The pain of rejection is intense when a person discovers that someone they loved so deeply is no longer able to reciprocate. The unrequited partner’s despair may lead them to believe that they will never be good enough to deserve enduring love. Yet every living, breathing person will face times when they will be rejected. The bridge over those troubled times is the awareness that the feelings of loss and hopelessness are not permanent.
Relentless self-criticism prolongs and confuses the grief process. Instead of self-criticism, use an agonizing breakup or divorce to grow and to better know what to look for (and look out for) the next time around. Here are four ways to stop the spiral of self-criticism that so many experience when going through a painful breakup or divorce:
1. Consider who you are, separate from this relationship.
Perhaps you lost yourself along the way with your ex. Who were you before this person was in your life? Also, consider who you want to be. Fine-tuning your interests, hobbies, and friendship goals is an extremely valuable way to start moving on. Use the painful ending of a relationship as a way to grow more into the type of person you wish to be, not as an opportunity for self-abuse. List your interests. Make short-term goals that you check off each day and longer-term goals of where you wish to be in six months, a year, five years. The path forward is easier to follow when a person knows where they wish to go.
2. Consider if your expectations for yourself are unrealistic.
For many, culture has promoted the idea that love and romance should come easily. If it doesn’t, people blame themselves for not meeting a standard that appears easy to achieve for others. In the real world, each time we break up, we discover more about ourselves and learn more about what we need romantically. The expectation that we would nail it, without a learning process, is unrealistic and self-defeating. In fact, for many it takes a few lost loves to find the one that sticks. Each time you self-criticize, consider the idea that you are not inherently flawed, but in thinking so, you may be setting yourself up for an unrealistic expectation that love should come quickly and without hardship.
3. Consider what you learned from your ex.
Each failed relationship is an opportunity — not for self-abuse, but to take stock of what we learned about ourselves. If you take in the data, you will grow, and you will be much more likely to find a suitable long-term mate. Notice each time you go down a self-critical spiral. Perhaps you chastise yourself for your personality, your appearance, or things you said (or didn’t say). As soon as you become aware of the self-critical spiral, take out a journal and write — not about your flaws, but about what the relationship taught you to work on as an individual. Examples would not be “too fat” or “too needy.” Healthy examples include “work on improving communication skills,” or “build up interests and hobbies of my own,” or “don’t give up everything for my partner.” (In my workbook, Breaking Up and Divorce: 5 Steps, I describe specific strategies for how to heal from romantic trauma and start attaching with healthy romantic partners.)
4. Consider how you will feel about your breakup in 15 years.
It may be hard to believe at this moment, but there will very likely come a day when you do not think as deeply about this current loss. In fact, the healthy future you may even be able to laugh at some of what is occurring at this moment. Believe that if you continue to grow and learn, you are going to find someone eventually. The relationship you are grieving is serving the purpose of helping you to be more ready for your future.
Jill Weber, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in Washington, D.C., and the author of The Relationship Formula Workbook Series, including Toxic Love—5 Steps: How to Identify Toxic Love Patterns and Find Fulfilling Attachments, Breaking Up and Divorce—5 Steps: How to Heal and be Comfortable Alone and Building Self-Esteem—5 Steps: How to Feel 'Good Enough.' For more, follow her on Twitter @DrJillWeber and on Facebook, or visit drjillweber.com.