Losing a friend or partner, even temporarily like in the case of a disagreement, can be extremely hard on people living with Social Anxiety and other mental illnesses like Depression and Borderline Personality Disorder.
I am no expert in how to get people to stick around. Clearly, I am terrible at that. But I do consider myself a little bit of an expert in how to deal with the aftermath, because this situation just keeps happening to me over and over again, at least once or twice a year. And every time, I am emotionally destroyed, but every time I somehow get back up again. At first, it seemed to me like this was an accident and I only started to feel better because something good randomly happened to me. But at this point I think it’s safe to say that I am pretty resilient.
I’m sort of going through one of those situations right now, and it occurred to me that although I am basically a ball of constant anxiety and I’m a lot lonelier than I was before, I am actually doing kind of okay. Not great, but okay. I’m doing better at this, and I’m also doing better at actually resolving conflicts. So it prompted me to take a closer look at my habits to figure out what was working and what wasn’t, and I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned with you.
Try to see the bigger picture
It can be hard to give someone space because you don’t know how you’re going to cope without them for all that time, or you might fear that this will only make the situation worse and they will forget about you and move on. But if you take a look at the bigger picture, a couple of months apart is nothing in comparison to the years you could be friends in the future (or have been in the past). This is also helpful when someone has hurt you – you may initially feel like the only option you have is to end your relationship with that person, but in looking at the bigger picture you might find that it’s actually better for you to just spend some time apart or talk things out with each other.
Sometimes, saving a relationship is more important than being right
There will be times when someone is upset with you for something you didn’t do, or something that you did unintentionally. There will be times when someone takes their feelings about other situations out on you. And it is easy to give in to the impulse to defend yourself, because if only they knew what a great friend you actually are, they wouldn’t be upset anymore! Sometimes, though, people don’t want to hear it. Sometimes people don’t even care about getting an apology (although you should definitely apologize, with no ‘but’s attached). Sometimes it’s better to just sit with that – YOU know you’re a good friend, YOU know how much you care. With time, they will figure that out again too.
A couple of years ago, I was in a situation where I started to feel like one of my friends was drifting away from me, and I didn’t know why. Eventually, I found out the reason from a mutual friend, and my immediate response was, “Awesome! Now I can talk this out with them and everything will be solved!” And their immediate response was, “CHELSEA. NO.”
*Five minutes later*
“I’m serious. I know you’re still thinking about doing it anyway. No. NO. DO NOT.”
“I said okay!”
“I know it’s tempting, but it will only make things worse. And I didn’t tell you so that you could make things worse, I told you so that you could save your friendship.”
Criticism is hard to hear, but I’m pretty good at discerning when someone is saying something because they genuinely care about you and have your best interests at heart. Not talking about it went against every single instinct in my body, but my friend has a lot more insight than me at times and also isn’t the kind of person to get all up in arms about things or give unwanted advice, so I trusted that they wouldn’t be so adamant about this if they weren’t right.
Remember this quote from Louis C.K.: “When a person tells you that you hurt them,
you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.”
I probably think about that quote at least once daily. It reminds me to be humble, empathetic and to always consider the feelings of others. Because the reality is that even if you did not intend to do something, even if someone is twisting your words and actions so far from what you meant that it’s not even the same thing anymore, the reality is that this person is hurt. Their current actions are a result of their pain. Does it make whatever is going on fair to you? Probably not. But an empathetic person tries as hard as possible to understand the other person’s feelings and genuinely feels sorry that they are experiencing pain (no matter what the cause and even if understanding is never achieved). Don’t beat yourself up with guilt about it, because we all hurt someone in life at some point even if it’s accidental. We can never know exactly what to say or what to do or what someone else is thinking so it’s kind of inevitable. But you should apologize if for no other reason than that they are hurt.
Stop asking questions
If someone just suddenly shuts you out and disappears with no explanation, it is natural to wonder why. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve combed through my memories and text messages looking for clues or anything that could have been interpreted incorrectly. But chances are, no matter how hard you look you will never find the real answer. You can never be in someone else’s head. In the occasions that someone has disappeared on me but come back later, and I do get to find out what their reasoning was, it is NEVER what I would have guessed, and trust me, I spent a lot of time guessing. I treated these situations like I was Nancy Drew and these mysteries HAD to be resolved before the story could be over, and it consumed my life. Sure, I did other things, but it was always in the back of my mind. Accept that there are some things you’ll never know, and then make up your own answer – whatever happened, it was not your fault and you are a good person. You did not deserve to be left. They might have a different opinion, but does the opinion of someone who didn’t care enough to explain really matter?
Allow yourself to grieve, but then move on
When someone leaves your life unexpectedly, it can feel like they died, even though you are pretty sure they’re alive out there somewhere. But because they’re alive, sometimes we don’t allow ourselves to accept our emotions as grief and go through that grieving process. It’s okay to feel sad. It’s okay to feel devastatingly sad. It’s okay to cry for hours on end about it. It’s okay to listen to sad music that reminds you of them and make scrapbooks and write an entire novel and a whole bunch of blogs (ahem).
It’s okay if you end up being triggered into experiencing a depressive episode or if it makes the symptoms of your mental illness more pronounced. Although that really, really sucks, it’s important to recognize that it’s not just you being whiny or weak or too dependent on others. We can experience emotions more deeply than other people, and sometimes it can be harder for us to deal with change. When I am feeling this way, I remind myself that I will one day love someone with the same intensity that I am currently missing this person.
However you need to express and process your emotions is okay. But it’s not okay forever. Don’t let one person or group of people ruin your life.
Embrace gradual change
For a long time I was scared to move on from my past because I didn’t believe that I had the emotional energy to do so, or that anyone else would care about me. And I was scared of saying goodbye to the memories of people I loved. What helped me was realizing that I didn’t have to. I allowed myself to change gradually rather than taking a cold-turkey approach. Cold-turkey works for a lot of people. These are the people who burn their exes’ pictures and delete them off social media and throw out everything that reminds them of the situation. But I like to keep things, and because of that I sort of figured that until I could bring myself to physically get rid of these possessions, I couldn’t move on, because that would be weird. And it is weird. But it works for me. I have dated people (and fallen in love with them) while still having pictures of my exes on the walls. I still find myself referring to good memories I had with people I’m no longer friends with in conversation. And I still find myself gradually moving on and creating new experiences.
Find the silver lining
Every situation has a silver lining. That silver lining in no way makes this situation any less difficult, but no matter how small, there will be a tiny thing that you can enjoy. And when you find it, milk it for all that it’s worth and use it as a reminder that you are valuable. It could be that now you’re going to dye your hair, because you’d been wanting to for a while but they would have preferred your natural colour. It could be that you have more free time to spend on something you’d been wanting to devote more time towards, like a hobby. It could be that now you can watch your favourite TV show whenever you want without waiting for them. It could be anything.
It could even be that now you have something to write about.
Chelsea Ricchio is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the SPEAK OUT blog. She is also the Communications Manager for Healthy Minds Canada. She graduated from the University of Toronto in 2015 with a BA in English Literature and Book & Media Studies. She was the former president of the student group Active Minds at UofT, which hosts SPEAK OUT events on campus (from which this blog takes its name). She was diagnosed with Dysthymia and Social Anxiety. She is 23 and lives in Toronto with her cat Genie and her roommate.