Dear Carolyn: In public, my ex is charming, outgoing, remembers everyone’s name and in general shows a perfect-looking face to the world. At home, Ex was angry, controlling and abusive. The red flags were there from the day we met, but I was young and didn’t know then what I do now. Ex and I have school-age children and share custody, which is the norm in our state. Teaching your kids how to lie so that the other parent doesn’t get mad at them is not a good place to be. And, yes, the kids and I are all in therapy.

We were together for 20 years. I can see now that my sense of self was broken down bit by bit. All our friends, where and how we lived, how I dressed, what we ate, where and when we traveled, even how I packed a bag, were dictated by my ex. I knew this wasn’t normal, but felt powerless. Ex’s way was the only way and my opinion counted for zero.

I still feel like a zero. I lost myself and don’t know where to begin. We are civil in public, but I know Ex doesn’t respect me as a person. And I now know every choice, gift, trip in our relationship was about whether it made Ex look like a great partner to the outside world.

Can you recommend how to begin the process of being myself in the world? My therapist says I need to take better care of myself to model good behavior for my children. I’m working on it, but feel more than a little lost and overwhelmed.

— Zero

Zero: Understandably so. Managing a breakup is hard, with kids it’s harder and with a history of abuse, it can be terrifying. And when you’re denied the use of your decision-making muscles for 20 years, it makes sense their atrophy would feel complete.

But it's not complete. You're out of this destructive relationship. You're getting help for your kids. You're in a therapist's office working to understand and overcome. You're writing to me, aching to have yourself back.

These are not nothing. I would argue they are everything — specifically, the version that comes to mind when you see a flower pushing up through a crack in the sidewalk.

We see it over and over, that nature will not be denied.

So, I’ll make you a deal. You’re a newly single parent with much to do already. So much. Your therapist wants you to add self-care to your routine, rightly, so please make even the smallest adjustments in that direction.

But for the “process of being myself in the world,” let’s add exactly nothing to your to-do list. Just trust yourself instead. Trust your nature to figure out it’s finally getting some sunlight and it’s safe to grow. With struggles and setbacks, but still.

If you get through your family's transition phase, get into a new routine, heal a bit, and still feel you're not progressing personally, then, absolutely, start taking deliberate steps toward self-discovery and restoration. Write back so we can discuss that.

But for now, define yourself as someone who knows how to give a person a break when she needs one, and tell yourself: Nature’s got this. Your self knows how to grow back.