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Most moments in life shape us, but some define us.
Occasionally, an instant has the magnitude to be life-changing — it can define who we are and, most importantly, what we become.
We all face a breaking point in life.
Even successful people have faced theirs. Actually, that’s why they became who they are — they didn’t let that moment break them. With courage and focus, they turned a defining moment on their favor.
A breaking point tests you — it’s your chance to realize your true potential. But, first, you have to turn things around. Breaking points make or break us — it depends on you to emerge victorious.
The dripping faucet
“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” — Lou Holtz
Most people crack up when their stress levels become unsustainable — they lose control of the situation.
A breaking point is a moment of stress in which we break down — it feels like you are never going to get up back again. We are more than under pressure — the situation becomes critical for our survival.
Everyone faces a breaking point — we all get there in distinct ways.
Some people simmer and then, all of a sudden, they explode. Others, resist being under pressure and may just stop responding entirely. Many overreact to a situation that might feel normal to someone else.
Stress builds up over time until we can no longer cope with it.
Deepak Chopra refers to chronic stress as hearing a dripping faucet. “First, you notice it, then you get irritated and finally, you can’t stand it anymore. By the time you get to Stage 3, it’s time to fix the drip.” — the spiritual teacher explains.
People reach their breaking point in different ways. Getting someone to confess to a crime means the suspect has been broken — the person cannot cope with the external pressure. Interrogators succeed by precipitating a sense of helplessness, an underlying sense of guilt, or an inability to acknowledge one’s vulnerabilities.
The paradox is that not realizing our vulnerability makes us weaker. By not acknowledging that they can be broken, people are broken.
Life is a tennis match
“A man who wins is a man who thinks he can.” — Roger Federer
Stress is cumulative; our reaction to it doesn’t need to follow the same pattern. Overcoming stress is not about strength, but wisdom.
How do you deal with breaking points?
In most sports, the player who scores last may have little impact on the final result. However, in tennis, the player who scores last is always the winner.
A break point occurs when a tennis player is a point away from winning a game in which the opponent is serving. It’s generally easier to win a game of tennis when you serve — breaking an opponent’s service increases your odds of winning.
In life, as in tennis, not all points matter the same — some define the outcome of the match.
Take Roger Federer — the greatest tennis player of all times — as an example. For every single number of break points won, Federer’s chances of winning a match are much higher than his chances of losing.
Conversely, saving a break point not only keeps your chances alive but boosts your confidence. Great tennis players break their adversaries, right after surviving a break point on their own service.
How you deal with breaking points has enduring consequences.
Why we face breaking points
A breaking point is a moment of greatest strain — most of us give away. We feel so much pressure. There are so many things going on — we can no longer deal with them.
Often, one drop after another makes us explode. Others, a single situation can precipitate everything and make us lose control. Sometimes, we are afraid of uncertainty and turn an event into a life-or-death drama.
Interestingly enough, the breaking points are the moments in which we need to stay calmer.
Deepak Chopra identifies three stages that turn the dripping faucet into a make-or-break situation.
Stage 1: You are aware of being under pressure, but still feel centered.
Stage 2: Stress clouds your judgment, and you start to lose control. You have to make a conscious effort not to respond with anger, anxiety, or impatience.
Stage 3: You can’t cope any longer, and you explode — you release your tension momentarily but feel embarrassed and regretful.
Chronic stress gets you irritated, one drop at-a-time, until you cannot tolerate it any longer. Your brain is triggered to respond — it releases stress hormones that throw you out of balance.
Busyness is a harmful mindset. You work until you can’t take any more responsibilities. You fool yourself by pretending to multitask — you think you make progress though you are not paying real attention to any task. You are regularly checking your phone’s notifications — you can’t enjoy the here and now when your mind is always somewhere else.
Life is a balancing act — everything is continually in motion. Research shows that trying to control every event is harmful — suppressing our emotions increases our stress.
We can’t avoid facing a breaking point, but we can manage how we react. That’s why Federer Roger is so good at saving break points while he is serving. He stays in the flow instead of panicking — Federer plays a break point like a regular one. The Swiss player avoids turning a crucial moment into a life-or-death situation.
Overcoming breaking points requires balance — prevention is the best cure.
Win the mental match
“Once you stop learning, you start dying.” — Albert Einstein
When you face a critical point, you are the only one who can save yourself. Winning or losing is a mental game. Other people can provide support, but the game is played inside your mind. Your emotional reaction is everything — you need to build a first responder’s mindset.
Columbia University’s George Bonanno coined a term “PTE” (Potentially Traumatic Event) — an event is not traumatic unless we experience it as such. You can turn an adverse moment into a breaking point or not.
Balance lies within yourself, as I wrote here — remaining centered during a stressful moment increases your odds. Here are some thoughts to help you win the mental match.
Always adapt, never react:
Fighting what we don’t know or can’t control it’s inherently human. Our brain loves being in charge. That’s why we feel anxious when facing breaking points — we want to be in control of every situation.
Take time to acknowledge your emotions. Are you angry? Sad? Disappointed?
Self-awareness is critical to pause and reflect — connect with your emotions but don’t react. Learn to acknowledge and observe your thoughts rather than through them. Don’t let your emotions cloud your vision. Or determine how you behave.
Practice builds resilience:
Recovering from break points takes time and practice. It’s an ability that you develop through time — be patient and willing to put the effort.
Federer has saved hundreds of break points in his career — that’s why he stays so calm when facing one. Once you get used to playing at limit situations, it’s easier not to let your emotions take over. Remind yourself of similar past situations: “I’ve been there, done that. I can do it again.”
Send a message to the world:
When you are against the ropes, saving a break point boosts more than your self-confidence — you are saying that you are alive and kicking.
Treat your breaking points as a match. Don’t let your ‘opponent’ win — stay focused and balanced. What’s your message to the world? Be grateful for every breaking point you overcome. Share your experience so others can learn from you too.
Turn your mind into an ally:
Routine, distractions, and busyness debilitate our mind — we feel like living on autopilot. Prepare yourself to face breaking points. Meditation and other mindful practices can turn your mind into your best ally.
Practice strengthening your mind — become familiar with yourself so that you can deal better with unexpected events. Embracing your own vulnerability makes you stronger. When you let go of the pressure to be perfect, you can flow and play more freely.
Utilize social support:
We are social beings — you cannot win alone. Tennis players fire up the crowd after saving a break point. They need all the support they can get to stay focused and win the next point.
Your success depends on the strength of your relationships. Identify the key people that can provide you with support or advice — tap into all the help you can to overcome breaking points. Check out this simple exercise to realize and leverage the power of others.
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We all face breaking points in our lives — they don’t just challenge us, they define us.
Remember, prevention is always the best medicine. Learn to live a balanced life. Don’t wait for your next breaking point to start training your mind.
This article first appeared on Medium.