Are You In The Middle Of A Breakdown?

Nearly all breakthroughs are preceded by breakdowns. The secret to using those breakdowns to make you stronger, better and more successful is to say to yourself: “This is a breakdown. You will survive it and it will usually lead to a breakthrough. Now don’t do anything to make it worse for 72 hours.”

The challenge is that when you are in the middle of a breakdown, it is usually not invited, it feels awful and in some cases, feels as if you won’t survive or you are about to go crazy.

The secret is that when you’re at the beginning or the middle of a breakdown, acknowledge to yourself that you are in one and say to yourself what you feel. Better yet, keep a journal where you put down the date and when you’re in that breakdown fill in with as much detail as possible whichever of the following applies:

  • “I feel hurt because…”
  • “I feel disappointed because…”
  • “I feel frustrated because…”
  • “I feel angry because…”
  • “I feel afraid because…”
  • “I feel self-doubt because…”
  • “I feel guilty because…”
  • “I feel ashamed because…”

Don’t feel the need to explain, convince, justify or anything. Just say the feeling to yourself and then allow yourself to feel it (instead of hiding from it, denying it or blaming it on someone else).

And of course, if the pain from that breakdown feels unbearable, seek out a trusted friend or family member or mental health professional to “talk it out and talk it through,” which will help you not do anything to make it worse.

Dr. Matt Lieberman at UCLA has done research in “Affect labelling” (naming emotions accurately) that has shown that when you do this it significantly lowers the emotional agitation you feel (referred to as “amygdala activation”).

After you have given your feeling a name, acknowledged it and felt it, the real challenge is to not do anything to make it worse for 72 hours (coinicidentally, that is also the amount of time a person who is a danger to themselves or others, or gravely disabled, can be put on an involuntary hold by a psychiatrist, no doubt to give them time to calm down and away from acting on some irresistible impulse).

Not doing anything to make it worse is important, not just because it can be crisis-averting and in some cases life saving. It’s because when you do something like get drunk, binge eat or spend, beat up on someone, or lay into someone verbally, you have to then deal with the guilt, embarrassment, and/or shame at having done so. And dealing with those emotions and apologizing to others can distract you from discovering the breakthrough that you will make a few days later.

I can’t prove the following, but I believe that what happens in a breakdown is that something occurs that loosens the connections between your thinking (human/upper), emotional (mammalian/middle) and “fight or flight” (reptilian/lower) brains. That may be why people use terms such as becoming “unglued,” “unhinged,” and “wigged out” to describe breakdowns. This occurs because whatever just happened and the way our three brains are “glued” (configured) together don’t match. And since whaever just happened cannot “unhappen,” what has to give is the face-off between world and you; is your brain. 

When your three brains feel loosely glued together, it feels as if the next step is that they will fall apart completely, which some people decribe as feeling “fragmented” or “shattered.” In reality, it is just the time before your three brains will reconfigure and “mindsee” the world differently. It is from that different “mindsight” that breakthroughs occur. As Henry Ford said: “If you believe you can or can’t, you’re right.”

The next and equally important step after allowing your breakdown, recentering and becoming ready to reengage the world in an a effective way, is to pause and say to yourself, “Now what?”  At that point, think of what outcome you really want to accomplish in the near term and long term, select the milestones you must achieve to get there, and finally, what you need to do reach those milestones (this will be the focus of Part 2: From Breakdown to Breakthrough).

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