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Episode 153 Transcript: Handbook for the Heartbroken with Sara Avant Stover

Sara: Life is short. And we are each born with a unique destiny. And maybe now we doubt it. Maybe we’ve ignored it. Maybe we’ve just forgotten about it and it’s buried and we think it’s not possible. But that is what we are uniquely destined to do. Just like an acorn inside that holds a pattern of the oak tree. So how can we align with that which is already in us? Because it is our destiny to come into that fullest expression. And that looks different for each of us. That’s what we’re wired for. That’s what we’re created for. 

Nancy: Welcome to the Nancy Levin Show. I’m Nancy Levin, Founder of Levin Life Coach Academy, best-selling author, master coach, and your host. I help overachieving people pleasers set boundaries that stick and own self-worth, anchored in empowered action, so you can feel free. Plus, if you’re an aspiring or current coach, you are in the right place. Join me each week for coaching and compelling conversations designed to support you in the spotlight, as you take center stage of your own life. Let’s dive in. 

Nancy: Welcome back to another episode of the Nancy Levin Show. I’m thrilled you’re here and I’m delighted to welcome my guest, Sarah Avant Stover. She is an author, a teacher, a mentor in women’s spirituality and entrepreneurship, and Sarah is a certified internal family systems practitioner. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude from Columbia University’s all Women’s Barnard College, Sarah had a cancer scare. She moved to Thailand and embarked on a decade-long healing and spiritual odyssey throughout Asia. Her newest book available right now is called Handbook for the Heartbroken: A Woman’s Path from Devastation to Rebirth. Welcome Sarah. 

Sara: Thank you Nancy. It’s great to be here. 

Nancy: Very happy to have you here. And I must say I am, I’m taken with your new book, on many levels. And specifically to start out, I really appreciate how you structured the book by naming different heartbreaks. So let’s first start with how you came to know that this was the next book you wanted and needed to write.

Sara: It was not a linear journey and it spanned over several years. This is my third book and the way that my books come to me is first the title I get, like the title drops in, it’s like a download. And then I figure out what the book is. And so the title Handbook for the Heartbroken came to me a few months after the Initiatory Heartbreak that I write about in the book, which was finding out about a betrayal. And that name came in and I started, over the next several months and year, I started kind of flushing out a table of contents. I think I maybe even wrote a sample chapter. I was speaking with a mutual friend and colleague, Kelly Notaras at the time, who actually directed me to one of your books. Was it Jump… And Your Life Will Appear

Nancy: Yeah! 

Sara: And she was saying, you should check out how Nancy organized it. And I did that. And then I had more heartbreaks happen, which I write about in the book ’cause it’s spans serial heartbreaks from 2016 to 2020. And I realized I can’t, I can’t write a book right now. There’s, like so much going on. And I was still in the midst of this heartbreaks. But I wasn’t, I didn’t know that at the time. It was the start of 2019, I was in this mode of like, I’m just going to get it together. I’m gonna get my life back together. I’m gonna write, I’m gonna write this book. And January of that year, I sat down and started working again on the table of contents, working again on the sample chapters. And even though my intuition had told me after my second book came out that for my next book it was time to go with a new publisher and to get an agent. I didn’t have, I had a good experience with my previous publisher, but I just knew it was time for something else. I ignored that and was like, I just so wanted just to get, just to get back on track. So I submitted it to my initial publisher and they actually declined it. They said that books on grief are not selling well. They declined it. And I was like, okay, I guess this isn’t gonna happen. And I, similar to how Elizabeth Gilbert speaks about creativity and big magic, I just kind of released this creative entity and just said, if, if someone else is meant to write, you write, you just go and you know it’s okay. Someone else can write you. And I let it go. 

And then as I made it to the end of this heartbreak experience that I write about, COVID happened. I realized that there was much more to this heartbreak process than I originally realized and there was a lot more I needed to learn. And this book had not left me, it was tapping on my shoulder and saying, you need to write me. 

So in early 2021, I sat down and started working on the proposal and I hired a coach to help me with the proposal. And I really, I grappled with the organization like the beginning portion of that time working together. It was not quite clicking and there was just a lot of information that I wanted to put in there. And then at some point in that process of doing different drafts of the proposal, doing different drafts of the table of contents, it clicked to set it up this way. To have heartbreak story and then a section heartbreak story and then a section. And it just all kind of just came into right into its right order. And I just saw, okay, that’s it. This is the book. So it, it wasn’t, yeah, it took time. 

Nancy: I’m so struck by what you said about the beginning, like that you get a title download and then write. I out of seven of my books, two of them did I have a title for before I wrote the books. And the others I didn’t have a title for even after the manuscript was done. Like I, it’s not my, it’s not my zone of genius. 

Sara: Okay. I love titles. Yeah. So that’s like part of my zone of genius. 

Nancy: I love that. I love that. So I’m curious about how you distinguish between heartbreak and grief.

Sara:   I consider heartbreak like a landscape and grief is one of the features of that landscape. So heartbreak also includes shock, anger, loneliness, pain, depression, confusion, heartbreak encompasses a lot, and grief is just one of those things that encompasses. Grief can be a big part of it, but it’s, it’s not all of it.

Nancy:  And how did you know to identify? So for example, you said the initiate, the initiating a heartbreak was betrayal. To even distinguish there to, to discern this is heartbreak versus grief. 

Sara: One of the things that I realized in that process, ’cause even though I write about several experiences that really encompassed every area of my life in my relationships, my body, my career, my money, my sense of self, that initiating experience was like just ripped me open, just ripped every, everything apart. And my life and who I was prior to that day in February, 2016, it was just gone. And I realized I had read or heard in places that people used to die of heartbreak because it’s so painful. And I really felt that, I really felt at times it was actually painful to walk because of just, I don’t know, just the, the impact of my feet on the ground and the way that would reverberate up to my heart. And the way that, that would just trigger the physical pain in my heart. And I really, it just really made me pay closer attention to heartbreak. And we’ve all experienced it. And it’s one of the worst things, if not the worst thing that, that we can experience. It’s, it’s, it’s agonizing on so many levels. 

Nancy: And again, back to the way that you structured the book, you know, I appreciate also that not only in, you know, naming a specific heartbreak story, like the, you know, the first is breakup in betrayal and it moves through and it goes even through career and finances. So it, the landscape of the structure of the book is on a large scale. And that heartbreak isn’t only about the love in the way we think of it usually. So I, I feel like you sort of broke open the term to encompass more.

Sara: That was one of my intentions with this book is to expand the conversation around heartbreak beyond breakups and death, which are very valid heartbreaks. But there is a much wider range and we’ve named some of them, but also health crises, our own and others, shifts in identity like having a baby or going through menopause or having a big career shift, and like we’ve mentioned a few times, financial challenges. 

So one of the stories that I write about in the book is about abortion. And when I had my abortion, I was reading books about grief and also books about baby loss, which were mostly about miscarriage. And as I was reading those, there were some pieces that I could pick out from them. And there were other ways where I just didn’t feel seen. Like there a lot, a lot of things were named in them, like a lot of different situations and scenarios. So my scenario was never named, I was never acknowledged. And so I really wanted this book to just cast a wide net and for anyone who’s going through any challenging experience in life, for them to feel seen and acknowledged and included in the conversation.

Nancy: Yeah. The representation piece is important in that. And I also, you know, it was so interesting to watch the flow of the book go from the abortion story to the fertility journey and for you to be able to hold, hold that. 

Sara: Yeah. Yeah. I think like one of, one of the underlying heartbreaks through all of this was that every plan I kept creating for my life or conceiving for my life just kept blowing up in my face. And until I got to the point, it took me several years in this process where I just let it go. And it was like, I have no idea what my life is supposed to be about. ’cause everything I’m trying to do is not working and I have no idea why. And that, that can be heartbreaking for us. It’s like when our lives, and usually by the time we reach midlife, it’s like our lives do not look the way that we originally thought they were gonna look.

Nancy: Hi, it’s Nancy interrupting my own show. I’ve got a lot of exciting things coming up in 2024, including a brand new book plus a group coaching opportunity, unlike anything else I have ever offered before. To make sure you are in the know, pop on over to my website now and sign up for my free weekly newsletter at nancylevin.com/newsletter so you don’t miss a thing. Okay, back to the show. 

Nancy: So also in heartbreak, it sounds like the disappointment presents differently than it does for grief.

Sara:  Can you say more about that? 

Nancy: Yeah, I suppose like with grief there is a loss or a longing for what, what won’t be Yeah. For what won’t be for a future that won’t be. And it, just, in hearing the way you’re talking about it too, I’m present to a disappointment that feels almost more personal or internal about what wasn’t or what won’t be and my role in that. 

Sara: Yeah, there were definitely periods of also atonement in this process Of really seeing, like, especially with the initial betrayal, a couple of betrayals in the beginning of really needing to spend time with myself of how did I get into this situation? What was it in me that was drawn to this kind of person? How did I miss these red flags? Who am I, I’m not who I thought I was, if this is what’s happening and this is my life. So yes, there’s like the grief of not having that vision that I thought, but also just the reckoning with the reality that I was in. 

Nancy: What was the most impactful experience that you were able to utilize to pull yourself out? 

Sara: That’s a good question. You know, I don’t think there was one specific one. And I think it was, I kept trying to pull myself out. I’m very, I’m a strong person. I’m a very willful person, can be very creative and clever with thinking of ways to resource myself. I’m very well steeped in spirituality and personal development. So I, I really tried all the things to try and pull myself out and I kept kind of going through a year and thinking, you know, coming to New Years and thinking, okay, like I’m releasing this year and this next year is gonna be my rebirth year. This next year’s gonna be better. And then it was like more stuff that year and then like another year more stuff that year. And when that kept happening, I think I just reached a place of greater acceptance. And just getting, getting more simple with myself and just saying, just coming back to like the basics. I started studying Buddhism when I moved to Thailand in my early twenties. And I found it so refreshing how basic it is. It’s just be present, everything changes because that’s basically the core of it and hold yourself in compassion. And I just came back to those core teachings and, you know, of course I had to do everything like leading up to that point. But it was something about just returning to that simplicity and really just fully letting myself be where I was. Then things started to shift. But again, it just, it took me, it takes what it takes to get us there and none of that was wasted either.

Nancy: Of course. How, what’s your relationship with surrender? 

Sara: I feel like I’m a lot, a lot more comfortable with surrender now. I still have a tendency to like to control things and, you know, like to have my vision, my plan. But I’m much more comfortable now with following life’s cues and seeing, listening to life’s feedback if something’s really not working, or if I’m moving in the wrong direction and I have a deeper trust now having lived out through many of my worst nightmares that I write about in this book, that I was still okay. That those things could happen and I was still okay. And somehow there was still, even when it seemed like the ground was being pulled out from underneath me, that there was still something to catch me. And so I have that experience now so it’s, I don’t feel as, I still get scared sometimes when I’m taking a risk or when things are uncertain. But I have that deeper trust just to lean into life and that somehow it will be okay. 

Nancy: As you were moving through your series of heartbreaks, what was your awareness of the sort of compounding experience or the you know, the cascading experience? 

Sara: I mean, I could really feel the cumulative effect of all, all the strain. And one of the things that happened was just, I think it was just like a month after that initial betrayal, I got some very unfortunate news from the IIRS of just situation I’d gotten gotten into with my CPA long story short, he had filed my taxes under a business entity, that classification that was said to be illegal by the IRS that, that he knew about and he was doing this for a number of local entrepreneurs, but for whatever reason, I was the only one who was zeroed in on and ended up having like this huge tax bill for all these back taxes. And so like, I had that on me and just all this stress with trying to talk to the IRS and something that I’ve learned since then is the worst person that you, or the worst thing that you can be in debt to is the IRS. There’s a lot of financial P-T-S-D have from that situation. So like that started happening, more health challenges from being under so much stress. A lot of my friendships and social circles shifted and changed a lot of people just immediately with the, the news of the betrayal and the breakup just disappeared. And over the years that things continued to happen, like those layers just compounded and compounded on top of each other until it felt like I was in this hole at times. I was just hard to get out of. And that’s one of the things that we don’t acknowledge so much about heartbreak is that even just with a basic breakup or divorce, we could, like you and I were talking before we started recording, like losing a pet, needing to leave our home, losing full custody of our children, maybe there’s financial repercussions, losing friendships, having those health challenges from the stress.It ripples out into all of these areas that we often don’t acknowledge but need to be included in the conversation as well. 

Nancy: So the subtitle of the book begins with, you know, A Woman’s Journey, right. Or a Woman’s Path, excuse me. And I’m curious about how you see, I mean obviously this is your, your journey, but I’m curious about how you see heartbreak different, similar for men, women. 

Sara: I think at a certain level it’s similar for all of us. So certainly people of any gender can read this book if they feel called and receive benefit from it. I have felt deeply called specifically to serve women in this life for whatever reason. And that is what I intimately know as well. And I know, and I know I’m speaking in general there, you know, being very general about this, but as women we tend to be more relationship oriented and culturally so much of our status historically it’s changing now a lot. But historically our survival was linked to our relationships, whether or not we were partnered or married or in a family. And so there’s a lot tied up into that when a relationship shifts or when kind of the foundation of our lives shifts and there’s more unsettledness, there’s more uncertainty. 

Whereas for men, and again, I know I’m speaking in very general terms, but there tends to be more of that even historically that more like pioneering spirit or just, you know, out on one’s own like the rugged individualist. And so there’s a lot of layers I think that it can impact us more as women. 

Nancy: I wanna talk a little bit about internal family systems and how IFS has been a support for you.

Sara: I was really grateful that right before I found out about the betrayal, one of my longtime mentors who I’ve worked with since I was in my mid twenties, so about 20 years now, she had been training in IFS starting to weave that into the work that she was doing. And we did a session that was so powerful for me and really stood out for me be’cause I had been doing parts work since my twenties. I’d done a lot of voice dialogue and things. And even in my second book I write about parts work and the inner critic and the inner perfectionist and things. But something about this IFS and the way that the model flows, it led me to places in myself that I hadn’t been before. And then when the, the first heartbreak struck, she, she really challenged me by saying, you really need to be doing this weekly,as a primary focus in your life to make this a top priority. And challenge me she did. Because it felt hard to do at the time, even just like the financial investment as I was in transition, the time investment and what it meant to just go into those, those younger, more wounded parts of myself that all the other work that I’ve been doing wasn’t quite reaching. But I’m so grateful that she did because that really provided the foundation for shifting so much in me internally. That was so ripe and so ready for that shifting and that healing that through the years of doing that, like towards the end of, towards the end of this period in 2020, I got accepted to my first IFS training and realized like, this has changed me so much that I wanna train in it, I wanna weave this into my, my own work. But I just feel, I feel such a deep level of wholeness now. That I don’t, I don’t even know if I ever thought that’d be possible. And I felt, and through that time, and I feel now just such a deep sense of love and care for myself. Of just really being a good friend to myself, really being able to hold myself. And those two things are just such gifts. 

Nancy: I resonate with that very deeply. And I would say for me it is shadow work and they’re not so far apart. Yeah. Same, same thing. To be able to come to the place of wholeness and to be a good friend with myself. 

Sara: Yes. With, with all of, with all of ourselves.

Nancy: All of ourselves, all our parts. 

Sara: Yes. 

Nancy: All our shadows, all our qualities, all of that. 

Sara: And with all the things that we experience in life.

Nancy: On the other side of what you’ve written about thus far in terms of the heartbreaks, because I’m not going to presume that there will be no more heartbreak in your life. Because I don’t think we can flip that switch. There’s a lot of talk often about sort of, you know, crisis becomes a catalyst to opportunity or evolution. And maybe just share a bit about your experience of what you can pinpoint on the other side of the heartbreaks that what’s become possible or available to you that wouldn’t have been, had the heartbreak not occurred. 

Sara: I’ve been doing some deeper reflection on this in recent weeks, just in preparation for the book to come out because it is a really vulnerable book.

Nancy: It is. 

Sara: And some of the stories in there, most of my family doesn’t even know about. They all know about the abortion, but some, some of the other stories in there they don’t know about, or some of my friends don’t even know about. And so I’ve just been working again with my parts on the vulnerability of, of it and going through some of those experiences, especially again that initiatory experience that we keep coming back to that betrayal. And I recently wrote down all of the positive aspects of that. Everything that now, eight years later, I can look back and seeout of this experience, these things were born Within me, within my life. Like this book would never have come into being and writing this book was such a sacred experience for me.

It just flowed so easily. I was kind of amazed. It just, i I guess that’s just the time was right. You know, even though it took several years to get to that point of timeswhere it just was not, didn’t look like it was gonna come into being. When it was time, it just flowed through me. So even that would’ve never been possible without going through all that. So I think that’s worthwhile for all of us to do, but enough time needs to have passed. We don’t wanna get, we don’t wanna go there too soon. But to look back and see, yeah, what, what are all the things that I’m appreciating that came out of this? And that doesn’t negate the, the challenges of it, but I do feel that that initial experience and everything that came after it just allowed me to grow in ways that would never have been possible otherwise. 

Nancy: Hmm. I’m curious about your own personal practices of self connection. What are the things that you do, you know, daily or when you do them to stay connected to yourself? 

Sara: Daily I meditate, which these days it looks like about 30 minutes and part of that time is just sitting in presence. Part of that time is prayer, just having a divine, you know, inner communication with my higher power which I call God. And sometimes I also do energy practices, like just clearing out my energy field, connecting with my soul. I do some gentle yoga just to get my energy moving. 

And then I also, not every day, but most days, I have certain phrases that I read to myself or say out loud or write down just about things that I’m wanting to actualize in my life. And maybe if I have more time and I’m needing more guidance, I’ll do a little bit of journaling specifically with the sentence stem, what’s needed now. Rather the question, what’s needed now? To help me to stay orienting my life from a place of inner listening and from intuition. But overarchingly, it keeps coming back to prayer. And you know, when, when there’s a problem, when there’s a stress point, when there’s something I can’t figure out, it’s like that’s the faster I can go there and just hand it over and listen the better things go. And coming back to what we talked about with surrender, like the more trust there is. 

Nancy: I’m really intrigued by the ways in which we hold ourselves back and how we tend to expect permission to come externally. And I’m curious for you, what would you invite our listeners to give themselves permission for or permission to do? 

Sara: Life is short and we are each born with a unique destiny. In ancient Greek, the word is telos, which translates as one’s ultimate aim that we’re all born with. And if we’re all really honest with ourselves, we’ve known what that is since we were children. And maybe now we doubt it. Maybe we’ve ignored it, maybe we’ve just forgotten about it and it’s buried and we think it’s not possible. But that is what we are uniquely destined to do. Just like, it’s like our own version of an acorn inside, that holds the pattern of the oak tree, but the oak trees our fullest expression. So it’s how we can align with that, which is already in us. We cannot find it outside of us, outside sources can help us tap into it, but how can we align with that partner with that because it is our destiny to come into that fullest expression. And that looks different for each of us. That’s what we’re, that’s what we’re wired for. That’s what we’re created for. But unlike an oak tree, you know, oak tree doesn’t have free will, but we do so we can choose other things so it’s can be harder for us. I think, especially as women because there, there can be a lot of, lot of patterning and conditioning around what we should do, what we shouldn’t do, what we can’t do, what we can’t do. And so often, you know, if we have the privilege to be listening to a podcast like this, our biggest obstacles are inside of us.

Nancy: Yes. Sarah, thank you so much for being here. And to everyone listening, Sarah’s book, Handbook for The Heartbroken: A Woman’s Path from Devastation to Rebirth is available right now. And I encourage you to get a copy and to immerse yourself inside. Thanks so much, Sarah, for being here. 

Sara: Thank you for having me.

Nancy:  And to everyone listening, I will be back with you again next week. 

Thanks so much for joining me today. I invite you to head on over to nancylevin.com to check out all the goodies I have there for you. And if you’ve enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, leave a rating and a review. I’ll meet you back here next week.