With personal life events, the facts matter less than your interpretation of them.
I wish I had known that in the year following my own divorce. Instead, I chased down the facts like a terrier after a rat, convinced that as soon as I had assembled all the particulars and made sense of the information, I would find peace.
The exercise was one of futility and failure. No matter how much I questioned or how hard I looked, there were certain things that would remain unknowable. My need to comprehend became obsessive, consuming my thoughts and breaking me down in the process.
In my unease with those voids, I filled them with my assumptions and reactions, feelings acting as the mortar between the bricks of what happened. And I assumed the worst, as we often do. I believed that my ex acted out of deliberate malice with a personal and directed attack. I eagerly assigned him the label of "sociopath" in an attempt to understand his actions. And I held tight to the facts I did know, using them as an excuse both inwardly and outwardly for my response.
Instead of finding relief, I only felt worse.
Time moved on, and with it, the clarity of some of details faded. The facts muddied as they tumbled through my thoughts with my perceptions, like whites thrown into the wash along with the darks. As first I panicked, afraid that I would forget the reality of what happened. I went through old emails, pulled out worn files in an effort to remind myself of the facts.
I was startled to realize that they no longer mattered. And even more importantly, I realized that the emotional stories that I told myself to fill in the missing information had more staying power and influence than the facts themselves.
On that day, I made a decision to actively reframe all of my earlier assumptions and conclusions surrounding the known facts of my divorce. Instead of believing that my ex acted out of malevolence, I decided to believe that he was scared and seeking to alleviate his own pain. I replaced "sociopath" with "depressed" and "addict," both of which elicited empathy more than hatred. I reframed his ongoing lies as desperate measures in an effort to regain control of a life spinning out of hand.
I actively worked to excise the emotion of my earlier reactions. With each remaining fact and facet, I made the effort to assume the best possible motivation and intention. The mental exercise was like pouring Tide into the tumbler along with the facts, brightening the facts and softening the harsh edges.
And I found relief.
Those facts are still stored in my brain, and on some hard days, one will rise to the surface and cause my breath to catch in my throat with the intensity of the memory. But for the most part, when I think about my own experience, I see it through the lens I crafted. The reworking of the facts allows me to feel empathy instead of rage, peace instead of rejection, and pity instead of betrayal.
Because when it comes to personal life events, the facts matter less than your interpretation of them.
If you want to rewrite your own divorce story, these are the steps you need to take:
- Recognize your assumptions. We all have a tendency to take people's words and actions personally when it is often not about us. Strip away all of your beliefs about why something was said, or why a certain behavior occurred.
- Write the facts, and only the facts. Keep it simple, and keep it brief. There is no need to focus on the nuance; you only need to capture the broad strokes.
- Pretend these same facts were presented about someone you feel kindly toward, or written about a positive character in a book. What conclusions might you reach about why these things happened?
- Shift those beliefs to your own situation. Be persistent—your earlier and more emotional reactions will fight you for dominance.
- Notice how you feel as those positively-spun stories start to resonate. Are you breathing a little easier? Feeling a little lighter?
Your divorce, and perhaps your ex, have already hurt you enough. There is no reason for you to allow your thoughts to hurt you even more.