Overcoming the Trauma of Divorce: Imagining and then Creating Your Future
In its broadest definition, trauma can be defined in three ways – any experience that:
1) is less than nourishing,
2) overwhelms your ability to cope,
3) changes how you see your place in the world.
Divorce can create the experience of all three. One of the biggest problems after trauma is that you can become so focused on the past that the future seems impossible to imagine. Yet constructing your post-trauma identity and reclaiming your life means imagining and then creating the future you desire. It’s critical to start shifting your gaze away from pain, danger, and healing and direct it toward something positive and constructive. Now is the time to create a blueprint for a future self that is exactly who you would choose to be. With that vision in place, you will know what you’re moving toward, plus you’ll be able to identify what actions, experiences, and alterations are necessary for your post-trauma identity construction to reach its full potential.
For a moment right now, close your eyes, and imagine who you will be when your recovery journey ends and your post-trauma identity (while ever evolving) becomes stable. Imagine how you will behave, walk, talk, dress, work, travel, love, rest, play, and anything else that comes to mind. How clearly and vividly do you see that person? How well can you hear the sound of your future voice? How will it feel to be the future you?
When I ask clients to do this exercise, I receive a variety of responses, from quick intakes of breath to scowls to looks of sheer panic. Some diligently try to complete the exercise. They close their eyes, settle their bodies, and do their best to will an image and sensations to appear. Often this activity prompts irritation, frustration, fear, and even desperation. If these (or any other) avoidance responses feel familiar when you engage in this exercise, relax – that’s completely normal. Stand up for a moment and stretch. Take a deep breath, hold it, and let it go. Scrunch your shoulders up and then back down from your ears. You’re doing just fine. The purpose of this activity is only to get a baseline of where your imagination is so that you know where you need to build it from. Imagining things as different from how they presently are can be incredibly difficult at first. Who and how you are seem so familiar and comfortable (especially in their safety values) that eschewing the details of them may seem crazy, or at the very least impossible. But there is a part of you that is not only willing for things to be different, it also has the vision for what that difference will be. Connecting to that part and its vision is essential.
Overcoming the Trauma of Divorce: Your Future Self
Many survivors reach this point and recoil from their absence of knowledge about their future selves. When Jared is asked to describe his future self, for example, he replies, “That’s impossible; I can’t do it.” A combat veteran, Jared is highly trained to anticipate. However, he finds it difficult to apply that skill to his own future. He’s not alone. For a long time the majority of your energy has been directed toward and siphoned off by anticipating every future danger and threat. You have probably spent what amounts to hours picturing the next attack, drama, or incident, plus your response to danger or how to avoid it. You have probably seen all of that as big as an IMAX movie screen in your mind, in great detail and in 3-D Technicolor, that even includes sounds, smells, and tastes that you can feel in your body. Without making yourself extremely uncomfortable, for five seconds dip into your mind and let it show you dangerous and unpleasant things that might happen in your future. Try it now. I’ll wait. I bet your mind does this with very little effort.
Was I right? Are you able to vividly imagine bad things happening? I thought so. That was actually a trick question, because it lends itself to your negativity bias. We all can imagine the worst with great proficiency. But here’s what you just learned with that exercise: Your ability to imagine the future is alive and well. With great ease, you were able to conjure up a picture full of details. Now, your challenge is to apply that skill to your future good instead of potential bad experience.
The only way you will change is if you make it happen. While others can support and help you, only you can create the changes you wish to experience. Achieving outcomes in post-trauma recovery – and especially in constructing your ready-to-wear identity – requires making choices in alignment with your desires. When you first approach this part of the post-trauma identity construction process, it can seem as if you lack direction. That’s easily remedied with a specific focus. If you can’t readily imagine the future you desire, try this: become very clear on what you don’t like about the present. Then, detail by detail, imagine the opposite. The resulting picture will begin to offer you a vision that you can move toward step by step.
Adapted from Your Life Afte Trauma: Powerful Practices to Reclaim Your Identity by Michele Rosenthal, published by W. W. Norton. © 2015. After losing all her epidermis in an illness at age thirteen, Michele Rosenthal struggled with PTSD for more than 25 years. Now an award-winning PTSD blogger and post-trauma coach, Rosenthal draws from her own recovery and the recoveries of her clients to share with readers a path to recreating one’s sense of self.