What To Do When It’s Not Getting Better
And you’re already trying hard
I am super excited about this piece! I have teamed up with John Kim — licensed therapist, published author, and another one of our most beloved top writers in Love and Relationships on Medium, specializing in “self help in a shotglass” — and together we addressed one of the biggest themes we see:
What to do when you feel like “nothing’s working” and you’re at wit’s end trying to get something to change.
Here’s both of our takes on this. John wrote from the angle of “Life;” I wrote from the angle of “Love” and relationships.
In the words of John,
“Hopefully this throws a wider net so anyone can get something from this article.”
Let us know!
Pull back / Work backwards / Just do one thing.
Let me explain. I think we get stuck sometimes because we keep trying to shove a cylinder peg into a square hole. Do things over and over again that don’t work or maybe isn’t meant to happen right now. And we just drain our energy and hope. Basically, we fight the universe. That being said, you have to truly be honest with yourself and know the difference between not “meant to happen right now” and being lazy or giving up. Let’s take me for example. I felt the most “nothing’s working” in my life at the tail end of my screenwriting career. I had been writing for nearly a decade. I was good enough to get representation, go on pitch meetings, sell a script, and get hired to write a show. But i just wasn’t meant to have a screenwriter career at that point in my life. I’m not saying “at that point in my life” because I want a screenwriting career now. I just know that anything is possible and life always has a funny way of coming back sometimes. So I don’t hold on to blueprints so tightly anymore. Anyway, I definitely wasn’t lazy. I wrote my ass off every single day for years. I put in the work. But the work is only part of the equation. There’s talent. There’s timing. There’s magical uncontrollably universe shit you are not aware of until you look back and make sense of your story. So for me, I realized I wasn’t happy and took a big step back. I’ll be honest. It was extremely difficult to give up on a dream. To think all those hours writing in coffee shops went to waste. But did they? Depends on what you choose to believe.
Whenever you feel stuck, the goal is to get emotional traction first. I believe if you can’t change what’s happening, you have to start by changing how you feel. Grow that feeling and your outcome will change. But here’s the kicker. Maybe not in the way you planned. Things may unfold differently and you have leave room for that. In my example above, emotional traction meant totally letting go and switching gears by changing careers. That may not be the case for you. Maybe for you, emotional traction means setting smaller goals or different goals so you feel that there’s movement, that there’s something happening. This is where the second part comes in. Work backwards.
Sometimes we get so stuck in our trenches, we don’t see the path. If you don’t see a path, you’ll feel stuck and lost. So after you pull back, ask yourself what your goal is. Make it different or smaller goal that what you’re trying to accomplish now. Then work backwards and ask yourself what you need to do and / or who you need to be in order to accomplish that goal.
By seeing the goal and working backwards, you can start to see it’s possible instead of not seeing anything at all. The process of seeing the plan injects some hope. This hope will give you some traction. Remember, the goal can be small. All it is right now is a vine to pull you out of your quicksand.
After pulling back and deciding I wanted to be a therapist and help people, the goal was first to get into therapy school. Getting my license was too far ahead. I just had to start the process. So I worked backwards by figuring out what I needed to do to get into a psychology Master’s program. I worked backwards. Saw the path. And went. Then when I felt stuck in the program, I pulled back and focused on a smaller goal like graduating or finishing a paper, and worked backwards so I could see a path, know that it was possible. I constantly injected myself with shots of hope to get through.
Now let’s talk about the final piece. There’s a book called “Just do one thing”. I haven’t read it. I don’t need to. I understand the concept from the title. And it’s so true and powerful. Olympic Lifting is a very precision based sport. Just moving your hands one inch can drastically change the outcome of the lift. So coaches usually only give you one direction at a time. More than that and you end up doing nothing because there’s so much focus involved.
When we feel nothing’s working, sometimes we just need to focus on one thing. We need to be a sniper instead of a shotgun. It’s like that saying, doing one thing right is far better than doing ten things half ass. Or something like that, you know what I mean.
This is always step one. Let go of whatever you’re trying to tackle and take a step back. Breath. Maybe re-evaluate. Ask yourself why questions. What exactly are you trying to accomplish? Does it line up with your truth and story?
You need to see a path so you have direction and believe it’s actually possible. Break your goal down to small pieces or see a different goal. Work backwards so you see the path. That will give you a reset. Hopefully inject some hope. Once you accomplish the smaller or different goal, you’re back in the game.
JUST DO ONE THING
When you’re feeling stuck, sniper over shotgun. Get super focused and zone in on one thing that’s in your control that you can accomplish. One thing. Not fifty. You don’t climb a peg board by looking up at all the holes you get to peg to get to the top. Your body gets heavy very fast. You just focus on inserting the peg into one hole at a time. Then suddenly realize you’re at the top. I’ve never been rock climbing but I’m assuming it’s probably the same. No one runs up mountains. They climb.
What should you do when “nothing’s working” and you’re at wit’s end?
Do the work for real. (Many people think they’re doing this work when they’re not.)
People are in pain. They are suffering. They are struggling.
And on top of this, they are trying. They follow their heart, exercise patience, talk to their partner, read books and articles, listen to friends, follow everyone’s guidance… They seek to understand before being understood; they say sorry; they give more — and then more again. They’re sloughing through it.
They want it to change. They want to make it work. And they try everything they can think of — holding it it, letting it all out, writing it all down, talking it all over — and none of it’s working.
They are seeing nothing as a result of the effort. They’re coming at it from every angle and can’t seem to get their head above water, the sheer pressure of the shit they’re going through is so overwhelming.
But what do we do when “nothing’s changing.?” When our partner — or the situation — is still the same?
I hear a lot of common themes from people frustrated with their situation. Comments like:
- “I’ve bled my heart out into my fucking feelings journal.”
- “I’ve cried and screamed and damn near had a nervous breakdown.”
- “I fluctuate between complete, almost hysterical devastation to mind numbing anger at his violation of my trust to blinding thoughts of vindication.”
- “I am struggling. I am completely off balance. I fear change and loss.”
I’ve also heard things like:
- “I have been dragged down a rocky road of hell by my husband.”
- “I know that the negativity he brought to my life is not conducive to a healthy partnership.”
- “He just won’t take responsibility or do his part to change.”
But also I hear seemingly-positive things like:
- “I am an optimist”
- “I am committed to growth and understanding.”
- “To say I am exhausted is an understatement.”
- “I own my own shit and know how to say ‘I am sorry’ and mean it.”
But, overall, what I’m hearing is:
“I don’t know what to do.”
And the problem with all of this is that we’re trying “everything” except the one thing that will actually help. We’re doggedly doing everything while simultaneously avoiding the only thing that matters.
We’ve felt so browbeaten for so long that we forget:
The only thing we control is our own reactions.
And on that note:
Our happiness is our responsibility alone.
So if we’re not happy, it’s on us.
We are also responsible for how we choose to respond. In fact, it’s the only thing in life that we have complete control over. And we never, ever control what other think or feel or do.
But there are two types of “responses:” one is our reaction in the moment itself, what we choose to say, for example, to a partner who’s shouting or shutting down.
I dated an emotionally abusive partner for two and a half years.
It took me two years to recognize it as emotional abuse, and then several more months to find the courage and confidence to get fed up and actually do something real about it.
The whole time, I kept telling myself “there’s a lot of ‘good’ here if we just work past this!” I also kept thinking “it’s not that bad!” And I kept investing more effort in how to be a good partner — all the while just hoping he’d take up his part and do the same. I just figured that if I was “good,” the universe would be “fair;” that it would all but rearrange itself and “make” my partner into the person I “deserved.”
Life doesn’t work like that.
I tried the entire time. We talked. We fought. I listened. I shared. I read the articles he sent me. I read books on “fighting fair.” We both promised to work on it — to “give the other the benefit of the doubt,” “operate from love, not hate,” and not to “jump to conclusions.”
I stopped stonewalling and instead gave him my full undivided attention, even when he continued to pull every dirty move in the book: shouting, name-calling, accusing, gaslighting, insulting, watching for and then latching on to what he perceived as “logical fallacies” in anything I said and, most of all, getting defensive. He didn’t read the books. When I sent him articles on “how to apologize,” he threw them back at me in arguments, calling them “KG apologies” as though I alone had made the concept of “human decency” up.
After I broke up with him, I realized a few important things:
- What, exactly, constitutes a healthy relationship — and why a healthy relationship always requires two emotionally healthy people
- Two wrongs don’t make a right — I overlooked a lot of his abuse because I figured “well, I’m not perfect either.”
- I was more concerned with making excuses for him (“he’s stressed out”) than see his behavior for what it was
- Giving it another shot, or letting it go, rather than actually doing something to remedy things
You get exactly what you allow
And, just to be clear, that also means that you are allowing everything that you continue to endure. You may think you deserve that pain, but you don’t.
It took me over two years to recognize the problem, and several more months to realize: he will never change.
It was up to realize that two years was more than enough time for him to demonstrate any kind of improvement. Instead, things had only gotten worse. It was up to me to realize that I deserved better. It was up to me to realize “enough is enough.” And it was up to me to pull the plug on things.
What “taking responsibility” actually means
Because it does NOT just mean “taking blame” or playing martyr in your own life. It means recognizing your agency and your role and your control.
It’s amazing how committed we can be to our situation. I hear people say things like,
“I own my own shit and know how to say ‘I am sorry’ and mean it, but my partner won’t change.”
Saying “sorry” is not “owning your shit.” That’s like 1/100th of the “shit” we need to own — especially in situations like this. (If you were standing in the rain getting soaked to the bone, would you just stand there and apologize for forgetting an umbrella? No — you’d find a way to get inside. The same can be said for the degree of “responsibility” we’re talking about when we talk about your life overall.)
Your situation will change when you actually do something real
“Waiting for them to change” or “hoping” they will is not “doing something.” Dumping more energy into a relationship when they aren’t is not “doing something.” And crying, whining, getting angry or having emotional breakdowns definitely aren’t “doing something.”
“Doing something” is noticing whether they are actually and truly trying to change. It’s absorbing and accepting whether they’re putting effort in, with their whole heart, or whether they “try” just enough to keep you around.
Most importantly, “doing something” is leaving if the situation doesn’t improve. Because nobody respects a person who states a demand and then just angrily sticks around when others continue to disregard it.
Doing something is taking control when you get fed up. It’s taking responsibility and agency for your own life.
You are not as trapped as you’ve made yourself. You are not victim of your existence.
It’s about self esteem.
It was about discerning a higher standard for myself — how I wanted to be treated in a relationship. And it was realizing that part of that standard meant not negotiating with terrorists. It is not our job to reason or rationalize with someone playing emotional war games. It’s our job to get out.
It’s our job to make things work for us, and it’s our job to understand what we do and do not control — always our reactions; never anybody else’s.
Nothing will “work” until we do. The minute we commit to taking real responsibility and making changes (that we can actually control), everything falls into place.
Let us know what you think of this collaboration! If people dig it, we’ll do more :)