Read this when you feel like your life is falling apart.
This post is especially dedicated to my students and students everywhere who are receiving acceptance and rejection letters. It's all going to be okay.
Sometimes, it just feels like we have hit rock bottom. Like no matter how hard we try, we can't climb out of that hole. We've dug ourselves so deep that there is no visible light—just darkness. We have all been there, and I trust there's no reason to describe how it may feel. Let's talk about how to climb out and gain level footing. First, as the saying goes, if you find yourself digging a hole, the first step is to stop digging. This seems obvious enough, but our brains are wired to race to conclusions, visualize worst-case scenarios, and obsess on what could go wrong rather than what could go right. If we have determined that our life is currently screwed and doomed, we will allow our perception of reality to play out that way. Before you know it, we've crafted our life crisis. So, if you're reading this now, and you find yourself in a negative headspace, put down that figurative shovel. Stop digging.
"What we must realize is that hitting rock bottom is not about working through something. Instead, it is about letting go of a moment that already happened."
Disclosure: This blog does not constitute medical or therapeutic advice. Please seek professional help if you find yourself in crisis. If you do not know where to go to seek help, contact me, and I'll refer you to resources. Trigger warning: we will be discussing life crises. Life gets tough. Not unbearable, but difficult enough to find yourself less and less motivated to get out of bed, connect with your social circle or family, or perform well at work or school. Maybe you've wondered how life could be different if you did X, Y, or Z. Perhaps you dream of driving a better car, or wish to have a simpler life. Maybe you throw on that fake smile and function as best as you can just to avoid anyone asking, "Is everything okay?" You're shocked at the actor you've become. Maybe you've come to believe after some time that the brave face you're putting on is permeating into reality—perhaps you're okay after all. If this feels accurate AF to you, it's because research shows you're not alone in these thoughts and behaviors when facing life crises; it's quite common (Erbas et al., 2018; Spinelli, 2017). We all experience life crises, often multiple times. The first time it happens (usually in the teens/early adulthood), it may feel like there's no way out. That the best option may be to simply cease to exist or to run away from the problem. Of course, when we do indeed persist and get through, we later realize that often "rock bottom" is the arrival point of necessary change. When I recently felt I hit a "rock bottom" (ahem, thanks to being a doctoral student on top of maintaining three jobs), my first reaction was, "Oh, hi there, I remember you, it's nice of you to be back here again." It was like welcoming an old friend into your home. Which brings me to the first point: 1. Acknowledge where you are and describe it accurately.
I talk to my students often about the importance of emotional granularity. Using words accurately helps us name our problems and challenges and successes explicitly, which ultimately helps us (Kashdan et al., 2015; Lopez et al., 2017; Sels et al., 2016). In other words, if we weren't able to use one of the seven universal emotions (happy, sad, angry, disgusted, fearful, surprised, and contempt), what word(s) would you use? Most adults, even with high intelligence, cannot describe emotions beyond being happy or sad. This makes it difficult to identify where you are accurately. The importance of emotional granularity permeates beyond intelligence and expanding your vocabulary. When we accurately describe where we are and do it precisely, we have already started the process of letting go of adverse events to move onward positively. In other words, the more granular you are with your emotions, the better you are at being sad. Need some help? Use this handy chart.
2. What happened that brought you to this point?
When you ask someone who has hit rock bottom, "What happened?," the response is usually a listing of events that have caused one to spiral downward. If we view this holistically, what we must soon realize is that it is not the event itself that put us in "rock bottom" as the event has already happened. It's done. Past tense. Over. So we face the hard truth: It's ourselves—us and us alone—that put us where we are. Rock bottom is our reaction to an adverse event and our inability to let it go. It is easy to blame others or to blame events. It's a survival and coping skill to do this (Zahn et al., 2015). We didn't get that job after a great interview. Our friend betrayed us. We lost a loved one. While some inevitable life events can and will break us, the event or act itself is but a fleeting moment. It is us who cling to these moments of hurt. We are the ones who ruminate and can't let go. So we bargain. We say "if only…" or "what if…". We activate the same part of our brains that gamblers and addicts face when they are trying to quit or reduce negative behaviors. We cling, and we bargain, and before we know it, we are at rock bottom. What we must realize is that hitting rock bottom is not about working through something. Instead, it is about letting go of a moment that already happened. What if, instead, we simply view the adverse life circumstances for what they indeed are: moments. Like all moments, we can choose to hold on or move on. You are in control.
3. Choose your destination.
So you've decided to move on. Where to go from here? When we hit rock bottom, we must visualize that rock bottom is not a wrong place, but rather a starting place on a new plane or dimension. We rebuild from here. Moving on from rock bottom is an opportunity for renewal and growth. Pick up a new hobby, learn a new skill, or (re)connect with people you care about. Referencing my very first post, we must start where we are to get to where we want to be. So, pick some SMART goals, and make your small and consistent strides towards your next destination. You can do this, and it's even better if you can do this with others.
4. Reach out to others. You are not alone.
We are social beings. The most ironic thing about this is that in moments of crisis, we often draw inward. Yet, we know that this is the time when we need others the most. When experiencing a life crisis, the research is abundantly detailed: social connectedness to one or a few individuals that you trust is not only helpful but necessary to cope, process, and move onward (Gökmen, 2018; Pryce et al., 2019; Yoon et al., 2012). The problem with this is that our perception of trust diminishes when experiencing a crisis. We struggle to trust ourselves, let alone others. The best way to overcome this is to lean on your past experiences with people whom you trust. You may find that in reaching out to others that it becomes emotionally and perhaps even physically exhausting. Processing (the act of letting go) is exhausting. And so maybe you don't want to talk because you're tired of being exhausted. Here's some more hard truth research: that exhaustion you feel is necessary to let go (Grütter, 2019). You may also be hesitant to reach out to others out of fear of bothering or straining relations with your friend(s). However, it is during these moments of depending on one another to work through adversity that forms lifelong relationships. There's also emerging research that during our moments of crises or rock bottom, we tend to attract the people we subconsciously need in our lives the most...but we are terrible at noticing those people and may let them slip by. Tune in to who is giving their time to you and positively contributing to your life. Turning those people away may be instinctual, but it is likely a mistake you'll later realize.
The Bright Side:
Linking adverse events to positive outcomes is a new area of research thanks to positive psychology. Here's the most comforting news in all of this: When adults facing death or terminal illness reflect on their lives, it is often their moments of hardship—their "rock bottom" moments—that are cited as the most important or meaningful moments of their lives (Arampatzi et al., 2019; Laloyaux et al., 2016; Roepke et al. 2013). Adverse events mark turning points, transformations, moments of growth, and positive life changes. It may not feel like it right now when you're feeling like things aren't going as planned, but ask yourself, "Will I be feeling this way a year from now?" Chances are, probably not. Rather than trying to conclude with some profound final thought, I must lean on someone far wiser—the late Václav Havel. This is an excerpt from a letter he wrote to his wife while imprisoned under the Communist regime:
It is I who must begin…. Once I begin, once I try-- here and now, right where I am, not excusing myself by saying that things would be easier elsewhere, without grand speeches and ostentatious gestures, but all the more persistently —to live in harmony with the "voice of Being," as I understand it within myself —as soon as I begin that, I suddenly discover, to my surprise, that I am neither the only one, nor the first, nor the most important one to have set out upon that road…. Whether all is really lost or not depends entirely on whether or not I am lost…. - Václav Havel