Everything Feels Like It Is Unravelling

Carolyn Rubenstein, PhD

Licensed psychologist and wellness consultant

Everything feels like it is unravelling … and other internal struggles: Reflections from a psychologist

“Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after the other.”     – Walter Elliot

Navigating life’s uncertainties can often lead us to fixate on what’s beyond our control or to dwell on what distresses us most. This focus can overwhelm us, diminishing our sense of agency and stirring further unease.

In both my personal journey and clinical practice, I’ve observed how we grapple with guilt and shame tied to our internal battles. There’s a tendency to evade these struggles or dismiss them, partly from the fear of appearing vulnerable and partly from a desire to prioritize others.

During a recent conversation about my work as a psychologist, I expressed the challenges I face in translating the subtleties of clinical practice into my written and public communication on mental health. This discussion, and the ensuing frustration I felt, lingered with me, prompting me to seek insight from my therapist. Her response, though seemingly apparent (yes, even therapists overlook the obvious), was enlightening.

She reminded me that conforming to external expectations or forcing myself into predefined roles – whether as a clinician, content creator, mother, wife, or friend – detracts from my unique qualities and the expertise I’ve honed over the last 10+ years. I am flawed yet perfectly human, daring to be myself in spaces unaccustomed to such authenticity. My journey is marked by failures and triumphs, and through it all, I (almost) always learn.

So, in this letter, I invite you to step out of the conventional box with me. We’ll delve into various scenarios and my reflections on them, hoping these examples will illuminate areas for self-discovery in your own life.

Situation 1: I don’t have a job and have been looking for months. Everything feels like it is unraveling and I have no control despite the effort I put in. 

This situation is undoubtedly tough. You’re investing significant energy and seemingly getting nothing in return, which is incredibly draining.

Now, let’s explore this together. Are you ready? Here we go:

  • Is everything really unraveling? Try to identify at least one stable or improving aspect of your life. It might be your ability to manage time effectively, a consistent evening routine, or your perseverance in the face of dwindling motivation. It’s crucial to recognize that focusing intensely on one problematic area of your life can make it seem like the rest of your life is equally troubled. Apply logical thinking to gain a clearer perspective. Why? Because believing that everything is falling apart won’t help improve your mindset and could further sap your job-hunting motivation.
  • “I have no control.” It’s true that certain elements of your job search are beyond your control. However, you do have power over many other aspects of your search and other parts of your life. I encourage you to identify and write down the areas where you do have control. Place these notes somewhere visible as a daily reminder. This exercise can help you focus on what you can influence, rather than what you can’t.

Situation 2: I’m feeling utterly drained and clueless about how to change this. The upcoming holidays, which I once loved, now seem overwhelming and add to my already full plate. I even resent feeling this way about a time of year I used to cherish.

Oh how I can relate. You’re definitely not alone in this. Let’s work through it together:

  • Address feeling drained: Can you pinpoint specific stressors that are draining you? How might you lessen these burdens? For more detailed strategies, refer to Letter No. 4, which delves into managing stressors effectively.
  • Examine what fuels you: Even if you don’t address feeling drained directly, it’s crucial to identify what energizes you.  Are you making time for activities that refuel you? If not, start now. You can incorporate these activities into your day in under five minutes, so time constraints shouldn’t be an issue. Choose activities that leave you feeling either neutral or uplifted. For me, deep breathing and gentle movement work wonders. I also enjoy creative outlets, like simple coloring, which provide a much-needed pause. Find what rejuvenates you and make it a daily habit.
  • Reflect on holiday feelings: Think back to the last holiday season you truly enjoyed. What made it special? Now, consider the upcoming holidays. Has anything in your life changed since that last enjoyable holiday? It might not be the holidays themselves you’re dreading, but rather what they represent or emphasize in your current life.
  • Manage holiday overwhelm: Remember, you have control over what goes on your plate. Your capacity doesn’t magically expand during the holidays, so you’ll need to adjust by saying “no” more often and scaling back expectations in certain areas. Consider what you can temporarily remove from your plate to make room for holiday activities. You can always revisit these tasks after the holiday season.

Situation 3: I’m expecting and seeing a lot of family over the holidays. The uncertainties of becoming a new parent already feel overwhelming, and the added pressure of everyone’s opinions is daunting. I’m worried that being around all these people will amplify my fears and doubts.

It’s completely normal to feel overwhelmed by the uncertainties of new parenthood, especially when faced with a barrage of opinions from others. Let’s explore areas to focus on moving forward.

  • Trust yourself: The key here is to believe in your own instincts and intuition. Start small, like when creating a baby registry. Instead of seeking perfection and approval for every item, add something fun that you think you and your baby might enjoy. These small acts will help build your self-trust, a skill that will be invaluable long after your pregnancy.
  • Set boundaries with family: It’s crucial to establish clear boundaries regarding unsolicited advice. Politely inform your family that you value their thoughts but will make decisions based on what you believe is best for your family. If they fail to respect these boundaries, be prepared to gently remind them or even step away from the conversation. If you have a partner with you, ask for their support in enforcing these boundaries.
  • Take breaks: During family gatherings, if you start feeling overwhelmed, allow yourself to take short breaks. You may want to even pre-schedule these breaks to be proactive. Stepping away for a few moments to practice a brief guided meditation or to simply recharge can be immensely helpful.
  • Embrace uncertainty: Accept that uncertainty is an inherent part of parenthood. No one, not even experts, has all the answers. Give yourself permission to experience and adapt to the challenges of parenthood as they come.

Consider discussing these feelings with your healthcare provider. They can offer valuable support and guidance. Also, for further support, I recommend exploring resources like Postpartum Support International, which offers online support groups for parents (both, not just mom), both during and after pregnancy.

Situation 4: I’m experiencing strained relationships and a profound sense of loneliness. I’m unsure how to improve these relationships and often find myself avoiding attempts, fearing I might make things worse.

Did you know the US Surgeon General highlighted loneliness as a significant public health issue in a May 2023 report? The report stressed the importance of addressing loneliness and social isolation with the same urgency as other public health concerns like tobacco use, obesity, and substance abuse disorders.

Avoiding relationship issues might bring temporary relief, but this approach ultimately intensifies the problems and deepens your loneliness. Avoidance also robs you of the opportunity for positive experiences. Let’s explore how to approach your relationship issues.

  • Understand the strained relationships: For relationships you wish to mend, start by analyzing why they’re strained. Reflect on whether there are aspects for which you can take responsibility. Are there changes you can initiate to improve these relationships? Consider reaching out to the other person, expressing the value of the relationship to you and your willingness to make positive changes. Focus on your contributions to the relationship, steering clear of assigning blame. This can be challenging, so practicing or role-playing at home might help you prepare for these conversations.
  • Grow from the struggles: Remember that relationships often grow stronger after overcoming difficulties. Don’t give up on the meaningful and healthy relationships in your life. Dedicate yourself to mending these bonds by actively engaging rather than avoiding them.

While four different scenarios, each underscore our shared human experience.  Regardless of our current life stage or the season, we all encounter internal struggles. To struggle is inherently human; it’s not a sign of weakness or flaw. It requires bravery and openness to acknowledge these struggles and use them as catalysts for personal growth.

In the coming week, I encourage you not to shun your struggles but to view them as opportunities for self-growth. Embrace each challenge, extracting valuable information to incorporate into your life moving forward.

Caught in anxious patterns like people pleasing or perfectionism?