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Getting Your Self-Esteem Back After Divorce

A woman reaches for a helping-hand as she climbs a rock.

This article offers a few questions and answers on the topic of self-esteem and divorce.

Is it selfish or frivolous to worry about your self-esteem in the middle of a divorce?

No. Self-esteem increases your ability to take the emotional hit that divorce inevitably deals. It also gives you a reserve of personal resources to share with your kids, if you have them. When you increase your esteem for your authentic self, it’s like a single person planting a tree. If enough people do it, the whole environment benefits. This leads into the next question:

How high was your self-esteem before the divorce?

What was your self-esteem like going into the marriage in the first place? Your baseline level of self-esteem will affect how you experience divorce far more than the other way around. If you’ve experienced low self-esteem throughout your life, divorce is likely to be more devastating to you, and healing could take longer. Low self-esteem will also make it more likely that you’ll struggle with managing your kids’, friends’ or relatives’ reactions, and that you’ll place excessive blame on yourself, your partner, or both. Managing emotions and dealing with blame are challenging enough without the complication of low self-esteem.

How can you build self-esteem before or during divorce?

Begin by recognizing the difference between genuine self-esteem and an ego-boost. Both feel great, but there are a couple of differences. An ego-boost is created by external things like a hot new girlfriend or boyfriend, a good grade on a hard test, even driving a sexy car. Self-esteem, on the other hand, is an inside job, the result of accepting and embracing your authentic self. With an ego-boost, as soon as the ego-booster is gone, so is the good feeling. Ego-boosts are temporary, but your baseline level of self-esteem is always with you.

Accepting that you feel the way you do, and acknowledging that your feelings do matter, if only to you, is the number one thing you can do right now to give your self-esteem a helping hand. Fighting or struggling with difficult feelings only adds to the pain you’re already in. Give in to the “ugly” feelings sometimes; honoring your feelings honors you. An important note here: “Give in” does not mean “act on.” Just let yourself have your feelings, acknowledge and label them. No one else has to know that you’re allowing yourself to have your feelings. It’s your little secret. You don’t have to play them out outside the privacy of your own heart, unless you decide that doing so is a positive act.

Here’s an example of allowing yourself to have your feelings: You’re home alone and suddenly you remember the beginning of your relationship—all those hopes you had for a bright future—and you feel a wave of sadness overcome you. Instead of grabbing a dust cloth and zooming around the living room trying not to think about it, you could just let tears come up if they want to. Feel the sadness. Remember the good times and acknowledge your loss. In a while, the immediate experience of the feeling will subside. It may come up again another day. That’s okay. Trust the process. To allow in this way, is to truly “let go” of a feeling. This process enhances self-esteem by providing you with a sense of your own wonderful humanity and wholeness.

Can’t your self-esteem go up and down?

There are different theories about self-esteem and how it works, and because it’s so hard to define (let alone measure), the jury is still out on that one. However, I believe there is a baseline level that is pretty enduring, unless you work consistently on changing it. Your baseline can be anywhere along a continuum from the very healthy state that we’re all born with to abysmally, painfully low. That baseline can change, but because it tends to be set at a certain level, based on repeated experiences over years, starting from childhood, it takes time and effort to alter.

So how do you do it? How do you increase your self-esteem?

Rather than trying to feel good about yourself and everything you do—which merely means you’re attempting to fool yourself—make a pledge to become aware of your own thoughts, feelings, and behavior, including those things that you haven’t wanted to acknowledge before. When you have low self-esteem, awareness is your enemy. There are things you just don’t want to know about yourself. It feels too dangerous; maybe it will mean you need to take action, which you don’t feel ready for. Maybe it will confirm a secret suspicion that you’re not okay as a person. It feels risky to embrace awareness, but in truth it offers great rewards. Aim to make clear-eyed awareness your friend, and watch your integrity and your self-esteem improve.

Be honest with yourself, at the very least, about how you contributed to the dissolution of your marriage. Allow yourself to grieve the loss of your relationship. Or admit to yourself that you feel relieved that you’re not getting the kids, no matter what you think that says about you. You don’t have to tell the kids that (actually, please don’t!), but it’s very important that you acknowledge your true feelings about it to yourself.

We tend to judge our emotions as good or bad, and then we try not to feel the bad ones. But, hiding from yourself keeps self-esteem low. It may be painful, but if you can face and accept your real self, difficult feelings and all, the courage you find in doing that will make you feel better about yourself.

What about protecting your kids’ self-esteem?

The number one thing you can do to protect them is to make sure they understand that they are in no way at fault for the divorce. You may not even realize that they’re blaming themselves, but you should assume they are doing just that. Tell them and show them in as many ways as you can that they’re not at fault, and that they are loved and cherished as much as ever. Once is not enough. They need to get a consistently repeated message to inoculate them against doubt.

Number Two is to let them know that it’s okay for them to talk about the divorce; they don’t need to protect your feelings by staying silent. Your challenge here is to really be okay with your kids’ expression of their feelings, thoughts and observations about what has happened. If you disagree with them, say so; but please don’t ask them not to talk about it at all. They need your help to process their feelings about what’s happened, and if they’re not talking, you won’t necessarily know what they need.

Lastly, make your own decisions. Don’t make your kids responsible for decisions about grown-up things. They are along for the ride, not driving the bus—try to make it as smooth and comfortable for them as you possibly can. Do not let them take care of you, but do let them experience themselves as a source of pleasure for you during this difficult time, and remember to let them know explicitly that you love them as much as ever.

© Copyright 2010 by Tina Gilbertson, MA, LPC, therapist in Portland, OR. All Rights Reserved.

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Comments
  • Theresa January 16th, 2010 at 6:17 AM #1

    This is such a tricky area.
    I have had girlfriends who have gone through divorce and watched helplessly as their self esteem plummets and they feel like life is not worth living. It is painful to see someone so down on themselves when they are not at fault and need to be upbeat in order to get their lives back.
    By the same token I have watched some just blossom after the divorce and really comeout of their shells. I guess it can go both ways.

  • Ray Jennings January 16th, 2010 at 11:01 AM #2

    For all those going through this tough situation-Divorce was because the two of you failed as a couple, not that you have failed as an individual. Your lack of compatability is to blame, there is nothing wrong with you as a person. Treat it as a lack of getting along with that person and try and involve yourself in other activities to divert your mind.

  • Tina January 16th, 2010 at 5:40 PM #3

    Thanks for your comments! Divorce is indeed a complicated experience, and different people come through it in different ways. I think there might be a good middle ground between the extremes of being utterly demoralized on the one hand, and trying to distract yourself from any pain on the other.

  • jayden January 17th, 2010 at 8:33 AM #4

    Divorce is such an emotional roller coaster- on the one hand you are probably happy to be getting out of a bad situation but then you have to start worrying aboutt he emotional and financial toll that the process is going to take. Not to mention taking care of the kids and making sure that they get what they need during this painful time, and you can easily see how there will be so many ups and downs. In an ideal world divorce would be avoided, but we don’t live in that kind of utpoia so it is what it is. I know that there are numerous services available to help both men and women get through the pain of divorce but I don’t really know how many people use them.

  • Lee Horton January 17th, 2010 at 8:58 PM #5

    Thanks for highlighting the difference between self-esteem and an ego boost. You correctly point out that self-esteem comes from an inward knowledge whereas ego boosts come from others. The first step of adjusting to divorce is recovering one’s identity and with it, one’s self-worth. Thanks for this informative entry.

  • Lacey January 17th, 2010 at 10:10 PM #6

    When I first got married, my self-esteem was high. By the time I got divorced, it had never been lower. These days I’m about 80% back to where I was. Thanks to a loving partner I have now that accepts me for who I am and doesn’t want me to be anything but that, I’m fine. I just wanted to offer hope to anyone thinking about or about to divorce that’s reading Tina’s great article.

  • Wanderer January 17th, 2010 at 11:28 PM #7

    If you aren’t good at loving yourself, you will have a difficult time loving anyone, since you’ll resent the time and energy you give another person that you aren’t even giving to yourself. – Barbara De Angelis

    Another reason for divorce: insecurity about being deserving of love.

  • Rachel Hardings January 18th, 2010 at 8:22 AM #8

    It is important to talk to a friend or a counselor and let your feelings out and not suffocate yourself by hiding things inside yourself…getting involved in a different new activity is also a good way forward after a divorce.

  • Tina January 18th, 2010 at 12:06 PM #9

    So many insightful comments! I agree with Wanderer that it’s hard to love someone else if you don’t love yourself, and I think Lacey makes a great point about the partners we choose, because the easiest way for us to learn to love ourselves is by being well loved by another. Rachel’s comment strikes a perfect balance by promoting both reflection and new activities, so the newly divorced are neither stuck in the past nor lost in a whirl of empty distractions. I also agree with Lee that reclaiming your identity – and the self-esteem you had with that firmer sense of who you are – often plays a huge role in healing from divorce.

  • Allie C January 18th, 2010 at 2:15 PM #10

    If you had poor self esteem issues before you got a divorce then it is almost a guarantee that you will suffer even more when the divorce is final. It took me a couple of years to bounce back from the heartache and feelings of inadequacy that I could not make my marriage work. I recommend that you have friends and family lined to help you when the papers are signed because if you are like me then you will need all of the help that you can get. I don’t mean to be a downer but divorce is not all wine and roses- it’s hard and hard to adjust to.

  • Jamie January 18th, 2010 at 11:44 PM #11

    Guys get divorced too, and it hits our self esteem hard. My wife left me. She got bored with me. I’m dealing with that, slowly.

    I’m saying my Six Million Dollar Man mantra: “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him.” Works for me. :)

  • Eliza January 19th, 2010 at 1:00 PM #12

    More than anything you have to take care of yourself and the rest will come. When you don’t take care of your own needs those of your kids are going to suffer and they are just the innocent victims here in all of these crazy messes. Find a way to get your life back in order, and look at divorce not as the best thing you have had ending, but instead try to see it as a chance for having the best yet to come!

  • advice for divorce September 24th, 2010 at 12:08 PM #13

    You give some great advice. It was really hard for me to start dating after I left my wife. It wasn’t until I started chatting on forums and got some additional advice for divorced dads that I decided to live single again. Now I feel better about myself and am happy to be moving on with my new life.

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