I was in bed drinking ginger tea and watching my 64 billionth TikTok video when I began to notice a trend. There was a lot of running mascara. And a lot of clips were set to the song “Driver’s License” by Olivia Rodrigo. Before my eyes, strangers were dissecting their failed relationships — sometimes just hours after they fell apart. They said to themselves: “Baby girl, it’s time to let go.” I had stumbled upon #BreakupTikTok, and I was fascinated.
If you search the hashtag #Breakup or #BreakupTikTok, you’ll find an array of juicy and heart-wrenching content. Some take to the platform to share how they got over their heartbreaks. Others create montages of photos of their ex, with pointers for the next person who dates them. (Tips range from “he will love you unconditionally, so please do the same” to “order him a Dr. Pepper, no ice.”) A surprising number of people just film themselves crying on camera, wiping away their tears while a classic breakup song like Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” plays in the background. In the most gutting Toks, you’ll see someone actually get broken up with on camera.
As I watched, a part of me was impressed with how frank these people were. Some of them reminded me a little of myself when I was going through my worst breakup. But the other part of me was sceptical — and a little concerned. Were they just trying to get attention? Wouldn’t the creators regret being so candid about their heartbreak?
The Breakup TikTokers I spoke to were remarkably forthcoming about the reasons behind their content — and the good and bad of going viral for showing their broken hearts off to the world. Amber Anderson, for instance, made a video seven days after calling it quits with her fiancé, whom she’d been seeing for two-and-a-half years. It was a fairly impulsive decision, she says: One morning she was getting ready for the day and putting on makeup, when she looked in the mirror and broke down in tears. Then, she started filming. “Just because somebody appears out of nowhere and you guys fall hopelessly in love, it doesn’t make you soul mates,” the 20-year-old says in the video, taking a moment to blink away her tears. “It just means that you met at a time when your souls needed each other the most.”
Anderson is from the UK and, between her accent and wavy red hair, has a real Kate Winslet vibe. She didn’t think too many people would see the video, she tells me over Zoom. It’s 14 days after she posted the video and just 21 days after her breakup, but she looks much happier now than she did on TikTok. “I made it to help myself, hoping I could look back at it in a month and see how far I’d come — how much I’d grown,” she says. “I didn’t think it would blow up. I only had a couple thousand followers at that point, and now over 300,000 people have seen me cry.” More, actually: As of press time, it had received more than a million views and nearly 350,000 likes.
Tess Mueske also didn’t expect one of her toughest times to go viral. The 24-year-old separated from her partner in October. Her three roommates were also going through breakups at the time. In a video, one of her roommates pokes fun at the situation, standing in front of a screenshot of a group text with her broken-hearted friends, and reads off the messages: “So what stage of grief is everybody in?” After that TikTok took off — more than two million people have watched it — Mueske began posting her own videos, asking for advice and processing her feelings. “I feel like I’m still thinking about her a lot,” she admitted in one video.
Mueske was motivated to share, in part, by a desire to see more non-curated content on TikTok. “I think we see a lot of highlight reels,” she tells Refinery29. “People talk about breakup glow-ups or ‘Oh I learned all these amazing things about myself.’ But we also need to hear from people saying, ‘This sucks and I wish it hadn’t happened.’ I don’t want to only share the perfect parts of my life on the internet, because that’s not who I am as a person.” But she also mentioned feeling isolated: She’d recently moved and didn’t have many local friends. Those she had were difficult to see in real life due to the pandemic. On TikTok, she felt heard.
The urge to share isn’t all bad. “It’s healthy to get your emotions out of your body, and documenting your healing process can be helpful,” adds Moraya Seeger DeGeare, LMFT, co-owner of BFF Therapy and an anti-racism business consultant. But it’s healthier to share with people you trust — a therapist, a friend — than with your social media followers, she says. “Clicks and views are different from real-life support from someone who knows you, who can console you, and who can tell you hard truths,” DeGeare says.
There are consequences to sharing intimate moments online. “The internet doesn’t forget,” Pinter notes. And because it’s so easy to download videos from TikTok, and the platform encourages people to stitch videos together and borrow sounds, the technological lifespan of your tears could theoretically go on forever. The videos could impede your healing process. “What happens if you become a meme and you can’t escape your own breakup anymore?” Pinter asks.
Anderson and Mueske are still in fairly early stages of their breakup process, but they both say the popularity of their respective videos has been a little anxiety-provoking — if hard to wrap their minds around. “At first, when I thought about how many people had seen it, my heart would start beating really fast,” Anderson says. “But I would still tell people who are thinking of doing this to just put it out there. It helped me grow… When I look back at it and see how sorry for myself I was feeling, I feel that I’ve come so far.”
Privacy is also an issue — for creators and their exes, Pinter says. “People aren't afraid of conducting what you might call ‘crowd justice’ when they see these sorts of things and they feel like someone has been wronged,” Pinter says. “So that's definitely an important thing to consider if you are thinking about sharing your story on TikTok or through other public means...The public might decide to take matters into their own hands.”
Then there’s the fact that your ex might see your video. For some, that’s not a problem. “I hope he’s seen it,” Anderson says. “I would like him to know how upset I was, and I want to keep posting about me getting better. That I’m doing okay.” On the flip side, Mueske was shocked when her ex liked one of her videos after they’d broken up. “She was always adamant that she wasn’t going to download the app, and, when she did, it felt like she was reading my diary,” Mueske reflects. “It was the one place I felt like I could talk openly about the breakup online.”
After her ex got on TikTok, Mueske deleted some of her breakup videos. “I don’t want to paint her in a negative light, as much as she hurt me,” she says.
On some level, I get where Mueske and Anderson are coming from. In 2015, I was 20, listening to Taylor Swift’s “Red” album a lot, and going through a doozy of a breakup. I felt the impulse to write a horrifically candid journal entry about not being able to move on. I'd trusted someone and they broke my heart — so I let that baby bleed all over the page. “I didn’t get butterflies in my stomach when he came into a room,” I wrote. “There was something more powerful and reckless and wild and beautiful down there. Was there a bald eagle in my stomach?” Embarrassing. But I was incredibly sad, and I couldn’t hold that emotion on my own any longer. Instead of calling up my besties who were, at that point, sick of hearing me dwell, I submitted what was basically an unedited page from my diary to the teen online magazine Thought Catalog. Not long after, they posted it. At first I felt validated. Then I felt mortified. I both hoped my ex would read it, and dreaded the idea. Eventually, I just didn’t care anymore.
I went back and read the story after talking to Anderson and Mueske, and saw some of the same emotions in my story that they’d talked about feeling. At the time, I wanted to be seen, and to know that I wasn’t alone. More than anything, I wanted to get my thoughts out of my brain, where they were circulating unhealthily. Now, I can barely get through a paragraph of the story without laughing at how devastatingly open I’d been (and sighing at the awful writing). I find the post cringey, but I don’t regret submitting it — possibly because, to my knowledge, no one I know read it. And because it gave me some peace at the time.
Both Anderson and Mueske say a positive consequence of posting their breakup TikToks has been the community they’ve found as a result.
Mueske has taken advice commenters have left, such as to pick up a new hobby to take her mind off of the split. She’s started recording songs she sings and writes at home in quarantine. “I threw myself into a piece of my identity that wasn’t wrapped up in her, and it was freeing,” Mueske says.
Anderson says hundreds of people have reached out to her on Instagram in the days since she posted the video. While she acknowledges there can be a dark side to seeking support online, she’s mostly made friends with people going through something similar. She even did a virtual Galentine’s Day celebration with them.
“You do some really dumb stuff when you’re really sad, but this helped with my loneliness, and it kick-started a lot of stuff for me. I’m not even crying any more. And this is so strange, but I ultimately feel proud of myself,” Anderson says. “In the past, I’ve hidden away, and that didn’t help me heal. But this did, and now I’ve got new people to reach out to who are going through something big too — who I can reach out to without judgement or opinion.”
Anderson's post-Tok experience is a best-case scenario. There are plenty of ways posting about lost love could go sour, as Pinter pointed out. But if you do decided to post and, like me, cringe about it later, take solace knowing you're not the first person to overshare about matters of the heart on social media. And you certainly won't be the last.