Doing what I care about will mean seeing my ex, and that terrifies me.
October 22, 2015 9:07 AM   Subscribe

When relationships end, it’s often said the thing you do is recommit to the things you really care about. I can’t retreat to what I care about.

Three years ago my relationship ended. The confusion I felt in the relationship was because the relationship was emotionally abusive. They said a lot of untrue things about me to me in the relationship, and also publicly about me in a way that I never consented to after the relationship, that made me feel violated on top of how I felt after incidents in the relationship. I have not been in a relationship since.

I worked in an industry, ‘A’, for a long time, a sector my ex got into at the same time we broke up almost three years ago.

A is everything for me. Now I think, incessantly: I can never do A again. I will never be comfortable with A again. The ex and A are now conflated. I feel so ashamed I was in a bad relationship, and ashamed I have come to view A this way, and ashamed for feeling stupid and ashamed and humiliated and scared. I never want to share anything about myself again, because people just try to mess me over eventually, and I am easy to mess over, right? I feel like a part of myself died.

I want to confront these problems about A. If I do that, because of the way A works I will see or hear this person eventually. In fact, I would have to actively avoid A if I want to avoid ex. When relationships end, it’s often said the thing you do is recommit to the things you really care about. I feel like I can’t retreat to what I care about.

I have a counselor. I feel committed to overcoming this. But I don't know how. I’m looking for suggestions of how to not be frightened of A, how to structure overcoming this (including with my counselor's help). What is this thing I am experiencing? How do I get A back, and how do I overcome this fear?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
If your counselor doesn't do CBT, find someone who does. CBT is made for this sort of thing: specific problems with a specific goal, for which you need help separating emotions and thoughts and challenging fears.

If you're in the US, Psychology Today has a therapist search function where you can select your location, insurance, and types of therapy (including CBT).

Alternately, there are great CBT workbooks out there. Look at reviews on Amazon to find one that suits your needs.
posted by SugarAndSass at 9:53 AM on October 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

It seems like the thing you're feeling is the effects of a terrible poison that your ex fed you. What a tragedy that A has lost three years of a passionate voice in its favor because of the actions of a dangerous fool. That's your ex's fault, not yours.

Do you have any compatriots in the field? People with whom you could discuss the pieces of A that you like, to slowly reintroduce you to that world and strengthen your ties to it? It's not clear from your question whether you have completely avoided A in the intervening years, but maybe some gentle exposure would help.

Oddly, this post reminded me strongly of the recent kid's movie Inside Out. (Kid's movie it may be, but in the screening I went to, the adults were all deeply moved in parts where the kids only saw Adventure.) It gets right to the heart of of having experiences that are emotionally multifaceted, and in the end it really paints those in a positive light, as part of the necessary task of being human. I don't know whether the analogy holds up to the trauma of abuse, but framing your experience with A as "more complex" as opposed to "ruined" may be useful, and it's a sweet movie anyhow.
posted by tchemgrrl at 9:54 AM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

What is this thing I am experiencing?

Avoidance is a very common response to trauma, generally arising from anxiety about putting one in a position to be hurt again. From what you've described, it may be worth talking to your counselor about coping mechanisms for anxiety.
posted by jaguar at 10:01 AM on October 22, 2015 [6 favorites]

I think you have to start by working with your counselor on the shame that you're feeling. It's not a mark against you that you trusted someone who turned out to be undeserving of that trust. That way when the inevitable contact happens, you don't have guilt/shame adding to the negative feelings it'll bring up.

If you have friend still in the industry, have a buddy system so they can run interference or be your emotional support when contact happens. Start by having them help you actively avoid ex, then gradually switch to just getting a heads up that contact could occur, etc.

It won't be painless, but if A is important to you, it's worth the effort. If it helps, frame it in a slightly adversarial way: The best revenge is a life well lived. You enjoying A is your revenge, showing ex that you are not controlled by them in the slightest, that will drive them crazy! Eventually the good from doing A will erase the pain of dealing with ex, and you won't even care if they are there or not.
posted by ghost phoneme at 10:01 AM on October 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

First of all, let me say that I empathize. I've gone through similar times when I felt that I couldn't be in a certain place if X was there. I identify with the shame you're feeling, too. It sucks and I'm sorry you are going through it.

The thoughts you are having, which generate the panic, are what's holding you hostage. Not A, not your ex. Your ex is most likely calmly sitting at home eating a sandwich, not thinking of you, while you're agonizing over the situation. Your counselor should be pointing this out.

I'll recommend what I generally do: begin a meditation practice at a Buddhist center. (You don't have to convert to Buddhism or give up any current religious beliefs to do this.) Speak with a teacher there frequently. Start to try to observe your thoughts. This can help release their hold on you. Stay in close communication with your counselor and the teacher at the center, especially if meditation starts kicking up a lot of anger or anxiety (it often does for beginners). You learn to tolerate the discomfort over time.

If you can, start looking to get a job in A - it sounds like you don't currently have one. If that happens, just show up every day and do your job. Leave X alone: if they try to engage you on non-work related matters (which they might), just tell them you're too busy to talk right now and skedaddle (subtly) to the restroom. If it's work-related, speak to the ex, but minimize unnecessary contact. Let your good quality of work and your presence speak for you.

If you hear that X is talking smack about you, or if you even SUSPECT that X is talking smack about you, my advice is to ignore it completely. Don't take the bait. Just show up, show up, show up. If B.S. starts happening in business meetings, try something like: "I believe we were meeting to talk about X subject?" The generators of the B.S. will look like clowns then.

Everything has a beginning, middle, and an end. X may move on sooner than you do.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 10:02 AM on October 22, 2015

If you stay away from A, the terrorists (your ex) win and the abuse continues. You have a right to the peaceful personal and professional enjoyment of A. Exercising that right is a way of caring for yourself over the short- and long-term, whereas avoiding A to avoid your ex just suppresses your own desires and dreams. It seems like self-care, but it's self-harm, kind of like how overeating now and them may be comforting but turning it into a lifestyle is self-destructive. Exposing yourself to the discomforts of A, like running into your ex, and increasing your tolerance is part of how you get stronger, like beginning an exercise program. Take care.
posted by carmicha at 10:26 AM on October 22, 2015 [4 favorites]

I am not too sure how to handle the seeing your ex thing, because I would hate to see my emotionally abusive ex too. But I do want to speak to this:

I feel so ashamed I was in a bad relationship, and ashamed I have come to view A this way, and ashamed for feeling stupid and ashamed and humiliated and scared.

When I got out of my relationship with my ex, I felt ashamed and humiliated that I had gotten into the relationship, gotten married and "let" myself get in that position at all. I beat myself up for being "stupid", "an idiot" and generally had very bad things to say about myself.

I had a good friend who shook me out of it when she said that any shame from that relationship belongs to the abuser, not me. I went into the relationship with love and respect and tried everything in my power to make it a good relationship. That my ex abused my generosity and love is not a shame that belongs to me, but to him. In essence, I stopped saying "Shame on me" for being abused, but started saying "Shame on you" for being abusive.

That perspective really helped and I stopped accepting blame that wasn't properly mine to accept. In doing so I stopped calling myself stupid and otherwise being hard on myself.

You are likewise not stupid and have nothing to be ashamed of here. Maybe that shift in perspective can make your re-entry in A a little easier. Best of luck to you and wishing you strength!
posted by murrey at 1:29 PM on October 22, 2015 [5 favorites]

Does A involve making some form of art, or other mode of self-expression? (If so, can you use it to help you make sense of what happened, in a project that's just for you, totally private? Maybe that will spark related explorations you might feel more comfortable bringing to a public. Or you could rework it so it's one or three steps removed from raw confession. Or maybe, with some support and time, you'll decide that you do want to share that expression, however it comes out.)

2nd finding other individuals and communities to work with for now. (An easier way to do this, a shortcut, would be to actually move cities, if you're lucky and could swing it. You could look at it as him having won, I guess, but a new environment could be freeing, inspiring. People go for fresh starts like that all the time.)

Work on this for yourself, for now; do therapy, find safe people and spaces for your work. When you're ready to take it out, if you see him, pretend nothing ever happened, don't acknowledge any of his dirty tactics. Others will take your lead.
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:58 PM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

I read an interview with an economist in the FT last year where he said he was struggling with whether to leave academia and go back into consulting because he had a lot of ideas for his niche focus but he also felt that the ideas in the sector were outdated. So, he wrote a book essentially setting a new course for the study of his area and winning praise for a clear takedown of architects of his field.

Getting off a ladder is only useful when you know the climb up to the second rung is going to be too emotionally and financially unfulfilling. Therefore, I can understand wanting to make a new start. But, could you seize on what you did and find a quiet way to turn industry A into your earner rather than his? You working in the same field with him probably meant bringing work home a lot and fighting about work as opposed to working on the relationship. You were both suckers for thinking the other would find a work-life balance in that arrangement.
I would suggest you figure out how much you really need to live on and find your own clientele up to that level and add staff when you can, or merge with someone else you admire. The most simple way of doing this is to offer your expertise to organisations in your sector and go to them to perform services, earning above flight and room fees then moving to telecommute or be an advisor in 15 minute increments billed monthly. That will allow you to work from anywhere.
posted by parmanparman at 3:13 PM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

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