Earlier this year: Going a day without crying feels like an accomplishment. Over the past few weeks, I’ve watched many things I cherish fall apart:
- I found out that one of my projects was in copyright violation and had to deal with a bunch of lawyers to sort everything out.
- A business partner of several years left the team and has become an aggressive competitor.
- A family friend passed away from brain cancer.
Without warning or explanation, L*, my now ex-girlfriend, left me.
Two old friends did something extremely hurtful, leaving me feeling betrayed and abandoned when I needed them most.
- The icing on the cake? Somewhere along the line I injured my rotator cuff. Full recovery will take months.1
With so many difficult things happening all at once, it feels like there is nowhere for my mind or heart to turn to that isn’t overrun with pain.
Early April, 2018: For the first time in months, I’m feeling good again. Without thinking about it, I started dancing around the apartment while I was getting ready for the day. My thoughts are no longer dominated by pain and loss, instead, they’re busy creating a present and future that I can easily fall in love with.
I’ve realized that before things started to crumble, large parts of my life fell out of alignment. In other words, I had more agency and responsibility for the bad things that happened to me than I initially understood. In a way, they were a blessing. As I rebuild, I’m working to integrate the lessons from earlier this year.
One of the stranger parts of the human experience is that life occasionally collapses, often without any obvious warning or cause. When this happens the pain and confusion seem almost too much.
Stranger still is that this type of collapse is deceptively common. Many of the people you admire have endured similar shit storms. Still, they were able to reassemble their lives and create something even better – and you’ll be able to do the same.
In this article, we’ll discuss what to do when it feels like your life is falling apart. We’ll examine how to deal with the darkness and how to re-assemble yourself in a way that is gentle, compassionate, and healing. Our goal is to shepherd ourselves through the collapse and use it to improve the overall arc of our lives.
First and foremost, let your friends love the shit out of you
The best thing I did during my collapse was leaning on my close friends. For a few weeks, I became legit needy. I called people and poured my heart out without really asking how they were doing. I wrote long emails trying to understand what the fuck was happening. I let other people cook, pick up the tab, take me to the movies,2 and help with chores.
More importantly, I let them see me as I was: scared, confused, weak, defeated, and soaked in tears. I trusted them to hold me when I couldn’t support myself. Though exceptionally healing, doing this required more vulnerability than anything I’ve done.
Keep in mind that not all of your friends will be able to offer the skilled, open-armed embrace that you deserve. Be thoughtful in who you open up to. The ideal is someone who will allow you to be just as you are. They won’t tell you to cheer up or remind you that other people have it worse. They wont turn away because your vulnerability makes them uncomfortable. They’ll turn towards you and do everything they can to make you feel loved, supported, and seen.
And remember: you don’t need to tell everyone everything. Only open up to the people you feel comfortable with.
Surrender to the pain
During periods of extreme difficulty, almost everyone’s instinct is to flee from pain. We distract ourselves with the usual suspects (work, sex, drugs, alcohol, television, Internet, video games, food, etc.). We strive to compartmentalize, deny, reframe, and power through. I certainly don’t fault anyone for any of these behaviors. Dealing with intense pain often feels impossible.
Unfortunately, if your goal is to heal, then you’re going to have to face the pain, and you might as well do it sooner rather than later.
Instead of working to ignore or deny the discomfort, I urge you to feel it. All of it. Cry. Wail. Feel crippling sadness. Scream. Beat the shit out of your pillows. Whatever.
A really important caveat: if things get really bad, or if the darkness feels like it’s too much to bear, or if you’re thinking of hurting yourself, please call someone. Whether you need to call a friend, therapist, or crisis line, reach out to get the love and support you need. While it’s important to experience your feelings, it’s also important to let the light in.
But also, invite distraction and relief
At the risk of seeming to contradict myself, it’s important to give yourself breaks too. The goal is to face the pain, but not let it become so overwhelming that it crushes you. Consider spending time doing some of the following:
- Seeing friends
- Resting (this is really, really important right now)
- Watching TV or movies (I really loved Westworld)
- Reading (I’ve included a few recommendations in the PS)
- Traveling to see loved ones
- Playing with puppies and kittens
- Talking on the phone
- Redecorating your apartment (I got an awesome salt lamp and finally hung stuff on my walls)
- Going to comedy shows
- Taking a class
- Doing nothing much at all, including not working through the pain
Yes, it’s likely that you’ll be a wreck during some of this stuff. That’s ok. I got a text that made me choke up in the middle of my coworking space one day. While that’s not exactly my definition of fun, it’s also true to where I was: capable of holding parts of my life together while still very raw and unsteady.
The goal is to strike a balance between facing your pain and seeking relief. There’s no formula here. Some days you’ll be able to function almost normally. Other days, you’ll be so destroyed that returning an email is too much. That’s ok.
Practice compassionate self-care
Many people don’t pay much attention to their relationship with themselves, especially during difficult times. While self-care is always important, it’s essential during times of crisis. The goal is to treat yourself exactly how you would want your best friend to treat herself if she were in your shoes. Here are few tips to help get you through this phase of life. Focus on the ideas that seem most beneficial.
1) Accept that your inner life is going to be more chaotic than normal. Adjust accordingly. For a while, expect that your memory will be shoddy and that your inner life will be turbulent.
Your only real responsibility here is to let yourself off the hook. Be gentle with yourself. It’s fine if you fall behind, cancel meetings, or struggle to hit your normal standards for the next few weeks. If you’re able, let other people know that you haven’t been feeling well and ask for understanding if you’re more scattered than normal.
2) Enlist the help of a psychotherapist. There is no benefit to dealing with more pain than is necessary, and a skilled therapist can dramatically speed up your healing. They often have advice and insights that friends, mentors, and coaches don’t. Get more information on finding a good therapist here.
3) Keep a healthy (enough) diet. Drink a lot of water too, because even at the best of times, many of us are dehydrated. Personally, I leaned heavily on greens powders, rehydration salts, and Huel (Huel is one of those weird nutritionally complete food things)3 to make sure that I was staying healthy enough.
To be clear, I also ate a lot of pizza, cake, and candy. In it’s own way, that stuff helps too.
4) Consider staying sober. As I mentioned before, it’s better to work through your pain than to run from it. Though virtually everyone will offer to buy you a drink, consider staying sober – or at least mostly sober – as you heal. Sobriety will speed up the processes of rebuilding your life. It will also prevent adding a killer hangover to an already shitty day.
Personally, when my friends offered me a drink, I got used to saying, “I know this sounds crazy, but I try to stay sober while dealing with pain. Any chance I can take you up on it when I’m feeling better?”
5) Do gentle exercise. It helps to move around. A bit of yoga, a quick jog, a few pushups, or even just a walk around the block will do the trick. Bonus points if you get some fresh air and sunlight. When you’re ready, you can incorporate something more vigorous into your routine, but for now, consider any type of movement a win.
6) Give yourself little treats to brighten your day! This can be a massage, a candy bar, a new cologne, time in a flotation tank, a new book, whatever, just make sure to spoil yourself a bit. The goal is to add a bit of light – or at least distraction – to the darkness. This is especially important if you feel like you don’t deserve to be spoiled. You do, damn it!
7) Journal. Whether you’re on your computer or using pen and paper, spend at least a few minutes writing about your thoughts and feelings every couple days. Choose the journaling approach that works best for you – for me, it’s stream of consciousness. Another effective technique is to ask open-ended questions in your journal and then write out whatever answers come to you in the moment. When you stumble upon a valuable insight, underline it so you can come back to it later.
8) Dedicate extra time to silence, nature, religion, or spirituality. Engage in whatever form of connection to the universe makes the most sense to you. Personally, I like silence, meditation, and nature. Other people like reading religious texts, speaking to spiritual mentors, or attending groups and services. Whatever it is that helps you feel connected to something greater than yourself, engage with it.
9) Though I wanted to strangle my friends when they told me this, it’s worth remembering that this too shall pass. One of the worst parts of dealing with darkness is that it feels like there will never be light at the end of the tunnel.
The simple truth is that you will get through this. If this is the first time you’ve dealt with extreme difficulty, think about your friends who have endured hardship and how they persevered and fell back in love with life. If it’s not your first time dealing with hardship, lean on your past as inarguable evidence for your own ability to persevere. You can handle this. I promise.
10) When you lose a job, or endure a breakup or falling out, the mind plays a cruel trick: it obsesses over the great things that were lost. Counterbalance this by making a list of all the shitty things that will no longer bother you. If you were just fired, make a list of all the things about your old job that you hated. If you’re recovering from a breakup or falling out, make a list of all the things you disliked about your partner/relationship.
When your mind starts obsessing over the good things you’ll never have again, read through your list(s). For easy access, I kept mine on my phone. I was delighted by how effective it was to create and review lists of the BS I never need to deal with again.
Ask yourself: is there any way that your collapse could go on to improve your life?
When the world falls apart feeling victimized is inevitable. You can’t help but ask, “Why me?” or “When will this all stop?” or “What the fuck did I ever do to deserve this?” I certainly asked all of these questions.
As you slowly work to accept your new reality, it’s also important to ask, “Is there any chance that this may end up serving me and making my life better? Is there anything for me to learn from this collapse? Did I have any agency over what just happened?”
Sometimes life falls apart and it has nothing to do with you. A death, a freak accident, a lay-off, illness, and many other things can be functions of circumstance. Besides learning to embrace the innate impermanence of everything, there may not be a lot to learn here.
However, some forms of pain and collapse offer valuable life lessons. If you suspect that you had even a bit of agency in your life falling apart, it’s important to mine these experiences for wisdom. I don’t mean searching for silver linings, reframing your thinking, or anything like that. I mean working to seek the hidden lessons beneath the pain and using them to build a better life. This is done through deep introspection, either on your own, or with the help of someone you trust. The goal is simple: navigate the chaos in a way that will be healing and serve you in the long run.
In retrospect, I realize that many of the spheres of my life drifted out of alignment, which ultimately caused a lot of my pain.
Finally, start building a new, better version of your life
The last step is to pull your life back together. Be gentle and give yourself plenty of time here. The pain you endured transforms you. You may seem subtly unfamiliar to yourself. That’s ok. With time, the important parts will click back into place. This is an excellent time to make other changes you’ve been considering, like being healthier, improving your social life, or looking for a new job. You can use the lingering pain to guide you. If you’re feeling lonely, invest in your social life; if you’re feeling strained financially, re-evaluate your budget or job.
I started by making two lists. One for everything I needed to do in my personal life, and another for everything I needed to do in my professional life. From there, I was able to sequence and group different activities and tackle them one by one. I’m still slowly working through those lists. Other people like to find an accountability buddy, create a vision board or set goals to aspire to. Those can all work well too.
Regardless of how you go about it, your goal is simple: create a gentle path forward that will allow you to step back into your life as a better version of yourself.
PS: A few books for troubled times
Here are some of my favorite books for when life collapses:
“When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron. Chodron is my go to author for navigating life’s turbulence. Her insight is just insanely comforting. Start with “When Things Fall Apart” and if you like that, move on to “Take the Leap.”
“The Self-Compassion Skills Workbook” by Tim Desmond. I was skeptical when someone suggested this book to me. Most of what I’ve read about self-compassion is hokey and more aspirational than actionable. This book, to my delight, is different. Desmond is a student of the legendary meditation teacher, Thich Naht Hanh. He’s also a psychotherapist. “The Self-Compassion Skills Workbook” does a beautiful job of teaching readers to be gentle with themselves, especially during difficult times. Along the way, it will help you speed up your recovery and deepen your insight.
“Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends on It” by Kamal Ravikant. This is the book that put self-love on my radar. Though I no longer use Ravikant’s techniques, I still find myself turning to this book for motivation and reassurance that things do get better.
“How to Fix a Broken Heart“ by Guy Winch. This short, actionable book offers an illuminating explanation of why dealing with breakups is so difficult. It also offers instructions on recovering from them. Winch’s TED Talk by the same name is also excellent.
“Getting Past Your Breakup” by Susan J Elliott. If you’ve just gone through a breakup, this book is for you. While the introductory chapters are worth skimming, the real value is found in Elliott’s relationship inventory. The inventory is filled with great questions and exercises designed to help you learn from the past, heal, find closure, and move on.
Harry Potter! I read books 4, 5, and 6 while my life was falling apart. It was enchanting to revisit these staples of my childhood. The books also managed to pull me straight into the world of Harry Potter, which offered a lovely distraction.
- A mentor pointed out that injuring my shoulder may not be quiet the coincidence it seems. He believes that there is an intimate connection between the mind and body. In this case, it may be a message that I was incapable of baring (or “shouldering”) the existential weight I was carrying. Healing, then, would require action on both the physical and psycho-spiritual plains. While I personally agree with this analysis, you are 100% welcome to write this off as, “Connell’s crazy spiritual babble.”
One of the movies my friends took me to was “Black Panther.” Though I hadn’t seen the trailer, I knew that part of the success and controversy came from it’s handling of race and culture. Because of this, I was 100% sure that Black Panther was about the Black Panther Party, the controversial anti-oppression movement of the 1960’s.
I saw this movie a few days after being broken up with, while I was still extremely hazy. As it turns out, “Black Panther” isn’t about the Black Panther Party; it’s a superhero movie. Needless to say, the first 10 minutes of the film were extremely confusing for me.
- Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know that these magical powdered foods are crazy. Don’t worry – my friends remind me constantly. But still, I really like them. Even when everything is going perfectly, if my options are: grab a slice of pizza, or whip up a bland but healthy meal replacement, I’ll go with the later. It’s cheaper, faster, and better for you. If you’re not a fan of bland foods, throw in some cacao nibs, banana, and almond butter.