You can’t plan for a life crisis. It arrives without warning, turning your well-ordered days into confusion and chaos. As you sit trying to make sense of what’s happened, your new reality can paralyze you. Suddenly, even getting up from the couch is a challenge.
I understand. In the aftermath of an unexpected break-up with my boyfriend of two and a half years, I felt like I was headed for a breakdown. Without the security of my relationship, my new life overwhelmed me. I wasn’t sure I could cope with the loss.
One night, as I lay in bed sobbing to my friend on the phone about everything on my mind—having to start dating again, the fear of being alone forever—she gave me some sage counsel: "You can't focus on all of that right now. The best advice I got from a friend during my divorce was to just do the next right thing. Even if it's as simple as, 'I have to go get a drink of water now.' Just focus on the next best thing you can do for yourself."
I paused, and I thought about what I needed to do after I got off the phone: I would wash my face, brush my teeth, and put on sweatpants. That much, I could handle.
While each little “next thing” won’t fix everything, by taking things step by step, you’ll be able to manage getting your life back in order. If you’re going through a difficult time, here are a few pointers on making this philosophy work for you.
Zoom In and Decide What’s Next
While there are many times in life when it’s helpful to look your five-year plan or reflect on the past, during a time of crisis, it’s much more helpful to zoom in rather than zoom out. You can’t change what happened or know what will happen down the road, so focus your energy on right now, where you have some power.
When you’ve got your attention on the present moment, figure out what you need. Be very specific, and very small. Instead of thinking, “I just need to stop crying,” decide what will help you do that. Maybe it’s going and reading out in the sun, maybe it’s calling your best friend, or maybe it’s just stopping and taking a deep breath.
This may sound too simple, but delving into the details of my life during a difficult time strengthened me. Whenever I found myself wondering how I would get through the week, I would fixate on the next best thing I could do for myself. I’d meticulously measure my new apartment for shelving. I’d make the bed, which Gretchen Rubin advocates as a “small gesture” towards happiness. I’d just do one small thing to move myself forward onto what was next.
Remind & Reward Yourself
Lists are pretty powerful: They allow you to make sense of the day and bring some order to the chaos of life, especially during a tough time. Write everything that’s worrying you about what you need to accomplish on your to-do list (even if it’s something that normally comes easily, like “take a shower”). Set up reminders on your calendar, or try an app to help you out.
Right before my break-up, I discovered Fig, a wellness app that allows you to populate a to-do list with non-traditional wellness items as simple as stretch, drink water, breathe deeply, or call your mom. Because I’m admittedly addicted to my phone, it’s been helpful to have a place where I can be reminded of small ways to stay healthy and sane during this difficult time.
You don’t necessarily need an app to stay healthy or to pat yourself on the back—but do make sure you pause to acknowledge that just washing your hair and getting dressed during a crisis is something you can be proud of.
When you’re going through something rough, your first instinct might be to hole up and disconnect from the rest of the world. But it’s important to remember that your friends and family are there to help.
Calling on the people who love me during my break-up has been what got me through it all. They were the ones who kept me grounded and focused on the present moment. I also asked for their help on the tasks I needed to do next—whether that meant helping me find a new apartment, coming over for dinner to make sure I was eating, or just having a conversation. Don’t be afraid to reach out—believe me, it helps.
Give Yourself Time to Feel the Pain
Now, I’m not saying that I’ve tried to escape my own feelings by focusing my attention like this. Of course, there have been times when I had to sit with my sadness, to let myself experience pain—without judgment. I always re-read and remember what Pema Chödrön writes in what has become one of my own personal “break-up books,” Taking the Leap:
The message here is that the only way to ease our pain is to experience it fully. Learn to stay. Learn to stay with uneasiness. Learn to stay with the tightening […] so that the patterns that we consider unhelpful don’t keep getting stronger as the days and months and years go by.
For me, the key to handling my own crisis was to remember that I had control over my life. I accepted that I was living with sadness, and that there was no easy way to make everything better, but that there were small ways I could take care of myself.
If you can remember this, you will find that in every moment, there is one right thing you can do to gain the strength and momentum you need to move forward.