My mind was reeling with reruns of past conversations, guilt for not being better to him, and uncertainty about how my life would look going forward. My four-year relationship with my boyfriend was coming to a heart-wrenching end, and I felt like I was trying to make my way through a minefield of emotions.
Why didn’t I communicate sooner about issues? What will I do without the person closest to me, with whom I shared years of spectacular adventures? Am I doing something I will one day regret?
For those of you who have ever experienced a loss like this, perhaps you can relate to the heavy feelings of sadness, doubt, pain, and confusion. I was grasping to find answers and healing.
Like many others, I thought counseling was for “people who have problems” or who “can’t cope with life on their own.” I was a strong and confident woman, with an arsenal of healthy coping methods. I never thought I would seek counseling. With a solid exercise routine, faith, and group of friends, I could conquer anything I thought—certainly a breakup. But in a moment of clarity, I realized that trying to find healing on my own was not getting me very far. For the first time in my life, seeing a counselor seemed like a reasonable option.
When I scheduled my initial counseling appointment, I was timid to tell anyone. As Courtney Bach, LMSW and Medical Social Worker, states, “The stigma surrounding mental health is a big challenge in this field.” She goes on to say that it can be daunting for people to seek counseling, let alone tell others they are doing so. This was certainly the case for me.
But all of my fears about therapy were put to rest in the first session. Just one visit with a counselor provided me tremendous healing and clarity. Most importantly, therapy helped guide negative thought patterns into positive ones and address wounds that lay open and unaddressed.
Attending counseling was the best decision I made during that difficult time. Rather than thinking I could fix myself, as Malorie Venlet, LLMSW, explains it, therapy helped me “identify patterns in thinking” and transform them into positive forward motion.
Here are four common breakup pitfalls that therapy helped me avoid.
Thinking I Could Have Saved the Relationship
During and after the breakup, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could have solved the relationship issues. I continued to revisit past conversations and misunderstandings, hoping to find exactly where things went wrong and what I could have done to fix it. I worried that I hadn’t been communicative or thoughtful enough, ruining the chances we had at a successful relationship. Surely, if I had done something differently, we would still be happily together.
In therapy, subtle and personalized questions led to important realizations regarding foundational issues in the relationship. It became clear that communicating earlier would not have erased the underlying differences between my boyfriend and me. Saying the right words at a particular moment would not have gloriously resolved all issues. Furthermore, my therapist offered affirming comments such as, “You are a thoughtful, sensitive person” and, “Ah, see, that example shows you worked hard at the relationship.” Her words gave me outside validation. I was reminded of the good things I had done. I no longer had to carry the entire weight and responsibility of the relationship ending.
While it was difficult to accept that there was nothing miraculous I could have done to save the relationship, it was a necessary lesson and juncture in the healing process.
Indulging in Self-Destructive Thoughts
After the breakup, I easily slipped into destructive thought patterns such as, “I will never be a good partner” and, “I’m a terrible person for doing that to him.” My brain became a cloud of personal negativity. While normally a positive and upbeat person, I struggled to break free of a self-defeating mindset.
My therapist guided me through discussions about areas I believed I could improve. I shared with her that I felt I had given so much in the relationship, and was not receiving what I needed in return. She led me to see that I may have a tendency to over-extend and over-compensate. I never noticed this pattern before. I would give and give, yet not communicate what I needed or that I was becoming exhausted.
Rather than wallowing in self-destructive thinking, I saw myself as a strong person with areas to improve. I wasn’t a bad person or partner; I just had things I needed to work on, like everyone else. This newfound power of knowing myself better, and coming to terms with my weaknesses, strengthened me and propelled me forward in my healing.
Placing Excessive Blame on the Other Person
While I was tough on myself for what I did poorly in the relationship, I also continued to find reasons that my boyfriend was wrong, too. I became overly critical of what he did or didn’t do, both past and present.
Therapy allowed me to let go of examples of blame. I was taught to visualize a train where my thoughts were painted on the outside. My words traveled farther and farther away as the train coasted down the tracks. I actively distanced and separated myself from those thoughts. The exercise helped me unpack and unload some of the baggage I was carrying around.
I could see then that my interpretations of past occurrences weren’t always accurate. In some cases I had failed to see the other side of the story. The therapy sessions taught me about myself, and they taught me about my boyfriend, too. Instead of simply finding fault, I could see his good efforts and intentions as well.
Being Consumed by Other People’s Opinions
As with most breakups, I had several family members and friends weighing in on the situation. While insight from loved ones was important, I had to be careful not to let opinions sway me from my true self.
One of the statements I’ll never forget my therapist saying is: “You never know why someone is saying what they’re saying. It often has more to do with them than you.” It liberated me to know that what was said about me or to me didn't always have to do directly with me. It might simply be about the other person and what they are going through.
Some of my family and friends had vested interest in us staying together, while others perhaps the opposite. I needed to caution myself in absorbing all of the input I was receiving. I needed to think for myself. After all, my decisions would be the ones I alone would have to live with.
The ways in which therapy empowered and strengthened me surpass all of the top-volume, headphones-in workouts I used when coping with breakups in the past—although those helped me a lot too! While therapy may not be right for every breakup or difficult life transition, it is an option that should certainly be considered. By facing my fear of going to counseling for the first time, I learned that therapy is a powerful resource for any person wanting to be healthier and mightier in both mind and spirit.
Photo Credit: Manchik Photography