The most life sucking, debilitating, and destructive emotion we face in relation to divorce is shame. As Carl Jung said “Shame is a soul eating emotion”. When mixed in with all the other heavy feelings from divorce, it can do more damage than anything we experience from the outside, including the vicious blows and attacks of our ex. Shame hides underneath our more visible emotions, like anger and sadness, completely inconspicuous but driving our actions and sabotaging our decision making.
Learning to identify shame and properly deal with it is the most useful skill we need to learn if we want to make divorce decisions that will serve us well on the long run, and want to ensure a happier and healthier future for ourselves.
No matter how widely common divorce has become in today’s world and in most cases it is a “no-fault divorce” in the courts for nearly half a century now, there is still a stigma around it, a many times unspoken but obvious judgment by society. Being a divorcee is not something to be proud of, nobody wears it as a badge of honor one gets for surviving a long and hard war (which divorce is). Instead, it is something we are deep down ashamed of, even if on the surface we act like, we could care less what others are thinking. It is a fact we try to hide when possible and when asked about it we blame our ex for the failure of our marriage, trying to convince most of all ourselves, that if it was all their fault, we are good people, and shouldn’t feel ashamed. But we do, and society is not helping to ease this painful feeling.
According to a recent study in the UK that questioned one thousand divorced people, nearly half of them said they face “daily judgment from people because their marriage has failed”. More than one third of them sees divorce as a personal failure. Women are twice as likely as men to feel shame after divorce. Six out of ten said they lost friends because of divorce, and one in six said they lost all their friends after divorce.
The scarlet letter of “D” is really the scarlet letter of “S” for shame, which comes from not fulfilling the expectations of our friends and family and our community in large.
So how do we deal with this undercurrent of shame that seems impossible to get rid of? How do we expose it for what it is, get to know it and gently let it go?
1. Identify it. Make a clear distinction between embarrassment, humiliation, guilt, and shame. They are not synonyms to each other nor interchangeable, but completely different things. The first three is about our actions and how it affected other people or was seen by others, while shame is about who we are as people. Guilt is about something we did and feeling bad about it, shame is about the self, feeling bad, defected, unworthy. Guilt can be constructive toward our future actions, shame is always destructive because of the things we believe about ourselves.
If we think about it like that, we can separate divorce guilt from divorce shame. Divorce guilt is feeling bad about the pain and heartache we might have caused to our ex-spouse and we might even offer sincere apology someday. We clearly separate our actions from the person we believe we are. We might have done things we regret, either in our marriage or divorce and honestly feel sorry about them. Divorce shame is believing that our marriage has failed because we are not good enough, whole enough or worthy enough people who can make it work. We are failures in the eyes of society, our communities, and ourselves. We feel defected and unworthy.
For separating guilt and shame about our divorce, it might be helpful to notice when and in what circumstances we feel it. Guilt might be strong when our ex comes into mind or when we talk about them. Shame might flood our bodies when in the presence of a couple or an unapproving individual, feeling less of a person than we should be, what we were expected of.
2. Trace it back. After we have identified the feeling of shame, we need to shine light on it and dig around some, uncovering its roots. We need to explore our core beliefs about divorce and about people who get a divorce. What was our family’s message about them? What were we taught verbally or nonverbally about divorce? Many times these beliefs we have been carrying around since childhood are the main cause of the shame we feel about our divorce. In this moment it’s not coming from the outside, from people or society, it’s coming from the inside of us. It has nothing to do with others and everything to do with ourselves, and what we think and believe. Once we understand this truth we can get to work to remove it.
Others might have planted the seeds and saplings of shame in us (mostly in childhood) giving us messages that we are not enough, but those same people can’t heal our wounds and free us from shame. Only we can do that for ourselves. Most certainly it will involve others we can honestly share our feelings of shame with, but the healing lies within us, and in our willingness to change some of our core beliefs about ourselves.
3. Bring in empathy and support to diminish it. The less we talk about shame the more power it has over us. Shame always disconnects us from others. When we really believe we are less than others (and that’s what shame is in a nutshell) we pull away and isolate because deep down we don’t feel worthy of connection and belonging. It takes lots of effort and courage to consciously connect with others when not even feeling worthy of it, but that is the only way out. We can NOT do this alone. We need to find safe people to connect with and open up about our feelings of shame and our core beliefs about divorce. Not just anybody though. We need someone with empathy and acceptance, without judgment or criticism, someone we trust and feel completely safe with.
With the help of this trusted friend, small group, coach, or counselor, we have to look at our beliefs and convictions about marriage and divorce and hold them up to the council of our higher conscience, intelligent mind, and feeling body to decide if they are something to keep or let go. We have the power to choose new beliefs and convictions that will actually serve us well today. It might be a revolutionary idea for many of us but it is true. It is like changing the narrative about a situation. In this case about marriage and divorce.
We can change the narrative we tell ourselves about divorce from: “it’s a personal failure and it means I’m not a good enough or capable enough person” to “it’s a failure of a relationship because of all the cumulative actions of two people”.
From “only selfish and egoistic people divorce” to “divorce is a courageous act of a person who is not willing to compromise with an unhappy marriage”.
From “divorce makes everything meaningless and the marriage was a waste of time and energy” to “there is so much this marriage has given me and it made me the person I am today”.
From “this is going to destroy me” to “I will come out stronger and better than ever”. And so on.
It is completely up to us what we choose to believe! And what we believe will determine how we feel about ourselves, including our shame, and eventually it will guide the actions we will take during and after our divorce.
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