Like many people living with mental health challenges, I can sometimes struggle with maintaining a solid sense of identity that is separate from other people and who they might ideally like me to be. This is different from the natural personality shifts we all unconsciously make around different groups, or to feel closer to important people in our lives. I sometimes call it my chameleon tendency: the impulse (largely learnt through trauma) to present a slightly different version of myself to each person and/or to change parts of myself to best please a person.
Nowhere does this tendency show up more than in my romantic relationships. Coupled with a fairly significant fear of abandonment and a strong need for external validation, I have a pattern of really losing myself in relationships, which I am working on healing. All this can make break-ups really devastating, but here are some things I have found helpful in getting back to myself after a recent break-up.
1) Rediscovering my core values
For me, being in romantic relationships can often mean pushing down my own internal messages that something isn’t right, in favour of keeping the person in my life. This means ignoring my core values around how I should be treated and what I want present in my life. This rediscovery can happen through doing values-checking exercises, but what I’ve found most helpful is to think about what I would want for the people close to me to experience in their romantic relationships. These are most often the same things that I want for myself, even if I struggle to state it.
2) Reconnecting with my unique interests
I had to reconnect to what I enjoy doing and my passions as separate from my ex-partner. During relationships I don’t always stick-up for my need to be involved in things if they are not what my partner enjoys, or I prioritise their interests over mine to the point that I kind of forget what mine were in the first place. This reconnecting is often a process of “fake-it-till-you-make-it” for me. Basically, I have to force myself to get out there and do things I used to do until I rediscover my passion.
3) Relearning being alone
This one is probably the hardest for me, as I often feel like I don’t totally exist without other people. It’s especially tough when the break-up is fresh, when I don’t really know who I am yet without them or the status of being with them. To cope with these feelings and relearn how to be alone, I take time by myself in little bits. Using moderation helps to avoid feeling the isolation that I can feelafter a break-up.
In my time alone, I think about positive qualities I have been told I have and sit with how they feel. This practice builds up my sense of self little by little and shows me that being alone can actually be grounding and beneficial.
This one may seem counter-intuitive to many people, but I find it’s often an important part of working on many of the previous steps. I have to allow myself to feel angry about the way I was treated or the way the relationship dynamic hurt me – even if I made mistakes, or the anger doesn’t seem justified or “acceptable”.
I remind myself that both relationships and break-ups take two people, and there’s nothing about me as a person that means I deserve to be hurt. I also have to remind myself that anger is morally neutral, as are all emotions. Feeling anger, thinking angry thoughts, or needing space for my anger are not bad things. I am allowed to feel whatever I need to feel, even if I know expressing that feeling to the person in question wouldn’t be fair or useful.
My anger, just like any other emotion, is sending me a message or communicating a need. Allowing myself to feel anger instead of shutting it down can be an integral part of reconnecting with my values, envisioning what I want for myself, identifying what I need from future relationships and allowing myself to be okay with feeling hurt. Anger is often seen as taboo or inherently destructive, but I have found that it can just as often be healing and empowering.
This piece was written by one of the ICLA eFriend Peer Support Workers. eFriend is an online platform where you can connect with a trained peer support worker whom has their own lived experience of feeling lonely, isolated, stressed or worried. You can speak to your eFriend Peer via video or phone call. Your eFriend Peer will listen, validate and provide hope. If you like, they can also assist you to identify any other services you may like to try or help you create plans to improve your personal well-being. Or they can simply listen.