Me Before We

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The Difference Between Self-Anger and Self-Blame in Breakup

How to use your anger to help you through a breakup

Like violent waves crashing against your very being, overwhelming, disorienting emotions overtake you during the breakup process. As time passes (often lots of time) the reality of the breakup begins to set in. For many, it is later in the breakup process that you begin to experience feelings of anger toward self, and other(s), including your ex. Anger is a healthy stage in the grieving process and should not be confused with blame, even though they appear very similar. Blame toward self or other indicates that you are stuck in a cycle. Blame at self or other for why the relationship went awry keeps you focused on outcomes that have already occurred.

While the blame you place on yourself or other may be justified, it is not a productive emotion in which to stay entrenched. If you stay stuck in blame, you prolong the grieving process, as there is not another outcome that you can create to take the place of what's already happened. For that reason, during the breakup process, blame must be distinguished from anger. While anger can and often does feel toxic as well, it is an active emotion, and therefore creates a springboard to recovery.

Anger, whether at self or other, is a vital part of the grieving process, though it often gets clouded by blame. As you become more aware of your anger at self and other, your emotions become more organized and you begin to get your bearings on where the emotional turmoil ends and you begin. Anger can bring with it a sense of justification, of relief, and an awareness that you are worthy of more defiant feelings again. It is reflective of beginning to put the pieces back together after being shattered by breakup.

During the grieving process, when anger sets in, that is you becoming aware in a more substantive way of the emotions within you that have felt uncomfortable enough to motivate change. Being angry about the outcome and how you got there is you beginning to accept that you can't renegotiate old outcomes. Instead, your anger is reflective of growth.

When enduring an especially painful breakup, you can feel so desperate for answers that it is tempting to look for them in your own shortcomings. If you are angry at yourself for the breakup, at least there is something to blame. Anger at self helps you make sense of the breakup. It may help you better define the breakup and organize yourself around it, rather than leaving it ill defined, messy, and heavy, like a dirt cloud over your head.

Feeling deserving through your anger can help you transition away from internal blame. Of course, you don’t want to overcorrect into destructive anger that looks like terrorizing your ex (as tempting as it may be). But you can have all the fantasies you want – you can feel whatever you want to feel and know that’s part of the process. But when you start to think about all the indignities you suffered, the anger becomes not centered around you as a horrible person, but around why you stayed for so long.

This is when your shift from blame to anger has started to take hold. In this new phase in your grieving process, you’ve reached a point of being able to move around again with purpose, which helps to dilute the power of the breakup. Now you’re starting to form your own narrative and it gives you room to realize that you can live without that person.

Conventional wisdom states that if you’re angry, you’re still not over it. But where is that proven? As long as you’re not destructive or self-destructive, you can stay angry as long as you want. Eventually anger will take whatever direction it takes. And at this stage it’s not really your business to direct where it goes. If anger sticks with you, that’s because you’re human and you are grieving. The anger that you will feel during breakup can be a source of fuel. One of its purposes is to incite you to fight back and take charge of your life. Acknowledging it as a normal part of the grieving process can help you feel deserving of good things moving forward.

Suzanne Lachmann, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in NYC specializing in psychotherapy.

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