your job and you're cut off from your typical support network and your community, your Anxious attachment style might start to really feel like it's gotten more intense. It's going to worsen if you date someone who is high on the spectrum of an Avoidant attachment style.
The goal is learning what is your own attachment style. If you're in a relationship, understanding the attachment style of your partner, and finding ways so that when you are triggered, which you inevitably will, figure out what triggers you. How have you reacted in the past and how can you respond in a healthier way? How can you have compassion for your partner's attachment style so that you can work on becoming more secure yourself? That will inevitably trickle into the relationships' health.
Jan: Are you finding the pandemic has caused an increase in breakups with people spending more time living and working under the same roof than ever before?
Amy: Yes, I've noticed an increase of breakups. I've also noticed an increase of people getting together. What I've really seen through this pandemic is, it's been an accelerator. A relationship that's been having rough spots, or maybe things that haven't been addressed, some of the issues, the pandemic has really blown them up, and the relationship has fallen apart. I've seen a lot of people who have been friends who are like, "What are my values? This person seems to fit my values." They've gotten together with best friends.
Also, people who have just started dating before the pandemic and then quarantined together and realize, "Wow, they got along really well." It has accelerated how fast and how far that commitment has gone. Yes, the pandemic has been the great accelerator of either falling apart or coming together for relationships. But whether someone is coupled or not coupled, I've definitely seen a spike in anxiety. One of our relationship coaches, Trish, who specializes in anxiety, she's completely full, all of our coaches are completely booked up now. People are really having a hard time not having the regular support systems and being able to go out as much as they normally were able to, to self-soothe. They're really relying on experts to help them through this process.
Laura: If they can't find the right expert, or if they can't afford one, what other solutions do you have if they're really, really struggling?
Amy: That's a great question. I would suggest for anyone who is feeling anxiety, or maybe you are going through a breakup, or you're just dating someone and you're feeling self-conscious about it and you feel that kind of tightness in your chest, I will suggest one quick hack that could help you is to do a state change. Some things to keep in mind is when you are feeling anxiety, whether you got an email from your boss that rubbed you the wrong way, or you see a photo of your ex on Instagram, your body is going into a fight-or-flight mode. You are being filled with these different chemicals, like adrenaline and cortisol, and you're having a physical stress response.
Now what you see in animals, say gazelles for example, is when they see a predator in the wild, they're also having this fight-or-flight response, and they're also getting adrenaline and cortisol. But what they will do is, once they realize that they're actually not in danger, they're not going to die, they start shaking their body almost as if they're convulsing. They shake from head to toe, then they move on as if nothing has happened.
Human beings are exactly the same way. When we are flooded with stress hormones, we need to actually move it through our system. It doesn't help if you just continue to sit there and scroll through social media, or you reread that nasty email that you just got, you need to do a state change. Take two minutes or put on your favorite song that gets you pumped up and shake your body or dance it out and you will feel better. You're allowing that stress, all those stress chemicals, to move through your body. That is one just quick hack when you're feeling that kind of tightness in your chest.
Overall to help your sanity and sense of wellness right now, is figure out what are your rituals, whether it's meditation, whether it's gratitude journaling. Something we do at Breakup Bootcamp is for 30 days, they have an accountability partner, for 30 days, they will write down three things they're grateful for and why. They send a text message with a photo every day to their accountability partner. Research shows that by doing this, you actually rewire your brain and prime yourself to feel more grateful, more happy, and more present. There's actually science behind why you do these things. If you do that for just 10 days, you'll start to notice a change in your mood.
Jan: What are the differences that you've seen in the way that women handle and process a breakup versus men?
Amy: I've definitely seen a difference between how women and men handle breakups. There's different debates on, is it socialization, is this how men and women are born? I'm not going to go into that. What I've noticed is, men have a tendency to suppress their emotions. Instead of dealing with the discomfort, the pain, and the sadness that happens after a breakup, they either avoid, suppress, or distract. They will be quicker to go onto a dating app and try to date someone and move forward.
Whereas women will take the time to move through the emotions and really feel the sadness. They might not even get out of bed, they might go to their friends, they might talk about it over and over again. They're doing all these things to try to soothe themselves and get through this emotional rollercoaster that they're feeling.
Now research has shown that it's not that the men don't feel the pain, or the sadness, or the grief, it's that it catches up with them later on. While the women get it out of their system. When they do move on and they're ready to date again, they really do move on. Whereas with men, from what I've seen, is they might appear like they've moved on because they've just started a new relationship right away. But then it catches up to them three months, six months, a year later. That's when they might have regret, that's when problems will arise in their current relationship. They have a delayed reaction to the pain of the separation.
Laura: You hear about couples who have been together since high school, and they've only had each other, they've never had the experience of a breakup. It's interesting because you talk about how breakups are really character builders and they make us stronger in the long run. I'm wondering if you think that people who haven't experienced that are at a disadvantage? Or if maybe they get that same emotion and experience if they lose a loved one?
Amy: I don't think there's one way. I think that there is a beauty of, if you have met your partner at a very young age, you got married at a young age, and maybe had a family or whatever that path was, and you grow together, there's so much beauty in that. There's also so much beauty to someone who's dated and had many different breakups and heartbreaks and meet their partner a lot later in life. I don't think that one way is better or worse, or right or wrong.
I know for myself, the people that I dated when I was younger, even the boyfriend I spoke about, nine years ago who I thought was the one, I realized now, in retrospect, that I probably would have gotten divorced if I ended up with him. There was a lot of values and incompatibility in who we were as people, not that he was a bad person, we're actually friends now. I was just finding who I was, I probably didn't get comfortable in my own skin until probably a few years ago. If I ended up with someone, the person I was dating at age 30, we would have either grown apart, or we had to grow alongside together. I don't know what would have happened. I didn't meet my partner until later in life and I find that beautiful as well.
Jan: What do you think doesn't work if you're trying to heal from a broken heart? What should you avoid?
Amy: When you are healing from a broken heart, trying to rationalize being friends with your partner immediately after or staying in contact, it doesn't work. When you're with someone, you have neural pathways that have been wired together. Depending on how long you've been together for and the intensity of the relationship, every time you had breakfast together or went on vacations, the everyday stuff, is wiring these pathways together with this person.
After a breakup, even on a cognitive level, you know that the relationship is over, your body doesn't. Your body is in a state of shock and is freaking out. It's also used to getting its sources of dopamine and oxytocin from this person. If you don't allow a certain amount of time to detox from your ex, you don't allow those neural pathways to prune away. You're almost going back to step one every single time you talk to your ex, or have makeup sex with your ex, and rationalize that it's okay. Or even scrolling their social media feed. When you're doing that, it's just your brain's way of getting that hit of dopamine.
It's important to think, after a breakup, not to vilify your ex, but to really see your ex as a drug dealer and you are literally in withdrawal. You are going to go through the stages of withdrawal where you're craving the person, where you're going to want to go to them for comfort. You need to, at all costs, avoid doing that. Set yourself up for success. Set up systems in place, so that you don't just rely on willpower, because willpower will run out.
Remove them from social media, have a conversation and say, "Hey, this is what I'm doing. I am taking a break for three months and I do not want any contact. Please, after three months, if I want to contact you, I will. Do not contact me." Have a plan in place where you can get your sources of dopamine and oxytocin in healthier ways. Have things in your calendar that you're looking forward to because anticipation gives you dopamine. Create a plan to fill up that empty space that used to be reserved for your relationship.
Laura: In your case, I'm wondering at what point you decided to have contact with your ex, since you mentioned that you guys are friends now. Once you guys got in contact again, if any of those feelings of hope for a new start happened for you. If they did, how did you deal with those?
Amy: I did not follow this advice. I didn't understand it when I went through my breakup. I continuously contacted my ex because even though I hated him for what had happened, I also was so used to going to him as my sense of safety and support. It was really messing with my mind. Every single time I would send this long, nasty email or call him and berate him, I might have felt a little bit better in the moment, on the long term, it was just continuously getting me more hooked. Whether I knew it or not at the time, I was still getting a hit of dopamine and endorphins every time I make contact, even if that interaction was negative.
When the focus is on vilifying the ex, contacting the ex, you're still in a relationship with your ex, whether there's a divorce paper or our breakup talk or not. I think I prolonged my suffering by having this contact until he eventually just blocked me because it was so toxic. It took many years. We had similar friends and after a few years, I would run into him at a wedding and we would ignore each other. It probably took about five years until we saw each other and we were amicable. Now nine years later, we are really good friends. He jokes that he should have shares in my company; and I give him advice on how to communicate to his girlfriend better. It's pretty crazy.
Jan: Oh, that's funny. Amy, our show is called Nobody Told Me! We always ask our guests, "What is your nobody told me lesson?" What is it that nobody told you about relationships and breakups that you had to learn the hard way that you wish somebody had told you, you'd like to pass on to somebody else so that they don't have to experience this much pain?
Amy: I wish somebody told me that love and a healthy relationship is not such a struggle. Relationships can go through hard times, but the relationship itself is not hard. I spent my whole life chasing people who are unavailable trying to prove that I was worthy, having so much anxiety, getting into toxic push-and-pull dynamics with people who liked me just a little but never enough. I thought that was love because that was the type of love that I witnessed growing up with my parents.
Now that I am in a stable, healthy relationship, I finally learned that all of that intensity, that chaos, and those ups and downs that I thought was love, was not love. It was lust and it was love addiction. I now know that love feels like a sense of peace and at ease, and it's stable. Even though there's ups and downs and there's fights in between, it's this knowing that you're with a partner that has your back and sees you and accepts you for who you are. You don't need to edit yourself or manipulate the way you text back or how long it takes, or diet. None of that matters. That's what I wish someone told me. I don't regret pain because I think pain is such a great teacher. But I don't think that we need to endure such prolonged periods of suffering.
Laura: That is such great advice. Can you tell us where people can get your book and learn about you and hear more of that wisdom?
Amy: You can check out my website at renewbreakupbootcamp.com. You can follow me on Instagram @missamychan. My book, Breakup Bootcamp: The Science of Rewiring Your Heart, it's available at all bookstores.
Jan: All right. Amy, we thank you so much. This has really been so insightful, and I know that your advice will have helped a lot of people.
Amy: Thank you so much for having me.
Jan: Again, our thanks to Amy Chan. Again, her book is called Breakup Bootcamp: The Science of Rewiring Your Heart. Again, her website is renewbreakupbootcamp.com. I'm Jan Black.
Laura: And I'm Laura Owens.
Jan: You're listening to Nobody Told Me! Thank you so much for joining us.