Questionable Advice #6: How do I stop feeling so trapped and unhappy?
The only advice column that gives you more questions than answers.
From Laurie, in a response to a weekly newsletter:
Not sure where to start as I am unhappy in most areas of my life. I’m 54 years old, very unhappy, and don’t have the financial means to pursue what I want to do with my life. I live in a place that I don’t feel any connection to at all. However, my son lives with me and works while studying at university. His life is here and I feel that it is my job as a parent to support him in his goals even if I am not happy here. My soul feels like it is broken.
I don’t laugh anymore, have no partner or friends here, and feel like I am trapped.
First, thank you for sharing your truth with me. I feel honored to receive such authentic emotion. I’m not sure how you felt sending it, but I can assure you that it took courage and vulnerability. For that, I feel grateful.
Second, please celebrate the fact that you took the time to send this email. Not only did you display a level of vulnerability that many people are too afraid to show, but you also took a step toward change.
To start, Laurie, I’m going to own that I can only relate to the responsibilities of a parent as a Dog Mom (and I’m thinking there are just a fewww differences between human sons and dog sons). After all, my dog’s pretty low maintenance. Give him food, water, and an occasional walk, and he’s happy. As such, I can base very few of my decisions on my pup’s needs.
He’s definitely in touch with my emotions, however, in that weird way that animals can tap into how we feel. If I come home from work in a ball of stress or frustration, his ears tilt back ever so slightly. And if I give him a quick pat – rather than my usual enthusiastic greeting – he resigns himself to some alone time on his dog bed.
Even if he can’t make the direct link between what’s going on in my life and the attention I give him, he definitely experiences it. A busy work week means less play time; a stress-induced spiral leads to neglect.
In other words, when I’m happier and healthier, his life improves.
You might be picking up where I’m going with this. Your email screams of unhappiness, and you go so far as to say “my soul feels like it is broken.” I can’t help but wonder how much this unhappiness might be affecting your son.
Now, human relationships are vastly more complicated than pet care. However, I firmly believe that the happier and healthier we are, the more we’re able to give to others – sons and dogs alike.
You say, “I feel that it is my job as a parent to support him in his goals even if I am not happy here.” I want you to ask yourself where this idea comes from. I also encourage you to question what you think “support” should look like. From an outside perspective, I wonder how much support you can offer if you’re feeling trapped, broken, lonely, and devoid of laughter.
Consider what might be better. Your son having a place to live while at university with someone who’s feeling all of these negative emotions? Or your son having a model of someone who prioritizes their mental health, lives a life they want to, and finds a reason to laugh again?
I think too often we get caught in society’s expectations for us. We think being a good _____ requires X, Y, and Z. Then, we trap ourselves into these requirements. Yet I’d argue that the world – and the people in our lives – don’t need “good ____’s” that are merely trying to live by the standards of others. Instead, the world needs more people to come alive and pave the way for others.
It’s so obvious that you love your son. I encourage you to shift your mindset away from what you think you should do right now for his immediate goals. Instead, I want you to really think about what type of life you want him to create for himself. What values might he live by? How do you want him to wake up feeling each day? In an ideal world, what does a happy, healthy, authentic life look like for him?
And then, Laurie, model that. Show him through your actions that it’s possible. Yes, your decisions may have drastic consequences on his immediate life, especially if you choose to leave or reprioritize your time. They may cause him stress or challenges. And you’ll have to find the balance between prioritizing your own happiness while still supporting him. But let him in on that process. Tell him what’s motivating your changes, and model your pursuit of authenticity.
Ultimately, your model will give him more support than any “parent responsibility” ever could.
I once attended a “Finding Joy” workshop by my favorite author. He said he keeps a go-to “Funny Folder” on his phone. Essentially, it’s a place on his phone full of quick videos and photos that undoubtedly make him laugh. When he’s feeling particularly down, he pulls it out.
The Funny Folder doesn’t immediately transform his mood – and it certainly doesn’t immediately change his life. But it usually provides a small “spark” that helps remind him of what joy feels like when it feels far away.
Change – especially in the big sense – isn’t easy, nor quick. It involves a million tiny sparks along the way. I won’t profess that your email to me, or my response to you, will be the magical catalyst for change. However, it can serve as one of those tiny steps that eventually move you forward.
I also understand that financial pressure might prevent you from jumping at the “dream job” or “dream move” you want. But what are some tiny ways you can bring more light and joy into your life? Even if you’re not financially ready to give up your work, how can you fill other aspects of your life with things that bring you joy? Are there ways you can connect with people on the phone or hobby groups?
I also encourage you to seek a professional therapist or counselor. You repeat the word “unhappy,” but your description sounds like something more significant. If we’re trapped in those “low moments” for too long, it can be difficult to get out of them on our own. Support groups are also a great way to find connections. You can start by calling a local or national hotline; many organizations offer free resources and guidance with mental health.
Think – if the worst thing that can happen is that it doesn’t work, and you end up right back to where you are now, isn’t it worth trying for the possible upside?
All of this might feel terrifying, or perhaps any change just feels like too much energy (again, this lack of emotional energy might speak to a bit of a depressive period). But you can do it, Laurie. I know you can because you read my newsletter and sent me an email. You’ve already taken two steps – identifying your feelings (self-awareness) and seeking advice for change (courage).
Keep on stepping, even if you stumble at times. Create your own respective Funny Folder, filled with quick sparks to remind you of the things you want more in your life. And please, please, be kind and compassionate to yourself in the process. The last thing you need to do is add another level of shame or criticism. We’re all human; we’re going to make mistakes, do things wrong, and feel overwhelmed. But you are worthy just because of who you are. Nothing is ever too late.
I just want to get you to the point of laughing again, Laurie. And I bet your son does too.
Questionable Advice – Personalized Questions for You:
- What used to give you joy?
- Where in your life can you prioritize more things that you find meaningful?
- What previous relationships might be worth rebuilding? Who can you connect with from your past?
- How can you prioritize new connections in your life, even if they’re small?
- What life do you want your son to live? What do you want him to feel about his life?
- How can you model the life you want your son to live?
- Where might fear be holding you back?
- What things used to make you laugh? Can you bring them back into your life?
- What might you put in a “Funny Folder”? A “Joy Folder”?
- How can you connect more with your son?
- How do you feel about seeking professional help?
Want some of your own Questionable Advice? Send me an email or check out my FAQ on what Questionable Advice is (and why you should do it).
I’m limited by my own experiences and perspective, which is why I always feel the weight of giving advice (even if it’s questionable!) to other people. However, I want to channel this vulnerability into growth. If you think I made a mistake, believe I overstepped, or have a suggestion for a better response, please let me know. You can send me an email with the Questionable Advice post title in the subject line. I appreciate the chance to learn and grow!