There’s no question about it – break-ups are hard, messy, horrible work. However, every “wrong” relationship has lessons to teach you about how to form a happy, healthy new life as a single person and about how to form a “right” relationship in your future.
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By taking stock of where your own issues contributed to the split, you can help heal those broken parts of yourself so that you can grow into a healthier, happier you, with or without a new partner.
1. Give Yourself Time To Grieve
Don’t jump into self-reflection right away. The grief and pain from a break-up are very real, and you need to give yourself time to work through them before you can possibly be in the right frame of mind to take stock of your life.
If you still have trouble thinking about your past relationship without bursting into tears or launching into a mental litany of what a jerk your ex is, you aren’t ready yet – and that’s okay. Be patient with yourself and don’t feel as though you should be calm and collected within a certain period of time. It will happen when it happens.
2. Connect With Your Support Network
Whether it’s calling your mom on the phone or going out every few nights with your girlfriends, you need to surround yourself with people who make you feel safe and loved. You can’t take stock of your life unless you have those feelings of safety and self-worth; otherwise, you’re going to be too frightened and defensive to look at your flaws.
Try to avoid constantly rehashing and over-analyzing your relationship while you’re with them, because you can’t move on if you’re deliberately sticking yourself in the past, but don’t be afraid to cry and vent when you’re still in the grieving stage, either. Lean on their support so you can draw the strength you need for later.
3. Identify The Thoughts Behind Your Emotions
You’re going to be feeling a barrage of emotions during this time, and all of them will have some kind of triggering thought. When you start to feel anger, sadness, anxiety, or some other unpleasant emotion smothering you, think back to the moment you first began to feel that way.
What thought passed through your head to make you feel it? You may realize that you’d mentally rehashed an argument between yourself and your ex that’s still making you angry, or that you thought of an activity you used to do together to make you sad, or that you thought you’d never be loved again.
You can’t process and eventually dispel these negative feelings without first identifying the thoughts that cause them.
4. Evaluate Those Thoughts
Some of the thoughts powering your emotions are valid; if you see an episode of a favorite show and feel a wash of sadness that you and your ex will never share an in-joke about that show again, that’s a truth that you should process as part of the grieving process. However, sometimes those thoughts balloon into exaggerations and lies that will make you miserable.
Instead of “I’ll never laugh with him about that in-joke again,” you may find yourself thinking, “I’ll never share in-jokes with anyone again,” “I’ll never laugh again,” “I’ll never enjoy this show again,” “I’m going to die alone” . . . the list goes on and on.
These exaggerated and untrue thoughts are called “cognitive distortions” or “negative automatic thoughts,” and listening to them is a surefire way to poison yourself into misery.
If you catch yourself thinking something that’s leading to an unpleasant emotion, evaluate the truth of that thought. If you can honestly say that the thought is true and valid, you may just need to ride out the emotions it’s causing as part of your grieving process.
If you find it’s an exaggerated parody of the truth (“I’m a terrible human being and no one will ever love me!”), make a conscious attempt to rephrase the thought in a more constructive and truthful way (“I made some serious mistakes in that relationship and I’ll have to work on being less selfish”). At first, it will feel like you’re trying to paste a fake smile on your face, but practice will turn this kind of positive thinking into second nature.
5. Focus On You
When you do look back over your relationship, focus on your own actions rather than your ex’s. Don’t brood over what a jerk your ex was for insulting you in front of his friends. Instead, asking yourself questions like “How did I react when he did that? Was that the right reaction? What should I do if it happens in my next relationship?” can help you to move forward.
You can’t control your ex’s actions, but you can control your own. As Emily Mitchell puts it on Verily Magazine, “Now that the relationship is over, his behavior is only relevant in how you learn from it moving forward.”
6. Avoid The Blame Game
It’s easy to blame your ex for everything. It’s also easy to blame yourself for everything. However, if you blame your ex for every problem in your relationship, you will be cutting yourself off from opportunities for growth and will risk repeating whatever mistakes you did make in the relationship.
What’s more, you will be putting yourself in the role of a passive victim, which works to subtly convince you that you have no power or agency in relationships.
Blaming yourself can actually serve the same role; if you tell yourself that you have ingrained traits that destroy your every relationship rather than evaluating those negative traits and working to fix them, you make yourself a victim of your own flaws rather than a victim of your ex. Don’t fall into either trap.
7. Try New Things
One way to find growth and healing after a break-up is by taking advantage of the opportunity to truly explore yourself. Even the healthiest relationships involve compromising some part of yourself for your significant other; if you love music and your ex was tone-deaf, your “couple time” might have prevented you from flexing your musical muscles as much as you normally would have.
What’s more, you never know if your next relationship might cut off plans you’re thinking about exploring; if you start dating someone who’s allergic to dogs before you adopt that collie you always wanted, you may never get the chance to find out what a great dog owner you’d be.
Your single period is your best chance to throw yourself wholeheartedly into weird new activities that other people might not enjoy or to explore parts of yourself that atrophied in your previous relationship.
Take advantage of it. (An added bonus: if you’re doing something completely new, you won’t be shadowed by memories of the times you used to do those activities with your ex.)