Thinking Traps After a Break Up
by The Mind Faculty
The end of a relationship can be painful. We pass through the stages of the break up like we process the death of a loved one: denial, depression, anger, bargaining and finally acceptance. It is not a linear process, with many of us cycling through the stages: pouring through old messages, thinking that the worst is over only to find a new post on Instagram that opens the wound afresh.
It is natural to have negative thoughts when we are grappling with painful feelings such as devastation, anger and betrayal. However, it is important that we do not fall into thinking traps that can prolong and exacerbate the process of heartbreak.
Thinking traps (or cognitive distortions) can prevent us from moving on. These are inflexible and irrational ways of thinking that can change the way we perceive the world. In the case of the break up, it can influence the way we viewed the relationship (was it the be all and end all or was it just part of your life?) and who we are outside the relationship (will we ever find love again?).
When we become aware of these break up thinking traps, we can move away from them and embrace more adaptable ways of thinking that support us through the process of heart break.
"I shouldn't be so sad. My ex was a loser etc."
When we use 'should statements', we put unrealistic expectations on ourselves for how we should feel and behave. 'Should' statements are common in the first few days of the break up before the emotional dust settles.
Many of us are not taught not to regulate our emotions. This is why for many of us, our first reaction when faced with a strong negative emotions is to suppress it or invalidate how we feel.
Break ups are usually accompanied by emotions that feel bigger than we are. We may be afraid of drowning in anger or grief or frustration. It may feel safer to reason our way out of our emotions instead of feeling them. We tell ourselves how we 'should' feel and rationalise why we should feel this way. E.g., I shouldn't be so sad because my ex was a loser.
The danger of 'should' statements puts unrealistic expectations on how we should grieve the break up. Self-criticism and judgement is inherent in should statements, and if you do not live up to it, you may feel shame and frustration at yourself because you are not processing it the way you think you should.
However, in order to process feelings, we have to feel them.
You can reframe a 'should' statement to honour your emotional experience: "Why shouldn't I feel sad? Even though my ex wasn't the person I thought they were (and the break up proves that), they were part of my life and I had feelings about them. It is natural that I feel sad. I allow myself to feel my feelings, and be more patient with my sadness."
"If only I wasn't so needy, maybe they would still be here."
Another thinking trap we can fall into is blaming ourselves. In the aftermath of a break up, it is common for us to dissect the relationship for what had gone wrong. Were our expectations too high? Did we not do enough for our partner? If only we were prettier, smarter, more chill then our partner would be here.
If we blame ourselves for the demise of the relationship, this demonstrates a personalization or control fallacy where we assume that we have complete control over our environment or that we are responsible for anything that might happen.
This is a common thinking trap we can fall into if we are used to taking responsibility for other people's emotions. E.g., "I have to be a good boy or my mum will be angry."
The danger of this is that it can reinforce any negative beliefs we may have about how lovable we are or if we are capable of maintaining a relationship. Instead of grieving the relationship, we turn any anger or frustration onto ourselves.
We need to reframe this by taking a more balanced view of the break up: "We broke up because we both had our own faults, and could not meet each other's needs. Neither of us is perfect and this relationship did not end because of a fundamental flaw in me."
"I'll never find love."
Fortune telling is when we make assumptions of the future based on the pain that we are feeling at the moment. This thinking trap can exacerbate feelings of hopeless and despair. It can make us romanticise a relationship or cling on to an ex because we don't want to be alone.
It is important to reframe this by generating future possible outcomes. Instead of: "Why does this keep happening to me, I will never keep a good man", you can think: "My inability to communicate has led to the disintegration of my relationships. I see behaviours that I can work on and I will develop this skills so when I meet a partner I deserve, we will be able to have open and honest communication."
Heartbreak is never easy. However, it's important to remember: while pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. By becoming aware of these thinking traps, you can help yourself through the process.
The Mind Faculty is a mental health therapy clinic in Kuala Lumpur. We offer a wide range of mental health services including relationship counselling, pre-marital counselling and family counselling services.