What to Do When a Loved One Lets You Down

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This article first appeared on Happify

We’ve all been let down by others at some point in our lives. A friend promises to join you for an outing and doesn’t show up. A colleague doesn’t speak up for you in front of your boss. A superior takes all the credit for your hard work. It makes us angry, frustrated, and hurt. But more often than not, it simply confirms the story about them that we have running in our minds.

The pain goes much deeper when a loved one lets us down. It can feel as though the rug has been pulled out from under us, as though our mental stories have been completely shattered. This is because we see ourselves through the eyes of our closest relationships, and we make sense of our lives through their actions. When your child, parent, or partner is caught lying to you, or when you find out things about them that you find hard to believe, it pulls you apart at your very core.

I recently sat with a friend who’d just found out that her child had been caught engaging in substances and behaviors that she’d never thought possible. She said she felt razed to her bones—that nothing else mattered. I knew the feeling, for the journey of parenthood never promised anyone a bed of roses.

I also know that as we grapple to make sense of things, it’s easy to panic or to want to hide away—two in-built responses of the more primitive parts of our brain. But this is exactly when we need our presence to be the most awake, aware, and attentive.

This can feel overwhelming, which is why a process that puts together the pieces of your sense of self is so helpful in rebuilding your trust in others (and life) once again.

Physiological: Steady Your Breath

The body responds to outside threats even before we’ve had a chance to make sense of them. I’ve often seen myself be startled by a faint shuffle in the bushes during my morning walk, even before I’ve realized that it may have been a snake. The physiological responses that help us deal with the threat—the release of hormones, the rush of blood to the limbs, an accelerated heart rate, and, yes, shallow and quickened breathing, are all largely subconscious and beyond our control. The one exception is the breath. Managing it through long, slow exhalations sends our body the message that all is safe, and allows us to access the higher cognitive parts of our brain.

Emotional: Feel Your Emotions

It’s hard to sit with painful emotions. We’re wired to want to run away from pain and approach pleasure—which is why it’s far more instinctive to want to distract ourselves in ways that feel good in the moment, but do little to ease the hurt once we’re back in our own company. It can also lead to self-destructive behaviors to get rid of the pain, or numb it in some way. Body scans and self-compassion practices are excellent ways to embrace the pain, feel it in our bodies, understand its intensity and desire, and give it the space to just be, trusting that all it wants is a temporary safe place to feel understood.

Cognitive: Watch Your Thoughts

Listen to the thoughts that emerge. It’s easy to get attached to them and run along with their story. But this will not help, because your mind will only look for ways to confirm your thought and strengthen its story. “They don’t really care,” “I was a fool to believe them,” and “They love someone else” are all stories that may be partially true, but cannot be the whole truth. It’s only when we detach ourselves from the stories that are running through our minds that we open up to the larger truth that is always more expansive and open to forgiveness. A practice that I find particularly helpful is to watch my thoughts like clouds that appear but then float away.

Behavioral: Decide What’s Needed

It’s almost impossible for anyone to tell you how to respond if you’ve been let down by someone you love. But when you practice the three steps above, you’ll be able to distance yourself from an emotional reaction and allow your wisdom to guide you to the most compassionate and courageous response. This does not mean you need to forgive if you’re not ready. Nor does it require you to instantly let go of what happened and move on. Every situation is different. Listen to your head and heart, and you’ll know whether you need to distance yourself for a while, or reach out to them so that together, you reset the foundations for a healthy relationship.

Life is sometimes painful, and relationships are often hard. The journey will be rough in places, and our hearts will be broken more than once. But if you learn to connect back in, you’ll find, as author and educator Parker Palmer says, that your heart will be broken open, not broken apart.

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