Wednesday 23 February 2022

Too Small for Comfort: When Life Closes In On You

“The further in you go, the bigger it gets.”
— John Crowley, Little, Big

Have you ever felt your life getting smaller and smaller, as though it was closing in on you? Maybe a relationship has come to an end. Maybe you’ve lost a friend, or the opportunity to make a new one. Maybe it’s not about people, but your career, education, finances, health, or some other aspect of your life that’s limiting what you can do. Maybe it feels like you’ll never achieve all you hoped to, or live the life you dreamed.

It’s important to note there’s nothing wrong with “life lived small” as such. Everyone has their ideas of what constitutes a meaningful life and if yours satisfies you there’s no issue, no matter how others might view it. I’m talking here about feeling life is or has become too small for comfort. That might be because we’ve outgrown our current situation, or because life has closed in around us. Fran and I have discussed this many times in the course of our friendship, mostly in relation to her experience of a life lived with illness. I’ve talked about it with other friends too. Recently, I’ve been having similar thoughts myself.

I’m not going to go into all the different aspects of that right now. Some I’ve shared previously. I’ve written about my lack of a clear path at work, my frustrations within the mental health arena, and how my own mental health has taken a down turn of late. There are other factors at play too, some recent, others less so, which I choose keep private. But the impact of them I can — and want to — talk about, because I think there’s something universal at play which others might recognise, even though their circumstances will be as personal to them as mine are to me.

So, what do I mean by life feeling too small? How does that feel?

Most fundamentally, it feels as though I’ve run out of opportunities and ideas, or perhaps I’ve lost the motivation to pursue any opportunities and ideas that might present themselves. It feels like there’s no point attempting anything different — a new friendship, hobby, or training course; or some new direction at work — because nothing’s really going to change and I’ll only find myself back here again.

It’s not only new things. When I’m in this frame of mind, I have little interest in doing things I know I enjoy, whether that’s meeting up with people or doing something creative. Even blogging becomes a chore. It’s as though these things, which at other times lift my mood and open me up to new opportunities, no longer have the capacity to overcome the gravitational forces keeping things small. The following lines are from my personal journal.

Ah well, me scribbling about [all this] isn’t going to change anything. I need to focus on me. I just wish I knew what “me” wants and needs because it seems as time goes by, my world just keeps shrinking in on itself. I touched briefly on that with Fran yesterday. She asked “Are you bored?” I said no, not bored exactly. It’s not so much that I’m bored, it’s more like “I can’t be bothered” / “what’s the point?” No part of my life seems to be growing or deepening or expanding. Work, friends, home, wider engagement — it all feels static or even contracting.

In other journal entries and conversations I’ve talked about losing the “spark” I once felt; even missing the drama, good or bad, because at least I was feeling something intensely. “When did I last feel any intense emotion? Joy? Sadness? Even pain? “ I asked myself a few weeks ago. Very little sprang to mind.

A good deal of it centres on the key people and relationships in my life. Those I have remain strong, but there seems little opportunity for growing new connections and making new friends. It’s not just about people, however. The following is from my journal a few weeks ago. I’d been exploring ideas for blog posts.

Maybe [if I write] I’ll get some further insight into what I’m “supposed” to be doing, or some spark that helps me figure out what I want to do. Maybe I need a new creative project — except I’d need to get over the “what’s the point?” bump. [...] Have I always looked to others for my spark of inspiration? I don’t think so. I used to find it in me and in what I chose to do on my own. My diary, creative writing, crafts, photography, etc. Is that no longer enough for me, and if not, why? The simplest answer is that people — primarily Fran but others too — opened me up to feeling so much more. That’s the intensity I’m looking to find again.

You might be thinking this sounds a lot like depression. It might be, to some degree, but it feels more situational than pathological. Something — perhaps something important — I’m living with and (hopefully) moving through. It’s not the first time it’s happened. The last time I felt it on this scale was some fifteen years ago, following the death of one of my closest friends. I recall sitting in Starbucks one Saturday morning and feeling utterly bereft. My life felt stalled, career-wise, creatively, and in terms of my then circle of friends.

Oddly enough, remembering I’ve been here before brings some sense of comfort and hope. If my life moved on and opened up as dramatically and wonderfully as it did back then — albeit it took a while to do so — there’s no reason to imagine there aren’t equally wonderful times ahead of me now. On the other hand, it reminds me that all things, whether we label them good or bad, joyous or painful, are necessarily temporary. The low/flat times may keep coming around, but so do the good times. I’m reminded of conversations I’ve had with Fran in the past about her life with bipolar disorder. The following is from our book, High Tide, Low Tide:

The episodic nature of bipolar disorder has both positive and negative implications. During an episode of either mania or depression it is reassuring to know — though Fran may struggle to believe it at the time — that with appropriate care and treatment she will come through the other side. On the other hand, there is no cure, and no matter how vigilant she is Fran cannot rule out further episodes.

I’m also reminded of a conversation with a former colleague I bumped into recently. His life has utterly changed for the better since we last spoke a couple of years ago. His mental health has improved dramatically, he’s moved roles at work and is now happy in his job, and indeed with his life generally. It was wonderful to see, and a valuable reminder that things can turn around, no matter how dark and hopeless they might appear.

How to effect that kind of transformational change, though? In my experience a good deal of it comes down to chance, but we need to be open to noticing and taking advantage of opportunities as they arise. To do that now, I need to overcome the “what’s the point?” stuckness, but I’ve done it before.

A few years ago I experienced a similar sense of my life having shrunk in on itself. There was no lack of intensity then though, I felt the apparent contraction in my circumstances very intensely indeed. Perhaps driven by that intensity, I was able to motivate myself to do something about it. I took an online course relevant to what was going on for me. I discussed how I was feeling with Fran and others. It took a while, but I was actively seeking how to move forward, rather than just waiting for things to change. It’s as though I was treading water, keeping my head above the surface of the water rather than sinking beneath the waves, until I could figure out which direction in which to swim. I remember one moment of insight from that time.

[I just had a] crazy idea that I could turn this on its head and pretend/present as though I am over it and put myself back out there for something new. It’s ridiculous on so many levels — so ridiculous that it is worth giving some thought to. [...] It doesn’t have to lead to anything. It’s not about results, but attitude. Am I gaining anything by moping and withdrawing from everything?

There’s an element there of what Fran and I call faking fine. Pretending things are better than they are isn’t a fix for anything but it can help us take the next step. We can feel the fear and do it anyway, as Susan Jeffers might say. Whatever it takes to motivate us to take that next step, I think mindset is important. We may or may not be responsible for whatever led to this place where life feels too small for us, but we can take ownership of how we respond to it.

I was chatting with a friend the other day. Talking about the changes she’s making in her life, she said “As things evolve here...” She paused a moment before observing, “I think evolving is a good word.” I think so too. Evolution adds a sense of development or progress to the cycles of life we experience. I’ve felt my life was too small in the past, as I do now, but I am not the person I was back then. I’ve experienced and learned so much in the intervening years. I may not know what is coming next but I can be certain something is coming. I can choose to see my present situation as a useful — even a necessary — period of pause, rest, and introspection, as I figure out what I want to work towards in this next phase of my life. That brings a degree of hope, even as I write these words.

As I mentioned in a recent article about how I distract myself when I’m feeling down, I’ve been watching a lot of mathematics and physics videos on YouTube. One topic that fascinates me is the idea that the universe might be on a cyclical journey of expansion and contraction. If you’re interested, check out What If the Big Crunch Theory Is True, by Unveiled. If that’s true, if the entire universe will one day stop expanding, pause, and then contract before (maybe) starting out all over again — and has possibly done so many times before — then occasionally feeling my life is a little small for comfort doesn’t seem such a bad thing after all! Maybe a period of smallness is necessary to fuel the next phase. I’m up for finding out.

Have there been times when your life felt too small? How did you feel, and what steps did you take to move on from there? We’d love to hear from you so please leave a comment or get in touch.


Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash.


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