Marlene was 36 years old and a successful real estate agent when her spouse of seven years told her he wanted a divorce. An attractive woman who seemed to exude confidence, Marlene had many friends and a fulfilling career; she was well respected in her community and secure (or so she thought) in her marriage. All that changed with her separation and divorce: “It was like the ground had shifted under my feet… I couldn’t get my bearings,” she remembers. “My self-esteem dipped to an all-time low. I questioned every decision I made and found it difficult to find happiness in my life. It took time and a lot of hard work to get back to my old self.”
Few people even think about their self-esteem until it’s threatened by a traumatic life event. Here, divorce takes top marks. Marriage is, for many of us, our single most important commitment; when it ends in divorce, it’s hard not to feel that we’ve failed. During this difficult time, your self-esteem may falter, depending on how much you relied on your spouse — or the institution of marriage — for your self-esteem, says M. Chet Mirman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and co-founder of The Center for Divorce Recovery, a Chicago-area psychotherapy center specializing in divorce-related issues. “Everyone goes through a period of pain and sadness during divorce, maybe even depression, when they have that kind of loss,” he says. “Some are able to bounce back in less time because they’re able to find themselves more quickly.”
Low self-esteem is often assumed to be closely associated with poor body image — but there’s more to it than that. “When you ask people about their self-esteem, many will immediately refer to how they feel about their body,” says Jeffrey Rossman, Ph.D., a psychologist and the director of the Behavioral Health Department at Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires. “Our bodies are just one part of who we are… Self-esteem is how you feel about yourself — the positive and the negative. It’s complex because it comprises how you feel about several different facets of yourself: how you feel about your role as a spouse or ex-spouse, a father or mother, a son or daughter, a sibling, a member of the community, a colleague, a friend…”
A healthy sense of self-esteem is having not just a “good” self-opinion, but rather one that is realistic, affirming, and accepting, stresses Dr. Mirman. “It’s a little like having a good parent inside your head: someone who can see you for who you are, and who doesn’t require you to be the best at everything in order to love you and accept you.”
Dr. Rossman agrees: “Simply put, having a healthy sense of self-esteem allows you to feel good about yourself and who you are: to be happy with yourself, to accept yourself. I’m not suggesting, however, being complacent or putting the blame on others in order to be happy with yourself,” he adds.
The silver lining
Despite the obvious sense of pain and loss, Dr. Rossman believes that the divorce process can be a “very fertile opportunity” for learning, self-examination, and growth. “When you’re married, you see yourself reflected back through the eyes of your partner,” he says. “If you have a marriage that ended in divorce, that reflection may not have always been positive.” The healing that needs to take place, he says, is to “see yourself as clearly as possible, in a way, to cleanse yourself of whatever distortion may have been coming back to you in that reflection from your ex-spouse.”
The difficulty many individuals face is that, while society offers rituals to support grieving when there is a loss through death — such as visitations, shivas, funerals, wakes, etc. — there’s just not the same sort of social support during divorce. “Rather than let you grieve, friends and family may say things like, ‘You’re better off without him’ — comments that support your defenses against moving forward,” says Dr. Mirman. It’s important to recognize that you are entitled to your grief during divorce, he insists. “Know that this is a loss, so when you’re feeling badly, you can access that internal parental voice that says, ‘It’s okay to feel sad now; it’ll be alright.'”
Granted — rebuilding your self-esteem after divorce can be hard work. But possessing a positive sense of self-esteem is critical in life: it frees us from our own inhibitions and self-doubts so we can take action with confidence, live fully and consciously, and grow dimensionally away the pain of divorce. Here are a few suggestions to help you begin the process towards a newer, more confident you.
- Recognize that what you’re going through is normal. “It’s an emotional process,” says Dr. Mirman. “The one thing that helps when someone’s going through a divorce, when they’re feeling really badly about themselves, is if they remind themselves that this is a normal part of the process — that this too will pass.”
- Go on living your life as fully as possible while grieving the loss of your marriage, advises Dr. Rossman. “By that, I mean going out to lunch with friends, exercising, getting involved in recreational activities, being really fully engaged with work. Know that the grieving can take place right alongside full engagement with life,” he adds. “And try to ‘live well’: That’s a wonderful way to boost your self-esteem. If you treat yourself well, that helps you feel good about yourself.”
- Calm, subdue, and wrestle those self-punishing thoughts to the ground. In their book, Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, Robert W. Firestone, Ph.D., Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., and Joyce Catlett, M.A. note that: “The critical inner voice is the language of the defended, negative side of your personality; the side that is opposed to your ongoing personal development. The voice is made up of a series of negative thoughts that oppose your best interests and diminish your self-esteem.” The authors recommend a course of practical exercises to help you silence your critical inner voice, once and for all — such as “Exercise 1.1: Visualizing the Real You” and “1.4: A Plan for Action.” More specific exercises target particular life areas, including those that establish a link between self-defeating behavior in the workplace and the critical inner voice. With the latter exercises, the authors provide ways for you to improve your work habits and express yourself more positively on the job.