STEP ONE: Decide it’s time to let go.
This is the hardest thing you will ever have to do, because you have been pouring your heart and your soul and your guts into your current life. You WANT to be able to fix it like you have a thousand times before, but you can’t fix it this time.
It’s broken. You know that. That little voice in the back of your head—the one that usually taps you on the shoulder and whispers for you to reconsider your choices—has taken to shouting at you lately. Her words have lost that tentative edge, and she means business now.
Because time is passing. She is growing up, and so are you. You are both starting to realize—with equal parts dread and fascination—that you should probably start doing all those things you’ve always said you were going to do.
You’re also learning that the future almost NEVER works itself out on its own. It works out because somebody decides to MAKE it work out.
More often than not, that somebody has to be you.
STEP TWO: Accept this decision.
You’re going to want to freak out now. Don’t. This is normal, but don’t give in to the urge to curl up into a ball and stare blankly at the ceiling.
Your fear will paralyze you if you let it. It will also pollute your brain—flashing a highlight reel of your current life, pleading with you to reconsider and coming up with 75,000 reasons why you SHOULDN’T abandon your path after all.
Maybe it’s your fear of failure. Maybe it’s society. Maybe it’s money or distance or your broken heart or his. Maybe it’s the fact that you’ve given this life every single last drop of your entire being, and you wonder how that can possibly STILL NOT BE GOOD ENOUGH.
These reasons are no good. You know that. If they were, you would have talked yourself out of letting go months or maybe even years ago. If there was one real, legitimate reason for you to hold on—one that would trump all the other reasons you can’t—your subconscious would have already seized it.
It hasn’t. Do you hear me? I’m going to tell you this again, because it’s important: YOU ALREADY KNOW WHAT YOU NEED TO DO, AND NOW IS THE TIME TO DO IT.
STEP THREE: Make a plan.
We always feel our most powerless when we don’t have a plan. We feel like the world is spinning out of control, and we want to shut down and close our eyes and just forget the whole entire thing. But we can’t. There is too much work to do.
So make a plan. Do it in secret if you have to. Break down the enormous task in front of you into teensy, tiny steps, and begin checking things off your to-do list. Every single day. No matter how small or insignificant, every step is a step forward.
(I would reference the journey of a thousand miles here, but I much prefer the Bill Hogan quote: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” I also prefer organization: Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, goals I can tick off my Google Calendar task bar. The results feel more tangible, and the busy work will help keep your mind off your panic.)
STEP FOUR: Don’t give up.
If it were easy, you would have already done it. Remember that. Also, remember this: IT’S NEVER GOING TO GET ANY EASIER THAN IT IS RIGHT NOW.
Imagine how different your life would be if you had made this change the first time you realized you needed to. Now imagine your life six months or ten years from now. Don’t you think you will have wished you started today?
So don’t stop now. Keep reaching for your goal, and don’t forget to stay healthy.
Sleep. Take vitamins, and don’t drink too much alcohol. Don’t start eating donuts and taquitos and Cheese Whiz for dinner every night, either. You’re going to want to drown your sorrows in junk food, but you need fuel right now. Keep telling yourself that.
Also, permit yourself a few minor freak-outs here and there when necessary. You aren’t a robot, after all. But give yourself a timeline: ten minutes, two hours, never more than a day. You will have plenty of time to grieve later. Right now, don’t forget your fear is waiting.
Combat your grief by surrounding yourself with positive quotes: “This is the part where you find out who you are.” “You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.” “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Or my personal favorite: “We can do hard things.”
We can. And you will.
STEP FIVE: Celebrate your success.
Congratulations! You pulled it off! That huge and terrible mountain of change is now fading in the distance, and you see nothing but blue skies ahead.
Take a moment (or several) to celebrate your success. You’re STRONG. Do you realize this? You’ve probably gotten so used to thinking of yourself as weak that the words feel strange on your tongue.
But you are. You’re strong. You’ve accomplished something many people only dream of doing, and guess what? You didn’t die. You’re still here, and your future is bright and shiny and waiting for you to create it.
STEP SIX: Realize you aren’t finished yet.
You will probably ride your high of success for a week or two, and then reality will begin to creep in. And by reality, I really mean confusion.
Where’s the credit roll and the narrator reading, “And then she lived happily ever after?” Where’s that brand new life with the painted sign on the front that reads, “Welcome! We’ve been expecting you!”
Where’s the cheerleading squad and the brass band and the fireworks displays? What about that tunnel of strangers reaching out to high-five you as you run past?
What about your financial security? You probably turned your life completely upside down making this change, and that probably included draining lots of unintended funds and/or relying on credit cards and/or the generosity of loved ones to get you through the day.
This overwhelmed feeling is normal. It is also probably unexpected, because you were so focused on GETTING here that you never actually thought about what you would do when you GOT here.
My best advice for this moment is to surround yourself with as many friends and family members as you can. If none of them live close by, connect with them through technology. Don’t feel guilty or weak for actually needing their support and assistance right now. You would do the exact same thing for them, and they know it.
STEP SEVEN: Embrace your new reality.
This one is hard, and it’s probably going to take a very long time before you don’t feel like a fish out of water. But—as best as you can—begin embracing your new reality.
Remember all those things you always said you were going to do? You actually get to do them now, so make another list. Two lists would be even better: one of the things you want to do, and one of the person you want to become.
Take a moment to soak that in. You get to become a new person. Your core values probably aren’t going to change, and your personality isn’t either, but you have basically been granted a life do-over. Don’t waste it.
(Some time ago, I came up with the three words I hoped people would use to describe me at my funeral: passionate, creative and genuine. Since then, I have made a concerted effort to BECOME a passionate, creative and genuine person. That means cultivating passions for things like the arts, friendships and adventures; pushing myself to become a more creative, prolific person; and speaking up to stay true to myself, even when it’s inconvenient.)
STEP EIGHT: Expect setbacks.
At some point, you’re inevitably going to hit a wall. You’re going to realize your new life is hard—even harder than your last life in some ways. It’s harder because it isn’t comfortable yet, and real growth requires two things: courage and pain.
ALLOW YOURSELF TO FEEL THAT PAIN YOU’VE BEEN REPRESSING. This is a critical stage of your growth, because that sadness will always be there if you don’t set it free.
So let yourself feel it. Sink into it like you’re slipping into the ocean. (If you live near a real ocean, I recommend visiting one and falling face-first into it. Works wonders every time.)
A caveat, though—with real oceans and conjured ones. Don’t let yourself drown. It’s easy to lose yourself in your grief, just like it’s easy to slip below the surface of the sea. But that’s not why you are here. If you let yourself disappear now, your entire struggle will have been in vain.
So, GIVE YOURSELF A TIMELINE: a week, a month, a season. Descend into the deepest depths of your suffering, but abide by your deadline. When it’s time to return to the shore, return to the shore.
STEP NINE: Have faith in yourself, and have faith in the process.
Start thinking about butterflies. And remember this quote: “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.”
Progress report: You were once a caterpillar, and now you are a chrysalis.
And here’s the thing about being a chrysalis: It kind of sucks sometimes.
I recently learned caterpillars don’t just gracefully sleep through metamorphosis the way we thought they did as kids. In order to transform, they must first release enzymes that quite literally digest nearly their entire bodies. It is from this "caterpillar soup" that the adult butterfly is born anew.
Imagine how scary this process must be: the melting and reformulating of one’s insides. That’s where your essence is right now. You are some form of caterpillar soup, and you still have a long way to go before you will be able to become a butterfly.
But you know what? That’s okay. Just like you can’t expect to pull a butterfly from a still-forming chrysalis, you can’t expect yourself to just snap out of this.
So… Please be gentle with yourself. You are going to have good days, and you are going to have bad days. This is a normal part of the healing process.
You know what else? YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE SOME TERRIBLE DAYS. Gut-wrenching, paralyzing days where all you want to do is lay down and die. Angry, bitter days where you blame the entire world for robbing you of the life you had planned.
Worst of all, anxiety is probably going to become your new best friend. You are going to become regularly crippled with fear, and you are going to question every single thing about yourself: from the choices you’ve made and the goals you haven’t reached to your fear of failure and the possibility that you may never, ever, ever actually succeed and find happiness again.
Because you were happy there for awhile, weren’t you? You can’t remember now. The past has become glossed over, and all you can see are blocky, distant shadows. Was it really so bad back then? Were you overreacting when you decided to do this?
You weren’t. You know that. Deep down in the pit of your stomach, you know you did what you had to do. So… HAVE FAITH IN YOURSELF, AND HAVE FAITH IN THE PROCESS.
Remember this. Write it down. Tape it to your bathroom mirror, and recite it every single morning like a mantra.
STEP TEN: Throw away your timeline.
You are going to take two steps forward and 36 steps backward some days. You are going to want to give up sometimes, and other times, you are going to hate yourself for still not being healed.
Worse, some days you are going to think you ARE healed. You are going to move forward and make choices, and you are going to think, “Is this it? Is this the new beginning? Is the worst finally behind me?”
Trouble is, you don’t have a road map for this part. And this road is more like a maze anyway, with twisting passages and dead-ends and places where you will have to squeeze or climb or crawl instead of walk.
And you know what? No matter what you do, you’re going get hurt again. It’s inevitable. YOU ARE GOING TO APPROACH LIFE WITH YOUR NEW, SHINY, POSITIVE OUTLOOK, AND IT’S STILL GOING TO SLAP YOU IN THE FACE SOMETIMES.
This is going to shock you. TRUST ME. It’s probably going to come out of nowhere, and it’s almost definitely going to cripple you again.
You’re going to backslide. Extensively. You’re going to mourn and panic and fall right back into that hole you just left.
You’re going to once again question every single thing about yourself—because if you’re trying this hard and still not succeeding, what hope do you have of EVER succeeding??
Short answer: There’s hope. And you will find it.
Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but little by little by little, you’re going to sweat and bleed and cry and drag yourself into your new life.
You’re not going to notice at first. You’re going to be so tied up in your day-to-day victories and defeats that the change won’t immediately be evident. But slowly—glacially, even—you will begin to notice something is different.
You’re stronger now. Setbacks that used to destroy you now barely make a dent. You’re lighter, too—filled with a strange, glowing energy that isn’t tentative or tremulous like before. It’s blue fire now, blazing colder and hotter than ever.
And when you look back on yourself—a year or two or ten after you started this journey—you’re going to barely recognize the person you used to be. You were a block of marble before, and now you’re a finely honed statue. Every line and ridge and muscle is there because it’s SUPPOSED to be there, and there’s no longer any room for unnecessary fear or doubt or uncertainty.
You say, “I am strong,” but this time, the words don’t feel strange on your tongue. They feel true, and the fact that you ever called yourself weak makes you shake your head and wonder why you were living with your eyes closed.
You want to travel back in time, to tell that girl she needs to pull herself together. But then you stop yourself, because you realize you already have. And your transformation is finally complete.
It was horrible. A thousand or a million times worse than you ever thought it would be. And if you had known how much suffering it would require, you’re not sure if you would have ever had the courage to even begin.
But you did.
You’re glad you didn’t know, just like you’re grudgingly thankful for all the lessons your suffering has taught you. There are countless morals, of course, but the most powerful one is this:
You are a beautiful, courageous, independent and whole person.
And you are never, ever, ever going to lose sight of yourself again.