When Life Throws You Lemons

When Life Throws You Lemons

Coping with the unexpected curveball

When Life Throws You Lemons


Have you ever planned hard for something, and then without warning, everything you planned just fell apart?   

And looking back, you say, “if only I had made another choice, this wouldn’t have happened!”

I just went through this.  Something that has been in the works for half a year, suddenly and without warning, changed. Screwed up a LOT of plans.  It threw everybody in my immediate family for a loop.  

And the irony is, I did a TON of planning to help make this goal happen. I was so fixated on what seemed like the possible obstacles to this goal, that I did not anticipate what actually happened to blow the plans apart.  The loss of what we planned was so sudden, so unexpected, it was almost surreal. 

It wasn’t the worst possible thing that could happen. I’m grateful for that. But the loss of this goal that was planned for and worked toward was such a huge shock, that it left us numb. Flabbergasted. We all wanted to just curl up in a ball for a few days, it was that hard to assimilate what happened. Absorbing the new reality is like having the world fall out from under you. It’s literally a grief reaction.  I’m sure we can all find moments, days, times that something like this has happened in our lives.

So, what do you do, when life throws you a big, fat lemon?

What helped you through it?

For me, it’s been a few important things.

First off, giving space to the feelings. They come in waves, and different things trigger it in many little ways.

Second of all, reaching out to supports.  Who and what is helpful? 

Think about whose presence is helpful to you: Family, friends, school alumnae, job buddies, activity buddies.  Or a pet.  Whatever and whoever does this, do reach out to them as you are willing and able.

Sometimes gathering resources and fact-based information is what is needed.  I have an online community of people that has helped us through this with information, resources on next steps.  Because, after the initial shock, we realized we had some decisions to make. We didn’t have to make all of them right way, but we wanted to know what was out there in terms of options. This group was invaluable for helping us figure out what to do next. 

But also, this group of people rallied to offer support in whatever way they could. Whether it was just validating how hard this all was, calling to check on us, sharing their own stories of similar adversity and how they got through it. 

Third of all, time and space to reflect:  What was hard about this particular lemon that was thrown at us? In some ways, it was obvious.  But I really needed to step back and think about the big and little ways that this hit me, and my family, the way it did.   What was your latest lemon?   A college you didn’t get into, a job, a relationship that fell apart?  Even if other people experienced that lemon, no two people are alike.  An earlier, similar loss was activated, and I attached some meanings or conclusions to that.  Sometimes, writing it out can give you insights as to different parts of this loss. Or therapy.  I’ve said it before, but one thing I really like about the Life Stress Reduction method in which I work is that, I’ve done sessions where I’ve been the one working through something (aka, “the viewer”, or in a sense, the client).  I can really hash out what I feel, what I’m thinking, and the other person helps me look at what is particularly “charged” about that loss. What bothers me about this has a lot of pieces, and it may not be exactly what would bother someone else.  But I can get it out there, really work through it, with someone who isn’t judging me, telling me what to do, or interpreting what I am “really” feeling.  They help me figure it out myself, and I love that.

Fourth, compassion for yourself.  I am looking back on “what went wrong”, and I have a ginormous urge to rewind to five months ago, when a different choice could have been made, if we had known then what we know now. I still feel like this was not something we could have known at the time, an “unknown unknown”.  And to be fair, no one else we had been working with seemed to know, either.  It doesn’t change the fact that this was an upsetting thing, but it does help me to realize this.

I practice compassion when I say that we made the best decision we could, given the information we had at the time.

This is true. It doesn’t take away the pain we have; it doesn’t mean this situation doesn’t suck. I’m still angry. It’s important in recognizing that we are imperfect beings with limited knowledge and understanding, sometimes of our own choices and options.  We don’t know everything.  And this is important in moving forward.  A bit shell-shocked, a bit wiser, armed with some crucial knowledge, we now need to pivot and move in a direction with that new sense of self. 

Take it step by step.  Oh, that’s a hard one, especially in the beginning, isn’t it? At first, it’s all about missing what we’ve lost. But little by little, do activities, be in the moment, and that hole begins to fill. And who you are keeps forming as you participate in life.

Moving forward, we still need self-compassion: We are doing what we can.  And with next steps, I still don’t know what is the best option. What will be a mistake?  It’s hard to trust myself, given that the choices I helped someone make blew up in their face. 

The agony is, other well-meaning people have urged a particular direction that, right now, gives me the willies, because it requires some level of attachment to the thing, the institution, the process, that led to this sudden loss.  I have to trust my own feelings that, right now, that doesn’t feel like the way to go.  The lemon that we were handed has been a good teacher, in a way, because it has raised many flags that we need to pay attention to.   We need to honor our feelings and our energy.  Are we doing the “right” thing?  I don’t know for sure. It feels right, given the information we have.   It’s kind of scary to make a choice, not knowing what the outcome will be.

Ask, what are your options now?  It is hard to stay open to them. Often we pay so much attention to what didn’t work, we make the decision that maybe nothing will.  It would be easy for someone else to decide for us, short-term, so that it isn’t on us.  And we can’t blame ourselves.

But it isn’t about blame.  It’s about taking responsibility for our decisions, which is different. Knowing that these are still our decisions, that we make with the best information we have at this time.  Stepping up with compassion for ourselves is key, whether it is how we want to spend our day, plan our year, live right now. 

That’s what I have about how to handle lemons that life throws at you. Little by little, I’m trusting the process, and I’m learning to make lemonade. 


Author: Irene

Irene Ilachinski is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker working as a psychotherapist in private practice in Fairfax, Virginia.

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