Friday, November 27, 2009
introspection's a bitch
Buddhism teaches that it is not how much you know about yourself, it's how you relate to what you do know that makes a difference.... The common tendency, Buddhism teaches, is to use whatever is happening to reinforce a distinct feeling of self: to take everything very personally. The alternative, as discerned by the Buddha, is to hold that very feeling of self up for critical examination whenever it arises. How real is this feeling that drives us, which we ordinarily take so much for granted?
— Mark Epstein, Psychotherapy without the Self: A Buddhist Perspective
Years and years ago, after a particularly bad breakup, my newly minted ex-boyfriend came to my apartment one evening, grimly unpacked a box containing everything I’d given him, as well as the things I’d left at his place, then went up to my bedroom, unplugged the TV he’d loaned me, lugged it out to his truck, and drove off, all without a word. Game over.
Today, I’ll play a variation on that theme: pack up the camera my latest ex loaned me, the book he wanted me to read, the earrings he gave me for my birthday that I can’t imagine wearing now, knowing how he feels. It’s almost a ritual, this type of modern breakup: angry emails, screened calls, bitchy late-night texts, and a trip to Mail Boxes Etc.
I would have thought that, after all these years of practice, breakups would get easier. After all, I’ve got more in my life that can help fill in the hole, I’ve learned that I can take care of myself, and I know I’ll get through the pain. But there’s an added level of dreariness to the whole thing now, a depressing sense that I should have known better — that I should have avoided some of my typical pitfalls and patterns, should have been more in control, more grown-up.
And so 2009 draws to an end with yet another crisis of the soul. (It’s been a year of those, I must say. I hope 2010 is gentler.) As break-ups go, this one initially seemed to be as moderate as possible — not too acrimonious, no big blow-out. Of course, it’s just when you’ve decided that the seas are calm that a giant wave comes out of nowhere and smacks you down, hard.
You never saw it coming.
This particular wave took the form of an unexpected, vividly detailed, excruciating email from my ex. It packed a whallop, furiously listing one after another my faults and failings as a human being. In his anger, he craftily aimed a lot of his blows at what he knows to be my most vulnerable areas, the parts of me that already cause me the most pain and self-doubt. Hence the soul-in-crisis.
I’m terrible at coping when someone is angry with me — and boy, is he angry, a rage that is hard to face, and that makes me antsy, preoccupied, nervous, like I need to be looking over my shoulder. (This is a strange post to write, by the by. It's uncomfortably revealing, yes, but also, it could very well be read by the person who instigated the crisis. I don’t want to hurt him any more than I have, and then my Irish-German pride hates for him to know how much he hurt me, which is making it tougher than usual to scrape together these paragraphs. But this blog is for me, a way for me to try to write through my experiences and find my way out of the forest, so I need to disregard his reaction and soldier on.)
There were definitely a few things in the email that were unfair; had they been delivered in person, they would have sparked quite an argument. There were also a few "huh?" moments, which I guess will always remain a mystery. And then there were a couple real below-the-belt hits, not all of which I can recall, but I’m not up for a re-read. But there was enough in there that tapped into my deepest fears about who I am as a person, and what my life is and will be, that my therapist had her hands full. (As she put it, after reading the email, "I can only imagine the number you're doing on yourself.")
The overarching theme was that I'm selfish, shallow, cold, and incapable of being in a relationship. Of course, on the one hand, this is just the typical angry post-breakup attack — the pouring out of all the pent-up resentment and grievances — and needs to be read in that light. On the other hand, these accusations are not new to me — I've heard them before, and I've worried that they are, in fact, my great failings.
And you know, he's right about a lot of things. I was terrible to him, and difficult and mean and cold. He didn’t deserve it, I didn't want to be that way, but I was, a lot. It seems that in any kind of emotionally vulnerable situation, my more rational self gets shoved out of the picture, and the crazy, angry, frightened part of me steps up to bat. After all, the crazy part has a lot more experience in emotional situations (lived through plenty of those as a kid), while the rational part hasn’t been given a lot of opportunity to figure out how to handle those moments and so ends up pushed aside.
And there’s a good chance that I’m building some fairly horrible self-fulfilling prophecies. When someone thinks highly of me (like this boyfriend did, initially — he put me on a pedestal, it seems, which probably helps explain his extreme anger now: my feet of clay have been a big disappointment), I feel, "He doesn't really know me; if he did, he'd be out of here." Then, to confirm my screwed-up self image, I do my best to drive him away, at which point I say, "See, I knew it: I'm a terrible person."
This, by the way, is why this particular post is uncomfortably revealing for me. I’m afraid that I'll show you, my friends and readers, too much of myself, my ugly parts, and you, too, will turn away.
This is also why god invented therapy. Over the past year, these are the very issues I've focused on (along with that whole what-do-I-want-do-do-with-my-life thing), which is perhaps why my ex's email hit me so hard: after all this work and struggle, I'm still making the same mistakes, falling in the same traps. I have to have some faith, I suppose, that my growing awareness of these mistakes and pitfalls will help me down the line, but for now, I can panic at the idea that I'm stuck — no progress, no light at the end of the tunnel.
So what now. More therapy, more introspection, more attempts to take responsibility for my mistakes without going down the path of thinking that I'm a terrible person. More effort to look at myself honestly, but not to beat myself up mercilessly. And a hope that the lessons I’ve learned from my mistakes will help me avoid similar ones in the future.
As an attempt to begin to change my patterns, I set aside my anger (and my near-overwhelming defensive desire to rebut some of his more unfair accusations, and perhaps lob a few of my own) and tried to write a sincere apology. Once I got started, I found it a relief to say how sorry I am; I felt calmer, as if I got the crazy part of me to quiet down (after all, that part of me isn’t much interested in making apologies) and the more rational part to take charge.
In fact, I found that I was able to thank him for what I learned from him, even for the harsh lesson that his email embodied. That doesn’t mean I’m glad I got that email — it was far too bruising, and I’m no martyr — but I think he’d bottled up his emotions for so long that I hadn’t seen the hurt I was causing. Now, thanks to that tsunami of an email, wow can I see it, quite clearly, thank you, and can hopefully remember it in the future.
Unfortunately, the only reply was a curt text demanding the return of his camera, but at least now I know that there’s not a lot I can do about how he feels, so I can stop trying to figure out if there’s a way to move us past the resentment to a less hateful place, perhaps give us both some relief. All I can do is try to figure out my own lessons — and send him back that damn camera, pronto.