Q: My boyfriend left me almost five years ago, but I’ve never gotten over how much he hurt me. He lied to me about everything. He cheated on me with my friends. He borrowed money from me and never paid it back. We only did what he wanted to do, and whenever he didn’t get his way he threw a tantrum. He left me by moving out one day while I was at work, without ever saying good-bye, and left me to pay the rent by myself. Every day I go over and over in my mind the things he did, the things I should have said, and what I should have done differently. Since he left I haven’t been able to connect with anyone new. I want to move on, but I constantly think about him until I work myself up into a froth and get completely exhausted. I know I need to forget about him and get on with my life, but for some reason I can’t let him off the hook. What can I do?
A: It’s been said that holding this kind of resentment is like mixing a cup of poison for someone else and then drinking it yourself. Grudges are like addictions in that they keep us fascinated the way a moth is fascinated by a flame, and to the same self-destructive effect. Your boyfriend stopped hurting you long ago. He’s no longer the problem. Today it’s your mind that is tormenting you. In a sense, you’re in a trance whenever you’re ruminating about him. The question is how to wake up. This is exactly the sort of question that good psychotherapy can help answer.
In my experience, these kind of obsessive ruminations always serve some defensive purpose. They mask awareness of feelings or ideas you don’t want to notice by keeping your attention focused outwardly on the injustice the other person committed. They’re like hard shells protecting your soft heart. The way to stop feeling at the mercy of your resentment is to go beneath it to the vulnerability you’re trying to ward off through anger.
Here’s one possibility about what could be going on. Since this guy walked all over you, is it possible that on some level you weren’t completely clear that you deserved better? Sometimes, when we internally “protest too much,” about how unjustly we were treated, it’s because we’re really trying to convince ourselves of the truth of what we’re saying. As strange as this might sound, you might actually believe, on the deepest level, that your boyfriend was right to leave you, either because you imagine you failed him in some way or because you were somehow unworthy of his love. If you unconsciously feel something like that, then, by constantly pleading your own case in your obsessive ruminations, you deny your own self-doubts while simultaneously punishing yourself for your “failure” by keeping yourself miserable. There does seem to be something self-punitive in the mental torment you’re going though and in the fact that you’re not letting yourself get into another relationship after all these years. These guesses of mine may be all wrong. I offer them only as one example of the kind of unconscious processes that keep people stuck in ruminations; and to encourage you to do all in your power to shift your attention away from the wrongs he did to you and focus more on what’s going on inside you. In any case, your ruminations must serve some psychological purpose; whatever it is, you’re probably trying to complete some internal work that needs to be done.
On the question of “letting him off the hook,” — he’s not on any hook at all. It’s you who are impaled on your memories. The real challenge here isn’t punishing him, it’s letting go. If low self-esteem issues or unconscious guilt are issues for you, then, if you face and work through them, you may finally be able to believe wholeheartedly the things you’ve been telling yourself about his character. And if you can do that, you’ll be in a better position to stop obsessing about him because you’ll really know that he isn’t worth it. And more importantly you’ll also know that you really do deserve better.