Over the last six months, I’ve supported people through losing both their parents, depression, divorce, a friend committing suicide: some very traumatic life events.
Suffering, sickness, old age and death, not getting what you want and losing what you have are intrinsic to life. When these things happen, it’s not some kind of mistake. They happen to everyone.
The reason it can sometimes feel like it’s not meant to be happening is that these issues are often taboo. People don’t talk about their own suffering for fear of being perceived as weak or burdening other people. When someone does open up, people often have no idea what to say or do.
So this article offers some practical steps for what you can do for yourself when your world falls apart.
What not to do:
- Short term escapism that makes you feel worse afterwards
Social media, drinking, drugs, overeating, binge-watching television: this is only delaying dealing with what has happened in a way that reduces your capacity to do so. My friend told me that his friends response to his heartbreak was buying him copious rounds of drinks. Of course, then you just wake up with the original problem plus a hangover.
Having said that, if your feelings are overwhelming, having a way to distract yourself from them until you are strong enough to process them can be a good thing.
2. Blame others
David (name changed for anonymity) felt a lot of anger towards his wife about the fact that she was divorcing him. But running stories through your head again and again about why someone else is doing something wrong only stirs up resentment, which makes you feel worse.
3. Blame yourself
Philip (name changed) felt he should have spent more time with his parents while they were alive and not worked so many hours. You’re going to need to forgive yourself for what has happened if you’re going to get over it.
What to do:
- Get support
Ideally, from multiple people: friends, family, colleagues, a therapist, a coach, a counsellor, other people who’ve gone through the same thing. You don’t have to go through this alone.
You’re not the first or the last person that this has happened to. People will want to support you. A lot of my clients resist asking for help until they’ve hit rock bottom. However, the earlier you ask for help, the easier your recovery will be.
2. Acknowledge how you’re feeling
I spend a lot of time supporting people to do this, particularly in the first few sessions. It’s OK to feel sad, angry, fearful, despairing, depressed or whatever you feel. Give yourself the time and space to fully feel the emotions related to what’s happened. Unless you do this, you’ll never get over it.
3. Have compassion towards your feelings
Treat them with kindness and curiosity. Don’t judge them. Tell yourself, ‘It’s OK to feel like this.’ Remember that all feelings pass.
4. Notice if you’re going straight into practicalities and ‘doing’ mode
When my friend’s friend committed suicide, he was an absolute hero when it came to helping, arranging support and sorting out the funeral. But although he was being very supportive, he wasn’t giving himself the time he needed to process his own emotion about what had happened.
Keeping busy is a classic way to avoid feeling your feelings.
5. Create a positive daily routine
This is how you will build your inner strength, resource and resilience. It’s also how you will take control and responsibility for how you’re feeling.
Exercise, eat healthy food, get plenty of sleep, meditate, drink lots of water, keep a gratitude journal and cut down on caffeine and alcohol. If possible, do the amount of working hours that feels good for you. Not working might make you feel worse, or a break might be just what you need. Working too much can certainly make you feel worse and be an avoidance strategy.
David did such a good job of developing positive habits during his coaching programme, that three months after his wife initiated the divorce, even though he didn’t want it to happen, he was feeling the happiest he’d ever felt.
6. Do things you enjoy
Give yourself permission to have fun. Philip felt that he shouldn’t be having fun in the months after his parents died, as though it was in some way disrespectful. But I asked the question, ‘Do you really think that’s what they would want?’ By going out and having fun with his kids, laughing and joking more, he built up his inner resources of positivity.
7. Try framing it as an opportunity for growth
You can choose the victim mentality of ‘This shouldn’t have happened to me’, but how will that help you? What I found so inspiring about David’s response to his divorce was that he used it as a big opportunity for self-reflection (‘How did I get into this situation? What is it about me that caused this?’), and for self-improvement.
He asked his 8 year-old daughter, ‘What can I do to be a better dad?’ She gave him three clear action points, he worked on all of them, and has much stronger relationships with his children as a result.
He now feels able to deal with anything that life throws at him, trusting that the toughest challenges will only make him stronger.
Becoming stronger through adversity is not inevitable. I’ve come across people who have wallowed in self-pity, resentment and fear of change for decades.
But with a positive mindset, determination and support from other people, when your world falls apart, it could be the best thing that ever happened to you.
I’m going to finish with an ancient Taoist story as a reminder that we never know how things will turn out.
One day, an old farmer’s horse ran away. On hearing the news, his neighbours came to visit. ‘Such bad luck’, they said sympathetically.
‘Maybe’, the farmer replied.
The next morning, the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. ‘How wonderful!’, the neighbors exclaimed.
‘Maybe’, replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown off and broke his leg. The neighbours again saying ‘That’s so unfortunate!’
‘Maybe’, answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbours congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.
‘Maybe’, said the farmer.
If you or someone you know would like support in dealing with any of the issues mentioned in this article, please do get in touch.
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