Linus in need of post-breakup blanket
August 13, 2017 1:29 AM   Subscribe

I'm totally shaken after a breakup (and my response to it). What are some things I can do to regain my sense of self-respect and control, and feel emotionally safer?

I'm in a kind of shock... It went from wonderful to nightmarish in a heartbeat. I don't know if this is too extreme a word for it, but I feel emotionally violated.

(Not sure if this is a normal feeling after a breakup, because I've been single for so long, and the one before this was more of a boiling frog phenomenon... [ex was an abusive alcoholic].)

Prior to this relationship, I'd been used to being on my own. I was getting to be a little lonely, but was mostly fine that way, because I had peace of mind. Successfully avoided risk of emotional pain for a long time.

When I ran into an ex-fling (from decades ago), we launched into an intensely emotionally intimate relationship, very quickly. I let myself be vulnerable (scary and great). For the first time in probably ever, I felt fundamentally known, and loved for it. For who I am.

He remembered every detail of my ways, stories, preferences. Readily and happily accommodated my pleasures and pains. Sang my praises. Saw and accepted my shortcomings. We had fun. There was constant communication - he'd wake me in the morning with a phone call, text me through the day, we'd talk again at night. Filled our brains and hearts with each other, with banalities, history, silliness, tenderness, hopes, plans... He met my family. Heard all the stories about them (many painful)... they liked him, he liked them back.

The care and attention I felt from him was a total answer to my every longing and insecurity, old and new. Heady stuff for an anxious person.

Well, he flipped on me, very suddenly. Went nasty and cruel*. (Turns out he handles conflict of any kind, especially conflict that involves a partner making a demand on him he doesn't want to make, by either checking out or flipping out. He has bipolar disorder and a history of bad relationships. I have anxiety issues [and, also a history of bad relationships]. His behaviour in conflict and during the breakup was the worst possible trigger for my anxiety.)

We've obviously broken up. I'm fine with that (absolutely for the best). What I'm having trouble with is coping with feeling abandoned, humiliated, and rejected, so harshly, after having felt so loved and safe. (After having avoided risk for so long...). I really feel like the rug (maybe the floor, maybe the earth) really got pulled out from under me.

I'm ashamed that I let him know me, and showed all my vulnerabilities, only to be treated with such contempt and disrespect. He's not going to remember anything good about me, based on what he's said about recent exes... I can intellectually accept that I can't control that, that sometimes people will dislike or even hate me... but not someone I trusted utterly with my heart just a minute ago. The sting of humiliation is probably the worst of it...

Also: during the breakup, instead of being stoic, self-protective, graceful, I got into a back and forth with him and was alternately nicer than I really should have been and angrier than I ever wanted to show. I feel that I let him have the power, in showing my hand (and reaching out...). I'm ashamed of that too, of having let myself sunk so low. (Not as low as I have in the past, as I did with my ex... but I tried to reason with him, reach out, resolve things... He was horrible, I snapped back...)

1. What things can I do, immediately, to feel less emotionally unsafe? I've got the support of family and a couple of good friends. Invaluable. Don't know what to do when I'm alone.

2. Can you recommend books to help me (an anxious person who's been in an abusive relationship) learn how to feel ok about emotional risk and romantic relationships in general? Staying completely away from them is an option I'm fine with, and have used extensively. I need to reset my evidently wonky compass for times I might want to go with not being alone.

3. I don't want to feel like a victim, here. But I do. I want to feel strong and resilient. What can I do, right now, to take back a sense of power and self-respect? I'll take books and practical suggestions, thanks so much in advance.

*There were warnings... Here's part of the backstory (for those with interest and time to kill). That issue resolved soon enough - he decided he was over his ex and was completely free of doubt that he wanted to be with me (marry me, have children with me, retire with me...). There were other events, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt, up to the point that there wasn't room for any.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I had this exact dance with my narcissistic ex. These slide shares helped me - I watched them over and over, and others in Jenny Mawter's series.

They reminded me that even if I did get unregulated at the end, as you say is your situation, and I also got into a back n forth, they reminded me to forgive myself. The feeling that I had, which you have now about his opinion of you being shared with others, passed when I made the realisation that I had simply joined a club of people who had their lives fucked up by Neil the Narc. Even the most saintly or composed of individuals can't deal with that kind of person. This feeling of out of control is that you have enjoyed for some short period of time what a beautiful lover might be like, all your hopes were seemingly answered, part of you bloomed inside. You were enjoying but then the negging process and the abandonment dance wobble you even harder. It's easy to slip out of regulation because essentially something primal has been disrupted: that gaze that was loving and knowing, turned into a repudiating monster.

Start to forgive yourself for getting het up with him. This is a pit, because in the moment any sense of your loss of composure was probably treated as such a 'gotcha' moment, [see! you're terrible!]. Losing your shit is not the worst thing by far about how this all ended.

The thing about these kinds of interactions is that you are truly left with a shell-shocked post traumatic overload of emotion that you feel physically. It's really hard to move or feel anything except trauma. I tried to do lots of walking but I couldn't even get out the end of the street. Give yourself simple goals. That's how the slideshares helped me in that space, by showing me the words I needed for what I was feeling, helping me process what happened in the intimate space, and what kind of person I was in that situation.

I am glad you say you have friends and family. My advice would be to really let them know what has happened and ask for help. I drew on the support of two close friends who checked in daily. They just let me explain every thing he'd ever done, and spent time letting me have my feelings.

Something to think about is that you are likely, if my experience or others' serves, to really want his attention back. You have to be honest about that, tell your friends, ask that they not just yell at you about being crazy/remember what that asshole did/ etc. They need to be gentle and call that feeling pretty normal, and to gently distract you. They won't be able to entirely, but here I am an internet stranger saying, if you can, reaaaaallly resist contact, even when your heart leaps with the idea that he might give you what you originally got from him.

You might get attention from him, and you'll probably get it when you think you are doing okay for a day, or your birthday or some other bogus intrusion. Be ready for that. And try, try, try to be strong. Even if you think he's the only one who can help you right now, this is not true. He can't help you understand why he has done this.

Cheering you on, you can move through this. You can do it.
posted by honey-barbara at 2:33 AM on August 13, 2017 [11 favorites]

God, I'm so sorry you're dealing with this. You feel violated and unsafe, and that's heavy stuff. Even beyond the usual pains of a breakup, it sounds like you've suffered some real trauma here.

Consider yourself lucky that you got out now, rather than later. This could have been so much worse, if you'd gotten married or had kids and then he did a total 180 like this. Remind yourself that if you were that happy with him, you've proved that it's possible for your to be happy with somebody. You're not doomed to be unhappy and alone. You have it within you to be happy, and you have some idea of what you want.

In terms of feeling stronger, consider exercise, self-defense courses, dancing. Stuff that will make you feel at home in your body and confident. Also maybe go on a little trip, do some things you've always wanted to do. Have some low-stakes adventures. If you know you're good at something, do that. Or get better at something, learn a skill. Do things that will make you proud of yourself.

And I'd suggest an appointment with a therapist. People go to therapy for a lot less than what you've been through.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:16 AM on August 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

Get yourself a pet and see that that worshipful adoration is available on unlimited supply and get yourself a real blanket, a good one. Lessons to some exercise class or a membership at the gym might be a nice treat too.
posted by benadryl at 5:39 AM on August 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm ashamed that I let him know me, and showed all my vulnerabilities, only to be treated with such contempt and disrespect.

You're going to need to flip that around.

Showing another person all your vulnerabilities, and being totally open to them, is a huge risk. The fact that it's also a necessary step on the path to life's single biggest reward does not change that.

Taking that huge risk - especially after past experience with bad relationships - is a mark of genuine courage. That's something for a person to be properly proud of, not to beat themselves up for.

Treating a person who has chosen to take that risk with contempt and disrespect is something that only a small, sad person would do. Your latest ex is obviously such a person. You're obviously not.

He's not going to remember anything good about me, based on what he's said about recent exes...

That says far more about him than it does about you, as would be readily apparent to anybody who knows both of you on a more than nodding acquaintance basis.

At the moment, you've still got some of his shit stuck to you, like dogshit tracked in from outside and ground into your carpet. The stink is going to hang around for a while, because that's the nature of shit. Keep on working at the job of cleaning it out, and the stink will eventually fade to imperceptibility.

I can intellectually accept that I can't control that, that sometimes people will dislike or even hate me...

That intellectual acceptance is very valuable. Hang onto that. It's a true thing, and true things are your best guides to keeping your balance and taking as little damage as possible while riding one of life's whitewater stretches.

but not someone I trusted utterly with my heart just a minute ago. The sting of humiliation is probably the worst of it.

I'm glad you used the word "sting".

A sting is a sudden, sharp pain, and the thing about stings is that they go away relatively quickly. The humiliation - the "how could I have been so blind/stupid/self-destructive as to let this happen" - will not last, mainly because what it is based on is not a true thing.

You are not blind, not stupid, and not self-destructive. You went into this relationship with your eyes wide open and your heart full of trust and hope, and that's the right way to go about it.

But like any genuinely risky venture, these things don't always work out, and when they fail they hurt like you're hurting right now.

The pain you're feeling now is not telling you to avoid this kind of risk in future. It's telling you not to take it again with your ex, and probably also not with anybody who shares your ex's more dubious attributes, chief among which would be his apparent addiction to spurious interpersonal drama.

It is true that a lasting intimate relationship is the most genuinely therapeutic thing that a person could ever experience. But that does not mean it's anywhere even close to reasonable to load up a new partner with the job of cleaning out one's own emotional Augean Stables. That's just fundamentally disrespectful, and to my way of thinking needs to be treated as a relationship dealbreaker.

I don't want to feel like a victim, here. But I do.

That will be because you've actually just been one. No shame in that. Sometimes life involves having bad shit deliberately done to us that's beyond our control to prevent. This sucks. It sucks bad and it hurts. Feeling victimized right after you've been victimized is unpleasant, but it's healthy and appropriate.

I want to feel strong and resilient. What can I do, right now, to take back a sense of power and self-respect?

Two things, one mental and one physical.

Concentrate on making the important distinction between feeling and being. Instead of making it your aim to feel strong and resilient, remind yourself that strength and resilience are not so much feelings you have as aspects of how you are. Strong, resilient, healthy people do feel like shit for a while after shitty things have happened to them; they just don't let that stop them doing whatever the hell they want with their lives.

The physical thing is one of those One Weird Tricks. Get somewhere private (preferably outdoors, and ideally somewhere that gives you a decent view to the horizon, but anywhere is better than nowhere). Stand with your feet a full yard apart, stick your elbows out with your fists on your hips, raise your head and stick out your chin. Maintain that pose for a full minute.

This will not cure what ails you (only time will do that) but you might find it takes a bit of the sting out.
posted by flabdablet at 6:29 AM on August 13, 2017 [30 favorites]

When I went through something similar, I spent a lot of time thinking about that thing you talk about, feeling seen, known, loved, cared for, and allowed to be vulnerable. Then I stacked that up against all of the anger and shame I was making myself feel, for letting myself be vulnerable, for putting up with someone being mean to me, for acting "pathetic" in the end.

Then, I decided to try talking to myself and loving myself the way I felt the "good" version of my ex had. And that if he was no longer around to be that for me, there was no reason that I couldn't be that for myself. And that there was especially no reason for me to be mean to myself or beat myself up emotionally like he had after I'd just been through it.

In practice, this meant a few things:

Asking myself what would make me happy. Specifically. If my brain said "going back to pre-breakup times with ex", I'd dig deeper. What specifically would I want to do, what did I miss that was making me feel this way? Was it laughing? How about a comedy show with a friend? Was it making dinner together? How about making something while listening to a podcast I love, or calling my mom? Etc.

When I found myself being mean to myself, I'd ask myself three questions:

How does this self abuse serve me?
Would I ever say this to a friend or partner? Or even a stranger?
Am I really mad at myself or am I mad at him?

This would usually help me to speak to myself with love and care, maybe even making myself some tea or drawing myself a bath.

So, long story short, be there for you. You know what makes you feel loved. You can step in for a while until a new, better partner comes around. And once you know how to do this for yourself, you'll feel much more empowered to tell anyone who can't do this for you too, to beat it.
posted by pazazygeek at 7:33 AM on August 13, 2017 [9 favorites]

Intense exercise has helped me with breakups - particularly boxing as it leaves me no time to ruminate.

Building strength and skill also helps me feel more capable and confident about my ability to take care of myself. Sure, being able to lift X pounds or throw a good punch doesn't really translate to relationship navigation, but the confidence does.

After my last bad breakup I determined to take things VERY SLOW the next time I meet someone I'm excited about. I really need the extra time to get to know someone. Having this in mind and feeling very strongly about it makes me feel better.

Also therapy.
posted by bunderful at 9:07 AM on August 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm so sorry you went through this. You did the right thing by being open and giving in your relationship, and the fact that the guy involved was a narcissistic jerk is no reflection on you. It really is his loss and the fact that he will never know what he's missing, with you or any other human being, makes him even more pathetic. Unfortunately, that kind of pathetic person is incredibly dangerous to others and you have to have your own back. The bottom line is that we are all ultimately responsible for ourselves.

There's lots of good specific advice here and it all boils down to give yourself time and let yourself feel whatever you feel. There's no "right" way to do this, and it's okay to take time to be sad, and even to stay away from strong emotional connections for a while, until you've had a chance to heal. On a practical note, once you're past the initial acute phase, it might help to find some kind of project, maybe fitness-related, a volunteer activity, or something creative, that you can focus your attention on for a while. Pets are also great for that.
posted by rpfields at 10:22 AM on August 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Maybe try this idea on: vulnerability is our greatest strength. You might think being detached, stoic and alone is strong. But really the bravest thing is to enter the arena again and again. To risk being hurt again and again. All in pursuit of that closeness and comfort, love, you describe. Try watching Brene Brown's Ted talks, and her book Daring Greatly.

Every time you get knocked down, you learn something. And you rebuild stronger than you were before.
posted by wreckofthehesperus at 2:27 PM on August 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Well, here's a slightly different way of thinking about things that might help? I hope?

Through no fault of your own, you are programmed, probably by early childhood experiences:

1. to be afraid that people who truly know you will reject you
2. to be afraid that you'll be rejected by everybody you're drawn to
3. to be afraid that the experience of feeling alone, after feeling not-alone, will be impossible to bear

Interestingly, everything you've written here puts lie to those three fears.

Because! You've mentioned that while you've just been rejected by this guy, you also mentioned support from other people. So while this guy rejected you, not everybody who knows you rejects you! And while you're feeling alone after feeling not-alone, you said that feeling isn't impossible to bear. What's stinging you more is the humiliation of having gone all-in, having exposed yourself, been sincere, bought into the whole thing.

But I will let you in on a little secret, having been on both sides of your situation.

There's nothing wrong with going all-in on something. There's not even anything humiliating about caring about someone more than they care about you, as long as you walk away from it cleanly when it's over.

In fact, there's nothing a person -- particularly a kind of fucked-up person -- regrets more than losing forever someone who truly cared about them.

I think you have lots of good resilience and I think you're absolutely right to want to preserve your willingness to be open and vulnerable in future relationships. And like other commenters I wouldn't be surprised if this dude tries to get back in touch with you. If he does, just say you wish him the best and say you think it's better for you not to be in contact for awhile.

Here are some books I think could be of use to you:

Emotional Alchemy

Reinventing Your Life

And you might also benefit from doing some research into attachment theory/therapy
posted by mrmurbles at 3:42 PM on August 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

Consider approaching this as a trauma rather than a garden-variety breakup. There are good internet resources and several recent threads on post-traumatic processing and self-care. When you think you know someone and can trust them and they turn on you abruptly, that's a form of violence. People often respond physically and neurologically in similar ways to an assault, accident, medical emergency, natural disaster etc.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:48 PM on August 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

Boy have I ever been where you are. I went through an exceedingly similar experience. First: Sending good vibes your way. You will feel better eventually, but these things have a way of turning your perception upside down, or at least making you seriously question everything you thought you felt, especially if you already have some existing anxiety. Be kind to yourself. Believe yourself. So your significant other turned out to have significant brain issues, basically. None of that means what you felt wasn't real or isn't deserving of real thought and inquiry. His decision to discard and forget the deep thing you had over something small is very clearly about him, not you. It's like getting yelled at by someone on the street who doesn't and will never know you.

To address your No. 1: I posted this list of things I'd been doing in a very different thread, but this is also the stuff that got me through a similar situation at one point.

To your No. 2: Reading Mira Kirshenbaum's books, which are frequently recommended here—especially Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay and Is He Mr. Right?—was very useful for recalibrating my sense of what is deal-breaker behavior. I read them when I was actually in the dramatic relationship in question, but they're also great for thinking through what you've already experienced with a now-defunct relationship.

To your No. 3: Look at my list in No. 1 for this as well. One thing that was useful for me in the string of revelations that followed my similar relationship experience was realizing that while I probably can't—and don't really want to—change who I am, what I can wish for is strength. Introspecting and doing things that strengthen me physically and emotionally has been the best thing for me. That you can recognize good things you felt and that a relationship brought out in you and be proud of the emotional depth you've found you're still able to achieve without needing that particular relationship speaks well of your strength. That may sound a bit clichéd or a bit new-agey, but it's also true.

Also, you choose what you keep from this experience—even though it ended horribly, you're still allowed to keep what you want from it and to recognize the good things you felt. A lot of the stuff you mention loving in this relationship is absolutely stuff you can have with someone else. Nothing you've experienced is as rare as it might feel like right now, even if it feels improbable that you'd find that level of attentiveness and that level of caring in someone else. One of the best things I did after the relationship I mention was making a list of qualities the other person had that I realized I wanted as a result of my experience. I'd already had a list I thought they checked all the boxes on, but I ended up with a lot more. A few things about making that list were revelatory.
A. I may want all of this, but I'm unlikely to find all of it in one person, and that's OK. The list just gives me insight into what I want, which is important.

B. Inasmuch as it's not likely I'll find all the things in one person, it's highly likely that I'll meet a lot of people who can meet me where I want to be on a lot of the things. This just gives me a set of feelings and signs to seek.

C. Adding negatives to the list is fine—e.g., "Should not be emotionally abusive" or "Does not have an external locus of control and blame others for his own problems." That—or the absence of that—is what you want, and that's important. Definitely include on the list qualities that you never want to experience again.

D. You don't even need to keep the list open somewhere visible or remember it exists on a daily basis for it to be useful. Just keep it as something to revisit down the line when you find yourself getting interested in someone again. Just the act of creating the list will help you store this stuff in the back of your mind in an accessible way.
Along those lines: Mindfulness practice helps with the pain and with recognizing how you feel around people, which is useful for the future. Immersing yourself in life experiences, a change of scenery, and casual dates if possible is also excellent for this. You will feel a lot of things. You're not done feeling things. But working on acceptance of and then next steps as a result of what you're feeling is the important part. Give yourself time to feel things and work through the layers of revelations you might have about what you felt and why. And beware the temptation to berate yourself for having made a mistake with this or any other relationship. There's a lot to be said for going into relationships without cynicism, with clear eyes and good faith. Don't let that go because this didn't work out.

I also think it's easy to say "love yourself" as an answer to this, but also realize that there's no requirement for you to love yourself or anyone else or to be positive about things. This piece about ingratitude lists was making the rounds earlier, and it makes some good points. I always think about the fact that apparently pessimists live longer. Recognize your own feelings and don't push them aside. This shit is painful, so so so so painful. Learning what you thought you had with someone could change on a whim? God, that's among the worst feelings. Add to it the feelings of humiliation and betrayal and the fear that results from someone you trusted turning on you... None of that's good.

As others have said, you're not wrong for having put yourself out there. Being willing to be vulnerable and to connect on a deep level is deeply worth doing. But of course it stings that the person you gave that gift to didn't turn out to be worthy of it. Inasmuch as there's no requirement to love yourself, again, be kind to yourself. Take action, and turn around in your mind how actions matter more than beliefs. Do things. Be of the world. Be well.
posted by limeonaire at 12:37 PM on August 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

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