First-class coach: Our mental attitude has a strong bearing on how we get through difficult times

Q: I'm trying to cope with a nasty divorce and an ongoing legal battle over contact with my children. It's taking up all my emotional energy, and I have little motivation left for work. My previously sympathetic boss and colleagues think it's time I snapped out of it, but I'm struggling to manage. How can I get through this without it affecting my ability to do my job?

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A: Throughout our working lives, events can have a profound effect on us and can divert our energies in other directions. Some of these are largely positive, with weddings and parenthood at the top of the list; others, such as bereavement, redundancy and divorce, have a much more negative impact. Divorce is never easy, but bitter custody battles are particularly hard on both parents, and the feelings of helplessness in the twists and turns of the legal process can have a major impact on all areas of life.

Although we may not be able to do much about the causes of these events, and feel powerless to affect their course, we have some leeway in how we choose to cope with them. Our mental attitude has a strong bearing on how we get through difficult times.

What you can't afford is for the strong emotions that your predicament conjures up to jeopardise your professional standing. Economic stability is important for you as a parent and will have a bearing on your case for access. Emotional stability is essential for you, professionally and personally. At work, your boss and colleagues need to know you won't drop the ball; in court, the authorities will need to know you are a capable parent who can be trusted - so you need to find tactics to cope with your emotions.

First, try to compartmentalise the two areas of your life. I don't believe it's wrong to show emotions at work, but in this case your needs are best met by finding ways of hiding your feelings when you are there. I'm not suggesting you suppress them entirely, just that you take care where, when and to whom you express them. For example, you could allocate some time to yourself every day for venting your anger, frustration and sadness in private or to a sympathetic friend - preferably outside work hours.

If you don't have a suitable friend, find a counsellor or therapist who can provide a safe place for you to release your feelings. Knowing that you have permission to let it all out may help you keep things under control while at work. Once you've done this a few times, you may well find that you don't need these vent sessions so much, or at all.

Some people who go through traumatic times feel themselves to be victims and find it hard to move on with their lives. Their hurt and anger become all-consuming and they have trouble re-engaging with life. Usually, this passes over time, but being in victim mode can become a habit.

One way we can help ourselves feel stronger and more positive is to take a mental break from our fears and negative imaginings to envisage positive outcomes. What would be the best possible outcome for you and your children?

What could you do to make that outcome more likely? What resources do you have that might help - friends and contacts, your own past experience, professional expertise, money? When you have thought through what you want to achieve and created a plan, make sure you put it into action.

Action is a great stress-buster and, besides, you wouldn't want to regret leaving stones unturned at some future date.

Many people in similar circumstances find release from emotional turmoil by throwing themselves into their work.

They gain distraction from problems they can't solve and reassurance from doing tasks to the best of their ability, so that at least one area of their lives is going well. You don't feel motivated by work at the moment, but it's possible that if you can summon the energy to focus on it, you'll start to find it more rewarding.

Don't judge your boss and colleagues too harshly for what feels like a withdrawal of support. Seeing you in a distressed state but feeling unable to help probably embarrasses them. To paraphrase Henry Ford, whether we think we can cope or think we can't, we are probably right. Decide you are not going to allow this divorce to make you a victim, and develop an action plan to allow yourself the best chance of success.

- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail:

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