What to do when Everything is Falling Apart
From the outside, everything looked great.
If they ever started giving out Oscars for best fake smile, my mantelpiece would be full.
On the inside, however, I was falling apart.
You know when it feels like everything is wrong, but you usually over-generalize?
Well, not this time.
In the middle of a law-degree I found myself having severe doubts about what I wanted to do with my career. I realized I had started law-school for all the wrong reasons. But I was terrified of quitting, and I didn't even know what I wanted to do instead.
Around the same time, my relationship was slowly falling apart. My parter was distancing himself from me and we were fighting more and more. After 8 years, where the last two years were very dysfunctional, he broke up with me (and came to the realization that he was gay).
In the midst of all this, I quit my part-time job after being treated very unfairly by my boss.
I realized that I had slowly been putting on 45 lbs and that my main diet consisted of sugar and carbs. When I started to drop the pounds, I developed an eating disorder.
When my boyfriend left me, so did about half of my so-called friends. When I needed help the most (because I was literally, although temporarily, homeless) my friends rejected me.
Economically, I was unable to take care of myself. I had to quit in the middle of two very competitive (and well-paid) internships. I was forced to apply for financial support.
And then I got so depressed and suicidal I had to be hospitalized. I was diagnosed with a serious mental illness. Insomnia. And a chronic pain disorder.
On top of the fact that I couldn't study, I couldn't work, I was dumped, I couldn't eat, I had almost no friends, I couldn't sleep, and I was in constant emotional and physical pain – almost everyone thought I was doing fine because I was fighting so hard to pretend like nothing was happening.
I think I can say very truly that I know how it feels when everything is falling apart.
And I had absolutely no idea what to do about it.
Anyone can handle a little crisis. We humans are like water. We adapt. We change. We shape according to the path.
But the overwhelm, hopelessness and existential loneliness when no matter where we turn there is fear, loss, challenge, sadness and crisis?
There are limits to what is humanly possible.
The worst part is the hopelessness.
You are in an excruciatingly painful situation.
And no matter what you do to change it, it feels like a drop in the ocean.
You feel so powerless, so small, so insignificant.
The second worst part is the part where you takes the situation – and your inability to do something about it – deeply personal.
What is wrong with me?
What did I do to deserve this?
How come I can't change (when everybody else can)?
So what do you do when everything is falling apart? When every area of your life is in ruins? When you feel hopeless, powerless and just ... well, less?
If I could have written a guide to myself – that girl who was crying in bed and staring hopelessly into empty space because she was exhausted and could see absolutely no way out – this is what I would say to her.
What to do when everything is falling apart
Examine the ruins
Before you do anything, you have to face the damage. There's a reason why aid workers and presidents walk among the ruins and take it all in before they start doing anything about it. Because how can you change something you don't have the courage to face? This might be the most painful part of the process, and if you find yourself unable to do it alone I suggest teaming up with a friend, coach or therapist to do this work.
Start with writing a list of all the life areas that are problematic. For me the list included things like close relationships, friendships, mental health, physical, health, work, finances, sleep, food etc. Write it down in as much detail as you can. The more information you can get down on paper, the better.
There are two reasons why this is important. One, because it may not be as bad as you thought. And two, because it may be.
Knowledge is power, and seeing it all from a birds-eye view will give you the advantage of perspective.
Accept that it is what it is
I know you wish things were different, but in order to change you have to accept that this is your life right now. Acceptance doesn't mean you have to like it, or that you can't change it.
Acceptance means that you can do something about it from a place of power and peace.
It's hard to accept what feels unacceptable. It's hard to swallow that this is your current reality. Most likely, you will have to make the decision to accept again and again and again. Make the decision, and decide to accept. And when you find yourself trying to fight the present reality by wishing, blaming, arguing or burying yourself under the covers – make the decision again.
Acceptance is a practice. You do it over and over again until it becomes second nature.
The trick is to take responsibility, without the blame. Don't look for someone to punish for what is going on, not even yourself. Blaming yourself or others will not change anything, it only gives temporary relief.
Instead, take resposibility by acknowledging that you are the one in power of changing your life. No one can change this, but you. You may need help from therapists and coaches, friends and family. But although they can assist you on your way, only you can truly help yourself.
It's your responsibility, and you will be the one who has to do the hard work. But at the end of the day, you are the one who will go to bed knowing that you did your best. You will be the one to reap the benefits of your work. And you will be the one who wakes up one day with a life that makes you happy and content.
Look for light piercing in from the cracks
There's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in. (Leonard Cohen)
It is vital that you actively look for hope. One of the best ways of doing this is to search for people who have been where you are, and who made it out. When I was diagnosed, I read everything I could come across about the subject. All the clinical information was useful, but what really made a difference for me was the memoirs. I read about people who had been through the pain – and who healed and moved on.
When my relationship fell apart, I did the same. I also singled out the people in my network who had been dumped, broke and lonely. I shared my pain with them, and they understood. And then they told me how they recovered, healed and moved on. It gave me so much more than any tips or advice could give. It gave me hope.
Write a gratitude list
Although everything truly is falling apart, there are still good things in your life. If you disagree, you just have to look closer. If on some days your gratitude list only consists of "being alive" and "sweet, comfortable bed" – that is okay. The important part is that you are training your mind to recognize the goodness when you see it. One day your life will be different and you will be grateful that you learned not to take it for granted.
Apply the 20/80 principle to your change work
When you find yourself in a situation where you have to make overwhelmingly many – and huge – changes, it is really useful to apply an efficiency strategy like the 20/80 principle. I describe this in more detail in my book Feeling Good when Life is Hard (subscribe here to get your free copy) but this principle is basically about identifying an area of change where you will get disproportionate results. This means to tackle the 20% of your problems that cause 80% of your misery first.
In my case above, physical pain and lack of sleep was the two small things that contributed to a huge amount of my pain, so that's where I started. I got treatment for my chronic pain and sleeping pills, and I immediately started to feel a lot better. This made me hopeful and gave me more energy to tackle my larger problems.
Take extra good physical care of yourself
When you are in the middle of a storm, it is extra important to take good care of yourself. If you feel the need to sleep more, do it!
There's a reason why physiological needs like food, water, shelter and warmth is at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs (now apparently accompanied by WIFI). You need to be fed like a baby, watered like a plant and taken care of like the valuable human being you are. Nurture yourself during this difficult time and you will get through it all.
Ask for help
If there's ever a time to ask for help, this is it.
We all need help from time to time. And I know it is scary to admit that things aren't going so well. People may be surprised, but I think you'll find that most people actually want to help you if you let them.
I feel the need to mention that it's quite common to either be in, or think you are in, a situation where there's no one you can ask for help. Although you may not have friends or family available – or the finances to pay for help – there are options. Consider calling a hotline or asking for help at a church, a family center or anywhere else in your community. Good people are everywhere.
Find a safe space
When there are closed doors no matter where you turn, it's very easy to feel constantly stressed out. When not even sleep is a refuge, you keep tossing and turning in your sleep (or like me, not being able to sleep at all) it can very easily begin to feel very hopeless.
You need a safe space. A safe space, a safe activity, or a safe person is very important. Where can you seek refuge?
For me, it was taking yoga classes. When I was doing yoga, I was a hundred percent focused on what I was doing. For an hour and a half, it was like the world didn't even exist. I forgot time and space, and all I was thinking about was to keep my balance, my alignment or my breath.
What is your safe space?
Realize you can't think your way out of your problems
No matter how much you think about it, thinking alone won't change the situation. You have to take action, in order to see results. If your mind is anything like mine, you will think that no matter what you do it's not enough. Or that it's too hard, impossible or that you don't know what to do.
The mind is even resisting positive change.
Just remember this. Those are just thoughts. You can't know that it's too hard, not enough or impossible. There's just no way of knowing before you take action.
It took you a long time to get here, and it won't be done in a minute to change either. They say that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and that the second best time is now. So true!
You might not see the fruits of your labor right away, but that doesn't make it any less important to plant seeds. It can be really helpful to look at the change situation like a the life of a plant. First you plant the seeds. You make tiny changes to your situation by making a new friend, paying off a small sum on your debt, making one good decision about your health. And then you water it by consistently doing it, over and over again.
One day you will reap what you sowed. You will be a beautiful plant ready to bloom.
Measure your progress
To keep yourself motivated – and to keep the hard thoughts away – make sure you measure and celebrate your successes. Set small goals and congratulate yourself for reaching them. Gather proof that change is possible and that you are capable.
The more you get the ball rolling, the easier it will be.
Accept that it takes time
Changing your whole life takes time, and you need to accept that your plants are not growing faster than nature will allow them to. Neither will your friendships, or your healing, or your self-knowledge.
Don't pick the fruit while it's still green, but marvel over the process.
Change is a beautiful thing, and what you are doing is no less than amazing.
Remember that when you can turn your life around and make big change like this, it proves that you are capable of anything.
Everything is possible.