Life Lessons from Break-up Therapy

By Audrey Turner.

It’s been a rough year for my friends. Five long-term relationships that I’ve known since their inception have either ended or are coming to an end. Break-ups suck. Thinking about what they’re going through makes me feel like I’m going through five different kinds of Hell. Their break-ups make me recall my own heartbreak, and my own trips through Hell. I think, how did I ever get through that?

I know I’m lucky to have the privilege to make my own choices in my love life. I’m also lucky to be raised by parents who encouraged me not to put a relationship before myself. But, despite all the privilege and all the good advice, I’ve messed it all up a few times. I had my heart broken the first time when I was 13. Then, again at 17. And again at 22. And 23-28 was one prolonged break-up with the same person, punctuated by brief moments of relationship. I realized at some point in my mid-20’s that my break-ups had been marked by the same mistakes on my part: I didn’t stand up for myself. I let things happen to me. I made myself small, thinking it would make my partner happier to be with me. I held in every dissatisfaction and every hurt until it was too late. Then, I was resentful and stubborn and refused to fix problems with anything other than a break-up.

Each major break-up, even when it was with the same person, even when I had initiated it, felt worse than the last. I always felt like my heart would never break that hard again. But it did. Crying in bed with my best friend handing me tissues seemed like peanuts compared to packing my belongings while my newly minted ex-boyfriend sat at what used to be our table and cried. And that seemed like nothing when I was in my pajamas, on my therapist’s couch, sobbing and nearly screaming out that I don’t know what to do, that I can’t live like this anymore.

The depths to which we feel pain, to which we feel emotionally hurt, continues to astound me. The physical pain; the wild, racing thoughts; or worse, the unfeeling and the numbness that comes with devastation is mind blowing. It can make you feel like you’re dead inside. It’s a bit frightening how a person can kill you, but you still live; living turns out to be the hardest part.

With my last break-up, I learned three things:

  1. It was over, for good. We had been spinning the break-up/make-up wheel for the better part of six years, (including a stint of living together), we were 8 hours away from each other, and we hadn’t so much as texted in a month. I felt it in my bones that I was ready to move on, and I knew him well enough to know that he felt the same.
  2. I knew I wasn’t going to get through this break-up on my own. I had a pattern where I’d come out of the honeymoon period and realise he and I weren’t compatible, so I’d break-up with him, start to miss him, and six months later when he’d make contact, I’d jump right back in a relationship with him, only to come out of the honeymoon period and realise that we weren’t compatible, again. I was sick of the unresolved hurt, confusion, and the years of resentment and mistrust between the two of us, and how it always drove us apart.
  3. If I was ever going to be a better partner in the future, I had to fix myself. I had to figure out why I behaved the way I did in my relationships. I finally saw how self-destructive I had become. And I knew I needed to change.

So I peeled myself off my sofa, and put myself on a therapist’s couch, instead.

I had tried therapy before, but I gave up on it after never finding a therapist who clicked with me. But this time around, I was at the end of my rope, and I knew therapy was the best way to get better. I chose the counselling center closest to my office, and I got an appointment with a licensed counsellor. I didn’t have high expectations for our first meeting. I didn’t like that she wasn’t a PhD, I didn’t like how young she sounded on the phone, and I didn’t even like the way she spelled her name. I naturally assumed I would be making an appointment with someone else the next week.

And it’s funny how life surprises you. Against all my assumptions, I felt an instant connection with her. I cried and jumped from tangent to tangent throughout the entire appointment, and it never fazed her. She kept up, listened, and responded. I left her office that day knowing that I had made the right choice. I immersed myself in therapy. In the beginning, I went two, sometimes three times a week, on my lunch break, and used all my spare money on co-pays and consults. Therapy was enlightening. Sometimes it was hard, confronting, and made me feel like shit. But ultimately, it was worth it.

My therapist didn’t teach me coping skills. That’s not what I wanted. I wanted help to change my behaviour, so I could have better relationships. Not just with my partners, but with everyone. I wanted to learn how to love myself, feel more confident, be more honest, and act as an advocate for myself. And that’s what she taught me. She helped me go through the baggage I carried, but never opened. Through this, she gave me five very important tools to remember:

  1. You can’t change someone else.

You can’t change anyone. You can be their motivation to change, but you can’t force them to change. And unfortunately, you won’t always be the motivation for someone to change. It’s hurtful, and it’s difficult to accept, but it’s not your fault. You can’t blame yourself. You can only change yourself, and how you react to situations.

Therapy showed me that change is a lifelong process, and you won’t be able to change unless you genuinely want to. Applying the lessons I’ve learned from therapy is something I work on daily. After all, it takes sincere effort to become the person you want to be.

  1. Change doesn’t happen overnight.

Since we spend our lives learning behaviours, it can take a some time to unlearn them, and, some hard work. Above all, it takes patience. So much patience.

When I concluded therapy, I looked at it as if I had graduated from Feelings College. Just like real school, you may graduate, but you never stop learning. You never stop learning how to better yourself. Therapy taught me how to live thoughtfully and deliberately, and as I said before, I have to work at it every day. Just like with exercise, you’ll build an emotional six-pack over time by working methodically, carefully, and instituting lifestyle changes. And just like exercise, some days are harder (and sweatier) than others. But when you become strong enough to fight for yourself, or to pull yourself back from the ledge, it’s worth all the hard work.

  1. How you think of yourself is how others will treat you.

“Be kind to yourself.” It was one of the first things that my therapist said to me, and it made me roll my eyes. It reminded me of “Live Laugh Love” and other phrases you’d find decaled on someone’s wall. In time, though, I saw its merit.

I spent a long time clinging to the guilt I felt from the mistakes I made, no matter how small, and for the hurt I caused, no matter if I felt hurt, too. I believed I had to be the punished one, because I convinced myself I was the one who had done wrong—even if I was also wronged. I cannot count how many times I’ve said to myself, “I can’t be mad at that, because I did ‘this’ or I did ‘that’.” I thought so little of myself that I compromised for both of us. I believed that I was unworthy, and undeserving of forgiveness. I convinced myself that the only reason any of them were with me was because I was there, eager and willing; because I was easy. I convinced myself that there wasn’t much of me to love, because I hated myself.

What therapy helped me see is, if you feel small, stupid, worthless, and ugly, then that’s how you will let others treat you. If you don’t believe you deserve better, surprise! You won’t get better.

Be kind to yourself. Believe in your own greatness. Believe that you are worthy, and deserving of love and respect, because you are. Don’t accept less.

  1. You have to let go.

I’m guilty of hoarding what I call “Shit Feels”: anger, fear, resentment, guilt, blame, and grudges. In therapy, I started to examine what made me react or behave the way I did in relationships, and in life, in general. More often than not, the cause was Shit Feels. I learned through therapy that the best way to combat Shit Feels is through forgiveness: forgiveness for yourself, and forgiveness for others.

Learning to let go is a challenge. But you have to unchain yourself from the Shit Feelings. Harbouring them prevents you from healing and moving on, because they tend to rub off on other people. I’ve learned to forgive myself for the mistakes I’ve made, and hurt I’ve caused, and to forgive others for what they’ve done to me. I know I have to let go of the Shit Feels in order to be the best I can be for myself, and for my partner. I’ve also learned that forgiveness isn’t weakness, and it’s not forgetting. It’s knowing that you don’t have to drown in your past. It’s saying, “Whatever happened, happened, and I will not let it stop me from finding happiness.”

So, learn to let go. Own up to your mistakes, forgive yourself, and forgive others for theirs, no matter how difficult it is. Try to wipe your slate clean, and most importantly: move on.

  1. You have to be honest.

I don’t think I’ve learned anything more important than this. Honest communication—or lack thereof—was the biggest issue I ran into. If I had a dollar for every time I held it in when I was upset or disagreed with something, I would have enough money to pay off my student loans. It all started with me holding myself to an impossible standard of perfection. I didn’t want to be seen as anything less than perfect. As a result, I compromised unfairly to myself and gave in more times than I can count. It never helped me, or my relationships, though. I would build up and feel angry when they wouldn’t extend me the same courtesy—and of course, I never talked about it. That would make me imperfect. I didn’t realise that behaving that way—withholding honesty—made me build up a pile of Shit Feels. By the time I was 28, I had built a mountain of them.

I’ve learned that no matter how uncomfortable it may make things, you have to talk about what is making you unhappy. You have to be yourself. Hiding what you feel, or pretending everything is okay, is just putting a clean blanket over dirty sheets. It looks nice, but your bed still stinks. Not only does dishonesty lead to Shit Feels, but it also prevents you from learning if you and your partner are truly compatible. After all, if you don’t feel like you can be honest with your partner, or if your partner doesn’t respect your opinions, it’s a giant red flag. You shouldn’t ignore it.

I think back to what I’ve been through, and I’m amazed at the sheer number of heartaches that might have been spared had I had the courage to stand up for myself, and had I not bottled it up to the point where a break-up was inevitable. I also know that I can’t beat myself up about it anymore. I can only work every day to make myself a more honest person—to myself and to my partner.

And believe me, this has been the hardest obstacle I’ve faced. Therapy gave me the strength to be honest, but it’s up to me to remember, and apply, what I learned. I have to trust my partner enough not to leave me if I disagree with him. I have to believe that my thoughts are just as valid as my partner’s. I have to remember that a compromise means give on both sides, not just mine. I have to remember that holding it in only leads to resentment.

Fights happen; disagreements happen; but it’s better than the alternatives.

I know that therapy isn’t for everyone, but I don’t know where I, or my current relationship, would have been if I hadn’t worked so hard at it. As much as I struggled through my break-ups, and at the time wished I didn’t have to go through them, I wouldn’t be in this good place now if I hadn’t gone through it all. My break-ups led me to therapy, which gave me the tools to fix myself. I know now that the ongoing punishment and regret never helped me. I’ve accepted myself and all my mistakes, and my capacity for love and happiness is greater than it’s ever been. My break-ups were painful, but I have now learned how to be a better person because they happened.

It’s hard to be human, and it’s harder to be a human with another human. Relationships don’t always work out, and that can be the hardest thing to get over. Yet, we can move on. We have to remember that life is too short to endure what can’t be fixed.

I listen to my friends, and my heart breaks for them. All I can do is look around at all I have, and give them the advice I’ve learned. I cringe as I tell them, “It gets better.” The words might sound empty and useless, but I know that they’re true. Work at it, and it will get better.

I promise.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s