Human beings are experts at showing up for the demands of the world. We keep driving forward—for our boss, our parents, our partners, or even ourselves—trying to live up to what’s expected of us, as defined by those around us.
Until suddenly, one day, we break.
Experiencing a breakdown can be inconvenient, uncomfortable, and even frightening, but it comes with an important message. In this video from School of Life, philosopher Alain de Botton explains how breakdowns provide you with an opportunity to learn what you really need from life.
What is a breakdown?
Breakdowns can take many forms, ranging from the inability to get out of bed, to becoming depressed, developing social anxiety, or feeling compelled to do something completely scandalous, or even dangerous.
Whatever it may look like, breakdowns cause you to deviate from your regular routine. Often, people rush to fix the problems they face so that they can return to their daily responsibilities—but doing so can lead you right back into the routines that caused you to break down in the first place.
Often, people rush to fix the problems they face so that they can return to their daily responsibilities—but doing so can lead you right back into the routines that caused you to break down in the first place.
“A breakdown is not merely a random piece of madness or malfunction, it is a very real, albeit very inarticulate, bid for health,” de Botton says. “It is an attempt by one part of our minds to force the other into a process of growth, self-understanding, and self-development, which it has hitherto refused to undertake.”
While medication is sometimes necessary to overcome mental health concerns that arise from a breakdown, such as anxiety and depression, it is also important for you to take a moment to reflect on what your body and mind are trying to say.
“What the breakdown is telling us, above everything else, is that it must no longer be business as usual; that things have to change,” de Botton explains.
Why do breakdowns happen?
Change is good for us—so why does it take a breakdown for you to realize you need to make adjustments to your lifestyle? Likely for the same reason you avoid going to the dentist: the conscious mind is reluctant to experience discomfort, De Botton explains.
“The reason we break down is that we have not, over years, flexed very much. There were things we needed to hear inside our minds that we deftly put to one side, there were messages we needed to heed, bits of emotional learning and communicating we didn’t do – and now, after being patient for so long, far too long, the emotional self is attempting to make itself heard in the only way it now knows how.”
De Botton compares a breakdown to a civil revolution: small things build until one day, it is simply too much to handle anymore. Often, your body’s legitimate needs cannot be addressed or discovered until it is too late, and you are already in crisis mode.
How do we recover?
A breakdown can be inspired by many things: perhaps a need to slow down at work, to end a relationship, to make more time for your family, or to truly accept an aspect of yourself you’ve kept hidden, such as your sexuality.
“A crisis represents an appetite for growth that hasn’t found another way of expressing itself,” says de Bottom. Whatever the reason, the best way to become well and prevent it from happening again is to learn from it, and start to listen to what your body and mind is telling you.
“Our crisis, if we can get through it, is an attempt to dislodge us from a toxic status quo. And it represents an insistent call to rebuild our lives on a more authentic and sincere basis,” de Botton concludes.