Reschooling Tool #21: Turn Breakdowns Into Breakthroughs

At the moment, I’m feeling truly annoyed at myself. I haven’t posted to the blog for over three weeks, so now that I’m sitting down to do so, I have a lot to say. It’s going to take a long time. It would have been better to break this long update into smaller ones along the way. I’m tempted to close my computer and avoid blogging at all. I’m experiencing a moment of breakdown.

I don’t mean “breakdown” in the hyperventilating, curled up in a fetal position sense. I mean that I’ve hit a snag, an obstacle that’s preventing me from being who I want to be. The opportunity here is to turn this moment into a breakthrough by reacting differently than I normally do, in a way that makes me happier. This takes willpower and practice.

Any given day usually holds both breakdowns and breakthroughs. Here are some of the breakdowns that I’ve had in the last few weeks:

Bouncing between extremes, rather than maintaining balance. I’m an all-or-nothing sort of person, putting in 100% effort or not trying at all, with sleep, work, cleanliness, everything. Blogging is what causes me the most grief. I’m constantly telling myself that I’ll post frequent tidbits, rather than long, infrequent, all-encompassing posts. I want to share more with you than my perfectionism allows.

Letting work overrun my life. It’s been exciting to write articles about things important to me — small business, organic community gardens, and innovative youth programs — but I spend so much time on them that I have little energy left for blogging, and little time for my hobbies. I tend to take on too many assignments at once and have to write for several days straight to finish them.

Punishing myself. Frustration with myself, or even self-loathing, is an all-too familiar feeling. I’m my own worst critic and tend to obsess over little mistakes or shortcomings. When I accomplish something, I often think “You should have done that a long time ago,” or “You left this detail out,” rather than just celebrating the accomplishment. It’s an exhausting way to live.

Getting overwhelmed and stuck. I’ll look at challenges in front of me — a huge pile of laundry, a messy workspace, a string of unanswered emails — and panic, not knowing where to start. My mind whirs without a clear thought, and my chest tightens anxiously. I’m learning to stop, breathe, and figure out my next actions, but it takes a lot of effort not to get stuck in feelings of helplessness.

Avoiding money matters. I avoid thinking about money whenever possible, which is why I’ve never had much of it. Like many others, I have unconscious psychological blockages around financial matters that are irrational but real (“I’m worthless,” “I can’t live a life of service AND be well-off,” etc.). The bottom line is, money is a tool to achieve the things I want in life, social change included. I need to maintain a healthy relationship with money if I want it to be there when I need it — the same is true of any ally. So far I’m earning little more than beer money by freelancing only locally, so I’m going to expand my repertoire soon.

Each time one of those breakdowns happens, it’s an opportunity to react differently than I usually do — to show myself that yes, I have the power to change. It may take a few tries, but I can do it. Here are some examples of breakthroughs that I’ve made recently:

Breaking my 10+ year addiction to sleeping with earplugs. A light sleeper since birth, I began sleeping with earplugs when I moved into the party dorm at Santa Clara University (appropriately named Swig Hall). Howard Leight earplugs, which were made for drowning out the noise of power tools, let me sleep through the night no matter who was playing football in the hallway at 2 a.m. on a weeknight. After a while, I couldn’t sleep well without them, which isn’t ideal, or very safe (I might sleep through an emergency). Slowly, with the help of a ceiling fan for ambient noise, I’ve weaned myself.

Eating the European way. Reading the book French Women Don’t Get Fat a couple years ago changed the way I think about food. Following author Mireille Giuliano’s advice about the principles of French eating, I eat for pleasure, slowly, and in moderation. I eat a variety of foods, processed as little as possible (including whole milk, yogurt, and butter) and drink lots of water. The book discusses how maintaining your body’s equilibrium means sleeping enough, exercising regularly (especially walking and stretching), and laughing a lot. It’s about a balanced lifestyle rather than extremes of indulgence and self-deprivation. During my workaholic nonprofit years, I was doing the opposite of what Giuliano recommends, and my body felt lumpy and abnormal. Now that I’m following her advice, my body feels like mine again, which is a relief. I’ll write a full post on European-style eating eventually, because so many American women could benefit from seeing food as an ally rather than an enemy.

Reschooling myself through reading. After years of not reading much at all because I never made the time, I’ve taken to camping out at Lemuria Books, our local indie bookstore. I started by writing book guides for the Jackson Free Press. The latest topic was camping survival, so for three hours I read about how to prevent attacks by bears, snakes, or lightning and left feeling half prepared, half paranoid. After deadline, I decompressed by spending another few hours reading about planting organic gardens and interior decorating with reclaimed materials. Darren and I are going to start putting these ideas into action by building a raised garden bed next weekend.

Improvising on the piano and guitar. As a well-trained student, I’m terrified of improvisation. I can memorize what’s in front of me and spit it back near-perfectly, as I did on so many tests in school, but create something on the spot? What if it sounds awful? The other day I was listening to Amos Lee’s “Careless” and started strumming along on guitar, eventually finding the notes that fit the music. I sat down at the piano and did the same thing, playing around with chords without worrying about getting it right. It didn’t come out perfectly, but it was my original interpretation, and just playing by ear opened up the possibility of figuring out any song.

Doing impromptu interviews. I used to be terrified of being recorded on video or audio, but talking about Reschool Yourself has helped me relax. I try to focus more on the message than the messenger (me) and remember that it’s not a performance; it’s a conversation. I got the chance to be part of Mutual of Omaha’s traveling “Aha Moment” campaign that documents the life-changing realizations of everyday people (video to follow), and an off-the-cuff interview with Public Allies. It’s liberating to trust that the words will come instead of rehearsing them to death in advance.

Doing headstands and handstands in yoga. I’m not naturally a big fan of being upside down. It’s uncomfortable. I feel out of control and fearful of breaking my neck. But each time I kick up and down from the wall, with the help of my friend and yoga teacher Tara, I can do so with less assistance and more control. With practice, I’m building strength and faith that I can hold myself up.

Start observing your breakdowns and breakthroughs. Catch yourself in a moment of breakdown. Stop and choose the way you react, instead of falling into your usual patterns. You’ll be surprised at your own power to turn your challenge into a breakthrough.

Thanks to Landmark Education, which offers personal development courses, for introducing me to the concept of breakthroughs and breakdowns.

Your Two Cents: Leave a Comment!

What breakthroughs and breakdowns have you experienced lately?

Comments (7)

  1. Jared Archbold

    Great blog, I was waiting for a Landmark shout out! Hopefully I’ll be in the Seminar Leader Program by the fall!

  2. Margaret

    Great job! Ok, so details: 1) you are such an adaptable, hard-working being! way to go on the earplugs! 2) I recognize that butter- just bought the ‘pastured’ version (in Green for Grass), only available May through September, and it is amazing. Hooray for tasting the quality in actual foods. 3) Glad the woods advice book was helpful- I was wondering where those Twitter messages were coming from!
    And now, general: you try and you try and you try, and that IS success. “It’s the wanting to know that makes us matter” -Tom Stoppard.

  3. Melia

    Thanks for introducing me to Landmark, Jared; they’ve got some great exercises and ways of seeing situations. I still think about “taking my past out of my future” and whether I’m “in the stands or on the court.” I wrote an article about anger recently and mentioned that it’s not the facts that makes us angry; it’s the interpretation of those facts.

    Miss Margaret, thanks for being my cheerleader with boundless energies. Ooh, pastured butter? I love, love, love butter. The woods book is an awesome little guide — thank you. The Twitter tips were coming from it and a few others in the local bookstore. If you want to stay safe from dangers in the woods, I know what to do. 🙂 And yes, life isn’t about never stumbling, but about picking yourself up again and again when you do.

  4. John Wesley Smith

    Good job on gardening, too. Don’t get discouraged if you have a failure or two now and then. Stay with it.


  5. Melia

    Thanks for the comment, John. I checked out your survival site, and you’ve got a lot of good resources.

  6. Keetha

    Like most people, you’re your worst critic. Most people would be thrilled to have carved out the life you’ve created, where you are disciplined enough to take on the freelance work and follow through with it.

    I’m with you about the European eating habits. I took your advice and got a copy of that book and it is incredible. It’s simple in that it makes perfect sense and yet so powerful. Just before reading it, I’d read Almost French, a memoir about an Australian freelance journalist who moves to Paris and is immersed in a culture so different from hers.

    This comment is getting long. I need to email you!

  7. Melia

    Thank you. The freelancing does seem to be expanding, which is great news, because I do enjoy the flexible lifestyle. I remind myself that if I just “follow my bliss,” as the expression goes, it will lead me to where I’m supposed to be.

    Isn’t the book great? It really shifted my view of eating. So many American women see food as the enemy, but it’s there to nurture and fuel us and give us enjoyment. My mom loved Almost French – I’ll have to read it!

    I’ll send you an email so we can catch up. Congrats again on your wedding!


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