Denial vs. Ownership: What a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Breakup Taught Me About Change

“So what caused your break up?” Melissa asked me.

“I wasn’t balanced,” I replied.

My own response shocked me. For the first time in answering the question, I didn’t say Adam’s name as the subject; I said my own. For the first time, I didn’t describe the break-up as something that happened to me; I described it as something I was responsible for.

Historically, when someone asked me the question, I placed myself in the object of the sentence. Adam broke up with me. Adam left me without saying goodbye. Adam wasn’t taking care of his mental health. Adam moved home to Michigan. Adam, Adam, Adam. Adam was the reason.

But yesterday, in a nearly out-of-body experience, I watched myself describe our breakup in a way I never had – with the focus on me as the subject. Before my mouth uttered a sound, in a completely radical, quiet moment, I watched my heart admit to my brain, You don’t have to protect me anymore. Start the story the real way. Your story of the break-up does not begin with Adam. The story of your break-up begins with you.

My own admission felt seismic. Without an intentional decision to do so, I noticed myself change. As the conversation unfolded, I watched myself describe the ways I was responsible for the downfall of our relationship. For the first time, to my friend and to myself, I admitted that the reason we broke up was because I wasn’t me anymore. In the last months of our relationship, I constantly spiraled in anxiety, driving down to Chicago to see Adam as a way to escape from my life in Milwaukee. I emotionally poured into him, saturating his ears with my chronic family issues and personal worries and what’s-the-plan, what’s-the-plan, what’s-the-plan conversations. When things went wrong, I put pressure on our relationship – deciding that we both needed to change. The efforts were futile, sometimes detrimental.  The more energy I poured into Adam and into our relationship, the more I felt hollow, empty, incongruent. And the more incongruent I felt, the more I mentally insisted the issue was the relationship, not me.

How on Earth could I expect my partner to handle that constant pressure, that constant feeling of me needing him to fix me, of me needing to put more effort into our relationship, of me also telling him that his efforts are not enough? He couldn’t. No one could.

It is true that Adam was also not himself. However, throughout the end of our relationship and in the acute aftermath of our breakup, instead of critically looking at my own life, I only partially acknowledged my own role in our relationship and instead placed blame externally – on long-distance, on Adam, on life circumstances.

Denial is an excellent defense mechanism. After my mom died, my family structure began to wilt away, like petals falling backward off a flower. I learned to be fiercely independent.

Unfortunately, part of such fierce, young independence included a denial that I could be wrong. When you are your only reliable support system, you certainly don’t want to fail yourself. I couldn’t mentally afford to be wrong, because then I’d feel beaten, defeated, hopeless. Protection of yourself is survival; admitting to yourself that you are wrong causes you to lose that protection, your shell.

It is so much easier to be reactive, to operate with a mentality that things happened to you and there’s nothing you can do about it. I often criticize my dad and brother for their passive approach to life. The tend to choose the path of least resistance, telling white lies to themselves to others, keeping other people at a safe distance. After my mom died, they both adopted a victim mentality, and the results have crippled them. If you ask them, nothing ever seems to be their fault.

I never understood myself to have a victim mentality until recently. It came as a result of deep reflection, self-work, and this focus on internal change. The realization that I too was playing a victim was mirror-shattering. And honestly, very humbling. In that moment, I realized how deeply my own narrative was constricted me.

It is true that all those hard things happened. My mom died. Adam left. Will feels lost. John moved away. My dad emotionally checked-out.

You know what else is true, though? I choose a victim mentality, over and over again. I am the subject of the sentence. Finally, I feel ready to take ownership of these realities for my own sake. I am ready to acknowledge that these realities are challenging and raw and impactful, but more importantly, I am ready to acknowledge that I have the ability to keep myself as the focus. I am ready to develop the tools to strengthen myself, to understand that I have a choice on how to proceed from here.

Yesterday, for the first time, I changed the narrative about the breakup. I took myself out of the victim role. The decision scared me to my bones. And also, it is one of the most freeing decisions I have ever made.

In this Winnowing Year, I am trying to look at myself more honestly. Here, we learn to let go of an idea of ourselves that may not be true, an idea that we created as a defense mechanism or as a result of our upbringing or as a survival tool. Here, we learn that looking at our lives honestly is the groundwork for change.

And you know what, Little Winnower? It is freeing! We are the ones holding our basket. We are the one determining which parts to keep and which to send away in the wind. Examining our lives with honest eyes is the most pure form of learning to let go.

Keep what is necessary. Let go of what is not. Today is a step toward clarity.

4 Lessons Learned from My Key Ring

I slipped the silver key off of the metal ring. Then the one next to it. Then the one after. I wouldn’t need these anymore. I no longer lived in the homes they unlocked.

For whatever reason, when I’ve moved, I’ve kept the duplicate keys on the ring. Each time I moved, I left plenty of extra keys for the new renters, so I never thought to take mine off. Illegal probably, and hopelessly nostalgic. I always figured I’d take off the keys a few days after I moved – when I was ready.

The time for being ready never came naturally. In fact, it rarely does.

A couple of days ago I looked down at the key ring and it felt heavy. Physically, but also emotionally. I considered the possessions I carry with me every day. What does it mean if my keyring is overstuffed, if my wallet is overfilled with receipts and hair ties, if my purse contains unnecessary bags of tea and phone chargers and eight pens? What does that say about the other things I am carrying on a daily basis.

I recently moved to an new apartment, packing up all my little possessions on this Earth and carting them across town to a new space with new roommates. Though I downsized immensely, taking box after box to Goodwill, it still doesn’t feel like enough.

Once I started to pay attention to the extra things in my life, I now want to whittle it down as small as possible. Any additional weight feels immense. And so – the necessity of winnowing.

Today, I took one last look at those keys on my ring. The keys from my childhood home, which we sold last year. The keys from my first shanty 1-bedroom, the first time I lived alone. The keys from The Hostel, the cozy duplex I shared with three of the most incredible humans on the planet.

There is much to learn from the process:

  1. Holding possessions does not make the experiences linger, it makes us live in the past.
  2. Giving away those possessions does not mean I care less about those experiences; it means I care enough about the present to let them go.
  3. A key is a key, and it would be silly to keep them forever. Do I want to be 100 years old and have forty keys on my keychain? I think not.
  4. The process is necessary, but it still isn’t easy.

Even as I sit here, the keys now off the ring, laying strewn on the desk, I still have an urge to put them back on. Don’t let go of them yet, my brain pleads. Remember how much you love those places? Remember that time Katie tried to fix the fire alarm? Or how the floor slanted in the Meinecke Ave. apartment? Or how you’d open the door to the wafting smell of freshly baked zuchinni bread? Remember, remember, remember?

But then I remember the mission: this year is about letting go of what I can no longer carry. I will always remember those people, those homes that made my life so stunning.

That’s the beauty of memories – I do not need a key to unlock them. I do not need a key to call Kelsey on the phone, to remember the chatter of friend gathered around a table, to hear the whir of the coffee grinder rattling the kitchen countertop, to feel the calm of my south-facing window portraying the white-headed dandelions populating Kilbourn Park. I do not need a key to validate my experiences there.

Today, finally, I took the keys off. And also, I glued those memories in a little tighter. I repeated my mantra to myself:

Keep what is necessary.

Let go of what is not.

Today is one more step toward lightness.