The Unravelling: After the Breaking

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One of the difficult times in our lives is the space between the old not working any more and the new not being clear yet. We know we don’t want to go back and yet we don’t know the way forward. What can we do?


Sometime, for some of us, perhaps after a long time, we break down. Sometimes this turns out to have been a breakthrough. Usually it has taken us a long time to get to the point — and often we have fought every inch of the way.

And then we let go. Or we find that we just can’t do it anymore. Or we decide we won’t put up with it anymore. We have reached the end of one way of organising our lives — in one or more areas.

The breakdown or breakthrough can be about a little area of our life, perhaps one aspect of how one friend relates to us, or more serious — such as deciding that we are worthy of being cared for.


After breaking we find the question: what next? If our old way of doing things worked, we wouldn’t have broken down (or through). However, this doesn’t mean that what is next is at all clear. This can be an extremely difficult place to be; I call it “The Unravelling”.

Our old way of doing things worked well enough, but now it doesn’t. And we may be surprised how difficult it is to change (even though we want to very much). We may find it nauseating just to contemplate speaking to our friend differently. We may feel pain when we think about asking someone to care for us. We find the idea painful or revolting. And it is a lot of work. Even if a habit is unhelpful, it takes energy to change it.

I call this stage The Unravelling because it is like we pulled on one thread and the whole thing (our old way of life) starts unravelling. Except that it can be more complicated than this — it is like the thread we pulled is connected to lots of other threads, and these start unravelling things we hadn’t realised were connected. This is surprising, disconcerting and confusing. We can feel stunned and immobile or like the situation (or ourselves) are out of control.

Staying There

We don’t want to go back to our old way, and the new way isn’t clear yet: the only option is to stay where we are. And it is a painful place to stay.

When we are in this place it is very helpful if we have good friends who will listen to us (not offer advice but just listen and stay with us). It can also be helpful to have a sense of the process. It is usually easy to see why the old way was inadequate and why we didn’t like it. It is usually harder to know that the new way will come.

It may help to know at these times that our dislike of the old way is the beginning of the new. Before we broke down (or through) we weren’t so clear about why we didn’t want to do things that way. Our breaking is an indication of what we value. It may not be clear yet but at some level we have a sense of what it is. We know that it didn’t fit for us: and so we know that somehow we have a sense of what does fit.

At these times it may help to look at others. There may be others who are living now the way you want to be. It may be possible to find out how they do their lives. You can then decide how much you would like to do things this way too.

Fantasy may also help to open up possibilities. Imagining a perfect day or week or year may give you a sense of direction. The purpose of this fantasy is not to give you a plan for a day, week or year (striving for perfection can be a trap) but to give you a sense of your preferences and priorities. The fantasy can give you a sense that you do know what you prefer, and what your values are (even if you aren’t living in accord with all of them just yet).


Gradually we develop a new way of living. We try things out — discarding what doesn’t work and keeping what does. Keeping some of our old lives and adding some new ways of living to it: it is very rare for us to change completely — it is a process of transformation, not replacement.

Perhaps you have been through this process of breakthrough (or breakdown) and developing a new way of life. If so I’d like to hear about your experience in the comments. I’m not presuming it will be the same as the experience I’ve described here — and if not, then I’d especially like to hear about it.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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