About a year or more into my separation with my ex, we were having some financial conflicts. Well du!, of course we were! The divorce wasn’t final yet, so nothing could get set up in the automated Attorney General Child Support system, which I can tell you from experience goes a long way to alleviate discourse within co-parent relationships. As you would expect, he wanted his way of spending money and I wanted mine.
On this particular day, I arrived at our neutral location to drop the kids off for visitation and my ex drives up in a brand new Ford truck. I’m saying things to the kids like, “Wow Guys! How exciting. You got a new car! How fun!” but I was feeling hurt and angry. He straps them in their car seats, and closes the door. I was holding it together pretty well but as he passed me he smirked, and I came completely unhinged. There I was, standing in the Randall’s parking lot screaming like a crazy lady. I’ll never forget the look on his face as he ran, not walked, ran to his car door and sped away as fast as he could. It’s funny, now thinking back on it, but all I could think after was, “Wow! That wasn’t like me at all!”
Life throws us curve balls. Things we can’t control and how we respond to those pitches are critical to our resilience. Dr. Robert Ellis said, “The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. You do not blame them on your mother, the ecology, or the president. You realize that you control your own destiny.” (Smith 2006) This is exactly what happened to me standing in that parking lot. I hadn’t realized it at first, but what I learned from this ended up being really important, not just for how I deal with situations like this, but could be used in all interactions; from work to friendships and parenting.
I think what really bothered me was I didn’t know what was real, he wouldn’t tell me anything, and because of that my imagination went wild. Some of what I perceived was probably correct, but there was also a measure of information I’m sure I had completely wrong. I made some assumptions and then let those assumptions make decisions for me about how I felt. I took those feelings and then behaved a certain way because of them.
Dr. Robert Ellis called this the ABC model. In this, model A is the adversity we face in a situation, and C is how we respond to that adversity. Most would say that A causes C, but in Ellis’s model he would say that this is not the case. He suggested that B, our beliefs, thoughts and thinking to explain what happened, are actually the cause of C. (Rosenthal 2009) Therefore, if I wanted to change how I respond, knowing I can’t do anything about my ex, I have to deal with the beliefs I hold instead. I don’t ever want to react that way to anyone again, not because I think he was right and I was wrong, but by responding like that I stirred up the hurt and anger I was working hard to let go. Most importantly, in that moment I gave him control.
Feeling hurt by my ex-husband was a reasonable position to be in, considering our circumstances, but ideas of how I thought he “should” act, left me feeling hopeless and that is what I didn’t want. Why was I so surprised that he was doing what he wanted, instead of what I wanted him to do? If we had problems when we were married it is no wonder we’ll have just as many problems, if not more, after a separation or divorce. A reality check in this area ended up being exactly what I needed and because of this I then realized that the areas of my life where I really felt safe, and empowered, were in the places where I could set goals and achieve them. This can be hard, especially when circumstances are sometimes decided for us.
So, what was within my control? I am in control of my beliefs and it is by our beliefs that we feel, behave, and make decisions. Knowing who I am and what I stand for creates a set of boundaries for how I respond to life, it’s a plumb line. I tell people often, “If at any point you are trying to decide something, check it against your purpose in life and see if it aligns. If it does not, you may be on the wrong track.” This doesn’t just apply to macro-beliefs like Faith in Jesus Christ as my Savior. It also applies to micro-beliefs like how I think life is supposed to go or how I think people should behave. In fact, any time someone says “supposed to”, “should”, “must”, “have to”, there is likely a belief buried in their statement. The question then to ask is, “What are you basing your thought on”. Also, if you find yourself consistently doing the opposite of what you believe, chances are you don’t really believe what you say you do.
It also required knowing who people are around me and having reasonable expectations of them. I found that this extended to my parenting, especially after I remarried and became a parent of teens. I had little ones so learning to parent “nearly-adults” was a big transition for me and it practically happened over night. Teens go from making decisions logically and maturely, to making emotional decisions in half a second. Inconsistency and trying new avenues of life to see what fits for them is normal. It is reasonable for a teen to act like a teen. In comparison, I am the adult and modeling an example of what maturity looks like is my job as their parent. How they behave does not change how I should behave, like in the example of my Randall’s Parking Lot experience. Regardless of who was right, I should maintain my composure and be consistent in my response, in such a way that it aligns with my purpose. If I say I am one thing, but do another, what would the point be?
The hardest thing to do when trying to set goals is to pursue them while at the same time surrendering the outcome to God. Most of us would claim we want God’s will in our lives, but then our actions say something different. We jump in front of God and take over his plans or we limit the avenues and options we are willing to try. I may work hard going to school pursuing a license for professional counseling after graduation, but His desire may not be that I get a license. What if I needed the education but the certification I am working toward would prevent me from achieving what He wants for me? In my experience, God’s plans have always been way better than my plans. I don’t want to miss a single blessing because I trample all over His will. Being willing to work toward something, but surrendering the outcome, is critical to any goal setting.
This applies to parenting in that it may be His plan for my children to do something I would prefer they not. For example, I listened to another parent recently who said their child was struggling in school and behaviors at home. The parent was very closed-minded and narrow about what was expected from the child and the routes allowed for improvement. Not once did this parent discuss thoughts about God’s leading or desiring His will. I do this very thing and have to watch myself closely to make sure I do not do the same. I get wrapped around certain desired outcomes. I focus downward and think that by doing things a certain way I am gaining safety and sureness. As a result I stop looking up and the pattern of hopelessness repeats. It’s a hope-sucker.
Ephesians 3:20 says, “Now glory be to God, who by His mighty power at work within us is able to do far more than we would ever dare to ask or even dream of – infinitely beyond our highest prayers, desires, thoughts or hopes.” Then in Colossians 2:7 it says, “Having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude.” If I can surrender outcomes to God and let Him lead me where it goes, the outcome will be far greater than I could have planned for. Furthermore, I am more grateful than words can express when the Lord delivers me through the fire. Gratefulness is an important element to hope.
There is a whole lot more to hope in the Lord than this, but in the Lord my thinking is set straight. “Hope is not an emotion; it’s a way of thinking or a cognitive process.” (Brown 2010)
1. Do not make assumptions
2. Know what I am in control of?
3. Maintain boundaries
4. Desire God’s will first.
By Vanessa Jackson, MABC, LPC-Intern
The Timothy Center
Supervised by Jimmy Myers, LPC-S