Can I stop thinking mean thoughts without saying them?
February 4, 2011 9:02 PM   Subscribe

I keep writing devastating (and true!) letters to her in my head. This makes me sad, because I don't actually want to be mean to her. I want to stop being sad.

So, after breaking off a long-term relationship, I seem to have entered into a cycle of thinking that I'm having trouble breaking out of. There were some things about the relationship that were not perfect (duh!), and there were even some things about the way she acted that were pretty terrible -- secretly seeing an ex (although platonically) and not bothering to tell me when she fell out of love me are the big ones.

The thing is, nothing good would come out of me expressing anger or disappointment or emotional hurt about these things. I do think she is a good person, with a good heart, who made some bad decisions. I make bad decisions sometimes! I'm not one to cast the first stone!

But I can't stop my brain from forming perfectly devastating letters to her. Succinct, soul-crushing phrases pop into my head, especially when I'm alone and when I'm trying to get to sleep. I don't want to write them down, though, because I don't want to send her these things. I'm not mean. But these thoughts are keeping me up at night, and I'm having trouble stopping them.

I've done AskMeFi searches on this, but this is tricky to search for. I've found variations like "how do I stop thinking nostalgically about my ex"

and about obsessive thinking

and about simply getting over someone

But I'm over this person. And I like my happy memories of this person. I don't like some of her actions, but I could probably say that about anyone I've been truly close with. And I am over her -- no interest in getting back together, partly because of the things that I keep thinking about telling her.

So, should there just be a cathartic moment where I either tell her these things or finally write them down? I don't want to do that, because, as I said, she is basically a good person, and I do value our friendship. Saying these things would end that.

But if I don't have that catharsis, is there another way to stop these thoughts? I want to stop thinking these mean thoughts, because after the initial rush of "that would crush her spirit!," I get sad because I don't want to be mean. I'm not even sure what I'm asking for here, except some advice from people who have been in this (or similar) situations.
posted by peripatetic007 to Human Relations (35 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It's something of a cliche, but it has worked for me:

Write it down. Getting it out and on paper really does help. Then burn it or throw it away.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:08 PM on February 4, 2011 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: So it's like a song stuck in my head -- once I hear (or write) the whole song, it goes away?

There might be something in that.
posted by peripatetic007 at 9:10 PM on February 4, 2011

Go ahead and write it down - then tear it up in small pieces and then burn the pieces.
Then the next day, write about whatever you are feeling about your ex in the moment - still angry? sad? all mixed up? Then tear it up and burn it. Repeat as many times as you feel like you need to.
posted by metahawk at 9:15 PM on February 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Write it down. Burn it.

The point isn't to be mean, it's to give your OWN feelings vent and expression. As long as you don't send or say it to her, it's not mean.

Another option would be talking it through with a good friend, someone discreet, ideally someone who's only your friend, not hers.

This one time I made an elaborate scrapbook of anger and frustration after a breakup -- I DID want to be mean but don't believe in drama after the fact -- and felt soooooo much better afterward. Threw it out; didn't have burning facilities available.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:21 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: What's with all the burning? Is it simply an easy way to say "destroy it in some way" or is there something specific about burning it?

I ask because, most likely, I will be typing it out. I write VERY slowly by hand (been using a keyboard since I was 8), so I'm being quite serious here. I'm not being facetious at all. Is it the act of writing it out long-hand and then burning the paper what does it for you, or is any "getting it down on media" and then destroying that media equivalent?
posted by peripatetic007 at 9:25 PM on February 4, 2011

Nthing writing it down. Use paper and pen. Think through what you want to say. Studies have shown that writing down is much more effective than talking though with somebody as it forces you to process it as you figure out how to express it. Also, after you write that down take a moment and write down what you learned from this experience. Repeat as many times as you need to.
posted by blueyellow at 9:25 PM on February 4, 2011

Best answer: I'd try to write TWO letters: one full of the most devastating, spirit-crushing things you can think of, and one that is nothing but positive things about her, rose-colored nostalgia for your best times together, etc.. Then it might be easier to see that the truth is in both of them, and THEN you can burn them both and maybe put your mind/heart at rest a bit.

After that, pick up a completely random hobby or interest that you can throw yourself into whenever you're inclined to dwell on her again -- plan a completely hypothetical round-the-world trip, or design your dream house, or research your family tree, or memorize every episode of "Arrested Development," or draw still lifes of random household objects, or track down the coolest DJs in Finland... you get the idea.
posted by argonauta at 9:26 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Writing by hand adds another level of mental processing to it .. a kinesthetic component that helps process as well.
posted by blueyellow at 9:27 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have 5 pages of a typed, single-spaced, numbered-paragraph letter written to my ex (I D-edTMFA about 6 months ago), detailing just how he broke my heart and the hearts of my children too, and why he is such a loser that I had to breakup with him.

I didn't send it to him. I didn't tear it up either. I still have it. When I start to obsess about how unfair it is that he is in another relationship and allegedly deliriously happy with the latest provider, er sorry, girlfriend, I pull it out and read it. And mentally add even more paragraphs.

And then I get all smug, thinking "I'm better off being single and not having you in my life".

Write the bad stuff down, longhand is fine. Tear it up or burn it or keep it, just don't send it to her. If you keep it, every time you think of her you can read the letter and remind yourself why she doesn't deserve you.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 9:33 PM on February 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Write it down and burn it. (Destroy it how you will, but I do think there's something symbolic about burning it.)

That said, I'm not sure you're "over her" - you don't want to get back together, but you're dwelling, which is a pretty clear sign. The more you have time and new experience to help you move on, I think, the less you will feel the compulsion to do this.

And, she fell out of love with you. If you write mean things and send her a letter, they will be mean, but I doubt they will hurt her - they're more likely to hurt you (by sending it to her, not necessarily by writing it).

You mentioned your friendship. Are you seeing her or communicating with her regularly as friends? It might be wise to stop - again, I don't think you're over her, and I think that's what's driving you to feel this way.
posted by J. Wilson at 9:39 PM on February 4, 2011

Write it down.

Maybe let a friend read it, if you have that kind of friend.
posted by empath at 9:39 PM on February 4, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers everyone. AskMeFi is great. If I don't respond directly it doesn't mean I didn't read and appreciate your post -- it just means there have been 11 posts in 9 minutes.

@J.Wilson -- I understand where you are coming from. Intellectually, I am definitely over her; I know for a fact that I do not want to date her or get married (we were engaged). There is no question in my mind about that. But does that mean I don't have feelings for her? That's more difficult, but I honestly think that while I do want to remain her friend, I don't want more than that even emotionally. Thinking about her doesn't get me excited or aroused in any way. I think that it is actually even more simple than that -- this was the most important person in my life for the past 3 years, and now she isn't filling that same role. It makes sense that I'd think about her, whether I was "over her" or not.

I do know that if I said these things to her, they would hurt her. And that's why I don't want to do it. While we are no longer in love, we do have a good mutual respect. We are still close enough as friends (texting mostly) that I believe that to be true. So, if I were to unleash these terrible thoughts, she would be hurt. And that would make me sad. And I don't wanna be sad! =)

@argonauta -- I do like the idea of writing two letters -- a negative and a positive. That's a great idea. As long as I don't fall back in love with her when I write the positive one. =)

@blueyellow -- you mention writing down "what I learned from this experience." Can I dig a little deeper and ask what kinds of things you are referring to? Things like "this exercise helps me deal with this situation" or things like "god, she really is a bitch" or something else entirely?
posted by peripatetic007 at 9:54 PM on February 4, 2011

I think you would be better off if you got a little more distance from her — if you stopped seeing her, stopped texting. You need to be away from her to help get her out of your head. Then, being in your own space, the writing and thinking will work better. It's clear there's some powerful emotions inside you, and I really agree that writing them all down will be a great catharsis for you, and a learning experience as well. I'm glad you are willing to do this. You will be better for having done it. I suspect you will learn some things about the former relationship, about her, and about yourself, that will be helpful to you in the future. Oh, and remember that this situation really sucks, always has, always will, so it's OK to feel anger and other emotions. The goal is to work through the emotions and get over it, which may take a while. If you feel stuck, don't hesitate to talk with a counselor. One last thing — this is all for your benefit, which means that what you write no one else sees, or even knows exists. Best wishes.
posted by exphysicist345 at 10:21 PM on February 4, 2011

No matter how passionately or meticulously you compose your litany against her, your ex-girlfriend will never, ever abandon her perspective on the former relationship in favor of yours. The amount of remorse she does feel about how things went down between you is not going to match up exactly to the wounds she left you with. Learn to live with this: The people in your life who've hurt you will never fully appreciate the pain they caused you, nor will you ever fully appreciate the pain you have caused others.

I still think you should write the letters. If you have obsessive thoughts, writing helps. I keep a secret online journal for this purpose and it's a practice I highly recommend.
posted by milk white peacock at 11:07 PM on February 4, 2011 [9 favorites]

Typing it out works for me when I'm frustrated or angry at someone and need to vent, but know that verbalising it is not going to make anything better for anyone. I type it out in gmail, save it as a draft, read it back the next day, think to myself "Hell yeah!", then delete it.
posted by Diag at 11:08 PM on February 4, 2011

I notice that you're coming in here to comment quite a bit. That's kind of a sign that you want to write about it and have a lot to say about what happened.

You also asked "why burn it"? It's just for the symbolism of it -- some kind of symbolic "I said what I needed to say, and now I'm closing this chapter and moving on" thing. If running it through a shredder instead feels more cathartic to you instead, do that. Or ripping it up into pieces and making paper pulp out of it to make more paper; or turning it into a paper airplane and flying it off the top of a building; or lining a bird cage; whatever works. (There's a more practical consideration for burning it -- there's no chance your ex could EVER find it.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:59 AM on February 5, 2011

I personally type it out, don't save, then delete. This will go on for however long it needs to before I get it out of my system.

I also have conversations in my head with the other person, over and over again, saying what I would say if I could.

It's all tremendously cathartic.

The trick is to never actually have those conversations or send those letters for real. Fantasy purge all the way.
posted by mleigh at 2:47 AM on February 5, 2011

I have a bunch of saved drafts in my gmail, some going back years. I find that going back and reading the old sad angry letters helps me get perspective on the situations causing the new sad angry letters :)
posted by Salamandrous at 4:55 AM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

But to be safe, don't even put an address in the to:field.
posted by Salamandrous at 4:56 AM on February 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You do know that if she hurt you, you're allowed to hate her guts, right? You seem to want to feel cool with her, to be the bigger person, to retain a level of mutual respect --- and all of those are fine things and all --- but if she broke your heart you're probably going to hate her for a while. It's as natural and inevitable as gravity, and telling yourself that you're not feeling these things, that you can't be feeling these things because you ought not to feel these things because you're a better, more mature person that is not going to make you stop feeling these things. You have to allow yourself to experience something before you can pass through it.

I'm sorry if I sound stern; this is a conversation I've had to have more than once with myself.
posted by Diablevert at 5:47 AM on February 5, 2011 [5 favorites]

Buy a box of high-end colored felt tip pens. Use real paper, large sheets.

I'd suggest to use some highly inventive and ugly names as address. Maybe even make up a descriptive mailing address, with vines of poison ivy, bats and spiders. Make the writing an enactment of all your unreasonable (and reasonable) feelings and criticism, starting right at the top of the page. Remember situations, scenes, write them down in fictional dialogues; describe other situations in sociological jargon, or whatever else detached style suits you best. Allow yourself to totally go over the edge, be angry and unreasonable and not in the slightest remorseful; use the entire surface of your sheet in random ways. In short: make an artwork of your wrath and your sorrow. Include nasty little drawings, puns, limericks. Spend a whole afternoon on this (hey: weekend). If you're anything like me, you'll be the funniest on the brink of desperation. Make some tea. Reread. Laugh hysterically and add another nasty little poem. Destroy*, repeat.

*To burn or not to burn: the cathartic effect of this act depends on whether it means anything (symbolic) to you alone or not. Be safe; I'd use a shredder instead.
posted by Namlit at 6:01 AM on February 5, 2011

"you mention writing down "what I learned from this experience." Can I dig a little deeper and ask what kinds of things you are referring to?"

Over time, many people (most of us?) frame bad relationships and bad breakups as part of a narrative about ourselves and how we got to where we are, that typically includes some kind of, "that situation sucked, but if I hadn't experienced the suck, then I wouldn't have _____" (moved to Spain/learned to rock climb/stopped dating losers/met my eventual spouse/discovered I like caviar/whatever).

In my experience, the amount of time it takes you to stop dwelling on the past relationship is just about the exactly same amount of time it takes you to be able to say, "Well, that sucked, but if I hadn't experienced the suck, then I wouldn't have X." But sometimes this just TAKES time because sometimes it takes a while to figure out what good came of it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:07 AM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

If after some time has passed, and I've typed out my feelings a bunch of times - if at this point I'm still being obsessive & having imaginary conversations in my head, I start to police my thoughts. With an iron fist. As soon as I become aware of my thoughts wandering into obsessive territory I give myself a sharp mental 'NO' and immediately redirect to a benign thought stream. Every. Single. Time.

"I can't believe he did that to me. He just-"
NO. Now think about what classes I want to take.
...5 minutes later...
"She's so much prettier than me. Of course he-"
NO. Now think about your to-do list.

The last time I had to do this, I kept on picturing how much fun my ex was having with his new girlfriend. It was killing me! So I brought out the iron fist (every few minutes!) for a day and a half. The obsessive thought/immediate reprimand & redirect cycle is so exhausting, you eventually stop initiating the cycle.

You might give this a try if the writing isn't enough for you to move on.
posted by jenmakes at 8:41 AM on February 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Co-signing Diablevert. You seem to be spending a lot of energy trying to convince yourself 1) that she's a "good person" and 2) that you're "over her." I get the sense that in reality, you're not really at either of those steps. Those are somewhere down the line. You have a right to allow yourself true feelings. It's okay to be upset and to think that at this moment, she's not all that good a person, or at least she wasn't to you. Allow yourself to feel that instead of continually denying those very real [and justifiable] feelings, so you won't keep prolonging the pain.

My advice is to journal. And no, not typing, but writing long-hand. There is just SOMETHING about writing your thoughts. Maybe some kind of brain to heart to hand thing? I don't know. But there is no substitute, not using a computer or anything. And I will say that burning your journal writing after you've vented is a popular sentiment, but I don't share it. I tried it once or twice and it never gave me any closure. I'm a fan of being where you are when you're there. Burning things up is trying to create a false reality, like you really don't feel those feelings and you can just tear it up and be done with it. Not. Write it down and keep it in your journal for a while. Be consistent and one day months from now you may be able to look back and see how far you've come.
posted by GeniPalm at 8:42 AM on February 5, 2011

I wrote three letters to my ex-wife after our divorce. The first one was a sort of curt "Sorry you seem to hate things that are AWESOME, like for example ME" message. The second was written maybe six months later, from within the blackest depths of grief. "How am I even supposed to go on living?" etc. The third I wrote say six months after that, and it's more like "Man, I guess we both did some kinda fucked up things. Sorry. I get it now."

I didn't send any of them, nor did I really intend to.

At the time, I was worried that by bothering to write down my feelings, I was wallowing in my grief, pointlessly prolonging my recovery by bothering to think about her at all. But in retrospect, I think the precise articulation of my feelings was a necessary part of the process.

So I'll add my voice to the chorus of people suggesting you go ahead and write some letters. Don't send them. Just get that shit out of your head. Sit on the letters for a while, and then you can decide whether you want to burn them or file them or delete them with extreme prejudice or whatever.
posted by pts at 8:56 AM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think what you're describing is needing to feel forgiveness for the actions she took that you resent... I know that it's impossible to force forgiveness, but that's what you need. Once you truly forgive her, these thoughts should cease to be.

I had a similar situation during/after a dragged-out breakup following a 7 year relationship. I think what did it for me was that I concentrated so much on the good times, and the love that we once had, that I was able to see her mistakes with compassion, and forgiveness just came naturally. I dunno if that makes sense or helps but there it is..
posted by Glendale at 9:06 AM on February 5, 2011

Having been in the situation myself, another reason not to actually write her the letter is she might write you one back. What if she thinks that you've behaved horribly too? So after you write her, she unleases her anger at you (whether defensively or because she really is angry at you) and hurts you even more instead of responding how you want and admitting her mistakes. Burning also means playing with fire which is always fun.
posted by hydrobatidae at 9:50 AM on February 5, 2011

That would be literal fire. Figurative fire would be sending the letter.
posted by hydrobatidae at 9:54 AM on February 5, 2011

Your situation sounds very similar to what I've been going through the past six months or so. Long term relationship, engaged, he didn't tell me he was out of love with me until he started hitting it off with someone else.

Like you, I intellectually accepted the fact of the end fairly quickly, but that doesn't make the hurt stop. I wrote in journals, wrote letters and burned them, tried everything I could to get the need to talk to him, but I still found myself talking to him in my head all the time.

In the end, the only thing that made me stop "talking" to him was actually talking to him. Two weeks ago, he sent me an email asking if I wanted to meet up, I thought what the hell, at least maybe I can get things out and get some validation for what I've been feeling, and maybe that would help to move on. So I agreed to meet the next day (why spend days agonizing over what would happen?)

So without attacking him (everybody makes mistakes in love, and he seemed totally miserable and I didn't want to make him feel worse), I expressed how I felt, how crummy it feels to be suddenly thrown overboard for someone else, how devastating it is to have a commitment be made fraudulently, and so on. And... he didn't really see things as I saw them. It was clear that although we'll always have love and respect for each other, we can't fix each other's pain. I realized that he couldn't validate my emotions, that he had nothing to offer me anymore. It also humanized him again, after months of thinking only about the bad stuff and what an asshole he was, seeing him again and in pain as well forced me to let go of a lot of that negativity. And I've been much more at peace since.

I would caution you not to jump into a meeting if you're not ready for it though. You need to be able to have a calm conversation without judging her. I was very careful not to pass judgment on his actions before or after the breakup, especially after. I accepted them, and expressed how they made me feel, but I didn't ram my pain down his throat. If you think there's a good chance you'll start yelling at her or trying to hurt her, you're not ready.

Like I said at the beginning, we seem to be walking a similar path these days, feel free to MeMail me if you want to talk it out.
posted by yellowbinder at 11:37 AM on February 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm going to suggest the opposite of burning for the catharsis part — is poetry or shaping a song of your favorite genre a possible way for you to vent your swirling feelings?

It's a time-honored cultural method for taking personal emotions and turning them into a universal abstract.

I also find when writing a song that I might start it feeling one way (grar, I'm angry! that was f'd up!) and realize, in fitting the puzzle pieces together, that the whole picture is more complex; paradoxical emotions are inhabiting the same space (augh! i'm vulnerable! i miss my security blanket!) without cancelling each-other out.

The process also seems to redirect the obsessiveness from hashing and rehashing the emotional bad points to the fine craft of word-smithing, while still embracing the emotion.

The finished product is kind of a, "There. I'm done. I've said my piece in the most impeccable way I could." A close the book and shelve it feeling.

No, I do not suggest you then go sing it to hurtful-yet-good-person ex! But should your creation take off like wildfire on youtube or win the feelingful songwriter competition or whatever, well, living well is the best revenge! Think of how much ca$$$h Eminem has pulled in taking his emotional therapuetic obsessing public.

I feel for you. Exercise, gratifying distractions, and cultivating a feeling of being good to yourself help. Nthing those that say time, as well, untangles the knot; and that, should you take the path of 'one last meeting,' make sure you have your viewpoint boiled down to the essential things that are sticking in your craw ... make sure you can express them in a non-accusatory way from the point of view of this is how you felt ... make sure you can listen to her response without jumping to a defensive place ... and make sure you have no expectation that she will apologize, affirm your viewpoint, or be willing to ever be anything more than cordial at a chance meeting, if that. All the best.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 12:24 PM on February 5, 2011

Oh, my dear. I can empathize. Times a thousand. Write it out. Put pen to paper. Craft your sentences with care. Make that shit sound good. Write as though it were for publication. Then put the letter away. Sometimes, if you feel the urge to talk to her or reminisce or wallow, re-read what you wrote. There's something about putting your own feelings down in a literary fashion that is distancing in the most gratifying way possible. You eventually get to walk away from the hurt with some sense of satisfaction and closure, even if you never sent it, because you affixed it to paper so beautifully.

I repeat, though: do no send to the ex. I made that mistake. It cause a lot of tears (his) and a lot of drama (mine). Danger! Rookie mistake! Do not repeat.
posted by vivid postcard at 5:48 PM on February 5, 2011

The thing is, nothing good would come out of me expressing anger or disappointment or emotional hurt about these things. I do think she is a good person, with a good heart, who made some bad decisions. I make bad decisions sometimes! I'm not one to cast the first stone!

You can express anger, disappointment, or hurt without casting stones, saying devastating/soul crushing things, or being mean. It doesn't have to be either/or.

The good that could come out of you expressing your feelings, is that it would give her the chance to apologize. If she apologized, maybe you could forgive her. And if you could forgive her, maybe you could let all this go. I know that I, personally, find it extremely difficult to forgive without an apology.

You don't have to think up an awful thing to say to provoke her into being sorry. You could just tell her, "Although I think you are a good person, you hurt me really badly, and I would like an apology."
posted by Ashley801 at 7:48 PM on February 5, 2011

Besides writing her, you might try reassuring yourself that you never have to see her again and she will never get a chance to hurt you again. That often stops obsessive anger for me.
posted by salvia at 10:25 PM on February 6, 2011

Response by poster: Well, many of the posts in this thread have caused me to do a bit more introspection. I was hurt and I do have a good bit of anger. I'm "over her" in terms of not wanting to get back together, but I'm definitely not over the feeling that she owes me one hell of an apology, and she doesn't really seem like she knows it. Maybe because I'm being so nice to her? Maybe because she can't or doesn't want to admit to herself that she owes me the apology?

You are only hearing one side of this, of course. As I said before, I'm not perfect, and there must have been reasons that she left. The apology that I feel I am owed is not because she left, but how she left. I'm still mad about it, and also very disappointed because I'd thought better of her.

So yeah, anyway, write it down. Burn it or don't. But get it out, and with that and the passage of time the whole mess will get better.

Thanks again for all of your thoughtful input. I'll pick a few as "best," but I really appreciate everyone's time.
posted by peripatetic007 at 8:26 PM on February 7, 2011

I was hurt and I do have a good bit of anger. I'm "over her" in terms of not wanting to get back together, but I'm definitely not over the feeling that she owes me one hell of an apology, and she doesn't really seem like she knows it. Maybe because I'm being so nice to her? Maybe because she can't or doesn't want to admit to herself that she owes me the apology?

You are only hearing one side of this, of course. As I said before, I'm not perfect, and there must have been reasons that she left. The apology that I feel I am owed is not because she left, but how she left. I'm still mad about it, and also very disappointed because I'd thought better of her.

Your anger is valid. But I also think your anger is necessary to work through in order to come to your own answers to "why isn't she apologizing" or "how did I contribute to this breakup".

You may not be perfect, but that still doesn't mean you can't get pissed right the hell off about this. She hurt you. Whether or not you contributed to the situation, she still hurt you, and you need to process that. You may be able to figure out how you contributed to the situation, or you may be able to figure out why she's not apologizing, later on when you're thinking clearer and you've metabolized that anger -- and don't be surprised if pain and sadness come up as well either. But it's only once you've gone through feeling that anger and processing it all that you'll have the clarity to come to those answers.

She may never apologize. But why she does or doesn't apologize isn't your responsibility. You may have contributed to the breakup -- but that doesn't change the fact that you're hurt now. What you're trying to do is process that anger and hurt to come to the point when you have enough clarity to see the situation for what it was. Don't try to make excuses for her yet -- that anger is still lurking under the surface and wants to come out and have its say. And it deserves to.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:21 AM on February 8, 2011

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