Divorce can feel like a threat to your identity – a betrayal of how you view yourself and what once brought meaning and safety to your life. It can feel like a tug of war to break free; to stop the dance even when you know you should. Still, an identity crisis after divorce can be less pervasive when you have the right support during the process.
My Identity Crisis After Divorce
I was hit by a tsunami of problems starting in 2010. The emotional impact of losing my Grandmother and the breakdown of my marriage eventually manifested in daily panic attacks. Then came neurological symptoms and a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. As life changing as it was to adapt to the fatigue, vertigo, chronic pain and depression it wasn’t the thing that almost drove me insane.
Not even close friends and family who had experienced it could’ve prepared me for the grief and identity crisis after divorce. How my spiritual foundation would be shaken piece by piece like a cruel game of Jenga. Healing from divorce is progressive and unique. Everything about the meaning, predictability and safety of your life comes into question.
I’m often asked “How do I heal from divorce?” And, I wish I had a one size fits all answer for that question. I do not. But, in my journey of healing and coaching others I can share what has helped me and others.
1. Bow Out Gracefully
If you’ve long passed the coupling stage – merging lives, families, finances and social environments, divorce can be even more challenging. You finally found your rhythm and begin to think, act and feel in sync with one another. Then slowly or suddenly your heart begins to feel like it’s being ripped apart.
Accepting that the marriage is over is a critical first step in healing. It’s how you begin to navigate the stages of divorce and take control of the rest of your life. It can be a challenge, though.
It may be difficult to see your soon to be ex moving on with their life. Stages of grief vary and it’s very likely that your former spouse began the process months or even years before you. As heartbreaking as it may be, the sooner you accept this reality the better off you will be.
So whether you issued divorce papers or were served them, maintain your dignity. In an attempt to hold on to your identity and feel in control you may say and do things you will later regret. Try to remember that your former spouse is someone you once loved. Regardless of how you feel you were treated, you are still in control of how you respond – in word and action.
Do Not Press Enter
Speaking of words…”Don’t post that.” Social media is not your diary. You may want to use it as a platform to rant. To expose your soon to be exes’ bad behavior and attitude. And to get as many people as possible to be on your side.
Even though you might not think so now, there will come a time on your journey of healing that you will regret not exercising self-control. There are still times that I cringe and shake my head when I think about even the subliminal messages still lingering in cyberspace.
Not only does it keep you in a cycle of anger it could be construed as signs of emotional instability or outbursts. And if children are involved, this can make things sticky when it comes to parenting agreements. If you just want to get your feelings out to feel better grab a journal or find one online (like Penzu or Diaro) with privacy settings.
Q’s Tip: Give yourself daily reminders of how you want to describe yourself after this is all over.
2. Let Yourself Grieve
It’s not uncommon to feel like you’re on an emotional roller coaster (fear, doubt, determination, confidence, anxiety, guilt) from day to day. Divorce is a loss. A loss of who you were. A loss of the marriage. And a loss of the vision you had for your family.
The more you resist or try to stuff your feelings away, the more they will persist. And eventually it may have physical side effects. Allow yourself time to feel what you feel.
There is an appointed time for everything…A time to weep.Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4
It’s okay to feel sad, angry, and hurt while still moving forward. This is a part of your healing. Offer yourself self compassion and grace along the way.
Some have found it helpful to pour themselves into a creative activity, start a hobby, throw a girl’s night or perform a rite of passage.
Here are a few other ideas to help as you heal from divorce:
- Journal using expressive or free writing.
- Start a blog (you’re reading mine).
- Write a book.
- Write a thank you/goodbye letter and (safely) burn it.
- Perform a ceremonial removal of past keepsakes, pictures, etc.
- Go to counseling or therapy.
- Hire a Divorce Coach
- Make a vision board.
- Use meditation (I like Shine) or other mindful practices.
Most important, resist the urge to compare yourself to other divorcee’s or how you felt yesterday.
3. Tame Your Lizard Brain
When you feel a perceived threat your lizard brain (amygdala) activates the fight or flight response. Desperate attempts to be heard, to make the other person “pay” or change their mind can feel logical or rational. But, it’s not always.
In 2012, after separating from my ex husband, I moved into an apartment that I could barely afford. I was too ashamed to move back home with my parents (which is where I ended up eight month later). Feeling alone, without practical guidance on how to heal from divorce I became despondent and inconsolable. My physical health was declining. I wasn’t sleeping well. And I was late to work three to four days a week.
One day my boss called me into her office and reluctantly put me on probation. If I was tardy one more time I was going to be fired. Immediately my lizard brain took over. When lunch time came, I cleared out my desk, quit my job and went to the mall.
Why did I go to the mall?! It just felt right. The smell of Mrs. Field’s semi-sweet chocolate chip cookies always did something for me. And in that moment, I needed the smell to sooth my anxiety.
That’s the irrational power of the lizard brain.
I couldn’t think clearly. All I knew was I had just been threatened (with being fired). My boss had tried to reason with me when I handed her my badge. “You are in control. Just don’t be late.” That was easy for her to say. I was not in control of my emotions. And that was the problem.
4. Ask For the Right Help
As I left the mall that day, I called my younger sister who is wise beyond her years. Our conversations during the breakdown of my divorce were so therapeutic. She really tried to keep me sane the best she could. (Bless her heart.) With all of her tenderness and intentions, she still wasn’t qualified to be my sounding board – not in the way I needed.
Several of my friends were also having marital issues and going through divorce. And, we were a mutual support for each other. But, we often wallowed in our self pity and incited some pretty unhealthy behavior, if I’m being honest. It was a case of the blind leading the blind.
Going through divorce alone magnifies the loneliness you’re feeling. It’s normal that we want to vent and have a shoulder to cry on. But, friends and family – even with the best of intentions – have a biased and limited view of what’s in the best interest of your future. They may offer subjective advice or incite you to retaliate against your soon to be ex. Or they may attempt to offer invalidated professional advice as it related to their situation.
Your emotions are already on high which clouds your thinking and judgment. And giving ear to bad or conflicting advice will only prove to worsen your situation. More than that it could lead to decisions you later regret – like deciding to divorce in the first place.
How a Divorce Coach Helps You
I admit I’m now biased towards Certified Divorce Coaches. But, honestly back in 2012, I had never heard of a Divorce Coach. And the name itself probably would’ve repelled me anyway. The phrase “coach” can lead you to believe that they are there to cheer you on to Divorce. And I was in denial for years that my marriage was over. So, I wasn’t quick to ask for help.
Now that I’ve actually become a Certified Divorce Coach, at minimum I say it would’ve helped me think clearly if I’d hired one. And I know I would have been a better client for my Attorney.
But, here are other ways a CDC Divorce Coach helps:
- Assess your readiness for change.
- Gather documents for meeting with other divorce professionals.
- Increase confidence and help you think through difficult decisions.
- Offer dispute resolution techniques in high conflict situations.
- Recommend vetted divorce professionals to meet your needs.
- Guide you through your identity crisis after divorce.
- Locate resources for starting over.
5. Strengthen Your Spiritual Core
Religious, spiritual, emotional and moral values can sometimes complicate things. Whether you call it spirituality or religion, stay connected with whatever rituals, beliefs, communities and actions stabilize you. It’s so easy to retreat into a deep dark hole. And depending on your community, there may be valid fear of judgment and rejection.
Then there’s your own guilt or defeat you may contend with, too.
Your expectations of what marriage should look and feel like will impact your healing. I entered marriage with the expectation to make it work by any means necessary. And I believed that marrying someone “only in the Lord” was enough to make it fail proof. So when it didn’t work, I felt like a failure – questioning my ability and right to be happy.
My spiritual core was shaken and the foundation of what brought meaning to my life was weakened. I often thought to myself “How can I preach and teach about something that didn’t prove true to me?” I felt like a failure. Like I had betrayed my own beliefs.
And I admit that prior to my own divorce, I scoffed and ridiculed couples who ‘failed to make it work’. So, it was probably my own judgment of others that led to embarrassment and shame for me. When the shoe is on the other foot, it doesn’t taste so good. So, I lived with guilt and shame for a very long time.
Ultimately I realized that my inner conflict went beyond basic Bible doctrines. “Divorce” became such a critical part of my identity. It affected the way I thought about my self worth. I no longer felt confident in my ability to create the life that I loved.
So I found it both necessary and liberating to take an objective look at my core values – personal, family, money, and spiritual.
Back to Basics
Sometimes in order to transition, it helps to go back to the basics.
On the other hand, the fruitage of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, mildness, self-control.Galatians 5:22, 23
In order to heal from divorce with a renewed faith, I had to rely on the power of holy spirit. Letting go of bitterness and anger is the only way to welcome joy and peace. Once I surrendered to His power, I felt a serene sense of calm and resilience. Slowly, I picked myself up, got on with my life and back to the business of letting my light shine, being a reflection of His glory.
In that journey, I begin to identify mostly with Apostle Paul. Once he became a follower of Christ, he didn’t allow his past to define him. Instead he used his past experience and the mercy that had been granted him to “become all things to people of all sorts”. So, that is both my mission and purpose.
I daily read and meditate on scriptures. And as I do, I ask myself many questions like “Do you still believe this?” “Why?” “Why not?” “How does this impact your life?” “Is there room for other possibilities?”
Faith is a journey that is so personal and I encourage you to continue to be refined and renewed.
6. Muster the Courage to Fight for Your New Life
It takes energy to fight. Emotional, mental and physical energy. And the transition from Married to Single Family Household is daunting. The idea alone can make you buckle at your knees. Especially when you haven’t come to grips with the fact that you’re divorcing.
In the book, “Divorce: Overcome the Overwhelm and the Six Biggest Mistakes” Pegotty and Randall Cooper highlight one of the biggest mistakes I made in my divorce – throwing in the towel. Giving up in the middle of the process, firing my attorney and settling for less are things I wish I had done different. I didn’t know how to harness my resilience; to negotiate the things I would need to start over. And I didn’t have the knowledge and foresight to know what I should be concerned about.
At your core, there is an inner strength that you use every day. Resilience is the ability to persevere and bounce back in the face of adversity. You’ve already overcome challenges, disappointments and conflict in your life. It isn’t new to you even though you might not feel very powerful during the process.
Your transition and recovery depends on how well you can muster the courage to take a look at the entire landscape of your situation and create a clear path to your future.
Will you give yourself permission to believe that it’s possible? Are you ready to tap into your inner strength and create the life that you love and deserve?
As someone who has survived and is now thriving in life after divorce, I would love to support you as you gain clarity, courage and confidence.