Mining for meaning after hitting rock bottom 

By Sarah Cannata

This world is not for the faint-hearted. When you make the time to look around you (really look), you’ll find much beauty in the mundane—spotting rainbows in the sky, feeling the warm sun on your face, feeling the ground beneath you as you put one foot in front of the other.

We also all have moments when we feel like the world is about to open up and swallow us whole. Sometimes, we experience this as a series of unfortunate events that arise out of the blue concurrently. At other times, a single event is enough to see us questioning everything. While feeling like we’ve hit rock bottom is a terrible, all-consuming feeling, it’s also an opportunity for reinvention and transformation.

A world of untapped potential awaits—if we dare to look 

Expressive writing sees us turning towards our raw emotions and the truths we’ve often spent a lifetime burying. In many ways, this work is the opposite of everything most of us know and have been taught. Self-discovery can transform our struggles and, in time, allow us to see that hitting rock bottom was just another stop along the way.

I often ask my clients to write or journal their answers to this question:

What did you enjoy doing as a kid when anything felt possible?

Usually, it takes people a while to journey back and reconnect with their younger selves. Once they do, they slowly reel off several interests and hobbies that have typically fallen away over time as the responsibilities and demands of adulthood have taken over.

Nothing is stopping you from revisiting these interests as an adult to investigate if that spark remains. One pattern I’ve seen with several clients is they’ve deviated so far away from their dreams that they feel lost. Living a life that doesn’t feel like our own is a constant weight on our shoulders. At a cognitive level, we can see we have everything that ‘should’ make us happy on paper…

  • Financial stability
  • A partner
  • Children
  • Friends and family
  • A stable job

In reality, we feel like we’re going through the motions daily. There’s a big, gaping hole in our lives that we can’t seem to fill. Free writing is a good place to start if you resonate with these words.

Free writing: a quick start guide

We have one goal with free writing: to write without any rules or censorship. Set a timer for 10-15 minutes, write about whatever is on your mind and allow your thoughts to flow freely onto the page.

Some people need a prompt when writing; there’s nothing wrong with that. If you do, here’s a prompt I like sharing:

What would you be doing if you could do anything with your life now and there were no limitations, barriers or challenges?

With free writing, the aim is to continue writing, even if it means writing nonsense or repeating yourself. We want our subconscious mind to take the reins, leading us down unexpected paths and uncovering hidden insights along the way. Forget about grammar, punctuation and spelling. We’re focusing on our thoughts and emotions—nothing else.

Landing on unexpected and often inconvenient discoveries

If you engage in any form of expressive writing for long enough, you’ll discover some things that shock you and aren’t all that convenient to learn. I’m talking about things that have the power to change the course of your life. I’ll share a personal example.

I was once involved in a business partnership that was perfect on paper. As time passed, my intuition started whispering something was off. I ignored it. During a free writing session, I wrote these words:

I’m miserable with this arrangement.

The situation had nothing to do with the business or my business partner at the time; it had everything to do with me. More journaling uncovered that I wanted to build a business from the ground up, so the existing arrangement would never satisfy me. I initially ignored the realisation because I didn’t want to disappoint my business partner or rock the boat. The arrangement was bringing in money, but at what cost? Eventually, I forced myself to have the difficult conversation, and while it was challenging, everything turned out ok.

Writing during our darkest moments

I’m not a fan of writing only about ‘happy moments’ or when we feel on top of the world and inspired. As humans, we’re going to experience the full range of human emotions at some point and for me, writing at my lowest moments has been incredibly helpful. If you are struggling as you read these words, here are some tips I’ve learned about exploring difficult emotions. 

  • Be wary of wallowing endlessly

Revisiting the same emotions or circumstances over and over without any kind of change in perspective isn’t healthy. I see this with clients when they are trapped in the story they are telling themselves. If you are going around in circles, it’s time to refocus your writing on another topic. Depending on the situation, consider reaching out for professional support or, in some cases, you might need an honest, open and raw chat with a trusted friend or family member.

  • Bring everything back to your body

To avoid getting wrapped up in your mind and neglecting your feelings, bring your words back to sensations in your body. Remain curious and see if you can identify where certain emotions land in your body. When you notice something, delve deeper. Can you write about what that emotion feels like? Does it have a colour? What happens when you hone in on it?

  • Maintain perspective

I’ve been using expressive writing since I was 12 (I wouldn’t have called it ‘expressive writing’ back then). As you can imagine, I’ve written some grim words over the years. I’ve landed on some hard truths and written so many things I’ve felt ashamed to admit that ended up in the shredder. As painful as some realisations can be, knowing you are not living your truth is far more painful in my experience.

Whenever life is knocking me about, as lame as it may sound, I return to gratitude journaling. I jot down everything I am grateful for, which only takes a few minutes. Why? Because my mind can be crowded and confusing, and sometimes, I focus far too much on what I consider not ideal or optimal. There will always be people with more than us and others with less. If you are here, reading these words and doing this work, you have much to be grateful for (as do I).

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