I feel broken. How do I pick myself up and find happiness?
December 8, 2016 7:24 AM   Subscribe

I'm a 24-year-old gay man. I have recently gone through a bitter break up with whom the other half is a work colleague, and I have started seeing a cognitive-behavioural therapist who has diagnosed me with severe social anxiety disorder. My life has gotten on top of me and my self-esteem has been shattered. How can I pick up the pieces? What steps can I take to find the happiness that I know I deserve?

It all began with the relationship I developed with a work colleague. We dated for 6 weeks before he asked me to be in an exclusive relationship, which may sound very high-school to someone older and wiser, but when you're wrapped up in the feelings of butterflies and honeymoon, it was the best feeling ever. The relationship was short-lived and he broke up with me very quickly. "It's not you, it's me" he told me. 2 weeks later, he grovelled and like a fool, I took him back. Only for him to do the same thing, prompting me to end it and tell him I deserved better. It didn't take long for the rumour mill at work to spin its web and plant a bitter seed into me. One of the rumours was that he had actually kissed another colleague in the staff room during our brief time together. He denies this, but a trusted friend at work assured me it was true as she had obtained the confession from the man he had kissed. 2 nights ago, at the work Christmas party, it all came to a head. Alcohol and exes don't mix, but he cornered me and wanted to know why I was so angry. He told me I was the nicest guy he had ever dated, but he was not right for me at a time in his life where he had so much more to worry about. He also confessed to still being in love with his ex. I told him with tears in my eyes that he never should have asked me into a relationship, for which he didn't answer. A slightly side fact, later that night he fell over and broke his leg. He's now in hospital. I sent him a message wishing him a speedy recovery and that we should both just drop our issues and move on in life. I did this for the sake of my own sanity, and for the sake of work. The problem is, I am so deeply cut up over what happened and struggling to let it go. I can't work out why, and this is something I will go through with my therapist. I know it is over, I know we are not right for each other, but I have so many regrets and so many feelings lingering towards him. How can I let this go?

Sometime after the initial break up, before things started to get bitter, I began seeing a cognitive-behavioural therapist who felt the root of my issues are embedded in an issue I had when I came out where my mum initially rejected me. I scored top marks for social anxiety, so with my blessing she is happy to move forward with the sessions using that has the focus. I feel like the cause of this entire situation is low self-esteem and self-confidence, both of which have always been things I have struggled with since I was a child: the sensitive one. A therapist in the past has called me hyper-sensitive. I think this is true.

I have become so drained over what happened and it has piled me into a depression. Friends tell me to let go, that I'm better off without him, that he never deserved me anyway, that I am a lovely handsome guy who could have anyone he chose, but I just don't believe what they are telling me. Is this something that will improve over time with my CBT sessions, as I am due to have my second one tomorrow?

I want so desperately to be happy, but now I feel I am undeserving of a relationship because I have nothing to offer other than my own desperation and neediness.

To sum up the post in the form of questions...
How can I let this failed relationship go and move on with my life?
How can I start to feel better about my self?
Should I take a break from dating and focus on these issues?
Is this a normal part of life, or are normal problems effecting me on a much more intense scale due to my hyper-sensitivity?
posted by Lewnatic to Human Relations (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Should these not all be questions for the therapist you're seeing?

Or maybe look at the answers you got from your previous 2 questions about this break up. lots of good advice there...

other than that, I suggest you find some other activity to throw yourself in to, not just to distract from the hurt you're feeling, but also to seek out a new direction for your life. Volunteering comes to mind because it can help with your feelings of self worth etc. because you are helping others, making a difference in other people's lives, giving back, etc. All good feeling stuff. It would also give you the opportunity to meet new people and widen your support network.

Also, working someplace else without the walking talking reminder of your hurt would probably help.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 7:32 AM on December 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

Start by looking at the good you are already doing. You have made the decision to see a therapist, which is a huge step. If you read through AskMefi often, you'll know it's not an easy task and you should give yourself credit for this.

I can't answer the specific questions you address (I am not your therapist!) but one small suggestion is to find some volunteer work to do this holiday season. Pick a cause that's personal to you and find an organization that works towards it. It'll keep your mind and body busy and focus you on something larger than yourself. This can give you mental space to heal in, without all of your energy turned inward.
posted by tofu_crouton at 7:38 AM on December 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

While not being your therapist, some points to ponder:
Your thoughts don't define you. You may feel depressed. You are not depressed. You may feel like a failure. You are not a failure. You may feel hopeless. You are not hopeless.

You had a major trigger event. This event has uncovered areas you now have the opportunity to turn towards and embrace with self compassion and kindness. Really.

This is not permanent. Nothing is. If you are so inclined, find a copy of When Things Fall Apart.

With peace.
posted by jtexman1 at 7:55 AM on December 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

Okay, all of your questions are about breakups and relationships. You really need to take a break, clearly you are not able to handle the stress of dating. This does not mean you're broken; this is extremely common and it's a sign of strength to take care of yourself. You've taken the first step by admitting you have a problem.

Find something else to do, preferably something physical like weightlifting or rock climbing if you're able. Give it a year. I know that seems like an incredibly long period of time, but you are young and it will go by quickly. Meanwhile, work on your mental and physical health for yourself, not because you're grooming yourself for some potential partner.

You are not worth less because you are not coupled; trying to gain self-worth through someone else is like throwing pebbles into an abyss.
posted by AFABulous at 7:57 AM on December 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

You are putting the right things in motion right now, but I agree you should treat yourself to a year-long exclusive relationship with yourself only. The single most important thing you can do for yourself, and for the next 60 years of your life, is to put every resource you have towards getting a grip on your anxiety and your life and the stories you tell yourself.

It takes time. There is no instant fix or shortcut. You have to do the work yourself. It is noble work that deserves your full attention.

You don't want fear to be the thing that drives every decision you make in your life, do you? It's not really possible to have a full happy life when you're letting anxiety call the shots. Get on top of it, learn how to take care of yourself, learn how to be alone with yourself and be happy with yourself. Those are the things that draw high-quality partners to you, because they are also doing these things for themselves.

There's a neurological craving, when we've had any sort of dramatic incident in our lives, to re-narrate the incident over and over, which you're kind of doing with your questions. That's a really important function when the drama was "hyena almost ate me, got away" but less so when it was "dated someone I shouldn't have". This feels super-important to you right now, but in the context of your entire life this story isn't "oh it was so wonderful and horrible!" it'll be "24 was a crap year, but that's when I figured out I had to start taking care of myself."

Make sure that you are not just using your therapy sessions to re-narrate this story and keep it top-of-mind. Ask your therapist for training in how to manage intrusive thoughts. Practice doing it every day, even on days when it's not so intrusive, because this is a powerful weapon against anxiety in general.

Getting busy is the best way to make the time pass while you do these things. Try to get busy doing outward-facing things instead of you-centric navel-gazing things - go help somebody who legitimately needs help, it's truly the best way. It's December, and if you're in the Northern Hemisphere it's cold pretty much everywhere and there are organizations working to get coats/blankets/socks to marginalized people, food to hungry people, support and resources and a warm place to go for queer kids in vulnerable circumstances. There are grassroots political activist organizations literally being born daily right now, go to a few of those meetings.

One of the reasons volunteering is so helpful when you are depressed or anxious and turned too inward is that generally there are clear-cut instructions telling you what to do, there's a specific time and place you go to do a thing, you'll be doing it around other people but you all have a job so it's not so socially scary. It's excellent training wheels for being out in the world. It makes you feel good, and you can feel good about feeling good because you're doing your bit to make the world a better place. The world could really use you right now.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:28 AM on December 8, 2016 [10 favorites]

I want to strongly second the notion of finding a new job. In the meantime if you can book some vacation do it - ASAP. Use it to go somewhere delightful or to hunt for a new job.

I also want to second volunteering - especially in a capacity that requires some focus and concentration.

I have always had a hard time moving on from relationships, and I've given up telling most of my friends when I'm still struggling. It's so completely unhelpful to hear "move on" - if I knew how, I would. But it *is* helpful to spend time with friends even if I don't talk about my heartbreak, so I do recommend keeping a healthy social life and surrounding yourself with people who love you and enjoyable, rewarding activities.

Look for a new job, minimize contact with ex, and hang in there.

I'm sorry you're having to deal with this, and I hope things get better for you soon. You do deserve to be happy.
posted by bunderful at 8:45 AM on December 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

I didn't read your past questions, but I will just say that, from just what you wrote here, it's super-normal to feel terrible when someone you're in love with doesn't want to be in a relationship with you. But, that doesn't mean that you don't also have social anxiety, or have issues with rejection from things with your mom. In fact, if you have issues with rejection and self-esteem, then you're more likely to fall in love with people who will reject you, if that makes sense. (You sort of expect to be rejected, so people who reject you feel "normal" and "comfortable" in a certain way.) That might be what happened when you took him back.

I think the idea of taking a break from dating makes a ton of sense. Also, take on something big and accomplish it -- something that you really want to do but believe is very hard -- because doing that will keep you preoccupied and completing it will give you self-esteem. So, alongside counseling and doing the work that Lyn Never describes, try to start a business, or prepare to hike the entire John Muir trail, or restore an old house, or something. There are much bigger issues in life, much bigger potential successes and failures, than whether this guy likes you. Find something you care about as much as that and go at it with determination.
posted by salvia at 9:30 AM on December 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just on this piece:

A therapist in the past has called me hyper-sensitive. I think this is true.

Is this a normal part of life, or are normal problems effecting me on a much more intense scale due to my hyper-sensitivity?

Maybe. (Maybe there are also some other issues going on, such as those that were suggested in answers to past questions. Hopefully, you'll benefit from some help with figuring it out in therapy.)

But viz a viz the kinds of reactions you've described here and elsewhere - yeah, I think sensitivity / extreme social anxiety could play a role in amplifying the lovesickness/limerance/grief that most people your age experience around relationships, to a greater or lesser degree.

Are you familiar with Elaine Aron's book, The Highly Sensitive Person? The idea there is that there's an optimal level of stimulation for most people; some people react strongly to comparatively less intense stimuli than others, or than the average. The idea is that there might be some constitutional sensitivity there, a generally more reactive nervous system. (Love can hurt; loss and loneliness activate similar brain regions to those that are active in pain states (e.g.). Maybe you are feeling it more than some might.)

I used to have social anxiety (used to! I'm not really shy per se, and am only introverted about half the time. But it was bad enough to have me blushing, stammering, and actually twitching in public situations, and especially around guys I liked. I also used to fall hard and long for people, maybe a little more so than other people, not sure).

I think gradually expanding my repertoire of experience (which can be one aim of therapy, though this happened naturalistically) helped with the social anxiety. I also think an SSRI probably did. I personally couldn't stand the side effects of that drug (Paxil) and had an awful time coming off it. But I do think it probably helped chill out some of the exaggerated and debilitating responses to social situations (although I can't know it with 100% certainty, I think it probably did). Maybe by tamping down some of those interoceptive signals, who knows. One of the many effects I disliked was reduced sensitivity to things I liked, as well, fyi. I think other drugs with fewer side effects are around today; it might be worth thinking about. I'm not saying sensitivity should be pathologized, always, but it was a significant barrier to functioning, for me, in the form of social anxiety.

(As far as the crushing, lovesick feeling that is common in young people generally - I think experience and time probably also played a big role in not really feeling that anymore. Though the factors are hard to pick apart.)

Elaine Aron wrote another book called The Highly Sensitive Person in Love, which I have not read, but may be of benefit to you.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:53 AM on December 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Some American reviewers mention that it may have less to say about relationships and the larger cultural framework to people who are not hetero, unfortunately. Apologies for that. I am not aware of a better book that addresses this conceptualization of sensitivity in connection with relationships, but there may be.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:30 AM on December 8, 2016

I would just add that CBT doesn't take a lot of time to get a first dose of some positive effect, just because thinking about your thoughts and how silly they are is a powerful first step, but if you stick with the program (the self-monitoring charts + occasional appointments) for the entire Year of Yourself (which I also recommend), it will pay exponentially increasing dividends.
posted by radicalawyer at 2:49 PM on December 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thanks guys, some really incredible responses and ideas. I definitely like the idea of the year long relationship with myself, the very idea relieves pressure from my mind so that alone shows a good idea.

Regarding looking for a new job, that is not really possible right now. Nor should I have to. He will be off work for a couple of months due to his injury, so I will have to use that time wisely to make sure I can handle even just seeing his face when he returns.
posted by Lewnatic at 2:07 AM on December 9, 2016

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