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Dear Doctor Life Advice,
I am having an extremely difficult time getting over my ex-boyfriend. We had a very serious relationship, but he was very insecure and often put me down and made me feel bad. I know he is not a huge loss, but I feel terrible and have really been struggling with the breakup. What is the best way to get over it? Is not talking anymore really the best remedy? If so, why?
Dear Aching Heart,
Let’s start by validating you in stressing that of course you are having a hard time getting over your ex-boyfriend. All relationships are important to us. We invest so much time, emotion, and energy into them, and when we lose them, our hearts break! This is true for all relationships, but especially for romantic relationships. I don’t know how long you were with your ex-boyfriend, but I understand that you are having a hard time. I can tell that you are having a lot of conflicting emotions and you are not sure what to do with them. I’m going to give you some advice with concrete techniques to help you through this. Most of it requires time and dedication on your part, so brace yourself!
First, let’s refer to your ex-boyfriend as Mr. Down Putter. I learned this trick from a patient of mine. She names people by the characteristic that defines their relationship most. That way, when she refers to them, she is always reminded of what it is about them that affects her the most, either positively, or negatively.
1- Write it down, write it down, write it down
If you haven’t already done so, start a journal and make sure you write it in often; everyday would be best. Don’t worry about what to write, I’m going to give you specific topics. Journaling your thoughts and feelings is essential in learning to know yourself, your patterns, and how to help yourself. People often argue with me that they are already doing this in their heads. That’s not good enough. Here are solid reasons for why you need to write your thoughts down. The mind is a jumbled mess. There are random thoughts flying around in there, such as “I gotta call my mom,” “don’t forget to pick up milk,” “what’s that mark on my skin,” “did that guy just smile at me,” and so on and so forth. In the midst of all of those thoughts, you’re trying to figure out your feelings about Down Putter. Writing your thoughts and feelings down gets rid of the background noise and lets you focus on what is foremost on your mind. Writing things down also makes them real. Your mind can have an internal battle going on that makes no sense to you, but when you write it down, you can present both sides of the battle and review it. Last but not least, humans have a nasty tendency to modify their memories over time to suit their needs. Having today’s thoughts and feelings documented will keep you from modifying your memories next time you run into Down Putter and conveniently forget everything that was wrong with him.
2- Give yourself time to grieve
You just got out of a relationship that was obviously very important to you and a key component in your life. Did you give yourself time to grieve? We live in a society that thinks we should just “suck it up” and move on with our lives. I disagree. Have you had a good cry? Have you given yourself the opportunity to feel sad about your loss, and to tell yourself it’s OK to feel down for the moment? These are questions I want you to write in your journal and answer honestly. Leave plenty of room for each question. Go back to the questions frequently and see if your answers change over time. Pay attention to your moods when you read and answer these questions.
You may also want to reach out to a good friend or family member and tell them that you need a shoulder to cry on. I caution you though: you need to prepare them ahead of time that this is a grieving and crying session, not an opportunity for them to give you advice, tell you all the things you did wrong, and basically tell you how to live your life. You may need to specifically tell them that you just want sympathy and an occasional “poor baby” and nothing more!
Please know that sometimes grief can turn into complicated grief, and then frank depression. Those are outside the scope of this column, but if you ever feel that you are becoming depressed, seek the advice of a professional right away.
3- Ask yourself “why” questions and answer them
I am concerned that you stayed with a boyfriend that is insecure and put you down. I have a whole list of “why” questions for you to write down in your journal and answer. Again, answer them not just once, but frequently, and review your old answers and add comments to them. Don’t start these until you’re convinced that you have grieved to some extent. Grieving is a process that takes as long as it takes. There is no fighting it.
“Why did I tolerate being put down?”
“Why did I stay with him as long as I did, even though he didn’t treat me right?”
“Why do I feel bad about myself, instead of knowing my worth and not letting others treat me poorly?
“Why don’t I think I deserve better?”
4- Ask yourself other questions about you
These are questions that help you explore and understand your deeper self. Don’t just answer these with Yes/No answers. Really think about them. Go over them again and again. Don’t start these until you have spent a good amount of time going through the questions in step 3.
“What were the good things about Down Putter that I want to find in my future relationships?”
“What were the things about Down Putter that I won’t tolerate in my next relationship?”
“Do I have a pattern of putting myself in friendships or relationships with people who put me down?”
“Do I feel lonely?”
“Where is my self esteem at?”
“Do I love myself?”
“Do I need to be in a romantic relationship to feel good about myself?”
“Do I look outside of myself for love because I don’t give myself enough love?”
5- LOVE YOURSELF FIRST
The above questions are all designed to help you gauge if you love yourself enough. Our society uses words such as “selfish” or “self centered” with such negative connotation that we forget that all of us need to understand our own inherent worth as individuals, regardless of who we are and what we do. As children, we were not taught our own worth. We think everything we do should be for the good of other people, at a cost to us. The problem with this way of thinking is that at some point we’ll all burn out and die and won’t be able to do anything for anyone! You HAVE TO take care of yourself first in order to be of service to other people. So here are questions you answer in your journal to help you learn to love yourself. Do these after you feel you’ve done enough self exploration in steps 3 and 4. These are questions you need to write in your journal daily, and stick to writing them no matter what else is happening.
“What was my motivation for doing XYZ today? Did I WANT to do it, or did I do it because I thought I HAD TO?”
Every morning, write in your journal: “What am I going to do today to prove that I love myself?” Answers can range anywhere from “get my special cup of coffee,” to “get a massage,” to “brush my teeth all nice and clean,” to “call my best friend and have a heart to heart,” to anything else you can think of. Don’t cheat yourself by picking something you’d do every day anyway. That defeats the purpose.
Every night, write in your journal: “What did I do today to prove that I love myself.” This keeps you accountable! Don’t shrug it off. You’d be just dismissing yourself.
I bet you didn’t expect to get HOMEWORK when you asked the question. I’m sorry, but I don’t believe in taking the easy way out of situations, and as you know, there IS no easy way out of this one. I bet you’ve tried.
You asked if it makes sense to continue talking to him. Only if you have children together, own business or property together, or are in a social circle where you can’t avoid each other. In those cases, minimize your interactions as much as you can, and make sure you are civil to each other.
Otherwise, I think it’s just prolonging the pain. Would you rather rip off the pesky band aid or peel it off slowly and watch as every single hair follicle is pulled out? Instead, talk to people who love you and don’t put you down.
Don’t forget to get out and do something fun every day. See a friend, watch a movie, go hiking or exercising, or whatever else brings you joy. Pick up a new hobby too. I maintained my sanity throughout the gruesome psychiatry residency by teaching myself to crochet and did it obsessively until I graduated. I don’t crochet any more, but I do believe it saved me from going absolutely mad.
Take good care of yourself Aching Heart! I hope this helped.
Doctor Life Advice.