“But how did you do it?” I was recently asked in regards to my divorce recovery.
“I had no real choice in the matter,” I replied, “I absolutely refused to give him any more. He had taken enough.”
But that reply, of which I’ve given some version of probably hundreds of times over the past decade, didn’t really answer the question.
I could list the strategies that I implemented, as I have done numerous times before. But even those wouldn’t address the heart of the question.
Because what this person was really asking was how did I get myself up out of bed every morning when the sheets were still wet from the tears that flowed throughout the night? They wanted to know how I kept my hopes up for the future when all I could see was darkness. In witnessing the dichotomy between my now happy and smiling face and the brutality of the story I told, they were struggling to understand how happiness could survive such despair.
Faith played a big role – belief in the possibility of recovery, confidence in the strength of the human spirit and trust in the inherent kindness of most people.
But even faith isn’t enough to force you out of bed on those mornings when the weight of the world feels as though it will crush you before noon.
That requires something else entirely.
Discipline is one those traits that we explicitly try to build in our children. We train them with chore charts, sign them up for martial arts and require that they eat their vegetables before their sweets.
Yet the role of discipline doesn’t fade as we age. In fact, the stakes become larger. Because without discipline, we can have all of the faith and hope and desire in the world, and we still won’t make any progress.
At its core, discipline is about doing things that you don’t want to do. It’s about enduring discomfort, working towards a goal and, at least some of the time, putting the “have to’s” in front of the “want to’s.”
And most of us are pretty good at this. We pay our mortgage before we buy the ticket to Paris. When the alarm sounds on Monday morning, we manage to make it into work on time even though we’d rather sleep in and have UberEats bring us pancakes.
But something often shifts when it comes to divorce. Whether from the sheer enormity of the emotional turmoil, a case of the “why me’s?” stopping your momentum or the utter exhaustion of a major transition, discipline often flags after divorce.
Which is a shame because the swift kick in the butt provided by discipline is exactly what we need to get us back up on our feet again.
Without discipline, I would probably still be Googling my ex and his other wife. Discipline is what allowed me to get my finances back in order after my ex confused me for a line of credit. And discipline is what led me to face those triggering events that, on my own, I would have preferred to avoid.
The good news? There are strategies that you can use to get yourself moving while your discipline is still lagging behind:
Rely on External Supports
When you’re feeling weak, it’s perfectly acceptable to use external supports to buttress you from the outside. This can take the form of a therapist or coach that provides you with accountability. Alternately, you may benefit from a structured program (divorce related or even something completely different) that guides you with instructions on what to do and when to it. If you gravitate this direction, make sure that you select a group that both pushes you and offers a hand of encouragement. Or maybe you simply need a living space that is devoid of your favored form of distraction.
I knew that I would have a tendency to withdraw into myself during divorce. So to combat that, I lived with a generous friend and her family for a year. I let my teammates at work fuss over me and encourage me to eat. And I reached out to doctors to help manage my physical and mental ailments that arose from the situation at hand.
So often we refrain from asking for help out of a fear of looking inadequate. Yet admitting weakness is a great sign of strength.
Set Tangible Goals
Discipline operates best when the goals are clearly laid out and achievable. It’s easier to motivate yourself to do those not-always-pleasant things when you understand why you’re doing them.
Divorce is a time of immense change and overwhelming, and often impossible-seeming, goals. So break it down. What is one small way you want your life to look different next month? What steps can you start taking right now that will get you there?
Next, record those necessary steps on your phone’s calendar and/or set reminders to get them done. Finally, when that reminder pops up, do the thing.
I posted a list of 12 goals that I wanted to reach that first year. It was in a highly visible place and I made notes on it as I made progress towards my intentions. There were days that those 12 bullet points kept me going.
Thanks to the neurotransmitter dopamine, our brains thrive on intermittent rewards. The concept of gamification capitalizes on this fact, tying game theory into everything from learning a new language to meditation.
Many lifestyle and wellness apps now apply this theory with opportunities to “level up” or unlock new content. Alternately, you can set challenges for yourself or commit to a streak of a certain behavior or action (or non-action in the case of trying to stop social media stalking your ex).
I used gamification during divorce when it came to paying off the debt he incurred. Every time I paid off another $1,000, I would grant myself a small guilt-free activity or purchase. It was my way of leveling up.
Discipline is not infinite. Several studies have demonstrated that decision fatigue is a real thing (interestingly, this is most true for the people that believe that their willpower will fade). There are a couple ways to combat this lack of willpower. The first is to force yourself to begin. Because once you have taken your first step, the resistance to the subsequent ones is lower.
The other is to cultivate habit. Within the last 6 months, my mom changed her entire way of eating. At first, food choices required an extreme amount of conscious awareness for her. It was new and nothing was automatic. That is the most difficult period, as the brain wants to go back to the easy comfort of the known pathways. But over several weeks, the new foods simply became, “The way I eat,” and no longer required so much mental energy and discipline. (An aside, I am super proud of her for making – and maintaining – these changes! Go mom!)
The more you can move into habit, the less discipline you’ll need.
Start Small and Gradually Expand
You don’t have to do it all at once. Hell, you can’t do it all at once.
But you have to start somewhere.
And you have to start sometime.
Why not here and why not now?