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Developing mental toughness during divorce

mental toughness

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We all have a dialogue that plays in our head. During stressful times this dialogue can either get in the way or help you cope. The problem for most of us is that our inner voice can be highly critical. And this can be exacerbated when you’re going through a particularly emotional situation. A divorce can trigger a whole gamut of emotions: Grief, shame, sadness, regret and fear are all common when dealing with a marital breakdown. More positive emotions like relief may also be a part of your experience. No emotion is off the table.

When going through a divorce you’ll have to make a lot of important decisions that will shape your new life. This can be extremely difficult when you’re dealing with all those emotions. Your inner dialogue may be contributing to your distress as it overwhelms you with thoughts of failure and self-doubt. It’s important to realize that you’re not alone in this experience and there is something you can do about it.

You’re not alone

Everyone deals with anxiety and self-doubt. Even top athletes (who have won world championships and Olympic medals) talk about the little voice inside their head that undermines them as they train, saying: “you’ll never make this” or “there’s no way I’m as good as everyone thinks I am.” This is why many top athletes work with sports performance psychologists.

They’re just thoughts

The most important thing to remember is that these are just thoughts. To help distance yourself from them, you can try using the phrase: “a part of me thinks.” Try saying to yourself: “a part of me thinks I will never make it through this.” Notice how different this is to saying: “I’ll never make it through this.”

The reality is you’re able to handle it. You can make good decisions and you don’t have to let your fear and anxiety drive your decisions.

It comes down to your thinking style

What can you do about these thoughts and fears? A lot of it comes down to your thinking style. Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Optimists are people who look at the glass as half full, while pessimists argue it’s half empty. An optimistic thinking style will make you more resilient.

When dealing with a situation like divorce or separation, the pessimist will think of it as an example of weakness and something they’ll never be able to move on from. They’ll make sweeping judgements about who they are as a person because of it. As you can imagine, this painful way of thinking piles distress on top of what’s already a stressful situation. It keeps you stuck in a negative loop that can be difficult to escape.

An optimist might look at the situation, acknowledge the mistake and learn from it. They see it as temporary and know that it doesn’t define them as a person. Being an optimistic thinker allows you to stay out of the downward spiral of self‑loathing and doubt and move on in a positive and constructive way.

It’s not Pollyanna

It’s important to distinguish optimistic thinking patterns from being a Pollyanna who says the situation is all rainbows and butterflies when clearly it’s not. Optimistic thinking is a mindset that you are capable of when you understand that in the end it will be okay.

You may be thinking that being optimistic means you’ll ride off into the sunset without a care it the world. Easy right? Nope. The fact is even the most optimistic people are pessimistic thinkers sometimes and it takes work to keep those negative thoughts at bay.

Mental toughness

Mental toughness, or resilience, is the capacity of an individual to deal effectively with stressors, pressures and challenges, while performing to the best of their ability. Dr. Jack Singer, a world-renowned speaker, author and trainer, has helped many successful business people and superstar athletes develop mental toughness. Kristen Neff is a self-compassion researcher who’s identified this quality as the key to resilience. Here are some tips from their work that you can use to help yourself when times are tough:

Recognize negative trigger thoughts. When you start feeling bad, take a breath. Take a moment to pay attention to your thoughts. If you notice negative ones, say to yourself: “Oh! I’m having negative thoughts.”

Disempower the thoughts by acknowledging them. Once you’ve recognized the trigger thoughts, take another breath. You can say to yourself: “These thoughts are hard to hear. This is a tough moment.”

Remember you’re not alone. Take another breath and say to yourself: “It’s normal to feel this way. Many people have these kinds of thoughts and feelings.”

Take a deep centering breath (or two). Breathe in through the nose for a count of four, hold it for four, and out through your mouth for a count of seven.

These four steps may be enough to help you re-focus on the task at hand. If you want to build your resilience even more, you can add these next four steps:

Your performance statement. Everyone should have a statement focused on what would consistently give them maximum success. “I can keep a clear head and make the best decisions possible for me and my children” is an example of an effective performance statement for someone going through divorce or separation. Whatever statement you choose, repeat it to yourself a few times. Repetition develops new habits. If you keep repeating a positive statement it will have a positive effective over time.

Your personal highlight reel. Think of the greatest success you have ever had and play it like a video in your mind. This can be anything from winning a math competition when you were in elementary school to booking a high-profile client. Anything that made you feel proud and successful. Replay your reel by taking a moment — and a breath or two — to evoke your sense of that successful moment.

Your identity statement. Think of a strength you need to have to be the best you can be. What objectives do you want to accomplish? Something like “I am a strong, confident human being who has the ability to persevere in any situation” is a good example of a general identity statement. Make it your own. It will be the most powerful when it is specific to you and your situation.

Take a final deep, centering breath. This is the anchor to the entire process, solidifying all the other steps and allowing you to stay centred and focused.

You can teach yourself to be resilient. Neuroplasticity teaches us that minds are very malleable. Repetition is what develops new habits, and new ways of thinking, so we encourage you to use this process often.

Life is full of challenges and difficult situations, divorce and separation being one of them. Being aware of your negative thinking and addressing it will make you resilient so you can move forward in a positive way.  Resilience ensures you can make important decisions from a grounded place and give you peace of mind from the knowledge that you’re moving forward.

By Daren Givoque, CDFA & Shulamit Ber Levtov, MA, RSW, RYT

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