Today, Life surprised me in a strange way. I was teaching a class of MBA students and was debriefing an exercise on negotiation that they had done yesterday in which they had played roles of buyers and sellers. At one point I wanted to emphasize how negotiations are not just about buying and selling but about the agreements that we need to reach and agree upon in our everyday lives. True that we negotiate in business contexts but we also negotiate in various other aspects of our lives. Quite spontaneously, I brought up the example of my own divorce and mentioned that divorce is also a form of negotiation. A complex, consuming and intense one – but at the heart of it, it is still a negotiation. As I mentioned this example, a part of me started smiling inside of me and I realized that finally the word ‘Divorce’ had lost it’s sting for me. A few years back it was a loaded and heavy word for me – something that had strings of judgement and unpleasant emotions attached to it. A word that would make me shrivel and hide because it represented something that I wanted to avoid at any cost – something that I had made into a ‘taboo’ in my world. Today, it was an example that I spontaneously brought up in front of a class of 70 students.
This post is not about the reasons why I got divorced. It is about how a word (and therefore the concept represented by that word) which was heavy and frightening to me eventually became a neutral word that now points to yet another life event that I went through. So this post is really about the significance that we attach to words and concepts and how that significance can sometimes land up tormenting us.
Phase 1 is when a word (and therefore the associated concept) is so loaded and significant that we unknowingly set up rules in our own heads about how we will (or never will) participate in or condone a particular action. This is how ‘Divorce’ was for me at one stage. At that time if anyone had mentioned the word ‘divorce’ (and indeed I did have people in my life suggesting it), it would practically fall on deaf years (my own deaf years). In this phase the idea (in this case the idea of Divorce) has been made so wrong that it does not even get permission to enter your mindspace in order to be considered as an option. This is also the stage where we are quick to judge others who might be engaging in that activity or process without even taking in the finer and more detailed parameters of the particular situation into consideration. In psychology we call this ‘black and white thinking’ something driven by the more primitive parts of our brain. It typically occurs because the very mention of the word evokes strong aversion or some other type of negative emotion (like fear or anger) in us. This emotion then hijacks our thinking in a way that the primitive part of the brain is activated and this part of the brain thinks in ‘black and white’ since it is not capable of processing the finer nuances or complexities of the particular situation.
Phase 2 is when one is forced to reflect upon and deal with a certain word (because the concept or activity that the word points to has now become a reality in their own lives). The concept (in this case ‘Divorce’) could have become a reality because of choice or due to external circumstances beyond one’s control. Either way, it is now something that the person has to cognitively face and deal with on a day to day basis. Now this word (or concept) occupies real time presence in the person’s thought processes. He or she has no option but to reflect on it and process it along with the strong emotions that it might still evoke. The word still stings but the word has to be used (in one’s own thoughts as well as in speech) in real and undeniable ways. This is the toughest phase in my opinion. In this phase one feels confused, vulnerable, and susceptible to other people’s judgements. This is because the person himself or herself still has judgements attached to the word or idea. In this phase one also tends to get defensive and easily provoked by other people’s statements (even when the person making the statement might not have meant any harm). Sometimes society and the judgements and conclusions of people around us make it stickier and trickier to move out of phase 2.
Phase 3 (and what I think is the last phase) is when the word (or related concept) finally loses it’s sting. For me it took time, and happened ever so gradually that I did not even consciously realize that the word had finally lost it’s sting. With regard to the word ‘Divorce’ I only realized this in class today when I could speak about the incident in a detached and non-defensive way. I think this can happen faster for some people and takes more time for others. One factor that helps make it faster is if the person is forced to use the word more and more in public situations and with others. I think it typically takes longer if one keeps silent and processes the word only in solitude within the confines of his or her own inner world. It also helps if one can meet up with others in similar situations who are also trying to deal with the pain of a certain word (because of the associated pain of the event it points to), and they talk about it openly. Each time I had an opportunity to talk openly about my own divorce I did sense the energy and charge around the word shifting. However, this works well only if the people you are talking to themselves have low charge and judgement associated with the word, or are at least approaching the conversation with an aim to discharge the charge around the word.
Now I am not writing this essay to condone divorce or to justify it, either for me or for anybody else. We all know what divorce means. It is the dissolution of a previously made contract and agreement – the one we call ‘marriage’. However, a mere dissolution of a contract does not make ‘divorce’ the heavy and dark event that it appears to be for many of us. It is our own judgements and the meanings that we internally attach to the word (and therefore the event or process it points to) which makes it so.
I am sharing my own experience in the hope that it might bring more ease to others who might be struggling with the density and charge that certain words (or concepts) might be unleashing in their own inner worlds. This could be words like ‘Divorce’ or even other words (and associated concepts) like ‘Failure’ or ‘Layoff’ or even ‘Death’. None of these are probably life incidents that one would desire or wish for, and there is undoubtedly pain associated with them if and when they happen. However, in my opinion the actual pain is one thing and the layers of judgement and meaning and significance that surround it is quite another thing. The latter usually comes from mental conditioning and our own internal definitions of the words. An animal for example will feel physical pain caused by an incident but not the trauma associated with the word that points to the incident.
Words are man-made constructs and together as a society we have given them layers and layers of significance. This significance can work for us or it can work against us holding us captive within the folds of it’s charge and the emotions that it evokes. It is freedom from the charges associated with such words that I am inviting you to explore.