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How to Deal With The Shame of Divorce

by Vishnu


When I said “goodbye” to my Indian grandparents after a recent visit, I thought the encounter would end with a friendly hug, a small goodbye gift and good wishes.

And it did – until the last minute, when my grandmother become teary-eyed and emotional, wishing that I would get married soon and come back to visit her with a child.

In less than 60 seconds, our goodbye went from a friendly parting to an emotional and dramatic experience. They cried. I cried. They wished me a family and a baby and I left feeling like I had just walked off a taping of Days of our Lives or Vani Rani!

What had just happened, I thought to myself as I headed to the airport for my flight back to the States.

What had happened? What had turned two perfectly normal grandparents into emotional messes? Why were they experiencing so much pain and loss for me when I wasn’t quite sure I was feeling that myself?

Yes, it’s been a few years since the breakup and the divorce. Yes, it was hard on me, and yes, it must have been hard on them.

But life has moved on. I’m in a new place and I’m happy where I am today.

I don’t feel any big void in my life or feel incomplete being single. In fact, the last year or so has been the happiest of my life, with travel, family, writing and coaching.

Life has been great, but in the eyes of my grandparents, I felt pain, loss, sorrow and sadness.

I felt worthless and inadequate.

I felt ashamed for having failed.

It’s not unlike the shame I’ve felt being around other family and friends.

The stigma of divorce

In the Indian community, there is a strong stigma surrounding divorce.

When people hear that you’re divorced, they speculate about what went wrong, whose fault it was and who destroyed the relationship. They want to know about the couple’s relationship struggles, their families’ involvement in the failed marriage – yes, they want it all, the gossip, the rumors, the innuendos and all the dirt in between.

While they want to equip themselves with as much information and gossip about your situation as they can, they really don’t want you in their presence. When you’re divorced, it can feel like you’ve received a brand in the shape of a scarlet “D.”

People in your community often ignore you and scatter in your presence. You get the feeling that they think you’ll spread the disease of divorce to them – like divorce is a contagious and destructive bug, and you’re the carrier!

You’re the buzzkill at a happy occasion.

You’re the third wheel at any event – out of place, standing out like an unrecognizable alien, broken and displaying what happens when a life goes wrong.

You’re a misguided soul with a temper and a drinking problem who cheated on your wife.

Or a misguided soul with a man-hating independent streak who refused to “adjust” and be a “good” wife or “obedient” daughter.

The shame of divorce

On top of the stigma, you carry around with you the shame of divorce. As does your family.

In my case, I’ve felt shame around most people who have known me throughout my life. More so if they knew my ex-wife and me. And more so if they attended our wedding.

I feel like I let them down.

Like I failed and didn’t live up to their expectations.

Like I’m doing something so different from what people expected of or wanted for me.

In fact, I think it was likely the shame of my divorce that kept me isolated from most of my immediate and extended family for a couple of years.

I felt so ashamed, I didn’t return phone calls, answer emails or see anyone I knew because I felt bad about what had happened. I felt guilty, like somehow I was knowingly hurting them or would be inappropriately sharing my heartbreak with them.

I felt awkward for bringing something so devastating and a topic so toxic with me wherever I went. My divorce was not the elephant in the room. I felt like I had become the elephant!

You may feel the same shame about your divorce.

You may feel inherently flawed, messed up and broken.

You feel naked in the eyes of the judgmental, harsh world around you.

You let glares bully you, silent whispers softly attack you. You feel like the never-ending rumors that swirl around you are quietly killing you.

You feel ashamed for being alive.

A message for healing

If you’ve gone through a divorce, you can likely relate to the stigma and shame I’m speaking about here – one that your family, community or culture makes worse.

You know what it’s like to attend a holiday party or family gathering nervous that the conversation will turn to you. You’re holding your breath, hoping that no one talks to you. And by mistake if someone does, he or she avoids the topics of partners, spouses, relationships and family!

You’re terrified of every conversation that can serve as an opening to the topic you most fear and are most ashamed of – your failed relationship.

Today I’m writing to you who are silently suffering through the shame and stigma of divorce.

I want to remind you that you don’t have to hide, you don’t have to feel terrible about yourself and you don’t have to feel like disappearing from the world.  

Yes, your marriage might have ended, but that’s no reason to feel like a failure in life or to let your inner circle perpetuate the pain of your shame.

Here are 4 ways to cope with the shame of divorce.

1)    Recognize the feelings of shame.

I believe that awareness is the true power you have when confronting shame. Once you become aware of anything in your life, you have the insight to understand what’s going on and to change it.

You don’t have to feel lonely and isolated in your shame.

Recognize it for what it is and write down your thoughts so that you can get your heart around it. Once you put down the feelings that are swirling through your mind, you’ll have a better idea of what those feelings look and feel like.

If you’ve not allowed yourself to experience your shame, feel free to do so. Permit yourself a deep and soulful cry.

You’ll feel like having these feelings many times. Every time they come up, welcome them into your life like familiar guests. It’s time to stop resisting your feelings and the strong emotions that well up in your life.

Let the feelings of shame sit with you so that you can share some space with them.

Recognize, absorb and familiarize yourself with the feelings of shame. Become friends with your feelings of shame – intimate acquaintances.

Recognize where the feelings of shame are coming from in your body. Where do they palpitate the most and feel strongest?

After you’ve experienced a bout of shame, lead shame to the door. Thank it for coming and sharing an experience with you.

When it comes back, welcome it again and learn more about it.

Know that you can experience feelings of shame, but also know that you’re welcome to allow those feelings to leave for a bit. Interestingly, the more vibrant and intensely you experience feelings of shame, the less intense they will be the next time around.

2)    Return to wholeness and your truth.

You yourself as much as anybody in the universe deserve your love and affection.” Siddhartha Gautama

One problem with shame is that you feel inadequate, broken and flawed.

Once you reflect on your life, you’ll realize that your shame didn’t come from only your divorce.

More than likely, you’ve experienced shame in other areas of your life and have vividly imprinted those memories.

More than likely, shame has been an ongoing, lifelong struggle.

The ultimate key to overcoming and healing from shame is accepting yourself and reminding yourself that you are enough.

Unlike what your friends told you or your parents made you feel, you’re not inadequate, incompetent, lacking or invisible.

Your task is to remind yourself of this and learn this powerful truth.

The key to self-compassion and self-acceptance is to treat yourself like the person you love most.

Be aware of the words you use to yourself, the judgments you make about yourself and the things you do to yourself.

Find ways to cultivate self-love within. Here, you can find 21 ways I’ve talked about previously to create a self-love within.

Commit a part of each day to taking care of yourself, being kind to yourself and loving yourself.

Gift yourself with those activities that make you feel good, that help you relax and feel peaceful.

Reduce the volume of critical, judgmental and comparative thoughts that are running through and ruling your mind.

Learn to listen more and to let your compassionate inner guide, intuition and spirit lead you.

Do the internal work to help you get clearer on who are you – what your authentic personality is minus all the layers of society-conditioned behavior.

When you get to this inner truth about yourself, there’s no act to put on and no reason to be another person.

It’s from this place of truth where you can truly be yourself.

When you know yourself and are comfortable being yourself, there will be no need to run away and hide.

You can get to this point through self-care, compassion, truthful living and a journey within.

Whatever you do, remember that this is your assigned task – finding the path back to your most powerful, most beautiful, most whole self.

In this place of wholeness and completeness, you will see that there is nothing else to prove, no place where you must hide.

In your wholeness is everything. Here you can be present and seen. Here you can shine. Here you’re unstoppable.

Tap into this power more and more in your life.

Learn to live and see the world from this place of self-acceptance, self-compassion and truth.

3)    A new perspective on shame.

As you continue to treat yourself with compassion and increase the amount of love you have for yourself, you’ll come to realize that you’re not a person of lack and deficit.

You’re not inherently broken and flawed.

You grew up in a way that made you question your self-worth.

You also went through a traumatic experience that made you feel like a failure.

Now, consider changing your perspective about shame.

First, identify what it is you feel shame about. Then remember that shame is not going to define your life.

Your shame is no longer going to be your weakness and your flaw.

I want you to answer these questions:

What about your divorce has made you stronger than ever before?
What did your divorce teach you about yourself and who you are?
How did surviving divorce make you who you are today, in a positive way?
How are you going to show up in the world today, as a survivor of divorce?

Now that you know shame is your strength and your secret weapon, how are you going to use it for good?

How are you going to serve someone who’s dealing with the shame of divorce or of anything else in his or her life?

Who are you going to show up for during his or her moment of shame?

4)    Your shame has nothing to do with others.

Here’s the most important thing I want you to know about shame.

You may feel ashamed because of other people, but does shame really come from them?

Shame comes from within – from not being good enough. Others may have caused you to feel shame, but your way out of shame is through yourself.

The more you can be comfortable in your own skin and accept your true nature, the less room you give shame in your life.

You have the ability to heal your shame by accepting yourself. The key to healing shame is an internal one, not an external one.

It really has nothing to do with friends, family and nay-sayers.

They only increase the noise of worthlessness that you may be experiencing internally. Their words resonate with you only if you allow them to. Their words resonate if you’re not showing up for yourself.

When you see yourself as complete, valuable, kind and whole, you don’t allow anyone else to define you or shame you.

While you continue to experience pangs of shame around family and friends, use these feelings as reminders that you must continue your internal work toward healing and wholeness.

Thus, every person who raises this feeling of shame within you is your teacher and guide. This person is reminding you that you are feeling shameful and that it’s time for more compassion, more love and more self-acceptance.

Remember –

You are NOT your divorce.

You are NOT what happened in your marriage.

You are NOT what people think of you or how they judge you.

You are NOT the passing comments, rumors or innuendos.

You are NOT the lost cause, sad case, troubled person or unhappy soul.

You are NOT the bitter ex, headstrong daughter or disobedient son.

You are NOT a mistake.

You are NOT a failure.

You are NOT the story you’ve been telling about yourself.

You are NOT the story others have been trying to spread about you.

You are now powerful beyond measure because you’re realizing your worth, loving yourself, claiming your power and living your truth.

The compassion and love you’re cultivating for yourself will be the light you use to find your way home.

Once you do, please leave the light on for others who are traveling the same path that you are.

To pick up my ebook on self-love, called the Self-Romance manifesto, click here.  Learn to treat yourself with compassion and love.

*Photo credit SaschaKohlmann This article previously appeared on the Good Man Project.