Starting From Scratch: Rebuilding A Broken Life

December 15, 2016
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I can not tell you how many times I have been forced to start my life over. Sometimes I have been forced to start over because I ran my life into dead ends and sometimes I have made the choice to start over because I was not satisfied with where I was headed. It is something I seem to have a knack for, if only because I also have a knack for getting into trouble, associating with the wrong people, or constantly moving in directions I shouldn’t be moving in.

As a youth this translated into expulsion, arrests, drugs, alcohol. These events set me up for a steep uphill climb to accomplish anything worthwhile in my life. It ruined friendships. It hurt people close to me. It constantly stole away the possibility of making something of myself, but I eventually managed the climb.

As an adult my destructions are a little more pedestrian, but just as terrifying and deadly to a middle-aged man who wants to live and love passionately and authentically all while making as big of an impact in the world as he can. This translates into stagnating in jobs I hate. Staying in relationships that drain me. Associating with people that bring me down.

All of these are common things have an ability to slowly erode your life and make it something unrecognizable. But because of my level of comfort and familiarity with fixing broken things, I always seem to be able to recover from the disasters I make of my life.

One of the reasons is that I have never accepted my present day circumstances or situations to be reflective of my future success. Despite being born and living in fatherless poverty. Despite suffering at the hands of indescribably cruel people. Despite my predilections towards terrible decisions that derail my life, I have never allowed myself to be boxed into a life that I did not think I could change.

Accepting Responsibility VS. Taking Blame

“What happens to us may not be our fault, but how we think about it is our responsibility.” – William Knaus – Pioneer of the Stoic based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

One of the most important things I learned early in life is the difference between responsibility and blame. I absolutely take responsibility for the shit storms I create, but I never fill myself with blame. Well… I try to never let the blame get out of control.

I don’t think there is any value in carrying around the weight of blame for the things that we mess up in life or the situations that we find ourselves in. Blame is a stagnant river. It doesn’t move anything. It just festers and stinks and grows poisonous inside you. Responsibility, though, is an active thing. It is a flowing water that carries the event away while leaving the sediment of wisdom for future success. It allows you to learn, grow and move forward with a renewed sense of understanding and hope for what you can now do.

Perhaps this idea is best summed up through the work of Martin Seligman. A pioneering psychologist who changed most of what we known about human behavior and championed the movement of Positive Psychology. Seligman’s work was heavily influenced by the earlier work of Aaron Beck and his stoic based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Learned Helplessness

Martin Seligman pioneered the idea of “learned helplessness“. This is the concept that people who are subject to repeated adverse stimulation or situations where one is unable to escape will find themselves unable to consider the opportunities for escape in future situations or circumstances that are similar, even though escape or avoidance is a viable solution in those future situations.

To put it more simply, people who are hit early in life with difficult situations they cannot get out of, give up on themselves and accept the “helplessness” of their situation when they are faced with those same situations later in life.

This learned helplessness is the root cause of so many of our problems in starting over in life and rebuilding the things that have been broken; including our hearts, minds and bodies. We accept early on that we are helpless to prevent certain pains and situations of life so we learn a response of helplessness and carry that with us, ensuring that when we are faced with those similar situations of heartbreak, emotional upheaval, or pain that we will be unable to do anything about it.

Learned Optimism

To counter the malaise of this behavioral theory Martin Seligman presented an adaptable alternative in his expansive elucidation of his Positive Psychology ideas. The proposed alternative to a life of Learned Helplessness is one of Learned Optimism.

Learned Optimism is the idea that, just as we can develop a predilection towards pessimism, we can also develop a predilection towards optimism. Now for those of you who have read many of my blog posts, you know I don’t go in for the overtly happy bullshit of positivity. Learned Optimism isn’t that.

Learned optimism is developing a resilience to the ups and downs of life and understanding that, when bad things happen, even if they happen repeatedly, they are usually just unlucky situations and not reflections of future success.

To that ends, we can learn how to let those past experiences go and move forward; putting our efforts into rebuilding our lives instead of remaining trapped in the “learned helplessness” of our previous experiences.

Where to Begin When Everything Seems to Be Ending?

As the author Lewis Carroll so eloquently put it,

“Begin at the beginning and go on until you come to the end; and then stop.”

It may seem like nonsense, but it is reasonable advice when you have no fucking clue how to pick yourself back up after a hard life fall.

The truth is, where you start from when you need to rebuild your life should not be where you left off. That is like trying to fix a broken relationship by simply returning to the moments just before it broke. That is obviously not where you want to start. You need to go back further. You need to go back to when it was clean and pure and start rebuilding from there. That is the same when you are trying to rebuild your life.

The place you start at when you need to rebuild your life is at the very beginning and that very beginning is deep inside you. You need to get honest about what you value and what you want to be in the world and stop accepting the results of the past as the possibilities of the future. You need to look at how your past experiences are contaminating your expectations and experiences about your future and you need to relearn how to react to life.

You need to go so far back inside yourself that you give yourself the opportunity to completely reinvent yourself if you have to, because sometimes that is what life calls for; a complete reinvention of the person you were in favor of the person you want to be.

Before it was an annoyingly catchy lyric in a late 90’s one hit wonder song, the Stoic philosopher Seneca said that,

“Every new beginning is some other beginning’s end.”

And that’s your fucking mantra right there.

That relationship that is ending right now is the beginning of another one. That mistake you just made is the beginning of the next mistake. That failure you just had is the beginning of the next one. Those are your learning moments – the ones that make rebuilding easier in the future because you now know how not to build. You get to look at every mistake you make and every situation you fuck up as the start of something else.


You are going to break sometimes. You are going to make terrible decisions, be thrown into terrible situations and generally make a mess of your life sometimes. You are going to hit the wall so hard that it shatters your soul and you are going to think that there is no way that you can put yourself together again. But those breaking moments do not define the possibility of you. They are unlucky situations that are a part and parcel of living. They happen to everyone to some degree and it is those people who have the ability to frame these situations properly, and begin again with a renewed sense of optimism in the outcome, that are able to rebuild a broken life.

We should in fact hold close those moments where life breaks you – those are your cornerstones. Those are your unique moments that anchor you to the world and define who you are. We are built from adversary not from our success. You build your entire identity on those moments of struggle because they are the important things that fundamentally change you and make you, you.

So run towards the walls. Don’t be afraid to break. You are not fragile. You are indestructible because all you need is one small piece to rebuild. One tiny shred of hope is all it takes to start it all over again and there is always a shred of hope to be had. You just have to begin again, starting from scratch to build what you want.

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