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Turning Over a New Leaf

By Jennifer Zurick-Witte

As I was out running today I noticed the trees are leafing out. I love this time of year, with life exploding forth after a hard winter. While I know that each tree isn’t going to be different from what is was last year – this one is still an oak and that one is still an elm – yet the tree is still going to be different. New branches are forming new leafs and the tree will take on a fresh shape and grow to a new height. Many of the trees I run past might have lost limbs over the winter and they still seem a little bare – and this lends a richer character to their form. The resilience of these trees remind me of how people are shaped by the stresses in their lives. And the renewal of life this spring after this rather harsh winter brings back a similar perspective on how people come back to life after one of the most challenging and stressful events they can go through – a divorce.

A person is rarely unaffected by divorce. And how one handles the end of a marriage plays a large role in shaping who a person will become in the same manner that a tree is different after surviving the winter’s storms and bitter weather. Some people feel extreme bitterness and anger during the break up while others don’t give great thought to it at all, being consumed by the overwhelming amount of stuff to deal with - the division of property and friends, working out child sharing and similar responsibilities. They share a common thought that after it is over, they can or will become a different person.

As a coach I’ve seen many people behave like absolute stinkers going through divorce, as the anger and resentment people feel toward their spouse triggers behavior that is very different from how people like to think of themselves. For many, it’s hard to handle separation without growing defensive, edgy, let alone without becoming vindictive or petty. Yet who are you as you go through divorce is likely to shape who you are after the divorce. Anger and resentment may well be part of the grieving process for the loss of the relationship, yet embracing negative emotions as central to who you are risks transforming them into the defining qualities of the rest of your life.

If you consider that as one says goodbye to the past one begins to flavor the future, it would seem a perfect opportunity for growth and to call forth the strengths and desirable attributes of self - to turn a new leaf. What characteristics or qualities do you have within you that you need to bring forth to be the person you need to be to handle this major life transition? What are the values you want to draw upon? Who are you becoming as you move forward?

There is a major distinction I make with my coaching clients - the difference between calling oneself out and calling oneself forth. When a person calls his or herself out he or she is generally aware of something destructive or disruptive in his or her behavior. It’s acknowledged, named, and the intention is to not engage in the bad behavior any longer. Whereas calling one’s self forth is choosing to draw upon the positive characteristics you want to bring out in your personality. Both are ways of taking responsibility for yourself and your actions. But calling out tends to dwell in the negative, whereas calling forth points you in the direction you need to go - in the direction of new growth. Calling forth also reinforces and accentuates the good and best within you. If these are qualities that shine forth during pleasant periods of your life, why not challenge yourself to let them radiate during difficult times? Won’t it be likely that these positive attributes are strengthened?

One of my clients, Melody had one of the difficult divorces I’ve heard of. She was 3 months pregnant with their second child, and on bed rest, when her husband left. Her husband suggested she terminate the pregnancy -- a pregnancy he had encouraged. She found herself crying on the front lawn in hysterics as he drove off, still pleading with him to stay. It was the darkest time of her life as she tried to care for baby within her, while also caring for their 4 year-old child. Melody pretty much fell apart mentally, emotionally and physically, and said and did things that in retrospect she realized didn’t honor her self-respect. She spent a lot of energy blaming herself for the failure of her marriage, naming all of the things she did wrong. Yet she continued to feel lost. Ultimately to get through it, Melody had to find her strengths, and focus her awareness on the parts of her that she wanted to call forth. She realized that her strength was in her abilities as a mother – her capacity to care for her children. She called herself forth to be the mother that she knew her self to be. Then, she pulled herself together. Although it is still painful for her to talk about the times when she completely broke down, when she looks back on that time of her life, she acknowledges that she found out who she is. She takes pride in that fact that even though she had personal reasons to completely despise her ex, she continually supported her children in having a positive relationship with their father, and she never used her children as a weapon with her ex-husband. She put her values as a good mother first.

One tool I use with my clients is to do a values exercise to connect with their inner strength. This is an easy and fun exercise. Close your eyes and imagine three times in your life that you were happy or three events or days that were especially fulfilling to you. As you remember these times, don’t focus on what you were doing or who you were with. Ask yourself, who you were being on those days? What qualities in your personality and character were present? What strengths? How did your authentic self shine through? When you open your eyes, list as many of these qualities as you can.
Here is an example from one of my clients, Amanda. Amanda’s favorite day was a day she spent rock-climbing with her friends.

I felt very strong and centered within myself. I felt connected to my physical strength, to my body, and I felt courageous, and so very graceful. I also felt open to receiving the love and support of my friends. There was a sense of togetherness. (Notice how this is described as her openness and sense of togetherness– that is an important distinction in this exercise). I also felt connected to the physical environment and the beauty that was around me. My eyes were open to seeing the trees and the sunlight and the rocks. I also felt very capable, like I knew what I was doing, there was a level of mastery.

We identified the following values from Amanda’s story: strong, centered, graceful, physically strong, courageous, open, love, togetherness, connected to the physical world, open eyed, capability and mastery. These are important strengths that Amanda has within her, but that she wasn’t calling forth during her divorce. The next step in her process was to identify ways in her everyday life she could experience and express these values in order to support herself and to handle her divorce. We came up with two practices. One was to take a tai chi class once a week, and to focus on her sense of balance, centeredness and grace during the practice. Her challenge was to continue to cultivate her awareness of these qualities every day. The second was to develop a sense of confidence and mastery about the financial dimensions she and her soon-to-be-ex husband had to handle as they sold their house and divided their property. She researched ways to handle this and learned they could use an arbitrator rather than hiring expensive lawyers.

When handling the transitions of divorce, you are moving toward your future. It is valuable to ask yourself questions. Who is the person you want to be? Who is the person under the winter snows? In what direction do you want to grow? And, where within yourself do you find the resources -- the sunlight and water and life force you need to flourish? How you can you call yourself forth as you create the rest of your life?

While some people may view their divorce as a time-out from their lives, the reality is that it’s a part of their life in much the same manner the winter is part of the tree’s existence. The difference is that the tree has little influence over how it will be the following spring – but we can.

Author of Simply Sacred, Everyday Relationship Magic and The Alphabet of Inner Demons and How to Tame Them, Jennifer Zurick-Witte is a personal coach and confidante as well as an inspired rock climber. She's brought that courage into over a decade of helping men and woman overcome daunting personal challenges, from forging more intimate and meaningful relationships to charting new paths associated with life's transitions. If you are interested in learning more about how this certified coach can help you craft creative solutions that let you climb to new heights in your life, check out her website, movebeyondit.com. While there, make sure you check out pictures of her dog who is convinced he's a kitty cat trapped in the body of a 179 pound Tibetan Mastiff.