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.


  1. ouch. hope you start to feel better soon. is it naive to think that if he had been "the one" your behavior might have been different and he wouldn't have accumulated his sack full of hurts? that is, maybe the breakup isn't things going wrong but things going right. in any event, definitely replace the lens with a cheaper version. ;-)

  2. Sometimes, as we are healing, negative patterns seem to accelerate and loom even larger than they did before -- because you are more conscious of them in yourself -- like in the Harry Potter movies when the last monster is the scariest -- but then you finally conquer and transcend them. So take heart. You've done good and difficult work. You'll get there and everything will come will come out alright in the end.

  3. and everything will come out alright in the end, even if my end sentence didn't come out right!

  4. The excoriating email from an ex listing all the ways you're that you're so deeply flawed and therefore not good enough for him is really about his inability to deal with you as a real person once the initial thrill of a new relationship has begun to fade. He put you up on that pedestal and now he has to knock you off. He's a narcissist who has to blame you in order to justify his own existence. I know whereof I speak.

    I blamed myself, much like you did, for my anger and defensiveness, but I came to realize that the real issue for me was that I was drawn once again to someone who could engage me in that dance, so to speak, and make me feel like a terrible person. In my case, those feelings go back to the relationship I had with my mother, and even though I understand intellectually that I can choose how to deal with and respond to people and situations, it's a struggle to stop myself from falling back on the old patterns of behavior.

    Don't give up.

  5. The syndrome you describe - "the guy can't possibly like me, if he knew me he would head for the hills, and I'm going to drive him away to prove I'm right" - is in fact as old as the hills. It is often joined by this other little gem: "If he likes me then he's not worthy." (It is reminiscent of Groucho's "I wouldn't join any club that would have me as a member.") What's puzzling about it is that you're not an adolescent, so why on earth do you still feel that way? Or, to put it another way, if your therapist can't get you past this really common impediment to happiness, perhaps it's time to change therapists. Siobhan, other people may not see every inner flaw you have, but I can guarantee two things: No matter how they seem on the outside, they have inner flaws, too, flaws quite as "horrible" as yours; and, second, they like you because of the good qualities you do have. They are not in love with a chimera, but the real, living person you are. Once you accept that, then focus not on "does this person really like me?" but "Do I like this person?" And go - and grow - from there.

  6. Siobhan, I really appreciate the post. It ain't easy to look at oneself honestly, and to do so, as you say, without falling into self-loathing. Good luck with the therapy, and with working through some of your shit. I've been in therapy for about four years now, and, well, it's still a slog, and life still isn't easy. I'd like to think that I'm healthier now than I was, but who knows.

    On a related note, I'm really bothered by some of the comments to your post. They seem like a rejection of precisely the most valuable thing you're trying to do here, as a writer, which is look at some of the difficult truths about life and yourself.

    'Don't worry, Siobhan,' they're saying, 'it's not you. He's a narcissist. He's not your soul mate. Everything will be all right in the end.'

    Well, everything doesn't, in fact, always turn out all right in the end. Sometimes it is you, and maybe the angry dude (I speak from experience as the angry, email-writing dude) isn't a narcissistic jerk but just another wounded soul trying to make his way as best he can.

  7. Two thoughts:
    1) E-mail is a debased form of communication.
    2) If you were terrible to him, what did you expect?

  8. Just put on "River" from Joni Mitchells "Blue" album. She's been there too. Who knew a river was for skating?


  9. As someone who, long ago, was on both ends (left and leaving) of the relationship, let me just say that I'm glad, when I was left, that there was no email. I wrote some things that I was not proud of having written after the fact. I suspect that is true in your situation as well, that after some time has elapsed your ex will regret what he wrote. If not, he was not worth your time.

    Sigh, these things are a mess.

  10. For what it's worth, my own long on-and-off experience with therapy is that it can sometimes feel like forty steps forward, thirty-nine steps back. But I'm always grateful for the ways I've learned to not make things worse. Wish I knew more of them. And it's worth remembering that the person you once were would never have written the e-mail response that you did, or this blog post. Good luck.

  11. Wow, thanks, everyone, for all the comments. It's been a rocky time, obviously, and it's so helpful to get these various perspectives and responses. And it's ALWAYS helpful to hear from someone who has been through it all and can reassure me that the painful introspection is indeed worth it.

    Estiv, I completely agree about the 40 steps forward, 39 back - as long as the balance of that equation remains in the positive, I will continue the long march.

    To the commenters who reminded me how it feels to be the one on the other side of the break-up equation, thank you - I am trying not to get swamped by my own anger and hurt, and trying to remember that he's a good person going through a dreadful time, and reacting accordingly.

    To the anonymous commenter who wonders why I didn't work through all this stuff when I was an adolescent: well, everyone has a different process, and when I was a teenager, I was still living through the crap that's given me my "issues," so I'm only catching up now, at this advanced age, hoping that it's never too late. (And I've always loved that Groucho quote.)

    Lee, you said it: these things ARE a mess, and boy, do they drag on.

    And Collin, I'm off to listen to Joni now. Thanks for the suggestion.


  12. I'm someone who has been through it all and here to reassure you that all the introspection ISN'T worth it.

    It's a waste of your time and energy, and the rumination and navel gazing will only reinforce those patterns of thoughts and behavior that trouble you.

    Any number of studies will show you that dwelling and over analysis is paralyzing and causes more depression and anxiety, not less. It's all a matter of deciding to move on, and recognize the behaviors that harm you, which takes a total of 45 seconds.

    Men don't do much of this type of endless indulgent soul-searching, and endless studies also show we're better for it.

  13. Thanks for this. I am someone who followed a breakup by similarly sending a letter with a line-item attack on all the person’s faults. Maybe reflecting on your experience will help me gain more compassion for the recipient.

    Like you, my ex sought a peaceful accord. But I had gotten so wounded in this relationship that I took refuge the only way I knew how: Panning her character like a one-star movie.

    I have only mildly regretted doing so, but I might have been a stronger human being not to have. And it is an important Buddhist principle (I imagine) to have compassion for all people, even my chilly, disloyal ex-girlfriend.

  14. I love that last comment! I am trying very, very hard (fighting years of ingrained behavior) not to lash out right now, and wow is it difficult not to go straight into attack mode, and also to fight the urge to defend myself. Your comment perfectly sums up the contradictions and chaos of a break-up -- and your last phrase made me laugh out loud. Thank you for your perspective.

    To the previous commenter: I'm trying to make a distinction between moping / dwelling (which I agree is not useful) and looking at my behavior and reactions in an effort to become a better person, and to avoid the pitfalls that have plagued me for years. To me, it feels constructive and helpful, so I'll continue with the program, which for me, unfortunately, isn't a matter of a 45-second resolution.

  15. Joseph Campbell had a point, "relationships aren't love affairs, they're ordeals'. Relationships are simply monthly negotiations with some romance and/or sex thrown in, it's only when the negotiations are made weekly or daily, well, separation or divorce steps in for a visit.

    I just try and step out of the concentric circles, those deadly emotional cycles that drain the soul. If it's always the same game, change the goalposts.

    Can't think of any more cliches, just better luck on your next adventure in love, lord knows, we all need it.

  16. It is commendable that you are willing to share this process (and enlightening). AND, the images you curated are fantastic (here and throughout your blog!)

  17. Amazing stuff. You're a brave woman to put this out there.

    This one struck me because I sort of gave up on the whole relationship thing after (and this was several years ago now) sending a similarly toned e-mail to someone I felt had betrayed me emotionally. I knew her well enough to know where the vulnerabilities were, and I was vicious and cruel about it.

    And within 24 hours, hated myself for it, which led to no small degree of self-flagellation.

    So, I quit. And will probably die alone.

    Which is not to say I wouldn't try another "relationship" if I stumbled into one, just that I do not seek any that involve much emotional risk on my part, and have lowered my expectations for them quite a bit. "Take what you can and leave the rest," as some old song goes...

    We all struggle with this stuff, Siobhan. At least most of us do, I think. I find it interesting that you're fears about yourself are, to me anyway, so contradicted by your ability to write about them. I mean, "shallow, cold?"

    Shallow I highly doubt. And you must be a lot colder in person than you come across in your me, being able to reveal yourself and question yourself implies some degree of warmth, but perhaps that's a silly correlation on my part.

    In any case, you're a fascinating read. Good luck to you.

  18. Bailey, Alexander, and John O: I'm so overwhelmed by the encouragement I've been given in your comments. It's definitely not easy to decide to publish a post such as this one, and I was quite nervous about the reception, so to have your words of support is incredibly meaningful to me. And on top of it, I also get advice and comradeship - what a bonus! Thanks for reading, and many many thanks for writing.

  19. Gimme a break, S., and get a grip. I just want to meet you once. LOL. I'm in Chicagoland.

    Wolcott and all.



  20. got to the party late, trying to catch up on the Wolcott. try this, don't let the next guy build up that pedestal, it's a way some guys (wink, wink) can gain a foothold into the life of a chick that is way out of their league. if he was perfect for you you wouldn't have tried to push him away. he was an average guy that fed your ego enough to trick you into feeling for him. watch out for the guys who stroke your ego, look to see if they are really sincere (that is a very hard skill to aquire). average guys have many different ways to get their 6ish ass into the life of a 9/10 chick. damn, i don't even know you and it's so late (i'm a paramedic in NC and i've been running calls up until the last hour) and i/m just rambling but im gonna hit post, there :)

  21. paramedicx, thanks for the insights - not sure if I'm out of anyone's league, but it's always helpful to get the guy perspective as I try to muddle along. please come ramble any time you like!

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