Nervous Breakdown > Positive Breakdown

Thesis: that a nervous breakdown or emotional breakdown is a time of  personality breakdown that can be an opportunity for a healthy authentic identity to emerge like a butterfly from a cacoon.

George Hartwell on emotional breakdown or nervous breakdown

G. Hartwell M.Sc. (Masters of Science in Clinical Psychology)


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George Hartwell M.Sc. is a valued writer and therapist who brings a new and healthy attitude toward life and love.  This material on 'Nervous breakdown' is an example of George going deeper into the common experience of a nervous breqakdown - often a painful, confusing and frightening time - to show that it is a time for personality transformation. 

From George's perspective the definition of a nervous breakdown is a painful time of transition out of the old dysfunctional personality pattern, a painful death of the old identity,  so that a healthy identity can take its place.  The process of dying to an old personality creates a state of identity confusion so powerful that it feels like we are dying. 

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Nervous Breakdown

What is the definition of a nervous breakdown? 

In medical terms the definition of a nervous breakdown uses terms like 'an acute emotional or psychological collapse.'  Any description of the event it put entirely in negative terms.  No hopeful perspective is offerred.  However, nervous breakdown is not an official medical diagnosis.

Instead,   'nervous breakdown' is a lay term that conveys an important truth or insight.  This lay term conveys the idea that something is breaking down.  Nobody ever said what was breaking down.  It is time to change that.  Time to define what is the 'something' that breaks down in an emotional or nervous breakdown.

It is clear to me the 'something' that is breaking down in a 'nervous breakdown' is a dysfunctional personality pattern.  This pattern no longer works.  The person's inner self - the human spirit - will no longer sustain it.  It has not being working and it is time to let go and find something better.

What personality patterns breakdown in a nervous breakdown?

Most often the pattern that is breaking down is either 'People Pleasing' or 'Super Responsible.'  These are the main two patterns.  Let me introduce them to you.

Definition of a People Pleaser

There are three articles on the People Pleaser on this site so my description can be short. 

As adults people pleasers gain their identity from others.  They let others define who they are and what is expected in a relationship or situation.  The adult People Pleaser aften define life in terms of doing right.  They try to avoid offending anyone or hurting anyone.

People Pleasers have been trained not to get angry.  Most Christians wrongly believe that it is sinful to to be angry or assertive and often they avoid being assertive or standing up for themselves.  They have trouble saying "no" because someone might get hurt or be offended.  The result is lots of boundary confusion.

Closely related with avoiding anger is avoidance of  their aggressive side.  Aggression sounds bad until one realizes there is a time and place for aggression.  When you want to accomplish a goal, it helps to be aggressive.  Consider hockey players without aggression or salespeople.  Avoid aggressive and you become passive and do not accomplish much.

It does not help relationships if you are completely passive-aggressive.  Then you send people double messages and lack integrity.

People pleasers can be so focused on serving others and doing the right thing that their significant others feel alone.  They are 'Marthas' in the kitchen serving and missing out real fellowship.

 Rather than developing their own identity with independent tastes, thoughts, feelings, needs, choices and personality, the People pleaser has a 'pseudo-personality.'  It is impossible to be intimate with a pseudo-personality do one's spouse will feel lonely and isolated even though you are married.

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.

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.

Definition of a Super-Responsible

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 personality pattern has a personality breakdown 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.  But they consider it immature to take care of themselves.  This is a boundary issue.


How a painful experience - a 'nervous breakdown' - is an opportunity for positive growth

My definition of a Nervous breakdown is a time of deep painful identity transformation.  There is  anxiety and confusion because of the personality disintegration.  The fear is the loss of identity.

However,  one must move through personality breakdown so that a healthy identity can emerge.  This new identity will be healthier and better reflect the core self, our inner soul or spirit.

Positive emotional growth requires that we shed old personality patterns.  The old must die so the new can come.  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.

nervous breakdoown emotional breakdown personality disintegration

Thus a time when a dysfunctional personality pattern is breaking down can also be a time for a new healthier personality pattern to emerge.


What does a nervous breakdown look like? 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.

Does "a positive disintegration / 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?   

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.  Well it isn't easy to die, but the old must die, we must let go, so that the new identity that better reflects your real inner self can come.  Letting go feels like dieing because we don't know who we will be if we let go of the old identity.

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 is meant by 'Positive Disintegration' - term coined by Kazimierz Dabrowski.

Positive Disintegration

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. My theory is not a replication of Dabrowski's work; but his idea of positive disintegration has been the seed for my own thinking and for my theory - the process outlined here.

Positive personality disintegration

 Positive disintegration by Dabrowski


For more about Nervous breakdown:

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.  (Called Performance Orientation by John and Paula Sandford.)

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.  (Called Parental Inversion by John and Paula Sandford.)

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.

I always treat the experience of a person's 'nervous breakdown,' as a potential opportunity to leave the old personality behind and move on to higher integration. The hope is a 'true to self' identity.

Of course it helps that I know what the personality patterns are that 'break down.'  I have found the concept of "Positive Disintegration" useful through many years of professional counseling exprerience.  I understand this process.  I have coached people through it.  I am on familiear ground.

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.  Maybe this is a time for renewal - a life transforming time!

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

Identity confusion - "I don't know"

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 over-responsible / codependent pattern
(Sandford Parental Inversion)

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.

I have found my methods of "Listening Prayer Therapy" bring about significant transformation of core beliefs in people's lives and provide a gentle way of personality transformation.  When we call out to God to "Heal my life" using the methods of "Listening Prayer Therapy," God's love, truth and power are there to touch our lives.  In this way I find people's lives are being healed and personality transformed without having to wait for a nervous breakdown.

© G.C.H. <>< 2003  ©2003 by George Hartwell M.Sc.

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  by calling George. 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."

Hi George, I read your article, (well it is far more than that in reality,) on nervous breakdown and wanted to thank you for posting this on the web. Perhaps the most telling comment is that of an identity crisis being a natural phenomena, a time of letting go of the old self and trusting that a new self will form. And yet, everything in our societies today tells us to acquire, to consume, to possess, to be in control, to dread death, to despise weakness and to distrust our natural selves.

My personal crisis came to a head at the end of '94 early '95, and now fifteen years later, the experience is still vivid. For me, it was letting go of what I knew and becoming "I don't know," in the sense that this indefinite me could learn, explore, research myself and others, and enjoy the adventure of being alive.

"I don't know" allowed me to participate in the process of life as a part of the process. Yes life hurts, but it is also a great joy and there are many other feelings that exist between and beyond the polarities that we come to hate and love.

It's not so much self-doubt or even the fear of knowing myself nowadays, it's more a love of the process of not knowing, and the process of walking through the unknown is what becomes known.  What's missing is the confusion and what's known is the unknown nature of an unfolding life.  Regards Philip James.