“See if you can reach out and grab this cup in your right hand.”
“What are you feeling now?”
“I feel my fingers clasping the cup.”
“Okay try it again.” (Man pulls cup away)
“Ouch! Why did you do that?”
“It felt like you ripped the cup right out of my fingers.”*
The odd thing about this conversation is that the man who said he felt the cup ripped from his fingers has no fingers. In fact, he has no hand at all. The man is an amputee experiencing a phenomenon called phantom limb pain: the vivid sensation of itching, tingling, and even pain from the empty space where an appendage had once been.
As I was reading this article something hit me. When love is cut out of our life, we experience something similar – a sort of phantom relationship pain. I deliberated whether or not to draw this analogy as someone may be offended by the comparison of losing a limb to losing love. Yet, if you are on this site, you understand that although you’ve lost your partner, you still instinctively turn towards them first. When you don’t find them there, the pain you feel from this missing piece of your heart is quite real.
Phantom limb pain shows us that our mind can create extremely powerful attachments. People no longer have these body parts, but the mind refuses to let them go. Phantom relationship pain reveals that unions of the heart create equal, if not more powerful connections. Although someone has left our life, our hearts often fail to let them go. In fact, the emotional bond developed with someone through love is so potent that, sometimes, it doesn’t dissolve until long after the relationship has ended.
Do you have moments where you hear something funny or something that just reminds you of your ex? You reach for the phone when suddenly you realize you can’t do that any more. The person you would normally call in this situation – your person – is out of bounds. Ouch! It’s like someone ripped that cup right out of your fingers.
Pain from the missing relationship in your life may also be triggered by your daily routine. Common triggers include going home after work, when you cook, when you’re getting ready for work, when you’re grocery shopping, when the weekend arrives, and when you climb into bed. These are times and places you had your partner by your side and they now highlight the void in your life. Well, there is hope.
Vilayanur S. Ramachandran created a mirror box technique for amputee patients where they look into the mirror and make symmetric movements to retrain the brain and significantly reducing phantom pain. At Heal My Broken Heart, we have created a plugging the holes technique to alleviate your phantom relationship pain, reduce your loneliness, and help you move on.
How does it work? You’ll first identify when and where you feel the loneliest, the greatest pain, or the most empty. We call this the HOLE list. You’ll then insert a list of things that will be used to PLUG in those holes. Plugs include items that engross your attention, small things that give you pleasure, and methods to flip your holes on their head. Finally, you will place these plugs into the holes until each void is filled and you can move on.
It’s time to make create your PLUG THE HOLE list. We’ve provided and example below and then a form for you to try it on your own.
Exercise: Create A Plug the Hole List
I experience loneliness and pain during these times:
1. HOLE: When I come home to my empty apartment after work.
1. PLUG: Immediately put my favorite Madonna album on so that I’ll sing and probably dance a little.
2. HOLE: When I have Friday/Saturday night plans to fill.
2. PLUG: Make plans to go out with my friends at least one of the nights. For the other, I’ll join that new wine club I researched online. If I am home on my own, I will do something pleasurable like taking a bubble bath.
3. HOLE: When I dress the kids, because he used to do this.
3. PLUG: Dress them in a different order starting with their shirts, then pants. This reverses what my ex used to do with them and creates a new routine that doesn’t constantly remind me of him.
I experience loneliness and pain at these places:
1. HOLE: The park where we used to take evening walks.
1. PLUG: I will call my girlfriend to walk with me in the evenings, take a different route, and bring my ipod.
2. HOLE: The coffee shop where we would get our morning drinks.
2. PLUG: I will try a different coffee shop for a while.
3. HOLE: Everywhere in our apartment and especially the bedroom.
3. PLUG: I will give my apartment and especially my bedroom a makeover. I’ll move the furniture around, change the sheets, and add a plant to start embracing the change.
Spare PLUGS. Have several spare plugs handy for the unexpected holes that may pop up. These plugs should include hobbies, anything new you want to learn, items of pleasure including watching a sports game, getting your nails done, getting a massage, having your favorite food, etc.
The PLUG BOX! Go above and beyond by creating a plug box. Get a pile of 3×5 index cards or quarter sheets of paper. Write down one plug per card. Find pictures from magazines and paste them on the cards. For example, if one of your plugs is eating a slice of pizza, write “eat pizza” on the card along with pasting or drawing a picture of a delicious slice. Do this for all of your plugs and then put them in a small box. What’s the benefit? When you experience the pain from one of your holes, sometimes it is difficult to come up with a plug that will mend the pain. Now, you can go to your box and just pull one out. This exercise is also cathartic because it uses principles explained in our creative outlet step. Take this step and eliminate your phantom relationship pain for good.
Try it Yourself!
Below is a form where you can create your own PLUG the HOLE list:
*Shreeve, James. (1993) Touching the Phantom. Discover Magazine