When you think of “trauma” you may easily imagine Big T experiences: serious accidents, natural disasters, assault, or life-threatening illnesses. These kinds of events obviously and in a very public way transform the bedrock of who you are and how you live. Other incidents can be equally life altering in a very private realm. Divorce is one of them.
When the life and world you have constructed fall apart due to a breakup (amicable or not), the way you see the world and your place in it changes. Accepting and evolving into the new person this requires can be traumatic as you give up a 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 a sense of loneliness and uncertainty that shadows every moment.
In fact, coping after divorce may have taught you to live from a perspective of being less than. If that’s the case, then it’s time for an identity makeover.
To imagine how you can create a new, post-divorce identity, it helps to understand the characteristics of identity in general. As I’m using it here, identity relates to the conceptual idea of who you are and what defines you as a person in the world. It’s how you describe yourself and choose the specific characteristics that make you the unique person that you are. The identity development process ebbs and flows in response to experience and provides the lens through which you view not only yourself but also others and the world at large. In the spirit of continued identity formation, your only choice now is to progress your identity development by going forward, making new choices about who you wish to be and creating a post-trauma self that restores and combines all of the best of who you were before, or who you had the potential to be, with the best of who you are now and the vision of who you wish to become in the future.
A main factor in how you define yourself is the context in which you understand where and how you belong. Naturally, your identity has changed since your 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. Perhaps today you see yourself as someone robbed of innocence, trust, love, well-being, and the feeling of being able to protect yourself. You may imagine and even deeply feel that you are physically damaged, emotionally or psychologically disfigured, or undesirable. This new self-definition impacts how you see the world, think about yourself and others, and make choices and take actions.
Though your current identity may seem bleak, another part of you sees the bigger picture. That’s the part 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 dominate who you are today, your more than self gains ground in every moment you work toward restoring yourself. It is your more than self that forms the basis of who you will become when you (re)construct your identity.
It is impossible to go back to who you were as wife or husband. Right now decide: “I will stop looking back.” Though this process may feel uncomfortable, the forward-only prescription works to your benefit. Consider this: What if who you are is a function of what you decide and has zero to do with what you have experienced or lost?
Your personal identity develops according to your perception of experience. You are an individual and your perspective of the world is unique to you; what feels traumatizing to you may not feel that way to someone else. Likewise, what feels traumatic to someone else may seem unimportant 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 an element of choice. Who you are during and after divorce is...who you decide you are.
Adapted from Your Life After Trauma: Powerful Practices to Reclaim Your Identity by Michele Rosenthal, published by W. W. Norton. © 2015.