Why it’s OK to fall apart
There are times when life goes smoothly, when it all makes sense and you enjoy the ride. However, most of us will, at some stage, have an experience of life “going to pieces” where we feel like we’re “falling apart” or “losing the plot”. These expressions refer to the experience you have when you survey your life and just don’t think you can “keep it all together” any more. It’s all too much or it doesn’t seem to make any sense. You’ve lost sight of who you are amid the relentless trajectory of your life.
The signposts marking this state can be depression, anxiety, numbness or irritability. It may be an unsettling and confusing time, but it’s not all bad. Sometimes it’s actually OK to let your life unravel. In doing so you may open a doorway into a life that’s more satisfying and meaningful than it was before.
I feel like letting go
Often there’s not a lot of support for people wanting to stop and take a look at where their life is heading. There are careers to be managed, mortgages to pay and children to care for. A vague unease or mild depression is not considered a good enough reason to step off the treadmill of life to go and sit on the therapy couch and sort things through.
“What’s the problem, anyway? You’re white, middle class; there’s nothing wrong with your life. Just pull yourself together. Get on with it.” This can be the type of response some people receive when they reveal to family members that they’re having trouble with things. As a result, many clients come to therapy feeling guilty for bring there. They say things like: “I shouldn’t really be here. I haven’t been sexually abused. There’s nothing too bad about my family background. I have enough to eat. I have a lovely house to live in, a partner. Half the world is starving, so what am I doing here? I don’t feel that bad and I don’t need medication. I must be wasting your time.”
I assure them that most people attending therapy don’t need medication. Most are living “comfortable” lives with families, houses and jobs. Sometimes, though, it’s just that you can’t keep going as you are. There is nothing particularly wrong, but things aren’t right, either. Your intuition tells you this, but it’s hard to articulate and hard to put your finger on exactly where the trouble is. It may not be about fixing something that’s broken. It may instead be about evolving; taking something that already works and transforming it into something even better — taking yourself and your life to the next level.
The difficulty is, as Keith a 35-year-old web designer said, “I didn’t even know that another level of existence was possible when I first came to therapy. So I had no idea what to ask for. And I put off coming for ages because I couldn’t think of a good enough reason for coming. There wasn’t enough wrong with my life. But I knew that things could be more right.”
It’s like all the threads that make up a person’s life — their work, their relationships, all their different roles — begin to weave together as they grow and mature. This is good to start with. It creates a sense of self, an enduring self, a stable self. Life looks reasonable and coherent. It makes sense. You are doing what you are meant to do with life.
Yet, gradually, the threads begin to pull too tightly as they weave together. It begins to form a knot that gets tighter and tighter. And it’s so tight that you’re stuck and can’t change your life. Where would you start? Which thread do you pull, and if you start to pull it, will it all unravel?
The tyranny of expectation
Some people’s lives become constricted by external structures or ideas. While society has evolved since the 1950s so we now have a lot more freedom to choose and define our own lives, there are still plenty of hidden expectations that box people in. People buy the story that a good life is meant to look a certain way. They believe there are certain sorts of activities that they should be engaging in. They get knots in the fabric of their life as they continue to try to act in this particular way and follow this acceptable life trajectory.
Marjorie was a 28-year-old PhD student who had locked herself into an academic career. Her parents were academics, too. Marjorie, however, was very talented artistically, but this aspect of her had not been allowed expression. As a result, she was blocked in her academic work and feeling confused, anxious and guilt-ridden about what she should be doing. Only over time was Marjorie able to loosen the bonds of parental and academic expectations to make space for her artistic talent to blossom.
For some, the expectations get more subtle. It’s their internal self that gets constricted. There are certain feelings that aren’t allowed, certain experiences that “don’t exist” and certain ideas that shouldn’t be thought. Self-censoring becomes automatic. The impulses of the true self are repressed and lost. It is a repression of the soul, if you like, a fascism that locks away the interior world of being human.
“I have realised that I actually have to learn how to go about living a day. If I don’t follow all the internal ‘rules’ I have about what I ‘should’ be doing, I don’t know how to decide what to do in any given moment. I’m at a loss. How do I choose what’s best?”
Rachel was a client who had come to therapy because anxiety had got to the stage where it showed up as panic attacks and chest pain. She had even been to doctors to check whether there were problems with her heart. Results showed there was nothing medically wrong; it was just that Rachel’s way of life was so emotionally painful that it was showing up in physical symptoms, too.
Rachel began to realise that as a child she’d had to live with a mother who was so unpredictably volatile that Rachel learnt to become vigilant and controlling to minimise the risk of provoking her mother. She developed internal “rules” and strategies as a way to keep herself safe from harm. The trouble was that now, as an adult, Rachel was still living by these rules and had long ago lost the ability to determine what she really needed in life.
So this was why Rachel didn’t know how to sort out “how to live a day”. Should she clean now, should she tend to her daughter, should she take time out, should she do some exercise…? How could she decide when her true self had been swamped by the old survival strategies of the eight-year-old she used to be? As she let go of the rules, she would have to re-learn how to “do” life.
Tearing down the house
Rachel is not alone. Many people box their own lives in. They have a fixed idea about who they should be, about the roles they have in life and what this should all look like. They build the walls themselves and then go and sit within the white walls of this neatly constructed room. It means life is predictable and safe. Some imagine there’s a window through which they can look outside and get glimpses of other possibilities for how to live. In reality, they’re trapped. There is no door through which they could walk towards these possibilities.
Some people go a step further. They create their own four walls to live in but then disappear and let someone else take over the contents of the room. This can get quite literal. For example, Sue, a 36-year-old business analyst, came to therapy one day and said she had looked around her house and realised there was actually nothing there that was hers or that she had chosen or was expressive of herself. It all belonged to her partner or had been chosen by him. All she had was a few gardening tools in the back shed.
Sue realised she had disappeared a long time ago. Now, she was stuck. She was also scared because if something was going to happen she would first have to go back to that room and take a good look before she could even contemplate finding a way to create a doorway to another space.
Sometimes, to create a doorway we actually have to pull down the walls of the room we have constructed. Like any renovation, this can get messy and uncomfortable. It will often mean feelings that have been locked away for a long time can begin to surface. This can be a little overwhelming at times and people may find themselves crying often, getting angry easily or being overcome with anxiety for no apparent reason. It can be a challenge to turn up to work each day and act “normal” when you actually feel like you’re going crazy.
Sue’s “breakdown” process had involved reassessing her relationship. She realised that if her partnership was to continue it could only do so under one condition: she would have to bring her real self back into the relationship. After having “disappeared” for so long, this was no small task. Sue was moved to tears as she came to notice the small signs of her hidden self returning.
She was feeling grief for having lost herself so completely for so long. She also felt incredibly moved that finally a little spark of her true self was beginning to ignite. This was the beginning of a “messy" process that saw Sue moving out into her own apartment as a way to regain a separate sense of herself again. It was a difficult, challenging, sad and scary process. She didn’t know where it would lead. Maybe she would eventually go back to living with her partner, maybe not. She had to learn to tolerate the openness and unpredictability of life. Importantly, however, it was her life she was leading, not someone else’s.
You can find yourself stuck in lots of different aspects of your life, not just relationships. Often it will be your work life that becomes stagnant. Like Marjorie, you may have chosen it because of parental pressure, or perhaps because of assumed job security or the income level it would provide, or because of a perceived lack of choice. Over time, though, if the choice is not right for you, the situation will become more and more uncomfortable.
You will start to get signals that are trying to indicate something is not right. You may find yourself losing your temper and blowing up at work or you may wake up with a sense of dread every morning or even wake up in the middle of the night feeling overcome by anxiety. These symptoms are your unconscious letting you know something has to change.
It may feel like you are having a breakdown. You might feel out of control and not like your “normal” self, but this is because your normal self was not enough. It needs shaking up. This “breaking down” helps you dismantle a situation that’s stale, constricting or a poor fit. Yes, it may feel uncomfortable as you go through the transition period. Your income may go down, your living conditions may change, your self-perception may change and so might the perception of you by others. Yet if you ride it through, you may come out to a better place at the other end.
I have seen people go back to study, go overseas or fulfil hidden longings. Like Marjorie, they end up in a more creative and satisfying situation. It is risky and it can be a bumpy ride. You will have to learn new skills, especially emotional management. Instead of repression, you have to learn to let your emotions speak to you. They may be rather noisy at first and definitely out of control.
Let the light in
Too much control can be deadly. It squeezes the life out of you. Yes, as you let the knot of your life unravel there will be moments when you hold the threads in your hand and think, “Oh my God, what am I doing?” There will be fear and panic as you are tempted to quickly stitch it all back together as it was before. If you can learn to tolerate and ride through the fearful times, you get used to life being a little looser. There’s less control and more room for happy accidents and unexpected opportunities.
As you let the emotions move and allow the pieces of your life fall apart, there’s space between the cracks where light can begin to shine through. For some people this can actually lead to a spiritual renewal. This is what happened for Keith, mentioned earlier. He began to have moments when he “saw” beauty in everything, especially nature. He felt connected to it all and understood that everything was part of some greater unity. Keith’s life had opened up into a level he had never imagined possible and he went on to explore Buddhism as a possible path for the future.
“This has ‘saved’ my life,” Keith said. He never forgot the pain and anxiety and chaos of the breakdown stage. It was real and it was tough going, but without it life would have remained empty and meaningless. It was the same for the others, too; for Marjorie, Rachel and Sue. They didn’t become Buddhists, but they did access more meaning and satisfaction in their lives. It came at a cost and there were things they had to let go of, but it was worth it.
Cracking up in the service of a healthier reconstruction can be worth the expense. So go on, let the renovation begin. Let yourself fall apart!
Client names have been changed to protect confidentiality. Cynthia Hickman is a psychologist in private practice in Melbourne. T: 0417 103 018