Guest blog by Karen Kah Wilson, Ed.D.PCC
Author of Transformational Divorce: Discover Yourself, Reclaim Your Dreams, and Embrace Life's Unlimited Possibilities
Traumatic, sad, depressing, stuck, unwanted, frightening, lonely, angry, impossible, back-sliding, stressed, isolated, overwhelmed, unlovable, confused, lost, shame….these and many other words had crossed my mind during the beginning stages of my tenure divorce. And then, one day, after a long cry and an "anxiety attack" I started to laugh. The "deer caught in the headlight" image of myself had gotten boring, stale and unproductive. And more important than that, it wasn't reflecting the whole truth of my life since the divorce! I took out an untouched journal that one of my married friends gave me in chicken soup fashion saying that it "would help." (Then she ran back home hoping that the "divorce virus" that I was carrying was not contagious.) I made the following list of things that I had done that I would never have done if I were married:
· Learned how to start and use the lawn mower
· Went on a vacation to tennis camp on my own (ordered room service to my heart's delight)
· Got long acrylic fingernails and painted them red
· Painted my bedroom lavender and hung romantic Victorian curtains
· Bought new expensive sheets for my bed with a 300 thread count (I had never heard of thread counts before)
· Fixed the clothes washer after flooding the basement 3 times (lint was clogging the drain, who knew?)
· Got a make-over at the cosmetic counter
· Spent time with women friends
· Started meeting cool men (why did I think I wanted him anyway?)
· Got in to debt and out of debt
· Celebrated holidays with the kids "my way"
· Survived a major snow storm and shoveled the driveway on my own
Welcome to a new take on divorce! One which realizes that whether we were the one who initiated the divorce or were informed that it was happening; all kinds of new directions are possible when one life stage ends. No, it is not easy, and the road to happiness may be long and sometimes frightening, but, think of it as a fresh start and give yourself permission to laugh as you face situations that you had never confronted before (like eating at a lovely restaurant on your own and being ignored by waiters) and achieving new accomplishments (like tearing down the wall in your basement and making a meditation room.)
At this point in the presentation I share with my clients, they look at me with a confused stare. I have a smile on my face and they are feeling grief, anger or worse, fear. I understand these emotions well as a psychologist, divorce coach and divorced woman. What I didn't understand at the beginning of my divorce journey, however, was that after an initial time period where we struggle to come to grips with the reality that our lives are going to change, what we feel is actually a choice that we make, a very important choice. If I had understood that back then, my life would have taken a different turn.
Until recently, when an expert talked about how to navigate the obstacle course of any emotional turmoil, they would make recommendations based on their experiences or the experiences and impressions of others. This, naturally, caused the public to wonder what is the truth, what can really help me? Lately, new technology has allowed researchers to examine what happens in the brain during emotional moments. This has lead to a new "science" of feelings and some clear, scientific recommendations about how we can really help ourselves when we feel emotionally trapped. I found that a basic understanding of these new discoveries helped motivate me to take action. Here is a "lite" explanation of feelings and the brain:
The amygdala versus the neocortex
When we are struggling with the many challenges that confront us during divorce, two key parts of the brain vie for control within us. First is the amygdala which is responsible for our primitive survival instincts. It is activated by fear or fearful thoughts. This may include thoughts such as not having enough money, losing custody of our children, never finding love and companionship again. This fear causes us to respond with fighting, fleeing or freezing. Sound familiar? I remember many nights of sitting "frozen" in front of the television or in my bed. I know women with whom I work are "caught" by their amygdala when they report that they are "stuck" in their life and not able to make any changes. These women are depressed, resentful, angry (the fight response), sleep a lot (the flight response) and think about their worries and fears over and over again. I was interested to learn that the more we are engaged in fearful thoughts, the more this type of thinking becomes a habit. We can become trapped in a cycle which breeds more and more negative thinking. Does this sound familiar? Do you feel stuck with the negativity of your life?
The hero for this situation is the part of our brain that is responsible for thought and high level intellectual functioning called the "neocortex." When you give yourself permission to think about your choices and push yourself to envision a productive, meaningful future, then the neocortex is in charge instead of the amygdale. You are now able to take action and make things change in your life.
In summary, we have a choice-we can think of ourselves as victims of divorce or as powerful women who are ready to take steps (even small steps) towards creating the life that we want. This is not an easy process, but it is an essential one. A process that can lead you to a life where you are happier than you have ever been before.
It all begins with a vision of a joyful future. Remember that as long as you are caught by constant negative thoughts about how you are not living the life that you want, the more you are activating your amygdale and staying stuck in fear. Try a different direction for your thoughts. For example, consider this: if, in five years, you were able to create the ideal life, the life that you have always dreamed about, what would it be like? Allow yourself to imagine your ideal house, job, mate, social activities and other life aspects. This is your dream make it audacious! This dream and the freedom to take action toward this dream is one of the biggest gifts of divorce. Why?
When we are married we have to make compromises. That is normal and a part of being a good partner. Now, that you are on your own, the possibilities are limitless! You can focus on what you want and orient your life around a strategy designed to bring your fondest wishes into your life. Creating this new, wonderful life does take planning, patience and perseverance. It will be like running a marathon--a long 26 mile jog, up hills and down hills. With the right pacing you can cross the finish line a winner.
Divorce can transform your life. Imagine yourself on a long and winding road. Behind you is the life that was-your marriage. Ahead of you lies open road -- terrain yet to be explored. Possibilities. That is my favorite word about this time. Your life is full of possibilities if you allow yourself to stay positive and focused on what you really want.
While not knowing what is going to happen can be a bit frightening, having no pre-determined plans to clutter your future can be considered the most cherished gift of your divorce. Having the opportunity to start most segments of your life without any expectations, a time that can be focused on you and only you is an amazing gift. Gather together the support that you need, friends (old and new), family, a coach, and start moving toward your dreams today. Transform your dreams into a beautiful reality. The gift of this time is yours to enjoy. Accepting the gift and appreciating its potential is your first step. Reach for it and begin!