How can I replace feelings of anger for ex with compassion/acceptance?
June 18, 2018 8:57 AM   Subscribe

I recently ended a toxic relationship and I have so much pent up anger and want to get rid of these feelings or replace them with other feelings, such as compassion and acceptance. Please give me tips to help reset my frame of mind so that I can feel more thoughts of compassion and acceptance and be able to function. For those of you that have been through a similar experience and made it to the “other side”, I would love to hear some positive stories about your experience, and some things that helped you to get through it.

I’m tired of feeling angry. I feel that it’s not serving me a purpose anymore since I already broke up with my ex, blocked him, and know that I want nothing more to do with him.

This feeling isn’t unfamiliar – I went through a very strong anger phase after my last break-up ended, and I couldn’t stand it. It makes my temperature rise in the middle of the day and I can’t focus on work. Or I will have an angry dream of the ex and wake up sweating and not be able to get back to sleep as the thoughts consume me.

So the story: I met him at a bar about 3 years ago and it quickly developed into us casually dating. Initially it was exciting and fun, and I enjoyed the sexual chemistry that was missing from my last relationship. I quickly learned that he wasn’t interested in developing our casual relationship into anything deeper or long term. I wasn’t happy with it and over the years after a lot of on-and-off seeing each other, eventually pressured him into a relationship. I think I needed his validation and to “prove” to him that I was worthy (which I know I need to work on). Once in a relationship, things imploded quickly – from his continued shitty behavior and my reactions to his shitty behavior that just made things worse. This guy treated me pretty poorly throughout our time together. He was emotionally and mentally abusive. He was neglectful, didn’t spend much time with me, etc. (I can think of a million things) but yet he tried to make himself look like the portrait of perfection to my family, which was particularly infuriating. He blamed me for all the problems in our relationship, while in my mind, the majority of the time when I acted out it was a reaction to his behavior. I let him treat me that way, so a lot of my anger is directed at myself for staying as long as I did.

He said something recently when he was drunk that surprised me (I didn’t know he had the introspection gene): “I know I suck sometimes. I do love you and you mean more to me than the simple things(?).” I get the feeling that I was essentially the only girl he dated who put up with his shit, which is even more shameful to think about. His friends would make comments about this all the time as apparently he treated other girlfriends before me poorly as well. I was the only girlfriend with low-enough self-esteem to stick around the longest, woo me.

I don’t feel that he ever loved me or even remotely cared about me. It’s like all these years I was blind or held hostage or something. I went through the motions with him because I was scared of being alone and he was mainly a comfort for me. I would tell him if I thought he was wrong about something, and we’d have frequent fights about things he did to me, but I never felt that anything I said actually stuck.

It kills me that I spent my prime years in a dysfunctional, gross, toxic relationship with this asshole and can only remember a handful of good times or nice things that he said to me. One of my only comforts is that I dated others throughout my time with him when we were on-and-off, so I didn’t waste too much time.

I do have a therapy session scheduled, where I hope to get some help with dealing with my intense feelings of anger and shame. For some reason it helps me to focus on what I did wrong and what he did right to feel like less of a victim and less anger in all of this.

When I first ended things with him, I was more just sad that it was actually ending, but relieved, and hopeful about the future. I want to feel that way again. The anger is not serving me anymore. It’s keeping me from focusing at work, sleeping, and feeling good. Most of all, the anger makes me want to DO something about all of this, but I can’t anymore, nothing that will help. I’m completely done with him, so I can’t ream him out. I exercise, that doesn’t help really. The anger is making me want revenge on him. I want him to suffer. I want him to feel bad about the ways he treated me when I didn’t deserve it. I want him to realize I was the best thing that ever happened to him and feel so bad that he threw it all away. The inability to yell at him or tell him off or make him realize what he did and that he was wrong is killing me inside. Help!
posted by koolaidnovel to Human Relations (25 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
One of the things I really got out of Marie Kondo's "Life changing magic of tidying up" was letting go of things by thanking them for their service to you. Sometimes with things I had negative feelings about, it was difficult to find a way to get rid of them, and especially to thank them and I had to get creative. Instead of being angry and upset with myself that I spent $300 on a juicer that I didn't use as much as I had thought I would, I got rid of it and said to myself "Thank you for showing me I have better things to do with my time than clean a juicer." Getting rid of a pretty dress I never wanted to wear, "thank you for showing me that this is not my style."

"thank you for initially reminding me how great sexual chemistry can be. thank you for showing me what a toxic asshole looks like so I can avoid that in the future. thank you for showing me that I need to stick up for myself and my needs."

And, I also think it would be helpful not to focus on "lost" or "wasted" time. You spent that time learning things about what you don't want out of a relationship. Consider it luck that it was 3 years and not 30. You have plenty of time left in your life to find a kind, worthy life partner who will appreciate and love you.
posted by permiechickie at 9:17 AM on June 18, 2018 [53 favorites]

I have a lot of techniques for this. I'll list a few quick ones and you can google or memail me for more. What you are looking to do is process and then change your thought patterns.

I want to write and tell you how AMAZING your insight is. You are 85% of the way there.

Exercise + Meditation are the only ways I know to effectively alter your thought patterns and change your feelings, process and let go of pain and anger.

This is where I recommend that you get a practice of some type, bonus points if it is a practice in community. A drop in meditation class, a type of yoga you like. I do kundalini yoga because it involves A LOT of breath work which I think is key, but you do you.

This book is new and might help. There are a few podcast interviews you can find with the author that are excellent.

I like guided meditation and binaural beats and holy shit is this series of recordings available on Spotify and presumably elsewhere AMAZING.

You're not ready for this part yet, but a good mini-meditation to do when someone is bugging you is to take a moment and visualize them supremely happy, enjoying the achievement of their heart's desire. We can't really know another's heart's desire so you're not to focus on the details, just that feeling, which we can all identify with.


The best thing I heard about trauma recently was an explanation of Fight, Flight, or Freeze in the natural world.

When an animal is confronted with a predator, their nervous system shuts down normal operations and goes into emergency mode. Ours does this via daily stress and drama. Animals that go into "freeze mode" will play dead or otherwise become stiff in hopes the predator will pass over them... When the danger is over, the first thing the animal does is shake all over, releasing the energy of the danger and resetting their nervous system.

We need to do this, too. Otherwise we get stuck. See: Exercise + Meditation.

I hope this gives you some places to start your journey. You're almost on the otherside. You can take control of your thoughts and feelings. You've got this!
posted by jbenben at 9:25 AM on June 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

Oh man. First of all, been there. Big time.

Honestly, it sounds to me like you're angrier at yourself and the catharsis of him apologizing/realizing his mistake/suffering in your absence is the "proof" you feel you want right now to believe you didnt deserve his treatment and he should have appreciated everything you did for him.

You say his friends say he did the same to his exes. It sounds very sad to me that he can't connect to women who care for him, and he can't care back to the extent they deserve. He will live a limited existence until he gets over that. Perhaps you can try to separate that sad reality for him from your anger at him, and perhaps that can help you do the same for yourself, which is going to be a longer process.

You didn't do anything wrong by falling in love. You thought it would go differently than it did. He didn't rise to seize the opportunity. It is disappointing and very sad, but you don't need to beat yourself up for being here. It is VERY normal (we wouldn't have 99% of pop culture if it weren't) and you already feel bad enough.

And this song can really help.

Peace to you. I'm sorry you're feeling this way, but want to say your perspective is right on track. Keep working out that anger like you would a muscle knot in your neck and you'll feel better soon.

PS you have no prime years when it comes to love. You have capacity to give and receive big love all the way up until your last breath. That hogwash idea of best years does not apply and does not serve you in the least.
posted by pazazygeek at 9:34 AM on June 18, 2018 [18 favorites]

You are awesome and now get to go out and make your relationships just as awesome as you. He's stuck in his bad patterns and unlikely to become awesome without a Lot of work he hasn't ever gotten around to. So my compassion meditation on that would be to consider how much that sucks for him and those who might like to be close to him. And thank yourself for recognizing you deserved better and doing something to change the situation. You really are on the right track!
posted by ldthomps at 9:39 AM on June 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Compassion also includes compassion for yourself and recognizing that you’re feeling these feelings and you may just need to ride it out until they pass, and be gentle with yourself and enforce those boundaries.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 9:41 AM on June 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

Hey there. I to am going through the process of getting out of an unhealthy relationship, and I too have had to unpack a lot of anger and negative emotions through this process, so I get what you're going through. Here is my advice...

1. Sometimes people express anger when they are actually feeling sad, because somehow being sad is viewed as weak but anger is viewed as strong. Admitting you're sad isn't weakness. That to me is strength because it takes a lot more strength of process your sadness than it does to veil it with anger. Sad is valid. Admitting you're sad doesn't mean you miss him (but it is okay if you do) or want to take him back.
2. Drop the word "anger" entirely. Think harder about what you're actually feeling. It really sounds like you're dwelling on the idea of being angry, but defining your feelings as just "angry" isn't helping you process and heal. Find other (and likely much more accurate) ways of identifying your feelings. For example, it sounds like you are frustrated with yourself for not getting out sooner. Perhaps you have some shame over having allowed yourself to be treated poorly by someone. Maybe your regret is something that you're struggling with. Stop using anger as your emotional scapegoat. (This is actually great advice for everyone. I was raised not to be allowed to say I am "mad" or "angry" because that is lazy language and a throwaway word.)
3. Focusing any of your energy into being angry with him, thinking about revenge, or wanting to make him understand how badly he fucked up is totally useless. You will NEVER convince him he fucked up, you will NEVER be able to truly make him feel remorse. This is not YOUR job. However, it will happen. Remind yourself that his treating people poorly will come with natural consequences. Life will even the score, one way or another, so you just need to let karma take care of it. You, after all, have better things to do.
4. If you feel you have already wasted too much time on him, then apply the same idea to your thoughts. You have better things to do than think about him. When you have thoughts about him (about what he did, about seeking revenge against him, etc) stop and say to yourself "He doesn't deserve any more of my time." and then think about something else, preferably something positive.
5. Distract yourself with good people. Get out and do things with people. The goal is to make friends and widen your social network. Go volunteer. Join a club. Sign up for a non-competitive sports team. Spend time with people who are positive and upbeat. This helps to raise your mood, but it also serves as a great reminder that there are still lots of great people out there. And, obviously, having more fun activities means you simply have other (better) things to think about.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 9:44 AM on June 18, 2018 [4 favorites]

OMG, this is me right now too except my experience was limited to 14 months and the circumstances are different, but same idea. I am so angry at myself for falling for my ex's shit and believing he loved me and that he wanted to marry me. He dangled that carrot and would even go so far as to tell me he knew where he wanted to propose to me! What a fucking sociopath! I am so hurt, but mostly angry because I thought I was a better judge of character and that he was a good person. I loved him with my whole heart -- he was my best friend, I spent all kinds of money on him, and it sounds like you did the same, but these assholes are flawed human beings.

I feel for you because I'm right there with you. Mine happened last Thursday. I had enough. I packed his shit, kicked him out of my house, and told him I never wanted to see or hear from him again. I found out yesterday that he's already sleeping with someone else and doing other disgusting things! It makes me sick. How could I have been so wrong about this person?!

I agree with jbenben that exercise can help. Yesterday I forced myself to workout and it did wonders for my mood. Also, make sure you are eating, hydrating, breathing/meditating, and sleeping. I've been struggling to do all three, but I'm making progress. I hope you are doing all these things.

Mostly be kind to yourself. I'm constantly beating myself up over this, but it wasn't my fault. I was doing what anyone in a normal relationship would do, so I have to remind myself to be gentle.

If you want to commiserate, feel free to PM me. I'd be happy to listen. :)
posted by ATX Peanut at 10:04 AM on June 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

I want him to realize I was the best thing that ever happened to him...

The fact that you realize this-- or are starting to-- is the important thing. You already have grown through this relationship and its ending. It may be the the unpleasant feelings are just what you need in this phase to fully detach from this guy. Don't get too frustrated because it's taking a while.
posted by BibiRose at 10:14 AM on June 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Watch your thoughts and step outside your thoughts when they run into the ditch and ask yourself

How much time there is left in my life to waste on shit like this ?

Step off the merry-go-round. Be prepared to do it over and over for the rest of your life, from minute to minute to hour, day, week and so on. Or until when the object of your morbid obsessive ruminations loses the power to possess your attention. Which ever comes first.

The thing is that no matter how many tries it takes, you save precious time by stepping off the merry-go-round. Stay awake.
posted by y2karl at 10:28 AM on June 18, 2018 [4 favorites]

Something that has helped me some in the past is to write an ex an angry letter telling him exactly what I thought of him, and then not send it. In one case I had a sort of journal letter saved in a file on my computer with dated entries of that kind. It was a safe way of blowing off steam whenever I needed to, and eventually I just stopped adding to it -- never felt the need any more.
posted by orange swan at 10:43 AM on June 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

I’m tired of feeling angry. I feel that it’s not serving me a purpose anymore since I already broke up with my ex, blocked him, and know that I want nothing more to do with him.

This feeling isn’t unfamiliar – I went through a very strong anger phase after my last break-up ended, and I couldn’t stand it. It makes my temperature rise in the middle of the day and I can’t focus on work. Or I will have an angry dream of the ex and wake up sweating and not be able to get back to sleep as the thoughts consume me.

So the story:

Imma stop you right there. The content of the story is relevant to the purpose of dealing with your current problem only to the extent that the act of telling the story - to yourself, or to us - triggers memories that in turn trigger the very anger you'd rather be free of.

And it won't only be the telling of the story, as a linear narrative, that does that; you will be experiencing anger whenever you recall certain elements of that story - that is, memories of past experiences with this arsehole of a partner (I didn't read your story, but I'm making the fairly safe assumption that he was and probably still is an arsehole), as well as memories of things you've told yourself about those experiences in order to try to make them fit within the way you see the world. But what telling the story again will do is expose you to a whole pile of those memories, one after the other, linked together in a tidy little chain for ease of recall.

Stories are the fundamental method that our brains use to keep our memories accurate. And by accurate I mean complete. Memories come as a package: they're little snippets of recalled total experience. So when you have a flash of recall of some kind of arsehole treatment from your ex, then not only will you be recalling the bare facts of what he did, you will be recalling the sound and the sight and the smell of that scene and you will be recalling and therefore re-experiencing the emotional state you were in at the time. Which, for arsehole behavior perpetrated by arseholes, is generally going to be some combination of outrage and fear and anger.

But the interesting thing about the way the human brain implements memory is that recall is an inherently read/modify/write process. Every time we recall something, it appears as an object of our attention and then, as the recalled scene plays out, we lay it down in our memory again. That's just how the hardware works. There's nothing we can do about that. What we can do is exploit flaws in its processes.

One of those flaws is that it takes a little while to lay a recalled memory back into place, and for the few moments it does take for that, the memory is somewhat malleable. If we're quick enough, we can mess with pieces of it and make our brains lay it back down wrong. Next time it gets recalled, it will come back as a bit of a mixture of what it was originally and the mess we deliberately made of it on its way back into storage. And the better we get at this, and the more quickly and consistently we can mess with any given recalled snippet, the more it will come to resemble the messed-with version than the original.

If this happened as a matter of course, our memories would be so unreliable as to become rapidly useless. But it tends not to happen, exactly because we do tend to organize our memories into stories. So what happens instead is that we recall a thing, and we re-experience what we're recalling, and then we pretty much instantly recall the next thing linked to the first to make the story; and this keeps happening, triggering recall after recall after recall in a process that distracts our attention to the extent that we become simply incapable of messing with those memories before they get laid back in again.

We can and frequently do use stories in positive and proactive ways in order to help us remember stuff we want to remember; the well-known memory-palace technique is an example of taking this to an extreme. But if we're having intrusive and troublesome recall, as is currently happening for you, then we can also learn to interrupt the stories our helpful brains construct spontaneously for us, and deliberately mess with the emotional component our memories in ways that leave us feeling less bruised by our pasts.

The central skill required for this is the ability to seize control of our own attention when we notice that we've suddenly recalled something that includes something we'd rather it didn't, instead of letting its usual narrative thread seize control of our cognitive resources. And one highly reliable way to acquire that skill is, as jbenben points out, to adopt a regular meditation practice.

But it can also be done in various ad-hoc ways. Just deciding to have a crack at it can be all it takes to get that little fire going, if there's enough dry fuel available.

Some people even do it instinctively to an extent that's totally unhealthy. Trump, for example, appears to be an absolute master at editing his own memories in ways that leave him looking like the hero, regardless of what arsehole thing he's actually remembering having done.

So if you want to have a go at this: the next time you notice that you've started to experience a temperature rise, or you notice that your attention is no longer on your work but has been seized by the recall of some part of your history that's just left you furious, invoke a standard response. Inside, go "Whup! Rage memory!" then purse your lips as if you were about to take a drink through a straw, suck in a huge wad of air as if you were pulling the world's smoothest cone from the world's cleanest bong, then spend the next few seconds paying close attention to all those little sounds around you that you can suddenly hear with perfect clarity (adrenalin plus a sudden oxygen spike being a rush you can use). Spend the next few tens of seconds paying close attention to your breathing as it calms and steadies, deliberately taking a few deep but gentle ones along the way. And then go "Whew!" and get on with your day.

You should be able to tell whether or not this is doing any good within a few days. If it is, what you should find is that the specific recalled episodes you've applied it to will to an increasing extent become associated more with a feeling of suddenly seizing control than with their former sense of rage and helplessness.

I hope you find the peace you're looking for. Breaking up is no fun at all, even when it was absolutely the right thing to do.
posted by flabdablet at 10:51 AM on June 18, 2018 [9 favorites]

Did you try really high-intensity, sustained exercise? In terms of changing how you think, you could spend some time reflecting on how sad it is for him that he isn't able to treat someone well in a relationship and experience the benefits that come from that. I don't think people turn out that way unless they have negative experiences with their own upbringing or other issues. Even if you don't feel it viscerally now, if you can convince yourself that it's rational to have compassion for him that might help. And, obviously, have compassion for yourself. The reasons why you stayed are understandable, and you can be proud that you now had the strength to move on.
posted by pinochiette at 11:00 AM on June 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Compassion also includes compassion for yourself and recognizing that you’re feeling these feelings and you may just need to ride it out until they pass, and be gentle with yourself and enforce those boundaries.

This. Different parts of you are processing the fallout at different paces, and what looks to you like "a long drawn-out process" is actually a lineup of all the different facets of you that were affected by this relationship that have been waiting to have their turn at the podium.

Realizing that this is what's going on, and acknowledging what you have learned and how you have grown thus far, will help the processing go easier, but the processing still needs to happen. I know it sucks, but it's important.

Personally and anecdotally, something that helped me out during my biggest Evil Breakup was mainlining the album "Us" by Peter Gabriel, because no matter what mood I found myself in on a given day I found a song to groove to.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:01 AM on June 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

In a different context, something I have been told has really stuck with me: Try not to have feelings about your feelings.

Angry is okay. But try not to be angry with yourself for being angry; try not to shame yourself for how you feel; try to breathe through the feeling, however you name it to yourself.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 11:14 AM on June 18, 2018 [21 favorites]

One thing that's helped me is realizing that my anger at horrible exes is protective - it is keeping me from ever, ever going back to them. It is good to feel that anger, and to observe all the shitty things that happened in those relationships so that I can have better standards going forward. Your anger is telling you that something was very wrong - attune to it so you can listen to it in the future. Get curious about your anger and work your way through it, don't push it away.
posted by momus_window at 11:19 AM on June 18, 2018 [4 favorites]

That's a really good point. Using deliberate memory-editing techniques to get rid of remembered trauma can indeed be taken too far; it's a good idea to stop when you've got it under control to the extent that it's no longer making you persistently miserable.

The aim is not to forget what happened, because having all that experience under your belt certainly makes you a more skilful human being. You just want to get it to the point where you can actually look back at it and learn from it without being overwhelmed by it.
posted by flabdablet at 11:34 AM on June 18, 2018

Try not to have feelings about your feelings

I can fully sympathise with the motivation behind this advice, but in general we're not able to control our immediate reactions to things just by willing ourselves to do so.

Seems to me that a more helpful formulation coming from the same place of compassion would be this: try to interrupt and derail any complicated story you find yourself telling yourself about a troublesome feeling, especially if it's a story that leaves you feeling even worse. Better just to sit with whatever the feeling is and pay attention to your surroundings and your breathing until it goes away on its own.
posted by flabdablet at 11:41 AM on June 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Well, I guess that's why "try" is part of the advice - I think we're not that far apart in what we're saying here? It was a pithy phrase given to me that I have chewed over at length, but I think the basic idea is to try to be easy on yourself, to sit with the feelings and allow them to wash through you without feeling the need to control how they unfold.

Anyway, koolaidnovel, I hope you are finding helpful material here even if it's not coming from me.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 12:06 PM on June 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

The most helpful thing you can do for yourself is to understand why you engaged in that pattern in the relationship. At the anger memory, if you can keep asking yourself what parallel it has to your past, and stay focused on your own internal choices, eventually you will understand that it's connected to some earlier event in your life. Once you have that insight, it's like a piece of a puzzle that falls into place. And the way forward to freedom.
posted by effluvia at 1:45 PM on June 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow, thank you everyone for such amazing insightful answers. Each answer gives me hope and information that I know will help me deal with this. I am making a pledge to myself that I will try my hardest in the future to value myself and my needs in future relationships as not doing this before has put me in the unhealthy situations. I am going to breathe and let the emotions happen and hope that over time I start to heal and distance myself a little bit from this.

Thanks again.
posted by koolaidnovel at 6:29 PM on June 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

I agree you need to take charge of the narrative - so that it's no longer something that happened to you but where you take charge. Angers wants Justice and action so maybe volunteer or donate to a women's shelter. And when you do, think "may no one ever be stuck in unhealthy patterns again."
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:41 PM on June 18, 2018

I forced myself to pray with as much sincerity as I could muster for them. I've dove this for several people who did criminal and cruel acts to me and people I love. It is very hard and most services, i basically pray that God help them because they need it so much. But after a while it sinks in that they really do need that, and my rage became sadness and distance - i had so many other people to say thanks for and pray for, and these people had so much to they need help for, and often not even the idea that they needed help, just selfish misery or a shallow happiness built on ignoring pain. It became easier to see them further away, and to not hate them, just mourn them.

But it took months, sometimes years. Anger can be fuel to change your life if you use it well, and you sound like you're heading there. Just dont let it burn you up by not doing something with it, changing what you're angry about or turning it to grief when you can't.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 2:29 AM on June 19, 2018

The loving-kindness metta is pretty useful for this stuff, in my experience. After some years, and occasionally, I'm able to include certain people in my beneficent thoughts.
posted by cocoagirl at 4:42 AM on June 19, 2018

I think it takes time.

Your situation was worse than my toxic ex, but with the passage of time I have gotten to the point where I can appreciate the experience (not him, the experience) for teaching me my worth and spotting a fuckboy when I see one.

I still think he's an asshole and I'm ok with that. What I value more is that I stopped thinking I was an asshole for falling for him.
posted by like_neon at 6:57 AM on June 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

Author Steven Stosny's writings really helped me reckon with a LOT of anger as my marriage ended. One of the key insights was that there's a a big difference between feeling sad or disappointed compared to feeling hurt or angry. Hurt and anger are an indication that there is something about the situation that you believe, deep down, reflects on your value, your worth. From what you sketch out of your feelings (wasting time, not appreciated as the best thing that ever happened to him) I think that probably applies here.

When I find myself feeling hurt or angry now, I take that as a signal that there's something that requires some healing and compassion *toward myself*. I spend some time looking for what's going on underneath the hurt and anger. Again, taking a cue from that author, it often boils down to feeling inadequate or unloved. I dig until I find it and work on shoring that up. Being compassionate to self and others is a big part of that.

You're doing great, staying well clear of that bad dynamic and working to make things better for yourself. Keep going!
posted by Sublimity at 5:54 PM on June 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

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