Sometimes change happens gradually over time, and other times it sneaks up and knocks the wind out of you suddenly.
My breakup story is the sudden kind. I can remember the day — no, the moment — everything changed. When I realized the person I was about to marry was someone I barely recognized. And almost in that same moment, my life became one that no longer made sense to me.
I look back and can honestly tell you that I wanted to be married. That I wanted the husband, the house, the dog and the career. When much of that was ripped out from under me, I had to face reality.
False Ideas About Happiness
First, I needed to take a step back and understand why I had wanted those things in the first place. It was there, in my motivations, that I found the problem. I had defined my success as a person by my major accomplishments. I had foolishly based my happiness on the expectations of others. On accomplishments that I thought others would be proud of (or envy me for). This included getting married, buying a home and having a covetable career.
I felt like a failure when I called off my wedding. When I sold my engagement ring. And when I moved out of my house. I was crushed by this feeling that I had screwed up my life.
Hitting the Reset Button
Even though I was feeling suffocated by these “failures,” I realized something — square one is a decent place to start a new life. I was no longer obligated to anyone else. The financial burden of a mortgage was soon wiped away. If the reset button had been hit in almost every other area of my life, why not my career as well?
Yes, I was proud of my career accomplishments. I worked at a great agency, my co-workers loved me and I was good at my job. But I never felt fulfilled. All I wanted was the type of job where I could feel like I provided value to my community. Where I could harness my passions to benefit the lives of others.
Dreams of going back to school for nutrition had played in my mind for years, but I never acted on them. The house. The wedding. Those things had been more important. So I continued to work, rather than head back to school.
But things changed. And I was left with a big choice to make in the midst of chaos.
Facing Fears When Courage Is Lacking
The problem with making major life decisions, like going back to school, is that they require some serious steam to be propelled ahead. Still reeling from the detonation of my relationship, there were days when I didn’t even have the energy (or appetite) to feed myself properly. Days when I couldn’t focus at work and barely checked anything off my to-do list. Days when I drove around with my radio at impossibly loud levels because hearing myself think was too painful.
So how do you find the momentum and courage to change your life when you can barely function?
1. Accept that there are bad days. Some days, eating a meal that doesn’t come from the McDonald’s drive-thru will be an accomplishment. Give yourself those days, free of guilt. On another day, you can take steps toward your new future. Today, make it through.
2. Break it down into incredibly small steps. When I was in particularly rough shape, I made a goal to work out. And so my therapist and I broke it down into tedious little steps. One day, find a gym bag. Another day, pack it. Next day, set the bag by the door. Day after that, take it out to my car when I leave for work. This same theory can apply to bigger things. One day, spend one hour researching nutrition schools, and so on from there.
3. Worry less about which direction you’re moving, and more about the progress you’re making. There were many moments where I caught myself worrying that by going back to school, I was regressing or moving backward with my life. I had this house, career and adult life that was being traded in for an apartment, part-time job and college. When I was able to stop worrying so much about the status quo and what others would think of me, I was able to see that the positive changes I was making truly are propelling my life in a beautiful new direction.
4. Journal your experience. There’s something wonderfully cathartic about writing down your thoughts. For some reason, things appear clearer and more manageable on paper. You can also make a point to end each writing session with a positive thought. It can be something small, like mentioning how you sat outside in the sunshine for a few minutes. Even stopping to think about a seemingly insignificant detail of your day will have a positive impact on your mood.
A breakup is just one chapter, not your entire story. In the end, you have one life, complete with every experience that shapes who you are. You don’t move backward — you progress and grow. So make the most of the time you’ve been given. I challenge you to find the courage to use this hardship in a way that propels you ahead.