Buy this book and read at least the first four chapters.
I'm seeing a counselor to help me through my divorce and this was the homework she gave me after our first meeting. From what I understand, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns, was one of the first books published on cognitive behavioral therapy that was aimed at lay people. It's very easy to read, but most of all, incredibly helpful.
The point is to teach you how negative thoughts create negative feelings and moods, like depression and anxiety. By learning how to identify various patterns of cognitive distortion (basically, mistaken, illogical thinking) through different exercises and activities, we can retake control of our mood and get back to feeling good again.
It might sound a little hokey from the way I've described it, but the book is most definitely not. When Burns explains cognitive behavioral therapy, the answer seems so obvious and clear: I'm going through a difficult time, my brain is filled with negative thoughts, and those thoughts are making me feel even worse. When I analyze those thoughts using the methods prescribed by Burns, I realized they weren't actually based in reality - they're distortions of reality. And as I realize this, it's easier to shut them down, and my mood has improved accordingly. It's really very cool. It's not a linear improvement, but I can tell I'm on the right track.
One of the coolest takeaways I've learned from this book so far is that the key to self-confidence is getting rid of these negative thoughts. I'm a child of the 90's, so I grew up in a culture of participation trophies and "good job!" at every turn in what I think everyone now agrees was a misguided attempt to boost self-confidence in kids. The idea that self-confidence may in fact be more about silencing that inner-critic instead of creating some kind of false inner-cheerleader was sort of mind-blowing.
So if there's any silver lining to my divorce, it's that it has encouraged me to seek counseling from a professional who has introduced me to cognitive behavioral therapy, and I can already tell these are techniques I'll be able to use for the rest of my life to help me manage my anxiety. At the moment, it's really helping with my situational depression, which is hardly unexpected given the circumstances.
If you're curious about the different kinds of cognitive distortions we all experience to some degree, here's a link that lists the ones that Burns identifies as the most typical. One of the exercises you can do is write down your negative thoughts as you experience them, then identify which cognitive distortions they fit on that list, followed by a more rational response to each distortion (basically, explain to yourself why that negative thought isn't actually true). Study after study has shown that when this type of cognitive behavioral therapy is used in conjunction with medication, it's more effective at treating depression than just medication alone.
I've mostly written this blog post so I can come back to it and easily look up those cognitive distortions as I'm working on these kinds of exercises every day, but maybe you'll find it helpful too if you're struggling with negative feelings of any kind at any point in your life, not just divorce.
Also, I hope readers of this blog understand why I'm writing about divorce right now. It won't be forever, I promise. I hope to get back to discussing reading and writing again soon, but for the moment, I really need to do this in order to focus on getting better and figuring out the new "normal" in my life.
Last month I mentioned that my husband and I were in the process of separating. It's a sad, difficult decision, because it's mutual and we're both conflicted. We're not mad at one another, we're just not sure how to fix the same problems that keep coming up. In short, we just want and need different things. I suspect this is a fairly common problem, but that doesn't make it any easier.
So I've been doing a lot of self-care to help me through this. I've found it harder to write fiction, so I'm letting myself take a temporary break from it (the pressure to write was making me feel crazy), but I have been keeping a journal, which I find very useful to work through my thoughts.
I've also been doing a lot of other activities to help me feel more stable. In brief, here's my list of what to do during a breakup, just in case it's of any help to you.
1) Give yourself a weekend of "Treat Yo Self." Eat what you want, watch what you want, spend what you want. Not forever, but for those first horrible days it really helps to treat yourself. For me, I bought myself a new pair of shoes, watched Mad Men, ate at Taco Bell, and laid in bed all day.
2) When you're done with Treat Yo Self weekend, then consciously practice A.C.E. This works. Such a helpful tool. I keep track of my A.C.E. activities in that same notebook that contains my logistics list and my journal. It helps to keep this information all in one place.
3) Call or talk to your parents, but don't smother them. After those first few days, I made myself try to get over each emotional low for at least an hour. If I couldn't do it on my own, only then did I call my mom. It helped prove to myself that I was tough and that I would eventually be able to get through a day without totally relying on her for emotional support. It gave me confidence in myself.
4) Find a small notebook. Instead of calling your ex, write down what it is you would say. Write out your thoughts and feelings. Patterns will emerge. You'll realize what was really bothering you. When you have a weak moment, consult the notebook to remind yourself that there are real issues at stake and you are making the right choice.
5) In that same notebook, make a list of logistical things you need to do (e.g., where are you going to move, money stuff, possessions, insurance, etc.), then put it aside. Add to the list as you think of anything else that needs to be done, but don't worry about it yet. After the first week or so, only then begin tackling each item one by one.
6) Watch When Harry Met Sally. Excellent and very optimistic breakup movie.
7) Take long walks, go for a run, strength train, take a dance class, whatever. Just make sure you're getting regular exercise. For me, the best part of my day is taking my dog on her long morning walk. I always feel better when I'm outside with her.
8) Put away the junk food and make sure you're eating healthy meals again. For me, that means cutting out the processed food (or limiting it to the occasional treat). I love to make this soup.
9) Call your friends. Make plans to hang out. Remind yourself that you have a lot of people in your life who care about you and vice versa. I'm going out to Dallas this summer to see one of my best friends and it's the first thing I've had to look forward to in a while.
10) Smile and be nice to everyone you come across. I don't know if it's just because I've been wanting more warmth lately, but I've been dishing out the smiles and small talk with all sorts of strangers. And people are awesome. Without fail, they are so nice right back at me. When you feel lonely, a smile or kind word from a stranger can mean so much.
11) Make a list of people you admire who have gone through a divorce. It really shows you how normal it is. Here's my list:
The point of all this is only that there are positive steps you/I can take to work through this. It's a challenge, but not a disaster, particularly if we keep a good attitude.
For more tips, check out this google doc compiled by the Death, Sex, & Money listeners. There's a lot of great advice in there.
Pretending to be someone else, if only for seconds at a time.
Sometimes I like to think of myself asNora Ephron. I find this particularly helpful when I'm struggling with whether or not to write. If I'm Nora Ephron, the answer seems more obvious: sit down and write, because you're a writer, even when you feel like shit. That, and make sure you get something good to eat.
At other times I like to pretend I'm Eleanor of Aquitaine, who I learned about on this two-part episode of the History Chicks. She generally seemed to have her shit together (smart, rich, powerful), even while married to two different monarchs of varying quality. I like the fact that she and and her husband, Henry, King of England, got to a point where they had done more or less everything they had wanted to do together in their marriage, and then effectively went their separate ways. It's a valid option if Kings and Queens did it.
And sometimes I just pretend that I'm a normal person, going about my day. This helps me get through my editing work. I don't know why, but telling myself, "I'm a normal person, getting a can of seltzer water," somehow makes it easier to then sit down, work, and forget about the fact that I'm going through a divorce. It helps keep self-pity from getting in the way of productivity, because sometimes you just have to get your work done even if you'd rather curl up in bed and watch Mad Men. Also, it's true. I am normal person, even if I have to remind myself of it occasionally.
Have you experienced heartbreak? What helped you get through it? I could use some tips.
If anyone follows my reading list (scroll to the bottom of the page to see the books I've read in 2017), they might have noticed there's a lot of Nora Ephron in there lately. So why is that?
Well, it's because I decided to leave my marriage.
And to make a sad situation a little more bearable, I also decided that the late great Nora Ephron would be my "spiritual" guide through it all. I'm joking of course, but you know what I mean. I figure if you can write a story like When Harry Met Sally, then you might have some helpful thoughts to share about love and heartbreak.
My husband and I went through some problems about a year and a half ago. We even separated for a little while, but got back together after deciding we could work things out. Unfortunately, even though I thought we had made really good efforts to work through those problems, they kind of reared up their ugly heads again. I guess I finally realized that I had done everything I could think to do to save my relationship, but it wasn't enough. I know I gave it my best shot, which makes this time around marginally easier. Last time I felt like I hadn't actually done anything to fight for my marriage and that it wasn't fair to ourselves to walk away so easily. So we tried, we definitely did. At least I feel good about that.
It's one of those sad situations where no one has been "wronged." There was no bad behavior. I never stopped loving him, and I don't think he stopped loving me. We just wanted different things. We also needed different things and weren't able to communicate those wants and needs very well, if at all. Talking about hard issues was never our strong point as a couple. So it's nobody's fault, really, or maybe it's everyone's fault. I don't know. But that doesn't make it any less sad or frustrating.
I go through waves of feeling ok, and then waves of despair where I can barely function. And then more often there are the waves of numbness where it feels like I'll never be genuinely happy again. It's also really hard to let go of the good memories and what they meant to me. It feels almost impossible to say goodbye to a man who has been my best friend for 13 years. So yeah, to say this is rough is an understatement.
Anyway, what does that have to do with Nora Ephron again? Having been divorced twice and married three times, I find she has a funny sense humor and poignancy about it all that I'm finding very comforting. Of the three books of hers I've read in the last week or so, I enjoyed Heartburn the most, which is a thinly veiled novel about her divorce from Carl Bernstein (of Watergate fame) when she was 7 months pregnant. The other two are collections of essays, I Feel Bad About My Neck and I Remember Nothing. Some of the essays are excellent, others are more or less blog posts, but this one really helped me put things in perspective:
"For a long time, the fact that I was divorced was the most important thing about me. And now it's not." - Nora Ephron, I Remember Nothing
I guess the point is, although this may seem like the end of the world, that everything I've ever known or worked so hard to build is falling apart (and I'm the one who's actively torpedoing it, which makes it feel even worse, even though I feel like there's no other way for us both to move forward with our lives and ultimately be happy) - well, this too will pass. There's going to be a new normal, even if I don't know what it looks like yet. And one day in the future, this divorce will not be considered the most important thing that ever happened to me, even if it feels that way at the moment.
So right now I'm just trying to be grateful for all the things I have and have had, and trying to be as hopeful as possible. I'm incredibly fortunate to have two supportive parents who've opened their home to me, my dog, and my cats while I figure out our next step and deal with the necessary logistics of the situation. I'm also incredibly fortunate to have a job that I can do anywhere, which makes it possible to move here for the moment.
And I also don't regret my marriage or our time spent together. We did, saw, and made some pretty amazing things as a couple. 13 years together and I wouldn't take back a single one. He's a wonderful person and I really wish him all the happiness in the world. So all things considered, I'm really incredibly lucky. The present is a challenge, to be sure, but I can work through this and everything will be alright in the end.
Writer, editor, scientist.