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5 Tips to Regulate in a Toxic Family Law Case

Attorney Holly Houston Maintaining Calm during a divorce

People cry in my office regularly. Custody and parenting cases — the fear of losing a child or control of a relationship — can turn even the most emotionally solid people into hot messes with low impulse control. As a Kentucky family lawyer for 21 years, I regularly witness people who lie, cheat and steal. I’ve seen images that can’t be unseen and watched parents and partners use email and text to “bomb” and gut punch each other under the guise of communicating about the kids.

Family law cases can be arduous, no doubt. But with effective coping skills and regular encouragement, clients can thrive when the case is resolved — or at least survive intact. I should have “I’m on your team!” as an auto response in my phone, I text it so often to clients who need a reminder they are not going it alone.

Sometimes, though, clients need more than tea, supportive texts and a hug. They need “outside help” to manage their minds and calm their spirits. A client attuned to attempts at emotional manipulation by the other party, including blaming and gaslighting, for instance, is already a step ahead of the game. Therapy and the tools it provides are state-of-the art protective gear.

In addition to therapy, what steps can clients take to stem the emotional tide during turbulent cases to enable clarity of thought and guard against a knee jerk reaction both in and outside of the courtroom? Enter Sammy-Jo Hand, yogi, teacher, student of the world and a wellness expert before wellness was trendy. I asked her for tips to give clients to help them self-regulate in and out of the courtroom. And, boy, did she deliver. Here are five ways to check in with yourself and out of conflict.

 

Are there techniques a person can utilize while sitting across a table from a spouse or partner they think ruined their life?

When having to face-to-face deal with the person you least want to face-to-face deal with, a natural coping mechanism might be to throw eye daggers and perhaps imagine that those eye daggers are in fact real daggers with just enough tetanus-y rust dabbled on the dull pointed edge to, I don’t know, cause death?

But then again, you might be open to trying something a little more chill (and a little less murder-y), like focusing on your breath.

Bringing awareness to the breath activates our parasympathetic nervous system, our bodies’ built-in de-stress system. (High five to the human body, right?!) Being in the here and now by using the breath as a tool, therefore, reduces the stress and anxiety around what’s happening right in front of us, as well as taking the attention away from the great unknown of the next moment.

When the anger rises, when the tears come, when all of the swear words beckon from inside of your lips desperate to burst free, just come back to your breath. It might seem simple. It might even seem cliché or cheesy, but it works. Breathe slow and deep. Count the breath. Notice the feel of each one as it passes through your lips or nose. Feel it move all the way down into your belly and then follow the breath back out again.

 

Does anything help lessen the feeling of being overwhelmed by fear of change and not being able to cope with it?

Adapting to change is an innate ability that we human beings have been gifted, but the fact that we have this helpful little evolutionary tool doesn’t seem to make it any easier. Change can still be super hard and super painful.

We can give ourselves permission to be a little bit selfish in the game of putting ourselves back together again and getting to know this new version of ourselves.

What are your favorite things to do on a Sunday? Is it helpful to write about your fears and/or your desires for the future? Is walking in nature your thing? What new rituals can you create for you and your kids? Do you like to listen to music and maybe have a dance as you get the kids ready for school and/or yourself ready for work in the morning? Do you have time in your day to take a bath or at the very least a 30-second mindful hot shower? Can you afford an entire guilt-free day/half-day/30-minutes/millisecond in your snuggly bed for the sake of healing? And where is your favorite place to have a guilt-free Claire Danes snot cry? Make your personal mantra during this time, ‘Me me me me me me me me me me!’

 

How can a person move past another’s “wrongs” to get to their “rights”  – to be happy, to forgive, to move on, to let go?

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh offers this sound advice: “If your house is on fire, the most urgent thing to do is to go back and try to put out the fire, not to run after the person you believe to be the arsonist. So, when you are angry, if you continue to interact with or argue with the other person, if you try to punish her (him/them), you are acting exactly like someone who runs after the arsonist while everything goes up in flames.”

I think of chasing after an apology that we may never receive as chasing after the person who lit the fire. The apology is not important. What is important is putting out the fire; tending to our needs and offering ourselves the love and care that we most definitely need during what might well be the most challenging time of our life.

For you, putting out the fire might look like doing the things that you like to do and finding new things that bring you joy. Telling the people around you that you love them. Noticing the beauty in nature. It could mean baking something delicious or taking yourself out for a meal and savoring every bite. When in the shower, perhaps you wash your body really slowly and tell your body that you’re grateful for it, spending extra time on the areas that may have experienced trauma, i.e. your heart.

 

What’s the best tip to “shrug it off” when you feel yourself buying into the other person’s manipulation, especially if you are in mediation or in Court and in the presence of others?

There is a meditation practice that has us breathe in the suffering of the world and transform it into something positive. Intense, but super powerful. It helps to promote compassion and take the attention away from the immediacy of our own experience. Like using poison as medicine. We are not alone in our struggles. Other people are feeling stuff, too — including the very person who is causing us pain right now.

Now, that compassion business is like advance-level Saving Princess Toadstool stuff, so if it feels like too much then try these simple little treats instead:

  • Get your good selves some dried lavender and put a fair whack of it into a small cotton drawstring baggy. Carry this baggy around with you in your pocket so that when you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can take it out and take a whiff. Lavender is an extremely calming herb and can help to re-center you when you’re feeling overcome with stress and other yucky feelings.
  • Put both feet on the ground. Imagine that you are barefoot and standing with your feet in dirt, or sand, grass or on rock; just imagine something beneath you that makes you feel connected to the earth. Take 3 deep breaths. Imagine that you’re breathing from the ground all the way up to your heart and then repeat. Connecting to the earth in this way can help us feel more grounded and therefore more in control of our present moment experience.
  • “This too shall pass” is a good mantra to repeat for those moments in life we wish to escape. If this moment sucks, don’t worry, because the next moment is going to be different.
  • Close your eyes and imagine that there is a bright shiny light surrounding you. This light is kind of like the bubble that Glinda the Good Witch cruises around OZ in, only this bubble is a bubble of protection. Your protection bubble is going to help you deflect all of the bad vibes that are being thrown at and around you. Boom. Pow. Kazam.

 

Are there any websites or podcasts you recommend to begin the process of letting go (even while everything in you wants to hold on for dear life)?

During my divorce, someone recommended the book, When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön. I was kind of offended because the title seemed dramatic and I was trying to act all, ‘I’m fine and totally normal and not dying on the inside at all.’ But clearly the dying on the inside was actually evident on the outside. This book — which I paid $12 for and could carry around in my handbag — was like a therapist.

I would also recommend reading or listening to anything by Brené Brown. She’s a gem and will help you through a hard time like she’s your BFF. I promise that it’s not weird at all to think of the woman talking at you from the audiobook as your BFF.

Tara Brach’s podcast is also a really helpful tool when on the path of healing. She talks Buddhist philosophy, which is steeped in lessons of letting go, remaining present and opening to the flow of life (the beautiful, the ugly, the joy, the pain and all of the in-between).  She has an extremely calm and soothing voice and offers many free meditations. If nothing else, listen before bed and you’ll be bouncing amongst the sleep clouds with those fluffy sheep in no time.