I used to work at a company with such high employee turnover that management should’ve installed a revolving door in the reception area. Some business owners might have been deeply troubled to see nearly two dozen workers come and go within an 18-month period, but my boss remained unfazed.

“Imagine filling up a bucket with water,” he said, explaining his staffing philosophy. “Stick your hand in and then quickly pull it out. See the hole that’s left?”

Of course, there’d be no hole. The displaced water would instantly rush in to fill that spot. Other than a few ripples, there would be no evidence that a hand had even been there. And in a matter of seconds, the water surface would calm once again. The lesson? No one is irreplaceable.

This message washed over me again at a celebration for my daughter’s most recent college achievement. My family was there, my ex was there, and members of his family, including his new wife, were there. Since our marriage ended nearly six years ago, it marked the first time we were all gathered together in the same room.

I was certain I had my emotions well in check before the event, but what I didn’t expect was how surreal the whole thing was. As it turns out, I had a front row seat to watching my ex’s wife – my kids’ stepmother – living the life I used to lead. She hugged and chatted happily with the people I used to call family. She shared a drink with my former brother-in-law and later joined my former sister-in-law in a giggly trip to the ladies’ room. When a couple I once considered friends entered the party, she jumped up and greeted them with a warm hug. It was truly like It’s A Wonderful Life with me cast as George Bailey, forced to witness scenes of my own life without me in it.

It really hit me hard. Although my hand had been submerged in the same water for over 20 years, the water barely rippled when it got pulled from the bucket. Now someone else’s hand was in its place. My presence was not only not missed, it was as if I’d never even been there.

It took me a day or so to process my feelings. I knew I’d have to start self-analyzing in order to survive the year ahead when I will be in the same situation at least three more times. You see, my daughter is not only graduating in 2017, she’s getting married too.

I really, really envy couples who can walk in separate directions and completely move on with their lives after the ink on their divorce decree dries. Never again do they have to face the person who shredded their heart, and in an instant relive all of the hurtful things they did. They never have to hear about or worse, see what has become of their (better, happier, more successful and fulfilling) lives once they have been removed from it. They don’t have to meet the (better, happier, more successful and fulfilling) person who has replaced them and see how smooth and easy that transition was for people they once considered family.

That is not my case, nor is it the case of anyone who shares children.

Being able to define my pain was a start. Yes, it hurt to see this woman slip into the life I used to have, even if that is not my life nor the life I want anymore. It hurt to see her with others I cared about and equate that to mean that they no longer cared about me. It hurt to compare myself to her – I mean, she’s clearly much more lovable and more fun to be around than I am.

And then I began to see these painful untruths for what they were: my ego was hurt. I’m obviously special, so it seems only reasonable that once my hand was pulled out of that bucket of water, a giant hole would remain, right? Huh… what? What do you mean there’s no hole? Guess I’m not so special after all.

Quite often, ego can be our worst enemy. Its narrative is not conducive to healing and moving on. Instead, it beats you up, kicks you in square in the shortcomings and cruelly taunts you about the loss of the dream you had to leave behind.

I had to shift focus and once again remind myself that I have a new life now. The people that matter most in the world to me, my children, my partner and my family, are still at the center of that life. No one will ever change that. At the same time, I am a better, happier, more successful and fulfilled person for having left my marriage and for daring to dream of having a new life.

Once I took a deep breath, I had a second thought about my hand in the bucket of water. And then I remembered the Ripple Effect:

“The Ripple Effect is based on the understanding that we are all connected. These connections stretch like an incredibly interwoven and complicated tapestry. Each of us exists within this tapestry. Thoughts and actions are like stones dropped in a pond and they create ripples that travel outward. Everything we do and think affects the people in our lives and their reactions in turn affect others. The choices you make have far-reaching consequences. Each of us carries within us the capacity to change the world in small ways for better or worse.”

Honestly, I have no idea how my presence or my absence has affected the lives of others – so I cannot let my ego fill in those blanks. I can’t pretend to know how other people, including former family members, felt or reacted to having me sit in the same room that evening. Maybe they remembered the good times we used to have too. Maybe they still miss me in some small way.

That’s the problem with my old boss’ bucket theory. What he failed to realize is that everyone who comes into our lives, no matter how briefly, leaves an indelible mark. We can switch places; we can call in a substitute; we can be succeeded; but you and I are irreplaceable. We are not shoes, cars, iPhones or washing machines.

So, here’s what I know. When someone else is sitting in the chair you used to occupy, it is only a sign that after divorce, the earth continues to turn, the clock keeps ticking and yes, life does go on. Even when your ego is telling you that you’ve been replaced, the truth is that your personal worth and the impact you’ve made on others cannot be erased.

Switching Off the Negative

lightswitch (1)

I first encountered my shadow late at night. It was shortly after my separation when I was at my most vulnerable, the best time for sinister shadows to slither out from their shady corners. It attached itself to me and from then on, followed me everywhere. It tried to drag me back down into the darkness by creating fear. The fear that I am not enough. That I am not lovable. That I am 40 and alone.

My shadow played an endless loop of negative, self-defeating and sometimes self-destructive thoughts in my head. It became a dangerously addictive soundtrack and that fear only perpetuated my anger. Sure, resentment and blame made me feel better, at least temporarily, as I rehashed my sob story (“I don’t deserve this. This is so unfair.”). But playing the victim and dredging up the misery of past events only fed into the fear; and my shadow loved every minute of it.

My shadow’s name? Ego.

“When you recognize that negative voice in your head as the ego, you also become aware that you are not that voice,” explains Mary Holloway, a speaker, writer and resilience coach. “You become aware that you have a higher self; and the higher self and the ego (lower self) cannot co-exist.”

Holloway says if the ego is the shadow, think of the higher self as the light switch. It comes from a place of love. Flick on the light and the shadow disappears.

“This awareness makes you realize that you no longer have to react to the fear because your thoughts are not you, they are from your ego,” she says. “When you come into awareness, you can move above these thoughts and shift your perspective from negative, fear-based thoughts to ones that serve you positively.”

Once I called out my ego, I took back my power by replacing the negativity with self-assured talk from my higher self. I even created my own mantra to drown out destructive thoughts that I am not worthy:

I want what I deserve, and I deserve what I want. 

I want what I deserve, and I deserve what I want.

It wasn’t instant nor as simple as deciding to turn my ego off, but getting to a place of awareness allowed me to see the shadow for what it was. It wasn’t reality and I didn’t have to react to it. Even when my shadow tries to play that loop of lies (and it still does) I just record a better track over it. I know that I am lovable. I know that I am surrounded by people who love me. I know that I am enough.

Today is Bell Let’s Talk Day, opening up the discussion about mental health. Emotional self-care during divorce is a valid part of that conversation.