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When I Realized Ruminating on My Past Relationship Was 'Emotional Self-Harm'

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Article updated August 5, 2019.

So, not quite a year ago, I began a practice of meditation. It’s not anything fancy, but I do it daily and it has become an important way for me to center myself each day. My practice has seen ups and downs (right now, it’s mostly a halfway effort, struggling not to fall asleep), but it has given me plenty of food for thought.

Among the most impactful lessons I’ve taken away is the principle of impermanence. Specifically as it relates to stress and anxiety management, impermanence is simply the reality that no feeling of unease or anxiousness lasts forever.  These feelings rise within us and, eventually — sometimes with great turmoil — subside and pass. By focusing on that reality, and resisting the urge to get swept up in the waves of panic and worry, we gradually become better able to tolerate such feelings and handle them with the confidence that they pass.

This is, perhaps, an oversimplification. I am well-acquainted enough with my own struggles with depression and anxiety to know that sometimes the waves are really tsunamis, and “riding it out” is easier said than done. But one thing this way of looking at things has spotlighted for me is my tendency to ruminate.

It had never occurred to me that my natural inclination to ruminate on… well, everything could be a negative. I’m an analyzer of people and issues and situations and conversations and information in general, and I always thought this was the lot of “the thinking man,” so I never stopped to consider how this proclivity might be working against me.

One day, in midst of a meditation session that, for whatever reason, had triggered thoughts about an extremely traumatic past relationship, I had an epiphany: There is thinking to understand and there is ruminating to the point of insanity. The truth was, I realized, that I understood as much about that bad relationship and ex as I was ever going to understand. Continuing to roll it around in my brain was essentially emotional self-harm — opening and reopening the wound because I somehow felt that continuing to feel the pain, fear, sorrow, etc. would eventually be my salvation. But my failure to understand entirely wasn’t the result of not having dedicated enough time to considering everything that happened. My failure to understand was instead connected to the fact that the relationship was not a healthy one and the individual I was involved with was an addict deep, deep in the throes of his addiction and the utter havoc it had wreaked on his entire life.  Suddenly, I thought, “My God!  How much time have I spent agonizing over this?  Tortured by feelings of hurt, anger, guilt, and sadness?”  In that moment, I saw clearly that ruminating on this relationship and this person had actually kept me trapped. Rather than being curative, the mental and emotional energy I’d dedicated to it had kept me stuck in a place of terror, isolation, and emotional bankruptcy. Was I hurt? Was I angry? Guilty? Sad? Yes, all of the above. And rightly so.  But did any of that (or the fact that I got myself into this mess of a relationship in the first place) mean I should be sentenced to suffer that turmoil in perpetuity? Absolutely no. Not only would it have been unproductive, it would have been cruel. So I took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and finally placed the paper boat of that mess in the figurative river of all my emotions to watch it float away.

It isn’t a magic cure. Big waves — memories — of that relationship (and many other things) still threaten to overwhelm me from time to time.  But now, I give myself permission to feel the feeling, validate it, and then relegate it to its rightful place.  It belongs to me, I do not belong to it.  Some days I am more successful than others, but I’ve also learned the importance of being as patient and kind with myself as I strive to be with others.  Life certainly is a journey, and I am taking it one step at a time.

Header image via Getty

Originally published: August 11, 2018
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