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What To Do When Things Fall Apart

Over July 4th, Justin and I took our son K on his first trip with family. It was designed to be a pretty easy extended family “vacation” — just 90 minutes to San Antonio for 3 nights at a kid-friendly resort. Nothing over the top or too fancy, just pool time and casual family meals. Justin and I were excited to see K hang out with his cousins, go in the pool, and experience a bunch of firsts together.

Welp, from the start of the trip, everything pretty much went to shit. Temps in Texas were in the triple digits, and the car ride from Austin to San Antonio started out with K being very fussy. While we got some nice pool time and made fun memories that afternoon, the first night in the hotel was probably one of the worst we have had since K was born. Justin and I slept maybe 60 minutes combined. At one point, I climbed INTO the Pack N’ Play with K to rub his back because it was the only way he would stop crying. There was a 3 a.m. Target trip (that was Justin). The next day was a blur, but the next night was improved (though the bar was pretty damn low). After two nights, we ended up coming home early, defeated, beaten down, and counting the hours until we could send K back to daycare.

To be clear, this is definitely the upper middle-class dual-working parenthood trying to find a way to enjoy life while also managing a toddler version of things falling apart (eg. the world’s smallest violin!). There are many other moments in life that are much more of a true falling off the rails (yes, I’ve experienced them, I dropped out of school to be in a cult, hi!).

What struck me about the trip was that failure at even such a little goal was a gut punch to me. For sure part of this is that I’m just starting to uncover how burnt out I am from the past few years of my life (birthing a baby, a book, a business). But, what was unexpected was that I hadn’t acknowledged to myself how much I just wanted to have some FUN with my family. When our plans were thwarted, I internalized the failure.

So for this week’s Therapy Takeaway, I’m sharing my tips for how to keep yourself afloat when your plans go awry and everything feels like a mess.

Your Therapy Takeaway

We all face times when life serves up lemons. Making lemonade might not be natural for your personality, but the good news is that there are actionable strategies you can apply to learn how to approach things differently.

Acknowledge that it’s all gone to shit
At least once a week I have a patient who rambles off a litany of terrible things (my partner lost his job, our rent is going up, I might have cancer but also maybe it’s just a benign cyst), and then pretty quickly is like, but “it’s not THAT bad.” STOP DOING THAT. We all need to stop with the dismissing of our own tiny tragedies, even if they are “small” in comparison to our peers, or to someone who lives across the world. Why? Because when you dismiss your grief, you keep yourself cycle where your true feelings (sadness, pain, hurt) are locked under the surface. Until you admit and acknowledge hard feelings, you can’t move through them. So when you lose the job you hated anyway, or when the boyfriend you were unsure about breaks up with you, Step 1 is to stop trying to intellectualize or explain it away, and admit to yourself that you’re sad.

Verbalize your options
There were multiple moments on our trip where we were like, okay let’s just pack it in and go home, this sucks. Even last weekend when Justin and I were at our local Austin taco truck/coffee shop and K was having a meltdown, we had a moment of “Oh crap, we gotta go.” But, usually, the panic and the uncomfortableness pass. It’s not as bad as you think it’s going to be. Or, maybe there is still a little bit of good or pleasant left that you can salvage, hold on to, and appreciate for what it is. Of course, there are situations in which there is just no good to be had, but, that said, there are also plenty of situations in which if you lower your expectations, and hold on a little bit, you might get something positive back. (For example, this picture was a top memory from our weekend of doom.)

A nice script for verbalizing your options is: “Just because today was terrible doesn’t mean tomorrow will be. Based on what’s happened, it still makes sense for me to stay in this situation and give it more time.” Alternatively, you might come up with the opposite: “This plan has completely fallen apart, and I don’t have faith that anything positive will come from continuing, so therefore, I’m going to pack it in.”

Visualize your respite
For me on July 4th weekend, visualizing my respite was quite literally knowing that daycare would be back open on Wednesday, and that I did not have any patients scheduled that day, so I could sleep and rest (which I did!). When you find yourself in a state of panic because what you expected has not materialized, take a beat to visualize your safe space and activate your problem-solving brain to get you back there. It might be in 12 hours, it might be in 2 weeks. Either way, knowing that there is an end and that the feeling of chaos or loss is not permanent helps remind you of your agency and that you are not stuck permanently in a dismal situation.

Whether it’s a trip gone awry, a work project that has derailed or a relationship that is falling apart – naming your grief, communicating to yourself about your options, and remembering that no particular messiness lasts forever can help buffer you when you’re down and out.

Reposted with permission from therapytakeaway.substack.com.

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