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.
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