Wisdom//

What My Divorce Taught Me About Self-Care

It's completely changed the way I take care of my mental health.

Zakalinka/ Shutterstock
Zakalinka/ Shutterstock

Until my early 40s, I went through life trying to be superwoman. I grew up in a culture where self-sacrifice was appreciated — and, for women, expected. I was taught that to be a good daughter, a good wife, and a good mother, I needed to put others’ needs ahead of my own. When I didn’t do that — and prioritized my own needs — I thought I was being selfish.

For a long while, being superwoman worked; I was young and had energy to spare. I could keep going on minimal fuel, whether that meant not getting enough sleep, not fueling my body with the right foods, or not taking time to recharge after social events. I cared deeply about what others thought and expected of me. I wanted to belong, and to be accepted. I knew that if I fulfilled what was expected of me, I would get that acceptance — so I made sure exceed all expectations. I was a star student, I chose the ‘right’ study path, went to the best schools, got great jobs, and so on.

For four decades, I checked all the boxes and expected to belong, but while I was busy trying to be the perfect everything to everyone, I never asked myself what I needed to be my best self. I never asked myself what brought me joy, or what gave me energy. I realized that I knew how to take care of others, but I didn’t know how to take care of myself. I didn’t feel at home with myself, and didn’t realize that expecting to feel at home in the world when I didn’t feel at home within myself was pointless.

How the shift happened

Then, something changed. It took me going through my divorce to realize that I could not take my well-being — or my mental health — for granted.

No one tells you that going through divorce requires massive energy reserves — both physical and emotional. There are the long hours of gathering legal documents and financial evidence, communicating with lawyers, and responding to the judge’s requests for information. Then, there are the sleepless nights you spend terrified about what the future will bring, and feeling guilt-ridden about the damage you’re inflicting on your children. And through it all, you also have to show up and function normally each day.

At the same time, no one tells you that you can’t build up those energy reserves without being kind to yourself and taking care of yourself. It doesn’t seem like a priority, given everything else you have to deal with. In the midst of my own process, I realized that I was losing altitude. I felt my energy tanking. I was verging on exhaustion, and even depression.

Starting with small acts of self-care

Taking charge of my well-being started with movement. In my youth, I danced ballet and loved it. So, I found a school that taught “Ballet for Everyone.” I also added yoga to my routine. I found that being active was not just good for my body, but it built up my emotional energy, too. I decided that it was OK — in fact, essential — to do the things that brought me joy. My weekly ballet and yoga classes were the equivalent of therapy. I even learned to meditate, which taught me to listen to my body and be mindful of my emotional state.

Helping others do the same

Those small self-care decisions led to bigger ones. I decided to invest in myself and my future. I wanted to help others struggling through similar experiences, so I signed up for coaching training. In addition to acquiring tools for helping others, I made major strides in knowing myself, accepting and appreciating who I was, so that I could help others. All this inner work was part of self-care too. And it led me, finally, to feel at home with myself.

One of the most challenging aspects of divorce is that, even if you have the best support system in the world — and I was fortunate to have a lot of support from friends and family — it’s still a very solitary experience. Divorce forces you to learn to truly be alone with yourself.

I am now better at recognizing the warning signs when I get close to the edge. I’ve learned to pause, breathe, meditate, move, reach out, and accept help. I’ve learned to treat myself with kindness and compassion. I’ve learned that it’s OK to indulge myself from time to time — whether it’s taking a day off to sit in the sun, or spending a night in with a good read.

Self-care is not an act of self-preservation; it’s something we all deserve. Let’s get better at it.

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