Advice Column: How To Grow From Your Ex's Feedback

Advice Column: How To Grow From Your Ex's Feedback
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Jimmy Bay

Dear Chelsea,

My boyfriend broke up with me last week after about 10 months of dating. We got along well and shared similar values. There were certainly things about him that didn't fall into the bucket of what I imagined as my perfect partner, but for me, I was able to overlook all those flaws because he was the nicest guy I had ever dated. I was the first true "girlfriend" he had had, at age 27.

The problem was that he wasn't willing to open up to me. When we broke up, he said it was because he wasn't falling in love with me. I became defensive and countered that he didn't allow room for any type of love to grow because he never opened up to me. He was almost a textbook case of "emotionally unavailable" in my eyes, but his perspective it was simply an issue of finding the right person who would shake that out of him and allow him to open up (which clearly was not me).

I asked him for feedback post-mortem since he never gave me any along the way, and he said that one thing that drove him nuts about me was my critical nature (I took extra care to not criticize him, but he said he would get upset when I would criticize others) and my anxiety-driven perfectionism. This led him, he said, to be an emotional support pillar in times when he thought there was no need for emotional support at all. These are two things I'm very self-aware about and have taken strides to improve over the years, but ultimately I do think that to some degree, they make me who I am.

So my question is this--I want to improve myself and my next relationship, but how much of what my ex said is just a lack of compatibility, and how much of it is something I should work on changing about myself? I'd like to think I could find someone out there who would find my perfectionism "cute" or something, but maybe that's just being unrealistic. With this character trait, and others that pose a threat to relationships--how much am I supposed to bend, and how do I know what I should stand up for and not compromise on?

Ready to Grow, Maybe

Dear Ready to Grow, Maybe,

You remind me of myself many, many moons ago. Back when I was the first true girlfriend, like you, to a man who was also 27.

That was seven years ago and still I can barely write a story without mentioning him. Geoff Dyer says he likes to write stuff that’s only an inch from life. It’s a form of self-compensation, a way of making up for things, as opposed to making things up. Part of me has always suspected that I write to make up for everything that was never said, to acknowledge just how unacceptable my own love has been.

I was in that relationship for three and a half years and I can’t tell you if I was ever genuinely happy. All I remember is exerting so much effort all the time, trying to pry open a man who wanted me to love him but leave him alone. His emotional unavailability tortured me. And maybe what tortured me most was the reality that he was a nice guy and I was becoming meaner toward him and myself every day.

But he never wavered.

Aleks Dahlberg

He was nice and simple. He spent his free time in the library reading Tagore or walking for hours, observing ordinary moments and stopping for tea or a pastry. He lived with a rabbit and without the internet. He taught literature to high school students and lost his voice shouting for solidarity in the streets. He wanted to leave his “things” behind and float through India with nothing but a mosquito net. He wanted to fall asleep early and wake up with the life of Kerouac. I was so judgmental.

A few weeks ago I was sifting through my closet when I came across a batch of letters he had written me. As I read them my heart ached, and that surprised me. It surprised me that for the last years I had been writing my way out of the chaos that was our romance, out of pain and denial and into revelation, only to find that during our relationship all he had ever written me with was softness and steadiness and dedication.

His letters were simple, just like him, and it would have been obvious to anyone reading them that the man writing me was nice. Still, as plain and clear as that was, nothing could hush the restlessness that rushed in on me all over again as I read his words. The same restlessness I had always felt around him. The restlessness that overcame me when he’d talk about the weather and the people puttering around, when he’d reference the temperature and a passage from a book.

I wanted the juicy details! Not these.

I didn’t need to hear for the 10,000 time that he loved me. I wanted to hear what he thought about when he couldn’t sleep. I wanted to understand why he couldn’t touch me with the same passion. I wanted to know why he was the way he was. The truth is, I needed to know if he was interested in changing.

You see, I wanted to be in his life but I didn’t want his life.

Which, I guess, means I wanted him in my life, in my world. I wanted him to give up on who he wanted to be and follow me into my days. Because even though I didn’t have much of a life outside of him, I believed I could lead a better life. And, you know what, that isn’t fair.

I’m telling you this not because I’m proud but because criticism, even if we keep it hush hush and only in our mind, only in our expectations, is cruel.

Can’t you hear that, how unnecessarily critical I was about a man who was harmless and only doing his best?

I’m telling you this because more than a boyfriend who is nice, women like you and me need men who are honest. Unapologetically honest. Believe me, I wish my ex would have broken up with me after 10 months as yours did with you. I wish he would have shaken me awake with feedback about myself. Who knows, maybe then I wouldn’t need to write my way into my own answers like I do. But, more than anything, I wish he would have told me that my criticism was killing him and my perfectionism was killing me.

Instead he kept his mouth shut, and if I had to blame anyone I don't know if I’d blame him or me for that.

You know, no one seems to talk about that very much. How the critic eventually wears its subject down and into silence. How the woman with nerve and expectations can keep a man from becoming who he is meant to be. How good intentions don’t always feel good for the person receiving them.

Ariel Lustre

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think for a second you’re a bad person but I do think you can do better. I do think you can be a better person.

The do part is my feeling that you can and should (a terrible word, I know) overcome your critical nature. And not because you want to be more compatible with someone like your ex but because you want to be compatible with people in general. You want to be compatible with the world. But criticism keeps you on the outs. Criticism cries out that you are different from people, that you are above them looking down when you aren’t, when all you are doing is standing back and looking through them.

Criticism, you see, gnaws away at the soul in everything. It separates you from that openness you respect and are seeking out in others. And you know why? Because a critical person is terrifying. There’s always this feeling around them, this dread, this foreboding, that it’s only a matter of time before they come up with something to hound and humiliate and hold against us.

So, even if you did take extra care not to criticize your ex, and even if you succeeded, the fact that he heard you being tough on others was always going to be enough to give him the impression that he was never really off limits or safe around you.

Who could blame him either?

We all want to protect ourselves from judgment because judgment can create this doubt in us, and doubt can convince us to hold ourselves back from the world, and the reality is we all want to be clueless and careless and wild and free. But the critical minded bring us back down to earth and their venom is a buzz kill. Why? Well, not just because criticism can be harsh and unnecessary. In fact, sometimes criticism is not just spiteful nonsense at all. Sometimes it really does ring true. And is it any surprise that so many of us never feel prepared to confront the truth of ourselves?

I think your ex didn’t open up to you because he wasn’t prepared for you. He wasn’t prepared for you to see him. He wasn’t prepared for you to see anything that you could then use against him. My feeling is, if you had ever seemed less critical and more understanding, your ex might have taken that chance on you. And wouldn’t you have wanted that, wouldn’t you have wanted him to take a chance? I think you would have because that chance feels a lot like someone opening themselves to love. And isn’t that what you mostly wanted from him, for him to try?

I think the lack of effort I witnessed and received during my own relationship is what triggered so much criticism toward my ex and so much restlessness in me. I never felt like he was risking himself enough, like he was opening up as an almost 30 year old man should. Part of this was because my criticism shut him down over time but the other part of it was that, like your boyfriend, he was 27 when we began dating and he had never had a girlfriend prior to that. That part, you see, had nothing to do with me.

Still I acted as if I had almost wanted it to because at least then I could feel validated for trying so hard to change that part of him. But that was never possible. He was romantically less experienced than me. That was his history. That was his path. That was fact. And, if I was going to be with him, I should have respected that.

What I’ve come to learn is that because of that inexperience, because we were simply at two different places on our love line, we did not love the same way and that is why we were incompatible. That is why we clashed. Because no one can rush anyone into being ready for what they aren’t ready for. Because no one can comfortably yank anyone back to wherever they have already put in their time.

And that is really where my criticism came from, from wanting my ex to be where I was, from wanting to see myself with the love I was after. That is how my restlessness really came about, from feeling like this relationship wasn’t meant to last, from knowing this and insisting that we still try.

You see, I believe we use criticism to push others away from us when we don’t have it in us to turn away on our own, when we don’t have it in us to make the change ourselves. I believe we speak critically in front of people we’d actually like to impress for the very reason that such behavior is unlikable and the truth is we feel trapped in a place where we can’t find what we like so, by acting out unfavorably, we try and trap others in that same place too.

No wonder we are exhausted.

We use criticism to separate us, to keep us at a distance from our own reality. And often that reality is, we have brought something into our world that frustrates us and it frustrates us not because it is inherently wrong or flawed or useless but because it is wrong for us. Because it reminds us that this is not where we want to be. It reminds us that we do not yet have what we prefer, what we are after, what our gut tells us we need. And this makes us feel like we are the ones who are useless to whatever or whomever we are surrounded by.

Larm Rmah

Listen, I don’t know what “all those flaws” that you mention overlooking in your ex were but I do know that no one wants to be overlooked, even if all you’re overlooking is the stain in their teeth or how quiet they become around your friends. As women especially I think we underestimate how much our disappointment shows and how much that hurts the men we are in a partnership with.

Moving forward, my feeling is, you need to be privy to this, to the possibility that men pick up on more than we’d ever assume.

My feeling is, you have to be sensitive to this too, to how your expectations make others feel like they are not where they need to be, when the reality is your criticism is a sign that it’s you who is restless with where you are.

From one recovering critic to another, the more you can see that in your criticism of others you are really carrying an expectation you have for yourself, the more you will be able to focus on bringing to life the very experiences that satisfy you.

Start here. Instead of reading someone and making a statement about them, if and when you read someone realize that what bubbles up is a statement about you. Trust me, if you listen right, you will lead yourself into directions that benefit you rather than create a resistance within you.

For instance, my ex loved to nap and I used to roll my eyes and judge him ruthlessly for coming home after work and curling up like a cat. I thought he was lazy, lackluster, and would ultimately fail to be the businessman I knew my father to be. It wasn’t until after our relationship that I came clean about what my judgment was really about.

The truth was, I was tired. I was tired of myself. I was tired of my excuses. And I was tired of the way I was spending my days. I wanted to take a nap but I grew up with a father who told me at a very early age that people who nap are depressed.

You see, my father worked hard and never napped. He had more energy and responsibility than anyone I knew and every morning he woke up happy. He was a perfectionist and I wanted to be perfect like him too. I wanted to repay him by living like he did. But the reality was that for most of my twenties, I was depressed, very depressed, and I was too afraid to close my eyes or be honest about how badly I was aching to.

This, of course, was the anxiety of perfectionism. And it wasn’t cute. Not at all. It caused me to sink deeper into my depression. It caused me to isolate myself and criticize those I was closest to. And because I was often too tired to think, my perfectionism never let me get much of anything accomplished. The irony, right? Napping would have been more productive than whatever I was up to.

But I had a lot of shame in those days, and naps especially represented that shame. It represented everything that I wanted to do but wouldn’t let myself do. It was an activity where criticism and expectation collided.

So, why was I so hard on my boyfriend for doing the very thing I wish I could have been doing? Obviously it was because I wished I could be doing it. I wished that I would let myself. And even further, the reason I made my boyfriend suffer under my own criticism was because, unlike me, he wasn’t suffering from his choices at all. He wasn’t ashamed that he was tired, only I was. He wasn’t trying to lead the life of a businessman, he was a teacher. He wasn’t trying to live up to the image of my father. He just wanted to get better at being himself. In hindsight, I don’t blame him. Today I even think it’s admirable.

Aleks Dahlberg

My advice is, the moment you see someone for who they are, you either need to encourage that or let them go find the person who will. The moment you begin trying to shape someone into your vision and stuff them inside your perfect partner bucket, you need to zip tie your hands and go busy yourself with yourself.

My advice is, love people in a way that frees them to be more of who they are.

And if you don’t like who they are, my advice is don’t ask them to stick around, don’t let them waste their time trying to fit into a life that is not meant for them because, you know what, not everyone is made for you and that is a relief.

My advice is, take this seriously. If you hold on to one thing, let it be that criticism speaks the least truth about those being spoken of and the most about the speaker. Please don’t let yourself be as shortsighted as I was that you miss gaining the insight that will relieve you of your own judgment.

I can tell you now that I refused to see my criticism and perfectionism for what it really was because, at the root of it, I didn’t trust that I could handle the feelings I had about myself. I guess I expected myself to crack under the pressure of my own reality which is why for so long I made everything about everyone else.

It wasn’t until my boyfriend and I broke up, and I had no one, that I was overcome with the truth about how I felt about me. Feeling those feelings though, as painful and unprepared as I was, was what I had to do to recover myself, to realize myself, to soften enough to love again, and ultimately stand in acceptance of not only me but others.

If anything can inspire you to use your relationship and your ex’s parting words to peer back the veil on yourself, maybe my story can. I mean, look what I’m doing today. A woman who once overlooked her ex and judged him for being too simple is now a columnist receiving heartbreaking stories in the hopes that she can see struggles for what they really are and simplify them enough to make them bearable. People come to me because they don’t feel like I will judge them. And today, they are right. There is no part of me that needs to have an opinion of others, or even wants to, because I know how much the opinion I had of myself crippled me and how the opinions I made of others were just diversions from what I knew to be unbearable about myself.

My advice is, don’t bend. Stretch. Let every relationship, be it romantic or platonic, stretch you. Don’t just bend to the needs of others. Let their needs stretch you and see how that feels. If you feel strained, let go. If you feel you might snap, give them up. But if you feel like there’s some muscle in you that’s being tested, stick it out, breathe into it, feel your way through, and find out what part of you is trying to get stronger.

Believe me, your ex’s feedback isn’t gospel. It’s merely a call to look into yourself. If you can’t get over his feedback, explore it.

To walk away from a relationship without learning more about who you are would just be wasteful.

My advice is waste nothing and use everything to enlighten yourself.



PS: Cuteness and niceness are qualities far too modest for a woman who has the grit to ask her ex for honesty. So my parting advice is, be more honest and less cute. I have a feeling that will work wonders for you.

A Breakup Coach trained and certified in Solution-Focused Life Coaching, Chelsea Leigh Trescott helps her clients turn their sob stories into silver lining breakups. Seeking advice? Send situation and question to for a chance to be featured.

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