The first time or experience or relationship lays the groove of a blueprint for how we navigate later, similar experiences. Our first experience of a family that occurs in our family of origin creates a groove in psyche called “family”, much like the groove in a vinyl album. When the needle of a later experience sets down on the groove of “family”, you will automatically think about your family of origin, and the overarching feeling of what it was like to be in your family will color your expectations of current or future family. Likewise, our first experience of marriage is often our parents’ marriage; what we learned, saw, and absorbed there affects our expectations, hopes, and fears around our own marriage possibly more than any other factor.
And so it is with first love, which, quite often, is also first heartbreak. Our first experience of love affects our future expectations of love, which, as you can imagine, affects how much anxiety is activated around a real, present, available partner. For if our first heartbreak was not only wrought with pain but also with shame, we can understand that this underlying belief of “not enough” would weave its way into later relationships. Herein we find one of the root causes of relationship anxiety.
When I ask a coaching client about early pain, they usually don’t talk immediately about first heartbreak. But when I press further and specifically ask about it, the painful story will come spilling out. And on the heels of the pain is the story about themselves regarding the break up, which almost always includes some rendition of the running subtext song called, “What’s wrong with me?”
My first heartbreak occurred in 7th grade. Up until that point I only had had positive experiences with boys, most of whom were my good friends. I felt liked, loved, and, in some innocent way, wanted. All of that changed when I attended a new school in 7th grade. I suddenly felt like the odd one out. I didn’t feel attractive anymore, and I felt inadequate compared to the popular girls who always seemed to know exactly what to wear, say, and how to act. Towards the end of the year, when I learned that a cute boy liked me, I decided I liked him, too. We spent a week talking every day at school and talking every night on the phone. For five days, from Monday through Friday, I was in heaven. But on the sixth day, as quickly as it had started, it ended. My friend and I were supposed to go to his house to swim, but that morning the friend of my “boyfriend” (if you can call it that) called me to tell me that he didn’t want to see me anymore. I was blindsided. Just the night before we had talked late into the night, all sweetness and ease. I didn’t understand. And I was heartbroken.
Looking back, I can see that mostly what I felt was shame. Since I wasn’t given a reason (I’m sure he didn’t even know himself), I was left to assume the worst: I must have done something wrong. Maybe I wasn’t pretty enough. Maybe I wasn’t funny enough. At the time, all I knew was that something that had felt good and affirming was taken away from me, and I was left to navigate the shattered aftermath alone.
One of my most vivid memories of the days following this heartbreak was sitting on a barstool at my grandmother’s house, talking to her across the counter while she was cooking. My grandmother loved me unconditionally, but she had no idea how to be with big feelings, and when I shared that I was feeling sad about the break up she said something dismissive like, “Oh, honey, there will be plenty of other boys. You’re too young to be this sad about one boy.” Well, that obviously wasn’t helpful. Number one, she was telling me that I shouldn’t be feeling as deeply as I was feeling. And number two, she was telling me not think about and instead focus on other boys. Since I didn’t have anyone to help me through the grief, it did what unattended grief does: it morphed into self-doubt and anxiety.
I don’t remember consciously thinking, “I’m not worthy”, but I know that’s what I felt. This feeling of inadequacy and unworthiness was compounded exponentially the next weekend when I wasn’t invited to a classmate’s birthday party and I heard later that my best friend was roller-skating with “the boy” the entire time. He apparently liked her now! Again, I don’t remember the exact stories I told myself in that moment, but I remember feeling absolutely worthless: left out, unloved, unwanted, and small.
This is how the stories we tell about ourselves are created.
It’s not necessarily the pain of the first heartbreak that leaves the scars; it’s the stories we tell ourselves that etch the grooves of self-doubt and low self-worth, which we then project onto our partners as a protective mechanism in the form of “you’re not enough” (not social, good-looking, witty, educated, etc enough) or onto ourselves through intrusive thoughts (“What if I’m gay?” “What if I hurt a child?” “What if I’m incapable of love?”). If we convince ourselves that we or our partners are sufficiently lacking in some vital way, we can walk away from the risk of love, which includes the risk of heartbreak. It’s all about protecting these unspeakably tender hearts that not only believe that they can’t handle pain because we were never taught how to handle it but also believe that we’re not worthy of love and that when our partners see our true selves they will leave.
If you had had someone in your early life to sit with you while you cried – about heartbreak or anything else – you wouldn’t fear your pain now. If you had had someone who could have guided you with wisdom through the pain of heartbreak, encouraging you to feel it fully while also helping you skirt away from telling yourself a story about your self-worth, you would love yourself more and you wouldn’t fear love quite so much. When I think about guiding my sons through the inevitable emotional landmines of early love and the heartbreak they’re likely to experience, I imagine saying something like, “It’s so painful when a relationship ends not by your choice or when someone doesn’t return your affections. When this happens, it’s easy to tell ourselves a story about why the person left, but the truth is that we really don’t know. Some people aren’t ready for real love. Sometimes it’s too early or the big feelings are too scary. For whatever reason, this relationship was not meant to be at this time. Tell me what it feels like inside. Tell me what stories you might want to tell yourself about yourself. Let me be with you through the pain”
The more we can feel the raw pain directly, the less we need to go into our heads to try to make sense of it. Sometimes there’s no making sense; there’s only loving ourselves through the pain of life, which sometimes means the pain of loss.
What are your stories of heartbreak? What can you imagine saying to the young you who told a story that the first breakup was because you were unworthy in some way? Do you see the connection between early heartbreak and relationship anxiety? When we can attend to the old pain and address the stories with wisdom, we heal at the root. And the more we do this deep healing work, the more we can open ourselves to love in all forms, with all beings, in all ways.