how to care less?
October 19, 2012 10:23 AM   Subscribe

How can I avoid the destructive path I've usually taken after breakups?

I don't do breakups well. I have trouble regulating my emotions and I'm obsessive. I tend to get very attached to people, and when I lose someone it feels like my entire world is collapsing. This breakup is on another level, because I was closer to him than I've been to anyone in my life period. Right now I'm doing OK, but I can see where I'm headed in a few days once the reality of it sinks in and the panic follows.

A lot of the trouble is it takes a long time for that reality to sink in. I spend way too much time obsessing over how to get my ex back, frantically trying to control the situation because I can't seem to accept that it's over. I feel like what I really need is to just shut my emotions down and not let myself feel or think too much about this one. Is there some way of more quickly detaching, accepting that it's over and skipping forward through some of the pain of a breakup? I know it will be forced but I'm not convinced that's a bad thing. The popular consensus is to let yourself feel it, but I've noticed that people who are able to shut out their emotions in stressful situations and distract themselves from what they're feeling tend to get over traumas more quickly. I've also read some research to back this up. I've tried the other approach - letting myself ride the emotional storm - and it stresses my body to the point of illness.

Basically, as someone who cares too much, I want to train myself to care less.

I'm already in therapy. Any other tips/pointers?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not in the "let your body feel it" camp. I think that can be good for some, but it can also be really destructive depending on the person and depending on the situation. I'm like you where if I start really thinking and investing energy in negative things, if even to "feel it" so that it will go away, it inevitably grows and becomes a much bigger fixation point.

If I were you I would throw myself full on in to a project or projects. Maybe get involved in some fundraising event or chairty. Maybe take a evening class. Volunteer. Train for a marathon. Join a book club. Do whatever you need to so that you're BUSY and doing things with other people. Bonus points if your new focus is something that helps other people, because the feelings of helping others can do a lot for feeling good about yourself. The being busy is key because you have less time to sit and get stuck in your own mind and have things fester. You have other more important things to think about. Doing things out with other people will likely also serve as a reminder that there is still life and people and good things after a breakup, not just lonliness.

You'll get through this. Good luck.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 10:32 AM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

No contact.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 10:39 AM on October 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

When I ride my emotional storm, the main focus isn't on the cause of the emotions, it's the physical manifestation of it. I quit thinking about the problem, start thinking about what it feels like. Where is the stress settling? My neck and shoulders? Am I getting a headache, is my jaw clenched? How about my feet? Are they reacting to this at all? And then a shallow out my breathing, breathe deep from the gut, and I let myself just Be.

It's meditation. This is what just letting my body feel it means to me.

If I focus all my attention on what is upsetting me and let my OCD brain pick over and over at all the scabs, I'll work myself up so bad I'll throw up. Don't do that! It's awful, doesn't help anything.

I had a therapist walk me through sitting with my emotions for months before it became my go to, and when I first started I thought she was being all crystals and incense on me, but it does work. Maybe bring this up in therapy if they can help you get started. It's part of CBT therapy and mindfulness.
posted by Dynex at 10:42 AM on October 19, 2012 [8 favorites]

First, I'm sorry you are going through this. It's so hard. However, this:

I've noticed that people who are able to shut out their emotions in stressful situations and distract themselves from what they're feeling tend to get over traumas more quickly.

is wrong. (IMO.) You have to feel your feelings. You are suffering the loss of someone very close to you. That's a big deal. You have to grieve. I think what you're trying to get at is the concept of resilience, which is a very positive trait and skill to have, and reading up on resilience and how to build it could benefit you. But being resilient is not the same as not hurting.

Also, I was struck by this statement:

I tend to get very attached to people, and when I lose someone it feels like my entire world is collapsing.

I can relate to this. I think it's very common. And the thing is, depending on how integrated your lives were, in a way it's not false -- a big part of your world is, indeed, collapsing. And that SUCKS. But! It's not the end of the world. Your life is not over. You now have the opportunity to build a new world in place of what was your old world.
posted by Asparagus at 10:47 AM on October 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Be sure that you don't let the tension accumulate in your body. Get plenty of exercise, take a yoga class every day. Becoming stronger and more flexible physically will help you to become so emotionally.
posted by mareli at 11:02 AM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I know this feeling far too well. For me, the path away from this was first laid with defining myself as a person, prior to getting involved in another relationship. When my last earth destroying breakup arrived, however, I had to suffer the pain once more. As for me it was more a cry of "No more. I owe it to myself to never do this to me again."

Telling myself that "This too shall pass," or "There's other fish in the sea." was of no help, although I hoped it would have some kind of effect other than being able to breathe easier for about two seconds. With this, and other issues in my life, I have not been able to find a way for me to convince myself into feeling something different, logic and rationale be damned. I just end up more miserable as I'm angry at myself for failing to "deal with it" as well as dealing with the emotional loss of someone important to me. But, the pain always fades, and I stayed as busy as I possibly could during this process.

I spent a year alone (though miserable at this fact sometimes, and honestly not really by choice), doing things that I grew to enjoy doing by myself, or things not dependent on others' presence. I have since been presented with the prospect of the death of a relationship, but I have those things to fall back on, and I can take comfort in knowing I can be truly happy without any specific person in my life.

Next, acceptance was important. Not only accepting the fact that I can't control others and that everyone has a right to be angry, hurt, or have a desire to move on, including myself, but more importantly, I had to accept the fact that acceptance of a breakup does not mean I am totally fine with it. I had to accept that acceptance wasn't going to be "I'm not hurt by this," but simply that it wasn't going to destroy me.

Lastly, something that I firmly believe is that there is no such as "the One." There is one feeling, a mutual bond of love and being loved, but this can be achieved multiple times in my life if I am open to it, and allow myself to give the same love as I was capable of earlier, as raising defenses as a result of a breakup only serves to diminish my capacity to feel this with someone new.

It ain't easy, but you'll be OK....
posted by Debaser626 at 11:10 AM on October 19, 2012 [10 favorites]

I agree with the above that resilience is not the same thing as denial or shutting down emotions. If I don't feel my emotions they tend to resurface in Bad, self-destructive ways. One of my go-to things is to set a time to feel stuff - usually by journaling, because I have a hard time articulating things otherwise. And then once I've acknowledge how it hurts and why it hurts, I try to find some Positive thing to do for myself to get myself back into helping myself (instead of beating myself for those emotions). Workouts are great for this, cooking healthy meals, reading a good book, connecting with an old friend - everyone can be more healthy in happy-making ways.
posted by ldthomps at 11:16 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I find when I'm very hurt, really truly hurt. I act like a 3 year old. Irrational, hyperbolic, catastrophizing, moody.

So I treat myself like a 3 year old. Distraction, Distraction, Distraction until enough time has passed that I can act like an adult and move on.
posted by French Fry at 11:18 AM on October 19, 2012 [9 favorites]

I have a couple of tips.

One is that every time you find yourself with things to say to your ex, write it all out in a letter to him or her. Don't hold back. Express all that rage and pain and confusion. And then don't send the letter. If you keep getting that urge, keep a sort of journal letter in a word file on your computer. It'll be the craziest document ever, but no one but you will ever see it and you can delete it later when you are ready. I've done this, and what happens is that when I am beside myself with grief, it gives me something to do with those feelings and thoughts, and I really get the satisfying sense that I am actually talking to the guy. I get those thoughts out of my head, and I write until I'm calmed down and have a moment of clarity when I realize how big a waste of time the guy was, and go do something else.

The other trick you can play on yourself is, tell yourself the break up is only temporary, that he or she will come crawling back to you on his or her own when the time is right. Meanwhile you can be free to do all those things you wanted to do but couldn't/didn't do while you were with the person: seeing the friends your ex didn't like, training for a marathon, watching the movies or going to concerts or taking up a hobby he or she wouldn't be interested in, getting a pet, having hot sex with new, interesting people, taking a trip, starting a Masters. And of course doing all those things and really revelling in your freedom will eventually get you into a state of mind where you can drop the pretense that your ex is going to come back and say to yourself, "It's not temporary, but I don't care. I like my life better the way it is now."
posted by orange swan at 11:29 AM on October 19, 2012

Decide right now to defriend on Facebook, block his numbers on your cell and landlines, abosolutely NO CONTACT at all.

Get together with your friends and moan. If you can swing it, vacation for a week.

Gather up anything left behind, meaningful gifts, reminders, and ditch them, burn them, or donate them.

Cry when you're sad, scream when you're angry, feel those feelings, they're valid.

I had a breakup mix that I'd listen to and it always made me feel better.

"Too many fish in the sea" was my favorite song.

Know that it's all going to take time. Decide to accomplish something in that time. Get an advanced degree, knit a sweater, learn a new language. When you look back on your life, you don't remember how you felt, you remember what you did.

You aren't defined by your romantic relationships. You think you are, but you aren't. If a breakup happens, it has very little to do with you, and more to do with how two people interact.

Take the time it takes to well and truly get over it. Be happy being single.

"I don't want nobody who don't want me, there are too many fish in the sea."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:49 AM on October 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

I often have problems with intense "thought-storms" like those you describe.

I've been doing Zen-style meditation consistently for about a week now. The way I've been taught is to simply sit - no goals, no counting, no trying to focus/not focus on anything. I sit anywhere from 5 minutes to 1/2 hour a day. (I do cheat a bit on the no-goals part by trying to be aware of any train of thought that really seems to be gathering a head of steam. Once I'm aware of it it tends to dissipate.)

There is something about it that helps release the talons of the OCD (or whatever you prefer to call it) just a bit. The thoughts will still be there while you sit and after you sit but they may not be as troubling. I notice a difference already and it's only been a week.

If you're interested and there's a Zen or Insight Meditation center near you, check it out and try sitting for a few minutes a day. Make sure to get some guidance from an experienced meditator. If there are no centers nearby, just Google "beginning zen meditation". I would recommend finding an online community or meetup group of fellow meditators if possible, though.

Advisory: my sleep has been off since I've started; it's starting to go back to "normal" now. Sitting meditation is not necessarily relaxing! You may cry a river. That's OK.
posted by Currer Belfry at 11:55 AM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you tends towards obsessive behavior, it might be a good idea to temporarily disable your account on Facebook so you can't keep tabs on him. It's a little bit extreme, but i think maybe for a month or so it might help you move on.

Also, keep busy, join a gym or something like that. Sign up for a class in something or other. Anything to get you out of the house and in a new environment.
posted by empath at 12:54 PM on October 19, 2012

Interact with lots of other people in situations (and conversations) that have nothing to do with this relationship. Now's the time to hang out with family, friends, coworkers and groups.
posted by cnc at 1:19 PM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm going through the same thing. Things that are helping me:

- I bought a cork bulletin board to clip out stuff that remind me who I am, what I love and am inspired by, and where I want to be in a few years. This helps me transfer my unhealthy obsession toward something much healthier.

- I also deleted Facebook and Google+ (for now). I keep any contact with the ex short and business-like, and absolutely will not see him in person for any reason unless I know I'll feel like "What did I ever see in him?" instead of "Gosh, why's he so cute."

- I created savings accounts for specific large purchases that I can look forward to and will help me become the person I want to be. Ex. I named one savings account my "Travel Fund". I now religiously put in a specific amount of my weekly paycheck into that account. An additional benefit to this is that I feel more in control of my life by being in better control over my finances.

- I spoil my cat more now, and treat more people as I would have treated my ex. Spreading some of my love wide as opposed to deep.

- I remind myself that I can now get to those goals that the relationship constantly distracted me from. I now have the luxury of spare time that isn't going toward taking care of someone else's dinner, fun activities, or sexual needs.

- I realized there's nothing to be terrified about being alone. It's the opportunity to really get to know yourself and *love* and *like* yourself. No one's sitting across from you expecting you to be sexier, wittier, funnier, cleaner, more spontaneous, sensitive, punctual or anything! This is the time you should be feeling like you ARE the best, because *you* are the judge.
posted by Sa Dec at 7:00 PM on October 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

What you're saying doesn't seem to come from a place of avoidance, but rather recognition that your grief experiences go beyond the scope of healthy expression and become incapacitating. Are you familiar with the concept of complicated grief? Usually its associated with grief over the death of a loved one, but you can have a complicated grief episode about other kinds of losses too. They've done brain scans on people who experience complicated grief and they've found that part of the problem is that people prone to these episodes experience activity in the reward centers of their brain when they ruminate on their loved ones, much like an addict!

I think there are a lot of smart suggestions above. Of those listed here, I think the best ones are those that focus on addressing the physical manifestations of your emotions since it sounds like you struggle with obsessive thinking and panic in the context of these transitions. Traditional talk therapy may be hard on you. You might find more relief from approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy which focus on reducing symptoms. Exercise, particularly cardiovascular activities, will help your mood and anxiety significantly.

Something I discovered really helped me was to get a LOT of massages when I'm going through a romantic loss. I don't mean hardcore, deep tissue, beat all the stress out of you massage. Find someone who makes you feel safe and nurtured and see them as often as you feel like you need to and can afford. One of the biggest changes during a breakup is the loss of physical contact that is non-sexual but intimacy building and comforting. Just having someone touch you in a therapeutic way is a powerful means of diffusing feelings of isolation and fear.

Affirmations are also good. Find phrases that motivate you and say them a few times in a row, even if you don't believe them. Eventually they will take root in your thought patterns and help shape your outlook in a more positive direction just through repetition.

You definitely do not have to repeat your past pattern. Best of luck to you!
posted by amycup at 10:31 PM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh man, I'm so so sorry. This part sucks. I know because I am right there with you.

Echoing that you need to have zero contact. NONE AT ALL. Nothing can really make the crappy part go by faster (unfortunately), but you can avoid prolonging it by having zero contact with your ex. Delete their numbers, un-friend them from Facebook (I know it seems awful but you can always re-friend [much much] later once you're not hurting so much). Delete your ex from all IM, delete his number from your phone, delete his contact entry from your email so it doesn't auto-fill to his address. Download website blockers (here's one for Firefox and another for Chrome) and block his Twitter, Facebook, and any other website associated with him. Block those of his family and close friends too, so you really have no way of knowing what he's up to. This may seem excessive, but it has saved my ass on at least a couple of booze-soaked angst-y nights. If he's the type to try contact you, you may find relief in emailing him ONCE to explain that he needs to give you space and not try to reach you in any way. Include in the email that he should not reply to it, so that you're not waiting for his answer.

I'm harping on this a lot, but that's because it might be the most important step you can take. When you KNOW they're not going to call or write, it's actually a huge relief, because you don't sit by the phone waiting.

Writing down all the crazy bad thoughts helps, even if it might feel really emo and lame as you're doing it. For one, it gets you slightly out of your head, and for another, you can look back as the days go by and see that you're improving, or see any faulty thought patterns you might keep falling into, etc. Allow yourself to become angry at him. Even if he's overall a "good guy", let yourself get mad (at least temporarily) that he hurt you, that he let you down. Anger can be a cleansing kind of fire.

Create "The List". This is where you list every annoying or bad thing about your ex. Be as cruel as you want to, don't hold anything back, no matter how minor or how superficial. No one will see this list but you. (Often I find that I need to wait a few weeks before I can do this, because I need to get over the initial horrible gut-tearing feelings first. But YMVV.) Check back to this list during your weaker moments. (And you will have weak moments. It's okay. Let yourself feel them, just don't act on them.) Repeat to yourself that you are too good to chase after someone who doesn't want you / doesn't treat you right.

Distract yourself however you can. I know there are many who might say "You need to let yourself feel it", but for me, I don't need to "let" anything, because I feel it all the damn time. So any reprieve I get, even briefly, from feeling bad is welcome and good. For me, comedy was/is my life saver. I like really irreverent and absurd (and sometimes gross) humour, so I like podcasts like MBMBAM or You Look Nice Today, and non-relationship-y TV shows like Arrested Development.

Lean on your friends, even if it feels like you're leaning too much. Truly, they don't mind. They just want to help. Say yes to as many social invitations as you can, even if you don't feel like going out. Anything that occupies the mind, even a little, is good.

In that vein, if you have the means, try take a class that forces you to pay attention. Something like ice-skating, or dance lessons, or improv or acting class, or martial arts, where if you're not focused on what's going on, you'll fail. This forces you to think about something else for at least a few hours a week, plus has the benefit of you meeting new and friendly people.

Keep moving, one foot at a time, one meal, one day. It sucks so badly, I know. Like life is just divided between moments where you have this huge sucking tearing vortex of grief and moments where you're empty and hollow and blank. It will get better. It will take time, but it WILL get better. You may be surprised to find that you heal faster than you expected, or you may be surprised by sudden bouts of sadness that disappointingly hit you just when you thought you were improving. (Hi, this latter one is me right now.) It's completely normal to bounce back and forth like that. But bit by bit, it will get better, I promise. At the very least, a bunch of internet strangers are pulling for you, and you WILL get through this. Good luck!
posted by Sockmaster at 10:55 PM on October 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

Hi, I am going through a breakup now, and I totally understand how you feel. I have found that feeling too much does not help me either. The experience is like getting sucked into a whirlwind of pain and self pity. I think that the best thing for both of us to do is get on with our lives, however, at times it seems almost impossible. I have found that when I am busy doing things that I love, I forget about him for a time. I think that keeping busy is the key, as well as focusing on any goals you may have and spending your free time doing what needs to be done to accomplish them. I just enrolled in school working towards my Masters degree, it helps me to keep my mind off of the painful memories and is helping to raise my self confidence again. Still, there are those days that I don't want to get out of bed because I feel so sad, but I make it a point to not only keep going but to go forward not backwards. Whatever you do, try to keep away from him, if it is over it is best to just let him go. Also, it is great to be a caring person! You just need to find people who appreciate this wonderful trait that you have. Don't change the good things about yourself. I wish you the best and I hope that you can stay strong.
posted by cherokeesun at 12:30 PM on October 22, 2012

I, too, know this feeling too well. I think a lot of the advice that's been given so far is great--and wanted to add: do you have any kind of activity that allows you to feel those emotions but also express them as you go? I love running, and in the past have found it soothing to "feel" the feelings more intensely by focusing on them... while expressing my grief through running. As of late I haven't been able to run due to some injuries and have used singing to express grief. I have a breakup playlist with songs that help put into words what I'm feeling, and I'll sing along to them really loudly while doing chores around the house, etc. This allows me to spend time thinking about my emotions but to also have some kind of outlet to help me process them. I find that this helps much more than my obsessive behaviors. I'm also going through a painful breakup and am so sorry you have to deal with this as well!!
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