Excerpt from Typhoon Honey: The Only Way Out Is Through (Girrell & Sjogren): "Breakthrough Means Break Down First"
Breakthrough means breakdown first
It has often been said that as humans we will do far more to avoid pain than we will to maximize pleasure. We realize that most people think that they want to find joy, happiness, or pleasure, but in truth most of our efforts are in the opposite direction. One look at evolution, however, will quickly demonstrate that it is through pain, failure, and breakdown that we get better, stronger, and smarter. What is it that we learn in these painfully tough moments or experiences?
Let’s first dissect what happens in a total breakdown. What do we actually mean by breakdown? It is important to differentiate that we are not discussing something like a “nervous breakdown.” That is something that should be handled by a medical professional, and neither this book nor this specific chapter are intended to solve these kinds of problems. That being said, please read what follows through this important filter.
Breakdowns are, in fact, epic. Breakdowns are those places where everything we hold to be true in explaining our world and our current reality no longer fit or explain what is happening to us. You may feel like you have far more demands than can possibly be handled. Stress may have peaked at a level that you feel you cannot tolerate. You may be in danger of losing your job, your life partner, or your life savings. Breakdowns take all shapes and sizes—there is no exact formula, except that your breakdown will come in exactly the shape and image that you fear the most. And that is the first clue that it is a breakdown. (We will say more about fear, doubt, and insecurity in the next chapter.)
In the martial arts, we are told that there is only one opponent: ourselves. If we fear some competitor will be a great kicker or have faster hands, then one will appear who has those skills. But if we work toward stilling our inner fears, the opponent is just another person, just as skilled or not skilled as we are and just as vulnerable. Breakdowns are much the same. What we fear we cannot control will jump up and spin out of control. What we stress about will intensify or become far more complex to a level that our stress meter is pegged in the red zone. Our brains are these massive problem-solving computers, so as we begin to think of our worst nightmares and our fears, our minds happily get busy extrapolating on all facets of that problem set. Faster and faster it goes until it is spinning out of control with the myriad of consequences that will crop up if we do not handle this correctly.
Stress is quite simply being in a situation that demands more of us than we currently have the skills or tools to handle. In other words, we need to learn other skills than those on which we typically rely in order to handle this situation. But the big “aha!” inside that statement is that it is only this current situation that can push us to develop that skill or coping mechanism. Think about it: You can read all the books you wish about how to deal with an irate customer, but until you have someone directly in front of you, red-faced with rage, you will never really learn the skill of how to defuse that rage and solve the issue.
So the bottom line of breakdown is that it is the process of breaking down—deconstructing— some old habit or pattern in order to make way for a new one. Breakdowns happen in three phases:
1. There is some trigger event or thought that exposes the ineffectiveness, irrelevancy, or “pathology” of our own previous way of being or our previously held belief.
2. There is a period of confusion and disfunction where the old has been destroyed but the new way of being, believing, and acting has not yet been developed.
3. There comes a point of reorienting into the new way of being that is often awkward or disconcerting simply because of its newness.
We often hear people say things like “I had a breakthrough on X last night,” and while we don’t want to rain on that parade, we think that many of those were more like epiphanies than actual breakthroughs. Breakthrough always means breakdown first.
On the back side of every breakdown is a new set of skills learned. Some of our best and most effective skills and values are gained not through practice, but through breakdowns. Generally speaking, we tend to think of our development of skills through what is called the “training effect.” We want to get better at mathematics, so we take courses in math and practice using those concepts. If we want to learn to be good at public speaking, we go to Toastmasters and practice speaking in progressively longer speeches to larger and larger audiences. But the toughest leadership skills—like humility, compassion, and deep listening—are learned only by falling down in the game of life.
It is only through humiliation that we learn to be humble. It is only through crushing pain that we find compassion. And it is only in being blindsided that we finally open our eyes and ears enough to truly see and listen. That is the breakdown/breakthrough process. There are no shortcuts and there are no easy answers. Our friend and colleague Michael Strasner says, “How do you resolve a breakdown in a relationship when both of you are right? All it takes is one of you to throw in the towel, show humility, and acknowledge the breakdown, to apologize and be responsible.” And as we always say, the only way out is through!
We all want washboard abs with only fifteen minutes of exercise a day. We all want transformation and to live a transforming life of abundance, but we often don’t want the painful destruction of our comfortable belief systems to get there. Sorry. There will be tears, confusion, and uncertainty—sometimes short-lived as we experience in the container of transformational workshops, and sometimes insufferably long, like months and years. The length of time that a breakdown/ breakthrough process takes is determined by how attached you are to the old way of being (as in letting go). Once you get practiced in this way of learning, you will know that the real work is letting go of your attachments to how it is supposed to be.
“Wisdom comes from your experience of being in the process, from your ability to learn from any and all commitments in Your life on an ongoing basis. It has to do with contribution; it has to do with giving, it has to do with seeing possibility where one does not exist. It has to do with changing direction, changing course when the path you’re on isn’t working. It comes from owning your responsibility, owning your accountability. Wisdom comes from interrupting patterns and not repeating the past. Wisdom comes from changing behaviors and living the change.” (Strasner, 2018)
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