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Secret to Happiness after Divorce: Self-Compassion

When I was trying to decide whether or not to get divorced, a friend who had gone through the same agonizing a few years earlier kept telling me to be gentle with myself.

In the days and months after I did divorce, this same friend – and others – told me the same thing:  Be gentle with yourself.

Today I find being gentle with myself (or self-compassion) is the secret to happiness in life after divorce. It’s my first suggestion to divorced or divorcing moms. But most of them don’t know what it means to be gentle with themselves.

I didn’t either when I first heard the suggestion. I didn’t even know I wasn’t being gentle with myself. It just wasn’t something I thought about in my busy day-to-day juggling act.

Over time, though, I’ve come to see just how hard I can be on myself, beating myself up for what I haven’t done, or what I’ve done wrong, or where I wasn’t good enough. I’m not alone in this; it’s nearly universal in Western culture. Perhaps it’s part of the human condition.

But isn’t it good to push ourselves? That’s what most of us have learned over the years.  No pain, no gain. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Never say die. Never surrender.

Mounting evidence from research in multiple fields from medicine and mental health to spirituality and relaxation tell us NO. In fact, I just heard a cardiologist speak on the fact that stress is involved in more than 80% of all cardiac-related illnesses.

So what’s the antidote? Being kind to ourselves. Self-compassion.

Self-compassion is not the same as being lazy or undisciplined as many fear. In fact, being kind to yourself may bring in more discipline, not less, in some areas. For example, after a frustrating weigh-in at my doctor’s office about a year ago, I decided to track my food and exercise (apps are great for that kind of thing). Initially I did so just to observe, and to do so without judgment, just for information. After I saw a few areas where change would be helpful, I began using the app to monitor and balance my calories. In the process I’ve lost weight and feel much happier about my overall health and fitness levels.

It’s most important to be kind to ourselves, to exercise self-compassion, while we’re in the midst of struggle such as divorce or rebuilding life after divorce. Acknowledging how we’re feeling (boy, this is hard. I’m drained) and showing ourselves compassion (you’re trying really hard to make things okay for everyone, especially your kids, and you’re doing the best you can; way to go) lightens the load a lot more quickly than trying to pretend everything is okay.

I’ve been practicing self-compassion informally over the years since my divorce and more formally since reading Kristin Neff’s book Self-Compassion (read my review here). I like what I’m experiencing. As I’m kinder to myself, I’m finding it easier to be kind to others. This has been a big help with my kids and even my former husband, as well as some pesky clients and team members. I’ve had many opportunities to practice self-compassion in the past week (with my son when his brand new and expensive computer stopped working after only 2 days, with my client who has a February deadline but hasn’t come up with the funding for the work yet). I’ve been gentle with myself about how difficult those things are, especially as a divorced breadwinner mom, which has allowed me to speak the truth in kindness and with empathy, rather than with resentment and frustration. And voila! More productive interactions at work and at home.

Try self-compassion for yourself this week, and see if you agree that it’s the secret to happiness in life after divorce.

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  • Andrea Conway January 29, 2013, 10:58 am

    Joy, thanks for pointing out that self-compassion doesn’t mean being lazy. It’s so easy to buy into the boot camp approach to life, criticizing ourselves for being slugs if we aren’t working to the max 24×7. I appreciate your reminder that kindness is the happier way to go – and quite possibly the healthier way as well.

    • Joy Cipoletti, the Divorced Breadwinner Mom January 29, 2013, 11:11 am

      Thanks, Andrea. One of the “a-has” for me was (and continues to be) that being kind to myself isn’t weakness, and that I won’t somehow stop being productive if I stop beating myself up. Not only do we feel happier when we’re nice to ourselves, but I think we actually do accomplish more because we have more energy available to offer something positive. – Joy

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