Learn From Your Past: Try not to waste time on things you can’t change, but also learn from your mistakes. Even if you discover negative patterns you’ve engaged in, see what you can do to alter them.
The world seems to be reeling from one crisis to another. We’ve experienced a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, political and social turmoil. Then there are personal traumas that people are dealing with, such as the loss of a loved one, health issues, unemployment, divorce or the loss of a job.
Coping with change can be traumatic as it often affects every part of our lives.
How do you deal with loss or change in your life? What coping strategies can you use? Do you ignore them and just push through, or do you use specific techniques?
In this series called “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change” we are interviewing successful people who were able to heal after a difficult life change such as the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or other personal hardships. We are also talking to Wellness experts, Therapists, and Mental Health Professionals who can share lessons from their experience and research.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephen L. Cawelti.
Stephen is a seasoned, board certified divorce attorney who has specialized in complex family law matters since 2006 in California. He has acted as the lead attorney on hundreds of divorce cases and argued before the Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura County Superior Courts. He was voted by Pasadena Magazine as one of the “Top Attorneys” in the area for the past 6 years and named a “Rising Star” by SuperLawyers.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Well, to start, I was adopted. I didn’t know this was not “normal” until I was much older. My parents never kept it a secret, so I always thought my family situation was normal but special. I had an older sister and a younger brother who was also adopted. He had some mental health issues which caused some strife at home, and I compensated by being the good kid. My parents were loving and supportive, but they were also distracted by my brother’s difficulties. I never wanted to create drama at home and I focused on school and sports. Once I hit college, I cut loose a bit but kept my eye on what was important to me: carving out my niche while remaining true to myself.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
After earning my BA in Psychology, my first job out of college was working with teens who had been through the juvenile dependency system and were now living in residential group homes. As a therapeutic “house parent” who was only a few years older than these kids, I wanted to share with them that it’s possible to be a success without selling out. They frequently told us that we didn’t understand them and what they’ve been through, and therefore they tended to reject what we tried to teach them. Their feelings were completely valid, but I also knew that this thinking could be self-defeating. Instead, I tried to teach them to think and use the resources available to them to first work the system and then try to improve it. I think of it as “emotional Judo”, maximum efficiency through minimum effort. Use the nature of your opponent (or the challenge in front of you) to your advantage. I guess my life lesson quote is “outsmart the system”.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- Emotional Intelligence: In my family law practice, one of the first questions I ask a client is how he/she will react to our planned course of action. Then we go through the decision tree, one reaction at a time. So often desirable settlements are reached by reading the room and having high emotional intelligence. In divorce law, it is frequently possible to have a win-win outcome, because each side’s idea of a win is different.
- Perseverance: It sounds cliche, but I don’t give up easily. I have many clients who feel defeated, like there can be no “win” no matter what they do. Of course I don’t know what they’ve been through, but that’s also the reason I can help: I bring a professional, fresh perspective and will not give up on them and their case.
- Know when to take a break: Sometimes, rethinking your strategy is the right move. I don’t always know when to clear my head, so I try to look for clues in my environment. Am I getting irritable with my family or colleagues? If so, I take a break, focus on something else, and then come back to the project later with a fresh perspective. The difference between #2 and #3 can be tricky, and I’m always trying to balance between them.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Healing after Loss’. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give others to help them get through a difficult life challenge? What are your “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change? Please share a story or example for each.
- Learn From Your Past: Try not to waste time on things you can’t change, but also learn from your mistakes. Even if you discover negative patterns you’ve engaged in, see what you can do to alter them. I counsel my family law clients to be emotionally honest with themselves about the family dynamic that they’ve participated in. This doesn’t mean you blame yourself, but if you want to improve your situation, take a hard look at not only your part in what’s happened in the past, but also what you can do to turn it around. Even if you can’t “fix” the past, you can make your future brighter by gleaning the important lessons life taught you in your challenges.
- Refrain From Reopening Old Wounds: After a difficult life change (particularly a divorce) some pain will linger for a while, but in order for the wound to heal you cannot constantly be reopening it. If you’ve divorced from a difficult ex and have no children, it will not serve you to have frequent contact. If you do have to continue a relationship with a toxic ex due to children, talking with a mental health professional will help you to set healthy boundaries for yourself that will allow you to co-parent and heal.
- Regain your confidence: After a challenge, it’s important to get back and rediscover what makes you, you. Children especially need to see mom or dad get back to normal, and you need that for yourself too. Pursue a new hobby, exercise, eat right, and take care of yourself. The people around you will be happiest when you have inner peace and prioritize your own well being.
- Don’t beat yourself up: This doesn’t mean you should not self reflect, just make sure to do it in a self-affirming way. Everyone makes mistakes and has regrets. The individuals who are able to move on after a difficult divorce are those who can take an honest look at their mistakes while also holding themself with compassion. Continuing to shovel blame on yourself years after a divorce will not facilitate healing and happiness.
- Lean on Your Support System: It is important to surround yourself with individuals who can help you navigate your new normal. Don’t be afraid to ask for help (not only from friends but also from mental health professionals). After a difficult life event, some friends and family members do nothing but tell you what you want to hear. This can infect your healing. Pick your sounding board wisely and don’t be afraid to shop around for the right therapist.
Let’s discuss this in more specific terms. After the dust settles, what coping mechanisms would you suggest to deal with the pain of the loss or change?
I learned this from going to addiction recovery meetings with the group home kids I worked with in the 90s: Try to learn what you can control and what you can’t. List it out. Don’t waste your mental energy on the things that are not in your control.
Oftentimes after a traumatic life event, we try to distract ourselves and avoid feeling all of the negative feelings that accompany it. Give yourself permission to be angry, hurt, devastated, enraged, barren, burnt, destroyed, etc. Make sure you allow yourself to process the emotions and the event.
It is important to note that processing the emotions is different from obsessing. A therapist is a great asset in helping to discern when your situation has become obsessive, and will help you to not run from your feelings but also live in the moment.
How can one learn to heal and “let go” of the negative aspects of that event?
In my line of work, lawyers and mental health professionals can make all the difference when you’re in the thick of a difficult divorce. But once you get to the point of picking up the pieces, your support system is just as important to your recovery. It is important to surround yourself with individuals you trust who will not only buoy you up and can act as a reliable sounding board. As mentioned previously, after a difficult life event, some friends and family members do nothing but tell you what you want to hear. This can infect your healing. Pick your sounding board wisely and don’t be afraid to shop around for the right therapist.
Aside from letting go, what can one do to create an internal, emotional shift to feel better?
It’s easier to let go when you feel confident that you’ve processed it. You can only heal after you’ve been emotionally honest with yourself. Give yourself permission to be angry, hurt, devastated, enraged, barren, burnt, destroyed. Then numb, depressed, confused, listless. Don’t deny it. But then know that you’ve taken yourself through that process and get to a place where you can rebuild in a healthy way. Letting go shouldn’t be denial of what happened and how you feel. Being okay with the negativity is a good thing on the way to growth.
How can one eventually reframe the consequences and turn it into a positive situation?
The most obvious answer is to learn from it. Each experience helps build us as people in our community and in society. Just thinking about that can make all the difference.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Think about how you are impacting others. You can build up or tear down, a little or a lot. Your daily interactions are like ripples all around you. It takes little energy to smile, be kind, thank someone for being who they are or for their service. Yes, it can take focus to relearn from bad or selfish habits, but it’s worth it. You’ll feel better and so will the world around you. Being nice always pays off right then and there. And remember, you always have the option of saying nothing at all.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂
I was lucky enough to see Princess live in concert before the pandemic (Princess is a Prince cover band starring comedian Maya Rudolph and her friend Gretchen Lieberum) and had the time of my life. I’ve always admired Maya Rudolph’s comedy and I’m a big fan of Prince since the late 70s, so meeting Maya would be a dream come true. She’s so versatile in her acting and musicianship, and as a singer myself, I think there’s a lot I could learn from her just from spending an hour or two with her.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I post articles on my website https://caweltilaw.com regularly. You can also find me on Facebook under Cawelti Law.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!