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When a Breakdown Might Actually Be a Breakthrough

While meeting with a new client who’d been abused by her husband for many years, she explained that she’d finally had a breakdown several years before and ended up in therapy in another state. She said she’d sought help because she was crying almost all the time, had little energy left over to take care of her children, and barely wanted to get out of bed in the morning. I told her that instead of having had a breakdown, she’d had a breakthrough and what a grand thing it was that it happened.

When we stop trying to hold bad family situations together at all cost, give up making excuses for people who don’t deserve it, start feeling authentic emotions, trust ourselves and let reality sink in, we often have breakthroughs which may feel like breakdowns. Initially, it’s true that what we experience may feel unfamiliar, awful and as if we’re failures. But, down the road, we will come to understand that a tipping point has finally been reached and that this is a good thing. A very good thing indeed.

In this case, my client finally realized that the way she’d been walking on eggshells around her physically, fiscally and emotionally controlling husband was not making a dent in improving her marriage. She recognized that nothing she did would change his violent and vitriolic nature. True, she felt hopeless that things would ever get better, but this hopelessness, while making her feel terrible, was also key to helping her leave her marriage. Call it hitting bottom or knowing when enough is enough, sometimes feeling awful is just what’s needed to shake off our blinders and head us in a positive direction.

No one ever said that reality would always be pretty. And if they did, they’d be lying. But sometimes it’s necessary to see it with eyes wide open and experience it in every cell of your body to awaken a fierce desire for change. Things often must fall apart before we put them back together in a different—better—way. The concept reminds me of the title of a self-help classic, Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness by Mark Epstein, MD. There’s a paradox contained in this thought the same way that there is in the idea that breakdowns are often breakthroughs.

Breakdowns don’t mean we’re broken or failures. They don’t mean we have irreparable defects. We might even say that breakdowns are necessary for breakthroughs and change. Sometimes we must break apart our lives into smaller fragments to see each of them clearly. Other times, we must recognize that parts of us are broken, but that the whole of us is strong enough to mend the cracks, toss out what’s beyond repair, and put ourselves back together again in a more resilient, functional, and authentic fashion.

Best,

Karen

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