Now that Valentine’s Day (and all the coverage of the related emotion of love) is behind us, I’d like to talk about break-ups (and the related emotion of anger) for a minute.
You’re probably thinking, “Isn’t sadness the most common emotion associated with breaking up?”
Split-ups and sadness make a popular couple, to be sure. But while sadness has a place in the break-up process, I’m not really fan of that emotion. The problem with sadness is it has a very short shelf life when it comes to its usefulness — when it lingers too long, it becomes really counterproductive. It keeps you mired in the past. It saps your strength and drains your motivation for embarking on new projects. In short, it prevents you from getting over the break-up and moving on.
The problem with sadness is it has a very short shelf life when it comes to its usefulness — when it lingers too long, it becomes really counterproductive.
But anger is a different story.
My former hair stylist was the first person who pointed out the difference in the relative usefulness of these two emotions in the context of a break-up. A few years ago, she told me about a friend of hers who was going through a divorce. Her husband had failed to make their house payment for several months and spent down all of their savings without her knowing it. Then, right as the house of cards was collapsing around them, he up and left her and the kids. A couple of months later, I asked how her friend was doing.
“Not well. She’s still sad. She needs to get over being sad and move on to being mad; that way she can start getting things done,” she explained.
I found that assessment fascinating. And once I stopped to think about it, I was surprised at how many people I knew who had followed that pattern: Women who had experienced crippling sadness in the wake of a break-up but then later got angry, with a burst of productivity, personal growth and healing following.
The most famous example at the moment is current It Girl and Grammy hoarder Adele — her song "Rolling in the Deep" specifically and the album 21 generally demonstrate this emotional progression clearly. She went through a bad break up; at first she was crushed and her sadness kept her stuck in the past, focused on her ex. But then she got mad. And once she was mad, she harnessed that power and used it to create a body of music that swept up every Grammy award for which it was nominated.
Famous people’s stories of overcoming difficulties can be inspirational, but they're also removed from our everyday lives. I mean, of course celebrities have success stories — they’re famous, right? For that reason, it is often more empowering to hear stories of triumph on a more ordinary scale. Those stories seem less distant and in that way easier to relate to.
When it comes to people I know personally, my friend Kelly’s story of post-break-up success fueled by anger is my favorite.
Kelly had always had an interest in acting, but with three kids and a husband whose job required him to travel a lot, she never had the time to pursue it. Plus, acting was something her husband had a low regard for. Because being an actor in local theater productions was not an endeavor that would make any real money — the only measure of value he recognized — he thought it seemed like an ego trip and a pipe dream all mixed together. In other words, he viewed it as both embarrassing and a monumental waste of time.
If she had wanted to do something that could end up making decent money — say, selling real estate, or something legitimate like that — he would have been all over it. But acting? Not only could he not support an idea that foolish, he couldn’t even bring himself to hide his disdain for it.
Not surprisingly, Kelly and her husband eventually split up. It turns out, while he was away on business and she was at home with the kids, he had developed some outside interests of his own. These interests had names like Crystal and Kandi and were creative enough to compose steamy texts, but not smart enough to keep straight which nights he was out of town and which nights he was at home with Kelly and the kids.
The divorce hit Kelly hard. The kids were older, so she found she had significant chunks of time on her hands and spent the first few months adrift and forlorn. But then she got tired of being sad all the time — actually, that’s not quite right. To put it more accurately, she got mad about being sad all the time. Mad that she had put her own interests on the shelf in order to make her husband happy. Angry that while she was at home clipping coupons, helping the kids with homework and making sure everyone got three square meals a day, he was in cities like Vegas and L.A. wining and dining the likes of Crystal and Kandi with family funds. And the fact that she had spent the last few months moping around after splitting up with such a jerk made her really furious — at herself.
She recognized that she needed to do something with all of that anger — she needed a project to throw herself into in order to move on. So, she signed up for an acting class and converted all that anger into energy for her new craft. That was a critically important step.
She wasn’t doing it to show her ex. She wasn’t trying to become famous so she could then have a “booya” moment. She was doing it for her. She wanted to get over being mad at herself for putting her own interests last for so long — that is a critically important distinction.
Gasoline can either burn your house to the ground or make your car go. The same is true of anger. If it’s not handled the right way it can destroy you — but if you make it work for you and not against you, it can propel you to do incredible things.
Not surprisingly, things really took off for her. Her acting teacher connected her with an agent and, before she knew it, she was getting cast in local TV commercials. She had a new set of friends, she loved what she was doing and the money she was making from her new hobby was a nice supplement to her regular income.
She was so busy with her new project that she didn’t even notice exactly when she had stopped being angry, and being sad was such a distant memory it seemed like a whole lifetime ago. Kelly was happy. That was when she knew that the chapter of her life dedicated to her break-up was officially over.
The story could have stopped there and that would have been a happy ending all by itself. But this is one of those delicious tales that ends with both extra icing and a huge cherry on top. Kelly was cast in an ad for a local hospital and a huge photo of her smiling face was plastered on billboard located alongside a really busy highway — on the exact stretch that her ex-husband and many of his coworkers had to drive down every morning to get to his office. As they say in the movie business, “Roll the credits. That’s a wrap.”
And speaking of wraps, it seems like anger always gets a bad one. Popular psychology tells people that in order to heal you have to let go of your anger. But that advice is misleading — the thing is, anger is a lot like gasoline. Gasoline can either burn your house to the ground or make your car go. The same is true of anger. If it’s not handled the right way it can destroy you — but if you make it work for you and not against you, it can propel you to do incredible things.
If you follow the conventional wisdom and simply let go of your anger, you’re walking away from a very valuable resource — the fuel you need to get you through the break-up and beyond. It’s like throwing away a gift card for a year’s supply of free fuel.
Think of it like this: When you go through a break up, you get a gigantic “gift” basket of stuff as a consolation prize. A lot of it is shredded paper. A lot of it is crap that you won’t want to hang onto. But there are also some really valuable things in there, too. Unfortunately, you can’t just quickly eye ball the basket and cherry pick the valuable things right off the top. Some of the best things — like that gift card to Exxon — are hidden among the crap and buried under a thick layer of shredded paper. There’s no way to know that you’ve gotten all the good things out of the basket until you’ve gone through everything.
But be careful not to confuse helpful anger with her trashy and destructive cousins rage and obsession. Rage leads people to do harmful and negative things like slashing an ex’s tires or keying his car. Obsession causes stalker-type behavior, like repeatedly driving by an ex’s house or fixating on his every move. Neither rage nor obsession has any place in a healthy break-up recovery. And if you find either of these losers taking up residence in your head and you can’t quickly usher them out by yourself, you need to find a good therapist on the double.
To paraphrase one of Adele's six Grammy acceptance speeches, breaking up from a rubbish relationship is something everyone goes through. When you find yourself there, work through your sadness — but don’t get stuck there. Then, when you turn the corner from sad to mad, make sure to use your anger like a rocket ship. Pointing it at your own house would be self-destructive. Targeting it at your ex’s house would cause you to miss your chance to break out of the gravitational force field that keeps you orbiting around your past. Instead, aim it toward somewhere you’ve always wanted to go or maybe even an exciting new destination.
Remember, when you’re traveling by rocket ship, the sky’s the limit; so, blast off already and enjoy the ride.