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Suzanne Lachmann Psy.D.


After Breakup, Are You Selfish if You Don't Feel Guilty?

How to move beyond guilt into the post-breakup serenity you pictured.

You were deeply unhappy in your relationship, but now you're out. You craved something different. You craved peace, serenity, even joy, and now you have the opportunity for it.

But in those moments of post-breakup relief, you feel guilty. You know your ex is struggling and the fact that a part of you feels so much better seems unfair. And in those fleeting moments that you enjoy yourself without guilt, you feel selfish… and then you feel guilty for being selfish.

This is a cycle that manifests in all kinds of scenarios having to do with all kinds of choices and circumstances, but today we are going to look at it in the context of your post-breakup life. After a breakup, is it selfish to actually enjoy yourself when you know your ex is heartbroken, or are you prone to guilt because any positive emotion would feel selfish?

For most people, part of the experience of feeling guilt is due to the difficulty of turning off the switch of unhappiness. Though you were unhappy in your relationship, it was a known, even comfortable state. Feeling unhappy and dissatisfied with your life choices and circumstances became familiar to you through time. It formed in your early relationships and through your history and learned experiences.

Finally free from your most recent dissatisfying relationship, it's hard to know how to access more positive feelings, to be able to bask in your own relief. Rather, even though you crave something different, you feel a deeply embedded belief that you're not supposed to feel better. The anchor of this belief can make any positive feelings you have seem wrong. What makes you think you have a right to be happy? Instead, your history pulls you back into a comfortable state of unhappiness.

Then you mix these "old" feelings with the belief that you've abandoned your partner. It seems like the definition of selfishness: You were unhappy in the relationship and getting out required putting your needs ahead of your partner's needs. Now your partner feels awful while you feel great—that is, if it weren't for these feelings of guilt and selfishness!

There are two keys to moving beyond these feelings and into the relief and serenity you imagined for your post-breakup self.

The first is banishing the word "abandon" from your vocabulary. If you were unhappy in the relationship, your partner will be better off without you, whether it feels that way right now or not. In fact, if you were unhappy in the relationship it would have been selfish to stay . By continuing an unhappy relationship, you take away from your partner the potential to find someone with whom he or she could have a positive, more reciprocal relationship.

Even more importantly, you are taking away your own opportunity to seek out something that feels more enlivening for you. It may have seemed like you were sticking around despite your unhappiness due to the feeling of duty toward your partner, but your real duty was to clear the path for your partner to have a healthier future relationship, and for you to take care of you.

In most cases, if you were unhappy in the relationship, your partner was too, whether or not those feelings were at the forefront. Ask yourself why your ex was holding on—was it due to his or her fear of letting go? Of being alone? And how fair would it have been for you to keep indulging that fear? If you were unhappy, what seems like "abandoning" was in fact the most supportive thing you could have done, not only for yourself, but for your ex-partner too.

It is human and understandable, as well as often entrenched in our psyches to feel guilt. After a breakup, old, negative, unresolved feelings fuse with new ones to create the overwhelming feeling that the breakup is just too painful for your partner to bear. This guilt or the anticipation of this guilt may have delayed your leaving, but now that the relationship is over, your guilt interferes with enjoying your new freedom.

In essence, the only purpose this guilt serves is to keep you down, when you finally have the opportunity to feel up. And, your guilt does nothing for your partner, except for convoluting and confusing the picture further for everybody involved. Therefore, your excessive worry isn't helping anyone. If you only live once, spending time feeling selfish and guilty helps nothing and hurts everything.

Feeling compassion for the person you once loved is very different—it means supporting and honoring what your ex-needs to move forward, to the best of your ability. But this compassion is not the same as acting from a place of guilt. Guilt just ruins your experience. It doesn’t help anyone.

You were in an unhappy relationship. Now you're out. When you experience relief, serenity, and joy, work on letting yourself be in it and enjoy it. After your unhappy relationship, you deserve serenity and joy, even if your ex struggles to find the same experience. That doesn't make you selfish. It makes you compassionate, both toward yourself and toward your ex.

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