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George Hartwell M.Sc. (therapist)

Healthy identity growth sometimes requires the death of our dysfunctional life pattern.  The process of dying to an old personality pattern is so painful that it feels like a nervous breakdown

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Nervous Breakdown

©2003 by George Hartwell M.Sc., Life Transformation Therapist (877) 854-3990 (See: HealMyLife.com)

Thesis: that a nervous breakdown is an opportunity for Positive Identity Development

Often lay terms convey deep truth and more insight than official medical terms.  "Nervous breakdown" is one such lay term.  Definately not an official medical diagnosis, however, I like the term because 'nervous breakdown' has deep meaning to lay people. I believe that lay words of crystalize deep intuitiions.  Lets explore 'nervous breakdown.'

It has been said that a nervous breakdown means an acute emotional or psychological collapse, but I would say that it may only be the feeling of being near to such a time.  I believe that we need to go through periods when it feels like we are in an emotional collapse because life demands that we grow out of old identity patterns.  In these time of identity transition we will, of necessity, feel identity confusion. 

In emotional growth we must shed the old patterns before building the new ones.  And just as there is a time for the snake to shed its skin; there are times for identity transformation. 

While medical doctors whine that "nerves don't breakdown," I know this: often a 'nervous breakdown' is a significant life crisis, a transition time, an opportunity to leave behind the old and discover the new or, if not new, perhaps, the real core identity - the real more natural you. This is a time when a dysfunctional personality pattern is breaking down, and it is also a time for a new healthier personality pattern to emerge.

Does "a positive disintagration / nervous breakdown" come on suddenly? No, not necessarily, it may come in a series of crisis over several years. You may be in a process of getting in touch with your inner child over several years. You may have a sense of confusion and crisis that has lasted several months. What is happening?  Think of it as a family role that became a personality pattern that is becoming less and less satisfying. As the process of death of the old identity gains momentum the sense of depression, confusion and anxiety deepens.  This identity crisis is disturbing, disorienting and frightening because you feel out of control.  Well it isn't easy to die, but the old is dying - an old personality pattern is being passing.

A personality pattern breaks down is because it has outlived its dysfunctional purpose. There is too much cost and pain in maintaining it. There is too little benefit in maintaining the old pattern. It is time to move on.

Nervous breakdowns can be positive. While the old pattern is disintegrating a new pattern is waiting to be born. A new and better you may emerge. This is what I mean by 'Positive Disintegration.'

Positive Disintegration

Kazimierz Dabrowski, a Polish psychiatrist and psychologist, developed the Theory of Positive Disintegration over his lifetime of clinical and academic work. The Theory of Positive Disintegration is a novel approach to personality development. K. Dabrowski coined the term "Positive Disintegration." (The theory I present is my own but the general idea of positive disintegration I owe to Dabrowski.)

Dabrowski, Kazimierz positive disintegration

 Dabrowski, Kazimierz positive disintegration


Remember in childhood when the new tooth is ready to come in the old tooth becomes loose. Then the old tooth falls out. The new tooth wants to be emerge. In the same way the emergence of the healthy you pushes the old you along.

In the "nervous break down" we find ourselves shedding our SELF - like a snake skin. During the shedding process we feel disoriented, confused about our identity and, therefore we are anxious. We don't know what is going on and we fear that we are going crazy.

But no. You are not going crazy.  You are, however, in a painful time of transition. You are dying to the old identity and you don't know what the new will look like. Of course that is confusing and scary. Yes it is a vulnerable time. I wish for you that someone around you understood and could guide you through this valley of death.  That guide needs to understand and have faith in the process.  To help guide you through I will supply a road map of this new landscape.

Guidebook to the Nervous Breakdown

When you feel like you are in a 'nervous breakdown,' it is likely that you have been stuck in one of two or three very common personality patterns.  If your 'nervous breakdown' is of the 'positive disintegration' type, you are becoming 'unglued.'  At the end of a positive disintegration you will no longer be stuck in these patterns.  You will be free!

Here are some of the personality patterns that go through positive disintagration.  Have you been a 'people pleaser'' focused on being nice, good, perfect, being right, not offending anyone.

Are you a 'super-responsible' lives with self-criticism, tends not to have fun or focus on their own needs but id always is there to meet the needs of others.  'Super-responsible' says "Yes" to every demand, meets everyone's need, does work that others should be doing and feels guilty when anything goes wrong. See also Spontaneity Attitude Test.

A third pattern that precipitates a time of great distress is the breakdown of our Self Image as an Idol.  This is a little harder to describe so I will only mention this in passing.  For more information see: Restoring the Christian Family, by John and Paula Sandford, Chapter 17 - Nebuchudneezer's Image.

John and Paula Sandford

John and Paula Sandford, in Transformation of the Inner Man speak of the People Pleaser as  'Performance Orientation.'  The "Super Responsible" person  John and Paula Sandford call: 'Parental Inversion.'  Their ministry base in called Elijah House. Their prophetic insights in Christian counselling include the identification of Performance Orientation, Parental Inversion and Self Image.

John and Paula Sandford

I believe that there comes a time in our life when we have outgrown our familiar personality pattern. We may or may not experience frustration with the pattern but it no longer works for us. There may be anger, frustration, depression because we are not happy with ourselves.

(Need to talk: Phone George Hartwell for a phone consultation by calling (416) 234-1850 or 877 854-3990. Normal fee scale for 60 minutes is $100 Canadian.  PayPal can be used.  In person in Toronto, Ontario, Canada $120 for 90 minutes, phone (416) 234-1850.  Mini-retreats in Toronto - 3 hours per day for 5 days - for $1,200 Canadian, phone 877 854-3990.)

How common are nervous breakdowns? According to surveys of Americans over four decades, 26% of adults reported that they have felt an impending nervous breakdown in 1996. Divorce, separation and relationship problems were more likely to cause the feeling an impending nervous breakdown in the most recent survey. American Psychologist 2000;55. One source provided a very short list of symptoms of a nervous breakdown - really just one - Inability to cope. Wrong Diagnosis.

Failure of medical perspective: One ot the best descriptions of a nervous breakdown, from a medical perspective, is written by Sarah Chana Radcliffe, M.Ed., C.Psych.Assoc. However, she, and the medical profession, fail to understand is that not all disintegration is negative. "Positive disintegration" is the breakdown of a dysfunctional pattern so that a healthier pattern or personality can emerge.

She says that a nervous breakdown includes some sort of disintegration of personality – usually temporary. It's as if the "circuits are overloaded." She describes breakdowns involving:  inability to function, depression, loss of contact with reality bi-polar (manic) episodes, anxiety disorder, and / or panic attacks. See Nervous Breakdown.

I have a problem with this definition that gets us entangled in more medical diagnostic categories and adds no real understanding or hope. The 'nervous breakdown,' in my experience, is almost always a potential opportunity to leave the old patterns behind and move on to higher integration. What helps is to talk to a therapist who understands this process. (George Hartwell: 1 877 854-3990)

At some time in your life or mine, we will likely experience life crisis. We find that there comes a time when we cannot carry on. We cannot pretend anymore. We cannot hold things together. We cannot go on in the same pattern of life. The burden of life has become too much. Our life comes apart.

When this happens we feel we are cracking up. We feel like we are having a nervous breakdown. We are uncertain about our identity. Our central beliefs are shaken. We question all that we have striven to do.

Our inner motor runs down: whatever has driven us this far does not hold the same interest; the work we did gladly does not to bring us the same reward; the way we have always related to people does not work for us.

We loose are ability or desire to hide what we are feeling. Our hardness, our coldness, our reserve, our emotional control is gone - broken.

We find ourselves more in touch with our emotions. We cry easily. We are easily touched. Our heart is on the surface.

Times like this need to be expected. Consider them normal. It is a normal life crisis.

If you can't find a professional therapist with the wisdom and grace to know what is breaking down and how to support you in the process, I will provide phone support. (1 877 854-3990). A phone consultation with me can help your sanity, reduce anxiety and give you understanding and direction. You may learn that you are not crazy! 30 minute or 60 minute appointments can be scheduled at $50 or $100 per session.

If you fail to find the resources you need you may turn to things that hurt others or yourself. The solutions we turn to, rather than getting professional help, often increase are problems. We begin to give up hope in life. We feel helpless to understand or change our lives. In other words, we can spiral downwards.

What is happening? What is the power and process of the experience that feels like a nervous breakdown? How can consulting a professional help prevent this crisis from spiraling out of control?

Let us look at the dynamics of a nervous breakdown.

The dynamics of a 'nervous breakdown'

Of course nerves do not break down. But it is a common observation that physical development is characterized by periods of consolidation followed by periods of disorganization then a higher level of consolidation. This process happens almost yearly for the first few years of life.

In cognitive development and in the model of Jean Piaget - a Swiss Psychologist - cognitive development passed through distinct stages. In his theory, the child develops a conception of the world called a schema. New information is incorporated into the existing scheme. He calls this assimilation.

In Piaget's rich thinking there are also times when the existing schema cannot adequately incorporate the new information. The schema needs to be dismantled and replaced with a new schema. This more revolutionary process he called: accommodation.

In science when the existing scientific models cannot hold the new data gracefully there comes a time when scientific models must change. This revolutionary change is called a Paradigm Shift.

My thesis is that our personality adjustment experiences similar periods when the old patterns break up so that a new more functional pattern can take their place. In my view a higher level of organization may follow a period of disorganization. Disintegration may be followed by integration and consolidation in a healthier place. I will, after Dabrowski, call such a process Positive Disintegration.

What drives us into this period of personality disintegration? Is there an inner wisdom or destiny that insists on fulfillment in our life?

 We can posit an inner discontent that grows when our personality adjustment is not bringing us the rewards that we long for. When the divergence between our real inner needs and the feelings generated by our current personality adjustment is great, and when this short fall continues over a long time, this inner discontent grows in strength. I would posit that a high level of discontent results in a time of depression or a time of nervous breakdown.

What is happening to me?

Almost by definition when you experience a nervous breakdown you will not know what is going on. You will be confused and fearful as you ask: "What is happening to me?"

I like Dabrowski's insight that we can have times of personality confusion and disorganization that result in higher integration. This insight is positive and gives hope to those in such a time.

It will help if your counselor understands this process and is able to support you through it. It is reassuring when someone clearly understands what you are going through and are confident of the possibility of a positive outcome. In such times we need hope.

Anxiety, panic attacks, depression

My experience with such breakdowns leads me to posit two different types of personality adjustment that break down. In both cases the nervous breakdown will be characterized by anxiety, perhaps panic attacks, depression and identity confusion.

Identity confusion

The clinical indication of identity confusion is the repetitive use of the sentence: "I don't know." One use of that sentence is an immediate clue that there is identity confusion and repetitions confirm it. Usually a client will confirm my sense of this when I ask them if it is possible that they are going through a time of identity confusion.

At such times I reassure clients that I will be with them in this process and help them to clarify and consolidate their identity. With some clients this means that I need to point out that their attention is too much on the other people in their life and I am not hearing them talk about their own feelings, observation, thoughts and choices.

The people pleaser pattern

People pleasers as children learn or decide that their position in the family and the love they receive is dependent on their good behaviour. Some of the natural expressions of childhood are stifled in order to 'be a good boy' or 'be a nice girl.' Some pretending occurs. A false personality emerges that pleases the key people in the family and ensures continued love and avoids rejection and isolation.

As adults people pleasers continue to focus on others. Others define what is expected in each situation. Rather than developing an independent self with independent tastes, thoughts, feelings, needs, choices and personality, the adult continues to define life in terms of doing right, avoiding offending anyone, going along with what is expected, never getting angry, never being assertive or standing up for oneself.

To the extent that the People Pleaser adjustment fails to meet our real inner needs an inner discontent will build up. We will find ourselves dissatisfied with our life. If married we may come to the wrong belief that our marriage partner is why we are discontent when it is our own dysfunctional life pattern that must go. We can go up different blind alleys to find what is missing in our life and just cause pain for our loved ones and ourselves.

The over-responsible / codependent pattern

Have you been told that you are too serious? Have trouble having fun? Take on the cares of the world? You could be caught in the over-responsible personality pattern.

The over-responsible person may have been the oldest child in a large family and given much responsibility. Perhaps mother and father were not there to care for them or their siblings and that responsibility fell heavily upon their shoulders.

If either parent is emotionally immature, out of control, demanding of care, the child may become super-responsible. This includes situations where a parent is alcoholic and loosing control when drunk, when a parent is physically abusive or sexually abuses the child. In such situations the child tries to grow up too fast. We lose our childhood.

If the marriage looks unstable to the children or parents are physically or emotionally harming one another in ways that frighten the child. If there is a lot of arguing that scares the child. In each and any of these situations a child may react by developing the over-responsible pattern.

Adults who grow up with this pattern have trouble with boundaries and try to do too much. They have trouble co-operating with others and trusting that others will do their part.

Such adults are often very caring people and very attentive to the needs of others. They are very responsible and can be counted on to be the pillar of the family, church or business. They tend to feel to blame when anything goes wrong. They feel they must respond when anyone has a need. They feel guilty easily and live with a lot of self-condemnation.

The over-responsible pattern breaks down because the over-responsible does not take care of themselves. They do not see that their own needs are met. They may burn themselves out trying to help everyone. They may become depressed when it is clear they cannot rescue their family or save their marriage from collapse. They feel they have failed at their life calling, that they are a failure.

When professional help is needed!

I have already suggested that a counselor that understands, supports, gives hope and can support and encouraging a client's identity is helpful. In the midst of a life crisis support and strategic guidance is appreciated and helpful.

If the crisis is not too severe, and does not involve the breakdown of the marriage, it may be possible to provide core belief therapy. The personality adjustment is based on care beliefs that can be challenged and replaced with more positive beliefs.

Listening Prayer Therapy

My own particular therapy for this is my own "Listening Prayer Therapy" which involves a variety of strategies and techniques for healing the cognitive core of the personality. I make use of prayer and the imagination to discover core beliefs that were established during childhood and to successfully replace these with healthier beliefs.

For the People Pleaser just coming to an understanding of unconditional love can be life transforming. A belief in unconditional love is easily supported in Biblical texts such as "God so loved the world that He gave his own son" (John 3:16) and church theology of salvation by faith alone not by our works. I have seen a discussion of this with one in the Christian tradition be life changing.

Stop inner self-abuse

The over-responsible person may need encouragement for disengaging from carrying the weight of the world. There is a healthy place for learning to let go of the load and let God be God and carry more of the weight. Jesus call: "Come unto me you that are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest" is worth meditating upon (Matthew 11:28).

I expose the pattern of inner abuse and condemnation and work to break that pattern and substitute healthy self-care. The use of a transactional analysis Parent-Adult-Child diagram to explain this has always been well received.

Core Belief Therapy

The People Pleaser lives with the belief that I must do right to be loved. Unconditional love says that we have a right to be ourselves and that we are loved when we win and when we lose, when we are good and when we are naughty, when we laugh and when we cry, when we are sad and when we are mad. We have an identity worth discovering and expressing. We only know that we are loved when we take the risk of being real rather than pretending and putting on a show.

The Over-Responsible believes that the sky is falling and my job is to hold it up. Nobody else can be trusted to do their part I must do it all myself. They believe that their role in life is to keep the peace, to mediate, to keep the boat from rocking. They must learn to trust God and others to do their part; learn it is okay to share the load; that they are not responsible to save the world and they are not God.

At the next lecture I will share how I use the methods of "Listening Prayer Therapy" to bring about significant transformation of core beliefs in people's lives. I am pleased to report that when we call out to God to "Heal my life" using the methods of "Listening Prayer Therapy" that God's love, truth and power are there to touch our lives. Lives are being healed and transformed fundamentally and quickly.

© G.C.H. <>< 2003

George Hartwell M.Sc. has 30 years experience as a Life Transformation Therapist and holds a masters degree in clinical psychology from the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. You may arrange for a personal session or marriage retreat with George by calling 1 877 854-3990. His practice is called Agape Christian Counselling of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Toronto number is (416) 234-1850.

Comments on this article: E-mail George Hartwell

Comment from the UK: "Thank you George for helping me to understand what I have been going through. I read your paper on Nervous Breakdown and I cried. A true reflection of what I have been going through over the last 3 years. I don’t feel so frightened about shedding my skin anymore. Cheers."

Contact George re Nervous Breakdown: E-mail George Hartwell

phone: (416) 234-1850 (Toronto, Canada Eastern Standard Time)

Phone appointments are $80 Canadian per 60 minutes of phone session.

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