While Madrid regional premier Isabel Ayuso may claim that running into your ex-partner (at least in Madrid) is impossible, the reality is that sooner or later, it’s quite likely to happen. How we handle real-life flashbacks depends on a person’s stage of grief and personality. The avoiders pretend not to have seen their ex. The indifferent ones will strike up a too-casual elevator conversation, while the talkative ones will prattle on endlessly. The last and most dangerous type is the kamikaze — they’ll either throw something at your head or fling themselves at you, claiming undying love. But today, let’s not talk about personality types. Instead, let’s dive into a topic that’s often ignored: why do we stress so much about how we look when we run into an ex-partner, or worse, their new flame?
The aesthetics of the first face-to-face
It’s not unusual to daydream about wearing a revenge dress at a class reunion or some other formal event. But these encounters sometimes happen by chance, when running errands or walking the dog. Why does that first impression after a breakup matter so much? According to Domingo Delgado, an image and personal empowerment coach, romantic relationships affect our values, self-esteem and how we present ourselves. Ultimately, it all depends on the reasons for the breakup — who ended it and how it ended. Was the separation constructive and peaceful? Was it liberating? Or was it bitter and hurtful?
Regardless, the loss of a relationship can have a profound impact by influencing our self-concept and how we perceive our body image. Through a healthy grieving process, we can reconstruct our emotional connections and restore balance. But sometimes, the healing of a broken heart may not happen as we hope. This prompts us to find comfort in our physical appearance as a way to protect ourselves from further hurt, according to Delgado. “The first encounter takes you back to the state of the relationship when you broke up. It’s totally natural to want to empower ourselves by improving our looks. It’s like showing our strength, protecting our vulnerabilities, creating distance and gaining a fresh perspective on things. It’s also about projecting confidence, security and acceptance, depending on how things turned out. Taking care of ourselves and our personal style can help us regain a sense of self-worth and express who we truly are. But here’s the thing: it’s important to remember that our appearance only has a temporary impact on how others see us. It’s not the ultimate solution for our emotional well-being.”
According to Anna Vicen Renner, a self-esteem and relationships coach, it’s important to question why we care so much about our first impression after a breakup. “If you’re trying to look perfect for that meeting, think about why you want to portray that image and what purpose it serves. We shouldn’t base our self-worth on being prettier, more attractive, having a better body, dressing better, or earning more than others. We should feel good about ourselves without constantly making comparisons, which can devalue others and make ourselves feel inferior.”
Roberto Sánchez, author of a book about becoming the best version of yourself, says our self-image can reflect how we feel internally, which is why it’s natural to want to show strength and resilience. “After a breakup, it’s pretty common to start focusing more on how we look. We take better care of our clothes, try out new hairstyles, and maybe even start exercising if we weren’t before. Feeling good about how we look is different for everyone, but it definitely helps us on the path to emotional healing,” he said.
The (surprise) encounter with your ex’s new flame
Even if we no longer have any feelings for our ex, it’s normal for the meeting to have an impact. And when we happen to cross paths with their new partner, it can get emotionally tricky. This is because of the final phase of the grieving process: neutralization. During this phase, bumping into your ex or thinking about them with someone new doesn’t evoke any feelings. Complete recovery means absolute indifference. Sometimes, we may mistakenly believe that we’ve fully completed the grieving process when we haven’t. As a result, hearing about our ex’s marriage or a chance meeting can disrupt our healing and send us back to the beginning.
An unexpected encounter with your ex’s new partner can be challenging, but we have some tools to help us handle it better. “It’s super important for you to develop healthy tools for self-esteem. You must move on and gradually accept that new relationship,” said Anna Vicen Renner. “Focus on your own growth, your own life, your present and future. I understand that seeing your ex’s partner stirs up emotions, but we need to go beyond that and value ourselves beyond just our looks. Take care of yourself, like yourself, flirt with yourself and with the world, and don’t do it to prove anything to anyone, especially not to your ex and their partner, who are already living another life. Show yourself that you too will have new experiences and stages, and that you have great worth. If you feel like shining in that surprise encounter, do it for yourself and always take care of your self-esteem.”
According to image consultant Roberto Sánchez, first impressions are mostly based on outward appearances, followed by attitude. “If we happen to run into our ex’s current partner, we probably won’t have enough interaction for them to gauge our attitude, so their first impression will be mostly based on how we look. That’s why it’s nice to create a good first impression.” Renner advises her patients not to spend emotional energy thinking and talking about the new partner. “I know it’s tough, but trust me, you’ll always find more solutions and strength in your own life and surroundings than by fantasizing about their life together. So, even if venting to your friends helps you release some anger, just don’t make it a habit. Remember, we don’t need to hurt anyone to heal our pain. So when you have that first encounter, just accept the situation and acknowledge that if it’s over because it wasn’t meant to be.”
Why is our self-esteem so dependent on superficial perceptions?
Renner believes that focusing heavily on physical appearance may be a sign of low self-esteem. She urges us to dig deep and discover the true value we bring, beyond just our looks. It’s a healthier approach, especially when we find ourselves in unflattering sweats during a random run-in. “We shouldn’t think of ourselves as ‘less’ when we don’t look our best. This can make us feel like slaves to our physical condition, so it’s important to be mindful of how we see ourselves. Looking good doesn’t always mean being happy or feeling good inside. Sometimes, someone who looks perfectly put together may actually be struggling with low self-esteem or going through a tough time. We can hide our emotional state behind makeup, nail polish and fancy outfits. I believe in doing things that truly contribute to our overall well-being. If taking care of yourself, improving your physique, stepping up your wardrobe, and presenting yourself in a certain way makes you feel empowered, then absolutely go for it. Because ultimately, it’s all about building your inner self-esteem,” she said.
Domingo Delgado believes that personal appearance can help us feel good about ourselves, express our true selves, and alleviate the sadness and anxiety caused by separation. It can also help us regain confidence, provide a sense of renewal, foster a positive attitude and strengthen self-esteem. Taking care of our appearance helps us avoid personal neglect, negative thoughts, and unhealthy emotional attachments to ex-partners or relationships in general.
Above all, Renner advises us not to prioritize superficial things, but rather address our problems at their core. “If dressing up makes you feel better, go for it! But don’t forget to look in the mirror and see yourself just as you are. Fall in love with your natural look so you can feel attractive no matter what.”
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