Falling Apart

being overwhelmed

If someone were to describe the kind of life most of us lead to a truth-seeker living 100 years ago, I really do believe the person would feel a mixture of horror and pity along with their curiosity about what the future holds.

Many aspects of life are better. We live longer, we have fewer (or at least not as enforced) conventions, medical breakthroughs like vaccinations and artificial limbs and neurosurgery help us heal and thrive in incredible ways, technology has changed how we communicate and participate with each other on a global scale, creating new opportunities for connection, growth and effective change.

It’s all pretty awesome, and I’m grateful for all of it. Of course, the planet is in horrifying shape due to over-consumption and pollution. People are polarized and hateful and use the internet to spew that hate. And the pace of life is not only light-speed compared with that of a century ago, but ever-increasing, requiring us to constantly adapt to more, faster, better without a lot of room to rest, recharge or process.

It’s just so easy to become overwhelmed with the day-to-day. It doesn’t matter if you’re retired or just starting out at your first job, if you love your work or barely tolerate it, if your days are full of meetings or social events or childcare or nothing at all. Overwhelm happens to nearly everyone, students and yoga teachers and entrepreneurs and writers and doctors and office clerks, those who work 20 or 40 or 80 hours a week and those who don’t. Overwhelm isn’t simply caused by doing too much, though that can be a huge part of it. External forces like increasing demands at work, stressful relationships, financial difficulties and class workloads certainly impact how relaxed, calm, centered and capable we feel.

Those are actually the easier things to pinpoint as causing overwhelm. That isn’t to say it’s easy to address them or the anxiety, physical and emotional exhaustion and suffering they can cause us, but rather that, whether they creep up slowly or land with sudden violence, it isn’t all that hard to identify them. Our schedule is absolutely full, we have no time to think or eat lunch, the kids are driving us crazy, homework is taking hours every night, there just doesn’t seem to be enough to pay the bills. We struggle, and feel like the tides are rising until we can heave ourselves out of it—or until they overtake us completely, and our health breaks down.

The overwhelm that’s more insidious is one that has few external causes, and is rather created by internal conflicts, repressed emotions or other forces affecting us from the inside out. Without any particular change in my day-to-day, I’ll find myself less inspired by the things that usually inspire me, more inclined to chafe against certain tasks that aren’t hard, but feel hard, and longing for a day alone to just do nothing at all. Not a sick day, but one where I read, or think, or wander around the house looking at things and don’t accomplish anything worth noting. This is very different from my normal state of mind, when I not only enjoy but thrive in little tasks and productivity, feeling satisfied and confident in what I’ve done and want to do.

I believe that sometimes we just need more fallow times for no reason at all, when we’re less productive and social, less inclined to take action of any kind, and more inclined to let time pass in quiet idleness. We need those down times to recharge, to process, to release, to simply be—ideally away from the addictive, mind-draining distraction of technology. We might accomplish or DO less externally, but that doesn’t mean we’re not productive internally, using our energy for less obvious things. Anything that feels draining, sapping, uninteresting or just too damn hard can be shelved for a different season, when we’re in more of an outward doing mode.

If there is a cause for internal overwhelm, it can be things like repressed emotion that simply won’t stay repressed any longer, or working through transitions as we process changes happening in our lives (and happening far more frequently than they did 50 or 100 years ago). Repressed emotion requires us to feel what we’ve avoided feeling, while transitions require that we go through the steps of letting go of an ending, adjusting in a neutral period and committing to a new beginning. (Transitions by William Bridges is my source for this, a brilliant and compassionate resource.) Changes like new jobs, marriage, divorce, parenthood, illness, retirement, job loss and death often set off a long series of transformations in our lives as well as in ourselves, which simply won’t be ignored—and then simply entering different stages of life transforms and challenges us, even though nothing on the outside is different.

And, just with external forces, we can be experiencing more than one internal conflict or issue at a time, creating different domino effects throughout our life or psyche.

Whether brought on by internal or external forces or both, so often overwhelm is affecting us before we understand what’s happening, taking its toll on our health and well-being, our relationships, our jobs, our creativity. And then at some point it goes so far that we simply can’t ignore it any longer. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later, we finally recognize it and can acknowledge it to ourselves and to others—and that’s where our work begins.

Only we can own our overwhelm, and only we can be the catalysts for reclaiming our balance. Sure, we can try to simply adapt to it and survive with the increased stress, shorter temper and high anxiety, but ultimately that’s not going to work. The whole point of overwhelm is that it’s a symptom that what’s going on simply isn’t sustainable, and can’t be addressed in the usual way.

That doesn’t mean we necessarily need to quit our jobs or school, walk away from our debt, leave our partners or some other dramatic act—though of course taking dramatic action might be exactly what we need, we’re the only person who can determine that. But it does mean that we need to shift our thinking and attitude about ourselves in order to effectively deal with the external and internal forces that are causing us to suffer and struggle.

Even if we’re still working productively at office jobs and taking care of families and teaching classes, we may need a few weeks to slack off a little, to let ourselves off the hook when it comes to extracurriculars, social media updates or social plans, to avoid stressful situations and give ourselves lots of compassion and understanding. We may need to take sick leave, or plan a vacation, or drop a class. We may need to say “no” more than we say “yes,” at least for a while—or forever. We may need to start therapy, start meditating, or stop spending. We may need a weekend to binge watch Game of Thrones in our pajamas with the phone on silent, only leaving the house to stock up on ice cream and frozen pizza. We may need to tell our kids they can’t be in both soccer and softball, tell our boss that we’re having a hard time and really need their support, tell our partner we need a week of takeout dinners, tell a friend that we can’t help them move. We may need to take some serious action on our finances, take more walks during the day, take a break from a relationship, take medication, or take a nap.

We may simply need to be more aware of ourselves and what we’re feeling—to honor a role that we’ve outgrown or new direction our ambitions are taking, honestly face how we feel about a job, family member, friend or partner, allow ourselves to grieve or be done with grieving, or finally feel a deep and long-suppressed anger toward someone from our past. Nothing outward may need to shift at all, and yet the inward shift will free us to greater alignment and balance.

It could be the biggest change we’ve ever made, or the smallest of small adjustments—but the point is, only we know what the right action, or inaction, is to take. And only we can take it.

I gave myself a day off this week to do one important early errand and then go home and do very little. I read, dozed, wandered around the backyard, jogged a mile on the treadmill. At some point I felt like starting laundry and did so, made a casserole I’ve been craving for dinner. The time went quickly and quietly. I moved through it with a sense of ease and gratitude, and felt much more centered by evening. I’m not sure why I needed that day, but I listened to myself and honored that need, and it helped me recharge whatever needed recharging.

Overwhelm isn’t something you fight or can overcome by simply “powering through.” Powering through is why we’re overwhelmed in the first place. Accepting that it’s here, and that things can’t continue in the same way they have, is the only way through it.


the people who take it personally

In the worst times of my life, I’ve found that my immediate network falls into two groups of people: My People, and The People Who Take It Personally. It becomes very clear, very quickly, which group someone belongs in.

In his book Boundaries and Relationships,* Dr. Charles Whitfield calls this latter group unsafe people, and describes them as those who: “may not really listen to you or hear what you are actually saying, although they may pretend to do so. They may or may not make eye contact with you. They often reject or invalidate the real you and your inner life experience. They may be judgmental or false with you. They are often unclear in their communications. Their boundaries may be blurred, and they may often send you mixed messages. They may be indirect with you, often triangling in another or others when they are in conflict with you. Rather than being supportive, they may be competitive and may even betray you. Overall, the relationship just feels contrived.” [Kindle Location 1747].

I came across the above passage and it really stood out—while I’d experienced what he describes, I’d never formally recognized in my own mind what it means for someone to be unsafe. It certainly doesn’t imply that they’re toxic or abusive in relationships, but rather that they probably aren’t the best people to turn to or place your trust in.

The takeaway for me is that unsafe people will generally not own what’s theirs, will not be accountable for their own projections, feelings, boundaries, mistakes, and ultimately will not be true, trustworthy or loyal friends.

The way I see it, those who are unsafe aren’t bad or ill-intentioned, they aren’t predators or psychopaths (who should be avoided at all costs), out to manipulate or control for their own agenda. But they do have an agenda, of sorts—to be righteous, to be right, to be victims, to not take personal accountability for their actions, words, choices or feelings and to project their fears and negative thoughts about themselves out onto other people. They may be extremely nice, friendly, generous, attentive, and loving, but I find that they’re often lacking in self-awareness, healthy boundaries or both, and they tend to see problems as the fault of others (or the world at large). Their loyalty isn’t assured. They’re more inclined toward judgment and projection than compassion and empathy. When it seems appropriate to them, they may very well betray, dismiss, demean, devalue, accuse or stomp on those who they see as a problem or threat. Their values are different—not wrong, just incompatible with mine.

It’s possible to have good relationships with unsafe people, even close relationships. But at the same time, it isn’t wise to trust them with your intimate secrets, thoughts or feelings, to expect them to be loyal or empathic, to place confidence in their judgment or authentic responses, or to be vulnerable around them. They could snap if provoked, they could intentionally cross your boundaries if it serves them and get angry if you protest, they could betray your trust, they could kick you when you’re down—not without conscience, but with a large dose of rationalized entitlement. Their rationales and assumptions can be elaborate and rigid. Unsafe people may even feel guilty for their actions—and then project that guilt into even more antagonism toward you, the person they mistreated. Projecting blame, unable to simply own their choices.

I had a number of people show themselves as unsafe during a particularly traumatic crisis I went through some years ago. Seeing me at my most conveniently vulnerable, rather than support me, express empathy and understanding or step forward with practical help, they chose to violate my boundaries, attack, dismiss, judge and demean me, accuse me of all sorts of juicy faults, withhold needed help and demand that I admit to my failures. They took what happened to me personally and blamed me accordingly. It was upsetting and damaging, the way those friends and family members turned on me, and it changed how I feel about all of them. As opposed to those I considered My People, who were all just as sincerely concerned for me, who wanted to make sure I made healthy choices for myself just as much if not more—and yet only made me feel safe, supported, loved, valued, understood and trusted to do what was best for me. Those were the people who got me through it.

I now recognize my accountability in both types of relationships. I can choose to confide in unsafe people and get burned for it, or I can choose not to let them into my inner circles, keeping a comfortable, relaxed distance. I can choose to build my support system of only safe people, My People, and understand and accept that even though someone is counted as my nearest and dearest, they may not fit into that definition. It’s up to me to know the difference. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to separate the two.

Safe people don’t intentionally cross lines—nor do they get offended, accusatory, antagonistic and defensive when they unintentionally violate a boundary and are called on it. They don’t project their baggage onto anyone else—they own it, and for the most part leave it out of the equation when it comes to others. And if they can’t leave it out, they own that. They don’t use someone’s vulnerability or weakness against them, taking the chance to devalue, accuse, find fault with, lecture or dictate to those who are suffering. They don’t bring piles of steaming judgment to the table, forgetting the compassion and empathy in the other room. They don’t feel entitled to tell you EXACTLY what’s wrong with you (in their opinion, stated as truth) and how wrong you’ve been for years now. They don’t store up kindnesses and grudges to pull out when they feel like they need ammunition. They don’t create triangles by bringing third people into conflicts—and they don’t handle all conflicts in a dysfunctional way by never speaking openly about the conflict nor owning or apologizing for their part in it, ensuring that there’s plenty of drama and little real resolution.

My safe people aren’t afraid to admit they’re wrong, that they made a mistake, that they’re sorry. They have generally healthy boundaries, and are conscious and respectful of the boundaries of others. They recognize the consequences of their choices, and they allow others to make choices, screw up and confide honestly without judgment, accusations, blame, shame or dismissal. And my safe people never, ever crazy-make others.

To be a safe person doesn’t mean being a perfect person or perfect friend. But it does mean choosing respect and validation over dismissal and disrespect, empathy over judgment, compassion over impatience, trust over fear. It means not taking what happens to others personally, and not assuming that what you think or feel is true or right. It means being self-aware, having the intention to listen with an open mind.

I’m grateful beyond words for My People, who allow me to not only make mistakes and falter, but to ask for and receive help, advice and validation when I do, unconditionally and authentically.

And I’m grateful for The People Who Take It Personally—for teaching me that there’s no place in intimacy for blurred boundaries, disrespect or judgment, and for reminding me how lucky I am to have safe people in my life.

*Whitfield, Charles L. Boundaries and Relationships: Knowing, Protecting and Enjoying the Self. Kindle Location 1747. Health Communications. Kindle Edition. 2003, 2010.


blasting a crater in the rut of life

My life is in the process of changing, as our lives constantly change, and at the same time I’m witnessing the major transitions of several close friends. I’ve started a new relationship for the first time in four years—an exciting, gratifying and slightly unsettling addition to my life, while a few of my friends are struggling through distressful challenges and facing some difficult decisions. We’re all supporting and encouraging each other through the good, bad, ugly, thrilling and impossible, and it’s reminding me how important times of upset and upheaval are.

I’m lucky that my transition is a positive one, but I’ve known the other side as well, and am convinced that those negative experiences were crucial to getting me where I am today. I believe the most disturbing and jarring events have a critical purpose for us, as we struggle our way through: to open up the very roots of our lives and reveal our true selves, who we really are, who we need to become.

Life transitions are never easy or particularly pretty—not even the ones we want to happen, much less the ones we don’t. And the ones we don’t want, the ones that we’ve been fearing and avoiding, are even more riddled with jagged parts, snags, pitfalls, shame and anxiety. We’ve been existing in the same paradigm for months or years, safe if not exactly happy in the known, barely daring to imagine what the unknown might sound, feel, smell and look like. We might long for another path, another kind of life—long to be truly aligned with ourselves and what’s most important to us, but we’re focused on surviving. We might want change, we just don’t necessarily know what change, or how to consciously make that choice.

And then something happens—something we were unconsciously calling in, or waiting for, or terrified of, something that knocks everything sideways. An explosion rocks our lives, whether one massive impact or a series of small yet life-altering earthquakes.

Because the hard truth is, there’s no climbing out of that rut without blowing a big gaping crater in it first. Otherwise we just keep trudging blindly along in our comfortable dissatisfaction, aware that there could and maybe should be more, but unable to see it for the high walls around us. Suddenly things blow up, and we’re thrown backwards and left flat and breathless. Once we can get back up, let the dust settle, dry our eyes—the world is all around us, strange, unfamiliar, full of possibilities. The light may be too bright, we might be more horrified than gratified at what we’re seeing, but it’s too late. There’s no going back into the rut.

I feel like that happened in both of my previous long-term relationships. I couldn’t see how unhappy and disconnected my ex-husband and I were or how unaligned I felt—I was secure, deep in my rut, even though it wasn’t the life I truly wanted, until a catastrophic eruption blew everything to hell. As for my last relationship… Who knows how long I would have stayed with a manipulative sociopath, convincing myself that I was OK, that it was worth it, had someone I loved not died and shaken my foundation to its core. Blasted a huge crater in my rut, allowing me to climb free.

Of course, what I’m experiencing now is a very different kind of life event, one that I consciously called in. But even this wanted, appreciated transition has shifted things, requiring me to work to keep my balance. As I and those I love experience the anxiety and disorientation caused by changing paradigms, it helps to remember that all transitions are complicated, all are challenging, all bring some measure of loss and fear along with the pain or pleasure. And all require us to bravely face the new life ahead of us, to step forward into the chance to live in greater alignment with who we truly want to be.

the richest lessons can be found in the darkest moments

It’s awful. Falling apart is awful.

No two crises are the same, even for the same person, but there are common themes and feelings that arise when life as we know it falls apart. The sick, sad, anxious knotting of the stomach that can’t possibly consider food. The hot waves of shame that come and drench us with disabling embarrassment and regret and guilt and fear, leaving us chilled to the very marrow of our bones when they finally pass. The aching feeling of being separated from everyone around us, imprisoned within our misery, unable to be wholly comforted. The choking sensation of tears, never far away. The conviction that we did this, we deserve this, we don’t deserve help and nothing will ever be the same again. No matter who or what bears the blame, everything in a crisis is overwhelming and distorted into an oppressively negative perspective.

There’s no way around this, the only way to get through it is through it. Through all the anger and shame and fear. It took me two years to finally feel the rage I had built up from my first, and biggest, life crisis—for two years it lived in my stomach and heart and mind, poisoning me, hiding in shadows and affecting everything though I didn’t recognize it. Once I allowed myself to actually feel and express the pent-up rage against my ex-husband, it was only the start of my true healing—and unfortunately I was all caught up with another, and very toxic, relationship at that point, which slowed me down by another two years. Five years from my crisis, I started to feel fully healed and actualized from everything it took and gave and taught me, all the loss and anger and sadness.

I know the worst thing we can do is hide it away. Make things OK because we NEED them to be, by force of will and deliberately turning our backs on the hardest emotions and the most upsetting truths, because we know we’re to blame and it’s easier to take accountability than it is to feel anger, or because we’re too afraid of the emotions that might come out if we let them. I hid it away and turned my back for years. I don’t regret that time. I made some extremely bad decisions, but I also found peace and began to make friends with myself. The biggest benefit from running from my anger and not processing it was that I learned how important it is to never do so again. How vulnerable we are—without realizing it—when we’re wounded. How resilient and strong we are when we give ourselves a chance to repair. But the wounds have to be opened and cleaned, they have to have that stinging exposure to light and air before we can begin to cleanse them out and stitch them up. And it hurts. It hurts A LOT. A different kind of hurt than the aching festering soreness we’ve hidden from for so long. Much more immediate, impossible to ignore, impossible not to feel.

But that’s the start of healing. The sharpest pain, when felt fully, invited in, given space, even honored, will ease, and will leave behind a more wholesome wound that’s ready to start closing. Forgiveness is the final salve on those itching, healing wounds, helping seal them cleanly forever. They will leave behind scars, reminding us of the hard-fought wisdom we gained. We won’t make those same mistakes again.

I look back at myself five years ago, shaking and bruised and overwhelmed, and I see how far I’ve come. I also see the same person I always was, the person I will become through future troubles and grief. I gained so much insight about myself, yet there are whole continents left still to discover within me. So much more to learn, to heal, to release. And the crisis helped get me here—through all the terrible choices and pain and tears, through losing things I once thought I couldn’t live without. And I survived without them, I survived the loss of them. My husband, my best friend, my married identity and my marriage, my beloved pet, my self-respect and self-trust. The exterior things are gone for good. But I gained back my self-respect and self-trust. I gained a new identity, stronger and rooted in self, not in other. I learned what boundaries mean. I found my partnership with myself, found my faithful, wise inner guide, found a way to be alone without fear or lack.

I hate anyone has to go through such a sad and traumatic time. I hate that anyone has to bear a burden of shame and loneliness, and be afraid of what’s to come.

But in another sense, without in any way lessening my empathy for their pain, I’m excited for what could happen. I’m hopeful. If they can survive the pain and fire and grief and more bad decisions and upheaval and anxiety and overwhelm, they have a chance to rebuild on foundations stronger than they’ve ever imagined, out of the ruin of what was. It isn’t a quick process. Only recently am I finally feeling healed from my crises, five years from the first, a year from the second. I know I have more growing to do in just about every way—but I don’t think I have much more grieving to do. I feel at peace with what happened to me. Bubbles of anger or shame still rise occasionally, they did this week, but they’re much easier to let go of now. The deep contentment I feel at the truth of my life, the grace of having even a partial awareness of this truth, was worth every moment of heartbreak.

I wake up happy and hopeful, and I go to sleep the same. The superficial passing of emotions—boredom, dissatisfaction with work, frustration with others or myself, stress, irritation, resistance, greed, hurt, worry, embarrassment—these are nothing. They have no effect on the deeper satisfaction, gratitude and gladness I feel at my life. They come and go in ripples across a still, calm, silent lake. The depths of me is satisfied, is conscious of that satisfaction and grateful for it, is hopeful and yet detached. I used to feel as if I couldn’t possibly make sense of anything. I was caught up in an unhappy dream of myself, dissatisfied and lost, riddled with fear, beset by lack. Madly running from man to man and solution to solution, using anything to make the pain go away—except facing it.

I’m not afraid to face my pain. I’m not afraid of my darkest, most shameful secrets, my most reprehensible crimes against others, my most foolish choices, my most excruciating wounds. There will always be more rocks to turn over, more dark secrets to bring out, more behaviors to recognize and address. But for the first time, I feel whole. Wholesome and healthy, all the way through me, nourished and secure. I know I’m thriving—I can feel myself doing so, even as road rage or envy ruffles my surface. I would never have gotten here if it hadn’t been for the worst moments of my life.

So while I don’t wish that pain on anyone, I do wish on them what can happen after the pain. The freedom from dragging despair, from the cloud of dissatisfaction and negativity that never quite lifts, from autopilot and hiding from our own truths, fearing who we really are, unable to love ourselves with unconditional abandon like no one else ever can or will. The freedom to thrive.