Breaking down, whether that means crying or simply not keeping up with the busy world, is seen as something to be ashamed of (at least in the USA). Breakdowns are seen as showing your weakness, and in American culture, everything is about confidence and pride. You’ll hear whispers now a days about embracing emotions. Support systems for counseling, therapy, and suicide hotlines are not judged as harshly, but those constructs about weakness still permeate the minds of many people, including my own.
When you feel your world starting to crumble, when stress is overwhelming your strength, and your endurance is failing, do you ignore it, run away, give up? Or do you let yourself break down? If we allow ourselves the time necessary to go through a break down, we are likely to come out changed for the better. It is only through being torn apart that we can be put back together stronger (look up the Samurai sword analogy). When we stop ourselves from breaking down and delving into ourselves, we stunt the opportunity for self-awareness which helps us grow in self-understanding and love. When we recognize the issues at our core, our life struggles beginning to make more sense. When we see our true selves, then we’ll be able to start seeing others for their true selves and relate to them.
Through my own breakdown, I labeled these layers. (I purposely use the term layer instead of “steps” because this is not an instruction manual. It is up to each individual to find their own way to reach each of these layers.)
Layers of a Breakdown
- Build Up: stress builds up in your subconscious over time
- Trigger: an event, or slowing down to think, brings that built up stress to the surface of your conscious
- Breakdown: a physical and psychological reaction to that stress (different for different people)
- Denial/Social Constructs: society has conditioned our responses to breakdowns and to specific types of stress/issues. This is where many people try to pull themselves out of the breakdown. They hear society’s whispers of weakness and try to run away and hide. Society says it’s embarrassing and rude to cry in public so we try to get away and take care of ourselves. Some people heed a social construct to explain or fix their stress. If you’re so stressed, suicidal thoughts creep into your mind, you may heed society’s advise that you need help (aka counseling, therapy, hotlines). But there’s still that contradictory construct that if you can’t take care of yourself, then you’re weak–which will make some people bulk up and stunt the breakdown or make them feel even more helpless and weak (poor self-image).
- Dig Deeper: If you can identify the social construct that is blocking or feeding your breakdown and get past it, you can identify the true source of your stress/fear. Sometimes, the stress was just a social construct that had its talons in you. Other times, it’s a bigger issue. Sometimes, we need help with this step by talking with friends or counselors or praying. Others may have another outlet that allows them to express themselves and look deeper, such as art, walking in nature, or writing. And usually, there’s a combination of methods to really uncover all that’s been buried in you.
- Self Awareness: When you’ve identified the issue that’s really bothering you, you can ask yourself why it bothers you and learn more about yourself. This may bring an awareness so that you can recognize the issue faster next time, or just know that this is something that bothers or moves you. Possibly, this revelation may bring a change in the way you act or see the world.
To give an example of how this process played out for me:
I had been struggling with self-doubt and friendships for a while, but today the stress of all the assignments I had due and the anxiety of not being able to complete them built up (Build Up). I was sitting in a cafe trying to read my assignment before class and couldn’t focus because I found the reading and the class pointless in the larger scheme (Trigger). I felt the tears coming and quickly left the cafe and marched back toward my apartment trying to stay composed and imagined avoiding friends if they should pop up. And of course, a friend did pop up in passing to say hi. And as I tried to answer her simple question of where I was going, I snapped. “I’m skipping class,” I said and growled at the tears rolling down my cheeks (Breakdown). She hugged me, and I knew that’s what I needed. She talked to me for a bit, which made her late for class, and made me feel guilty. But I would do the same for her. I went back to my apartment and sobbed in intervals as I fought against it, trying to stop (Denial). I had too much to do to pay attention to my needs. But finally, when I found that the tears wouldn’t stop, I took up a pen and started writing how I felt and what was bothering me. I filled four pages and came to realize that a lot of what was bothering me at the surface was actually something else at the base. The most pressing concern was that I couldn’t take care of myself, couldn’t control my emotions, couldn’t succeed in things that others did. And my initial response was trained, “It’s okay to cry. Don’t compare yourself to others. Try your best. Don’t give up” (Social Construct). But I found no comfort in these lessons. They’re mottoes we hear as kids but they don’t really fix anything. And then there’s the social construct that you have to take care of yourself or you’ll fail or die. And if I was breaking down, I saw that as not taking care of myself. Conditioned response: “You’ve committed to too much. You’re just stressed. Take time for yourself” (Social Construct). I wrestled with that and tore it apart and threw it aside to reveal the true reason I didn’t want to breakdown, why I didn’t want others to see. I always feel others’ pain, and I didn’t want anyone to comfort me because I didn’t want to burden them (Dig Deeper). To recognize that was the reason and not because breakdowns are seen as weakness (which was also a minor issue), was revealing and comforting. I had been pushing others away because I thought I was selfish to desire their attention, but it turned out that I was being selfless because I didn’t want to hurt them no matter how much I was hurting. But it’s their choice if they want to care about me, and I shouldn’t deny them that (Self Awareness).
This full process can take a lot of time. Digging Deeper may take hours to days to years. But when you feel yourself starting to breakdown, your first thought shouldn’t be to stop it or ignore it or run from it. Allow yourself time at that moment to do what you need to do to Dig Deeper and grow in Self Awareness. No matter your other obligations, taking time to care for yourself is the only way you’ll be able to grow and become a better you.