A Word on Mental Health

When Things Fall Apart

By Michael Kimmel

Twenty-five years’ ago, one of my favorite Buddhist writers, Pema Chodron (born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown) published her book “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times”. I’ve read half a dozen of her later books, but “When Things Fall Apart” remains my favorite. It’s focus is so practical. After all, what do we do when things fall apart?

Because, inevitably…they do.

It’s impossible to be an adult and not have things (periodically – or – often) fall apart. As my great-grandma, an Ohio chicken farmer, once told me, “No one’s life is shit-free.” You lose your job, your partner leaves you or someone close to you dies (all of these have happened to me): how do you keep going? What can you do when so much shit hits the fan at once?

Some people go into denial: pretending that everything is fine. As a psychotherapist, I’ve learned that this has very limited value. While it’s common to feel overwhelmed and want to “put on a happy face” when things fall apart, it’s a lot healthier to let yourself feel numb, sad, angry or confused. Plus, putting on a happy face takes a lot of energy and – in the end – you feel worse from faking it.

Clients sometimes tell me: “If I let myself feel what I’m really feeling, it’ll be too much.” I tell them: “Imagine that your emotions are like toothpaste in a tube; don’t squeeze the whole tube out at once. Squeeze out a little at a time: a little bit of sadness at your friend’s miscarriage, a little bit of grief when your parents die, a little bit of resentment about your latest argument with your partner/boss/BFF. With each squeeze, you realize that your emotions will not destroy you. The part of our mind that I call “the self-saboteur” says: “If you let yourself feel this, you’ll lose it and go crazy.” 

Not true: if you don’t let yourself find ways to feel what’s going on inside you, you’re much more likely to lose it and feelcrazy.

How can we sooth ourselves when things fall apart? Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby (1907–1990) believed that if we are not “reflected” in a positive way by our caregivers the first 18 months of life, it will always be hard for us to comfort ourselves. We get this ability to self-sooth by being soothed as a baby by secure, loving people who know how to do that.

Many of us – myself included – didn’t get that very much of that. As adults, what can we do now? Fortunately, we can learn self-soothing skills at any age. I’m still learning this stuff and I’m 70 years old! 

Here are five ways to sooth and calm yourself when things fall apart:

  1. Discover what calms you down: make a list and – in times of chaos – do things on the list, at least one a day.
  1. Be physically comfortable: stay in bed for a while, take a nice hot bath, swim, soak in a Jacuzzi/sauna, put on your favorite clothes and eat your favorite foods at your favorite lunch spot. You know! That kind of stuff.
  1. Tell yourself things that calm you down. When things fall apart, we usually make ourselves feel worse with self-talk like: “This will never get better” or “I’m hopeless.” Instead, try phrases like: “I’m in a rough spot, but I’ll do everything I can to help myself and ask for help from people who love me.” See how much better it feels to have self-talk like this? 
  1. Don’t lie to yourself. In bad times, saying things like, “It’s all good” or “Don’t worry, I’m fine” show that you’re in denial: living in fantasy-land. Instead, tell yourself the most loving truths that you can and repeat them often.  
  1. When it seems like everything’s crashing down around you, here’s my favorite emergency phrase: “Out of this (awful experience), something good will come.” That’s a phrase that can bring you comfort no matter what fresh hell you’re experiencing today.

When things fall apart, you can comfort and sooth yourself. Try these suggestions and see. 

Michael Kimmel is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in helping LGBTQ+ clients achieve their goals and deal with anxiety, depression, grief, sexually addictive behavior, coming out, relationship challenges and homophobia. Contact him at 619-955-3311 or visit lifebeyondtherapy.com.