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Art by Amanda Ba

14 February 2023

The Philosophy of Heartbreak: Finding a new paradigm


“Hell is other people.”


Often-misquoted from Jean-Paul Sartre’s play ‘No Exit’, this phrase is taken to mean that anguish is found in the company of others. In reality, what Sartre was commenting on here is our state of ‘being’ in relation to others, that true torment is found in living our lives through the lens of our peers. As long as we conform to the expectations and judgements of others, we conflate their perception of us with our own, and we can never live freely and authentically. Oscar Wilde declares: “most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” In a world of constant influence through overstimulation true authenticity seems to be a concept that is becoming harder and harder to find. When it comes to love and heartbreak the inevitable feeling of emptiness can be ascribed to feeling a lack of self; who am I in a reality without this person upon which I have based my life? 


In the early stages of my recent breakup, I stumbled across a video by Jack Lawrence, who uses scientific parables to explain the feeling of a lack of closure after a breakup. He cites American philosopher Thomas Kuhn who argues that science works under a paradigm, a sort of overarching worldview which determines how we solve problems and apply principles. Science does not simply move towards truth, rather the paradigm shifts when we find data that doesn’t fit. Personal paradigms can include concepts such as ‘murder is wrong’, or, as Lawrence puts forward ‘my partner loves me’. Anomalies start to shatter this worldview. Complex abortion debates pop up, someone brings up euthanasia, or the behaviours your partner previously showed which indicated love stopped happening. The data doesn’t fit. Crisis occurs. A new paradigm is needed. 


Although it is tricky to explain the complexities of human emotion through the philosophy of science, it seemed to give me optimism in curing heartbreak.


I simply needed to find a new paradigm. New obsessive research and over-analysis of my relationship ensued: who am I without this person? We liked the same films, we listened to the same music, and we chatted about football. Upon closer inspection it became clear that these things were not a part of my identity, but simply this ‘mimicry’ Oscar Wilde describes. I would watch the films he said he liked before we met up, I stalked his Spotify to adapt my music taste in the early stages of us talking, and it will come as no surprise that I knew nothing about Arsenal FC before I met a boy whose life revolved around it. Enter crisis number two: not only had my supposed paradigm been shattered but it was never real to start with. This world view that I ascribed my life to did not include my own interests, my own thoughts or my own passions. I had created a lens through which I viewed the world and lived my life under entirely false pretences. Note to self: become your own person. Further research ensued. Psychology tells us that being in love, or even being loved results in dopamine and oxytocin rushes. A breakup occurs and this results in the stress hormone, cortisol spiking. So, it turns out I was ‘addicted to love’. 


A simple solution? Form new addictions: run a half-marathon, read more books, lean on academic validation, get blackout drunk with friends to show off how new and exciting single life is. My first heartbreak taught me a lot about the dangers of over-productivity and the limitations of using such stringent coping mechanisms. I got my heart broken in Lockdown 2020 and launched myself into months of toxic weight-loss methods. I ran daily, I counted calories, I quit drinking, I purchased a Fitbit and to this day the Chloe Ting 2-Week Shred anthem is still ingrained in my head. I found myself falling victim to mimicry again, copying social media influencers with idyllic lives and hanging onto every word of unqualified relationship experts’ infographics. I am surprisingly grateful to my ex for teaching me the humbling lesson I was forced to learn. Upon meeting up again after the breakup my frustrations in his lack of awareness of how much ‘better’ I looked boiled over until I finally exclaimed in anger, “can you not see how skinny I am?!”, “to be honest, I hadn’t noticed”, came the gut-wrenching reply. Although I couldn’t see it, tough love was my best friend in that moment - and I force myself to be reminded of it three years later. They will not fall in love with you again because you got a First, read Animal Farm and have an unhealthy relationship with food and your body. Forming small coping mechanisms is essential, but it is equally important to simply let yourself feel. The less than desirable alternative is your coping mechanisms falling through and suddenly you’re lost again. 


In summary, I still don’t know who I am.


The likelihood is that the writing of this article was entirely inspired by a strong desire to follow in Dolly Alderton’s footsteps – is it even my own voice I am using, or do I just admire her quick wit and relatable transparency.  In reality, I think I need to stop obsessing (I’d like to think I’m pretty transparent and funny anyway, often to my own detriment). Is it really a scary thing that I might not have an identity? Can it really be reduced to scientific theory and a notion of mimicry? I will carry on liking football, ‘Sticky Fingers’ will stay being one of my favourite bands and I have adopted my ex’s habit of being the pretentious film bro at parties. Picking up habits from others does not have to be a bad thing; as the painfully overused phrase states, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” That I admire certain behaviours and traits is a wonderful thing. We all enrich one another’s lives with the habits and interests we’ve picked up from the people we love and pass them on to others. Everyone lacks originality, and this does not have to result in a lack of sense of self. One could even go so far as to ask if originality in its pure form really exists. This article’s intention was not necessarily didactic in nature – as you’ve probably realised, I still have a lot to figure out myself, but voicing my internal monologue seems to help navigate the complexities of heartbreak. We are not moving towards an ultimate truth. There is no one-size-fits-all equation on moving on. We are simply edging, slowly, perhaps painfully, but surely toward our new paradigm.

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