By Jennifer Van Luven, MSW, LCSW, CM
When you think of “trauma” you may imagine Big Trauma experiences: serious accidents, natural disasters, assault, or life-threatening illnesses. These kinds of events obviously and in a very public way transform the foundation of who you are and how you live. Other incidents can feel equally traumatic and life-changing. Divorce is one of them.
When the life and world you have built falls apart due to a divorce or separation, whether amicable or not, the way you see the world and your place in it changes. Accepting and evolving into a new person can feel distressing and painful as you give up a portion of your lifestyle, home, family, financial security, love, and dreams. To manage the shock of the change, you might find yourself letting go of activities you once enjoyed and implementing coping mechanisms geared toward reducing emotional pain, fear of the future, and the sense of loneliness and uncertainty that takes up space in your head. In fact, coping after divorce may have taught you to live with thoughts of being “less than.”
The main factor in how you define yourself is the context in which you understand where and how you belong. Your identity will change during and after divorce because your understanding of who you are and the world in which you live has dramatically altered. Losing a sense of safety, control, and certainty shifts you into a feeling of vulnerability. You may see yourself today as someone robbed of innocence, trust, love, well-being, and the feeling of being able to protect yourself. You may deeply feel that you are undesirable, physically damaged, emotionally or psychologically disfigured. This new self-definition impacts how you see the world, think about yourself and others, and make choices and take actions. If that’s the case, then it’s time for an identity makeover.
When considering how you can create a new, post-divorce identity, it helps to understand the characteristics of identity in general. Identity relates to the idea of who you are and what defines you as a person in this world. Identity is how you describe yourself and the characteristics that make you unique. Identity development can change in a moment as you experience the divorce process and divorce becomes the lens through which you and others view yourself and the world around you. Your only choice at this point is to continue to move forward, make new choices about the direction you wish to move and create a post-divorce self that combines all of your best features and attributes.
Though your current identity may seem diminished, another part of you sees the bigger picture. This is the part of yourself that inspires and motivates you to move toward (re)claiming a more positive, solid, stable, and proactive sense of self. While your “less than” self may dictate who you are today, your “more than” self gains ground every time you work toward restoring yourself. It is your “more than” self that forms the basis of who you will become when you continue to create your new identity.
It is impossible to go back to who you were previously as a wife or husband. Right now decide: “I will stop looking back.” Though this process may feel uncomfortable, being forward-thinking works to your advantage.
Your personal identity develops according to your perception of the experience. You are an individual and your perspective of the world is your own; what feels traumatizing to you may not feel that way to someone else. Likewise, what feels traumatic to someone else may seem trivial to you. If perception plays a key role in trauma, then it can also play a key role after trauma. While it doesn’t feel this way at first, how you perceive yourself becomes a choice. Who you are during and after divorce is… Who you decide you are.