The Pain of Breaking Up, Are You Self-Compassionate?

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

This is an Email question recently sent to me by a young woman:

“Is He Changed???”


“My ex left me 6 months ago after 4 years together for a woman who was a mutual friend. My question is that, during our relationship, he was very emotionally abusive. He was not abusive not first. In fact, he was a sweetheart for a while. This was my fault, I guess, for allowing him to be abusive.

When he is with this woman he is so different, so soft and sweet. He gives her everything, speaks to her like an angel. He’s like a completely different person with her. He has given up smoking for her. I am wondering, can someone change so quickly or was it me who brought out the abuse in him?……… I’m so confused and lost.”

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This message is filled with much of what people do to themselves after a failed relationship. It is natural and to be expected that, when two people in an intimate relationship go their separate ways, they will experience feelings of loss, grief, mourning and anger. However, it is when a person turns their wrath upon their self that a problem develops and that is what the woman in the email has done. She blames herself for his abuse of her. She asks if there is something about her that caused his abuse. Underlying this is the implication that she should have been able to prevent both the abuse and the loss. She is not being compassionate to herself. In reality, she is harshly criticizing herself. It is one thing to feel pain over the rejection but it is self hate to blame and attack herself. Yet, this is what many of us do.

Psychologist Kristin Neff has written a new book called, Self Compassion, subtitled, “Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind.” In the book she states:

“As I’ve defined it, self-compassion entails three core components. First, it requires self-kindness, that we be gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental. Second, it requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering. Third, it requires mindfulness—that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it. We must achieve and combine these three essential elements in order to be truly self-compassionate.”

Implicit in this is the idea that none of us are perfect and that we need to accept that fact. In that way it’s easier to be self accepting rather than self blaming when things go wrong. The harsh self critic responds to divorce by thinking too negatively and wallowing in isolation or loneliness.

Neff points out, based on her studies at the University of Texas, that those with self compassion are less likely to feel humiliated, incompetent and like they want to die.

Self-compassion won’t take the pain away from a broken partnership but it will eliminate harsh self criticism. Studies show that people high in self-compassion, after a divorce, adjust better to that trauma than those with low self-compassion. In addition, self esteem has nothing to do with this. People with low self esteem but who are able to be self-compassionate after divorce adjust much better than those with high self-esteem and low self compassion.

How to be self-compassionate? After a break up do not self isolate. Socialize, talk about the loss and stop the tendency to self-criticise or engage in self blame. Remind yourself that you are not alone in having lost a relationship and that the pain suffered is part of the human experience. In other words, you are not the only one going through this, and, therefore, there is no need to brand yourself as a failure.

Do you remember the song by Neil Sedaka, “Breaking up is hard to do?” It is hard to do, so, do not engage in self recrimination.

What are your experiences with self-compassion?

Your comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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