Embracing the Breakdown

The only way to build back up is to welcome the breakdown with open arms.

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

The thing about cycles is they always repeat themselves, no matter how hard you try to divert yourself from being caught in its wheel. The breakdown is no exception.

I don’t know about everyone else, but this past winter was a tough one. Being a Pacific Northwesterner since I was a fetus, I don’t mind the cold and the darkness so much — but gosh, this past winter was a particularly long and harsh one.

Call it seasonal affective disorder, call it an unquestionable lack of vitamin D, call it the seemingly hopeless and rather barbaric state of the world, call it a particularly tumultuous election year here in the U.S., not to mention the pandemic-sized elephant in the room. Whatever you call it, this past winter was the perfect incubator for an existential crisis.

Unless you’re a robot or just really good at suppressing unpleasant feelings, you’ve probably felt the cold grip of existential dread that brings up questions including, but not limited to, the following:

Who am I and why am I here?

Does anything really matter?

Will the world ever be okay?

These kinds of painful questions certainly aren’t fun to dive headfirst into, but I’m here to argue that not only is it a worthwhile endeavor, but that it will be the times of your life that are actually more memorable than anything else.

If I think about it, the moments in my life that were the most memorable and meaningful were the hard times. The times when I questioned my entire existence. These were also times when I simultaneously felt sad and grateful at the same time. And you know what? Those are the moments that I savor the most — the moments where I felt most alive and the moments I grew the most from. It’s almost as if my brain doesn’t know the difference between positive feelings and negative feelings. Because either way — positive or negative, happy or sad — it makes me feel like I’m alive.

It reminds me that I’m a human being living in the year 2021. I was born in 1989 and have lived through many both personal and global traumas and events. I’ve lived through the birth of the goddam Internet, something that forever changed the world. I lived through a time in history that has allowed me to earn money and learn anything I want to with a click of the button through the orchestration of wires, microchips, and billions (or trillions?) of lines of code. It reminds me that I’m lucky in some ways, and unlucky in other ways, just like everyone else.

It’s okay to be sad, to experience existential terror, to be in the middle of a breakdown. It only becomes a “bad” thing when you try to repress it or have unhealthy ways of coping with it.

Just ride it. Feel it. Watch yourself plummet to the bottom with an open awareness. Move with it until it turns into something else, something better, and love yourself for being able to climb back up.

But I’m not here to offer platitudes. There are no shortcuts, only opportunities to be in the present moment, no matter if the present moment is “good” or “bad.” If you let yourself occupy the space between the past and the future, you’ll see life for what it truly is — A series of events, emotions, cycles that all serve to hurdle you forward through time and space.

The world doesn’t know the difference between good and bad because these are human concepts, so the world isn’t going to go out of its way to make sure you only experience good things and happy feelings. So take your existential crisis at face value (something us humans rarely do) which means that it is simply a mode of moving life forward.

It could be a sign that things are out of balance, and I’ve come to the comforting conclusion that when things are out of balance, the inner workings of the universe will work to achieve greater balance — except balance will never be attained, at least not for any discernable length of time. The pendulum will inevitably over-shoot itself and you’ll end up on the other end of the spectrum, your happy place.

But your happy place won’t come any sooner than it will take. In fact, if you try to hurry it along, it will only take longer. Clinging onto a future state of time that will be happier for you isn’t any better than holding onto the past — only more suffering will come from it.

Photo by Aleks Marinkovic on Unsplash

So here’s my guide for getting through an existential crisis, based on what has worked best for me:

  1. Explore philosophy. Read books that try to answer some of the questions you’re asking about yourself and the world around you. My best suggestion is to read the works of Ken Wilber. His work has gotten me through so many breakdowns, I can’t even tell you. His books will help guide you through making sense of the world. The first book of his I read was A Brief History of Everything and I would say that’s a perfect place to start.
  2. Do something creative. You know what an existential crisis is the perfect time for? Expressing your creativity. For me, my most creative self starts screaming at me during this time and a lot of my best ideas tend to surface, if I give myself the space to listen and the proper outlet. For me, that’s writing. Writing this very article, in fact. I also like to write fiction, do calligraphy, and paint with watercolors. If you don’t know what your creative outlet is, or want to try a new one, I found this article helpful, particularly the point about re-visiting childhood pursuits. I firmly believe that many of the long-forgotten interests that people had in their childhood are great things to explore as adults.
  3. Engage in discussion. If you can, take this opportunity to engage in deep, thoughtful discussions with people. Getting other people’s perspectives on things can help you make sense of things and can help keep you moving forward. If you don’t have anyone in your life that you can do this with, online forums could work (Reddit comes to mind, but I would use Reddit with caution; I’ve found that it can sometimes create a negativity spiral that might end up doing more harm than good). If nothing else, read more books by different authors to get different people’s perspectives.
  4. Journal. Writing down your journey through an existential crisis is not only therapeutic, but can help you learn and grow from it. I write in my journal every single day, crisis or not, but keep in mind that you don’t have to be that committed to it. You can just journal for the period of time that you think you will benefit the most from it. I also find a lot of value from going back to my old journals and seeing what all I’ve been through, which helps remind me that I’m stronger than I think I am.

This list isn’t meant to promise you a return of happy feelings or a way of achieving 100% sanity. I simply offer it as a productive way forward that will help guide you towards the light at the end of the tunnel.

I trust that we’ll see each other on the other side of this.

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you’re having suicidal thoughts, please call 1-800–273–8255 to talk to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area at any time (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline).

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I implode daily but writing saves me

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AJ Weiss

AJ Weiss

I implode daily but writing saves me

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