Kintsugi : The Beauty of Breaking
No one makes it through life without breaking at least once or twice. Tragedies happen, traumas are inflicted, hearts are broken, and losses felt. Some people experience it on a regular basis, others manage to minimize it, but none of us avoid it completely.
Breaking is part of our life before we even learn to say the first word. During our childhood, a lot of wounds are unconsciously inflicted by our parents, who didn’t know better back then. My father for example had a fiery temper when I was a child. He would hit the table and shout at the top of his voice if he was opposed. Perhaps no big deal now, but back when I was tiny, it broke my trust in him — and in extension in all men. The terror I felt toward him I projected onto all other men in my life. It literally took me 20 years and moving to a different country, in order for me to have the guts to approach a guy I liked. An important part of me broken back then, deeply, influencing everything else I did from that point on.
These wounds are part of what shape who we later become — both in good ways and in bad ways. We all have cracks and fractures, but we might not notice them, we might turn a blind eye on them, or we might try to hide them. I, for one, am not proud of having been single so long and always blamed myself for it. It took me years to figure out that a deep wound was causing me to stay single, and until then I kept it a secret.
But what if we learned to showcase or appreciate these wounds? In Japanese culture, there is a beautiful tradition called Kintsugi — the art of repairing fractured pottery with gold. In this context, those fractures are what make the pottery unique and gives it its beauty. What otherwise could have been seen as an imperfection or a weakness is turned into beauty and a strength. I think there is a lot of learning for us humans in this tradition.
Breaking Is Brave
Unless tragedy happens or we are too young to understand the world around us, in most cases we experience being broken when we’ve taken a risk. We launched a startup, we went into a relationship, we shared our work, and it didn’t work out. Our idea failed, our person got rejected and our work criticized. In many cases, this leads to a feeling of breaking apart. Everything we had imagined, hoped for and expected of our future and ourselves is torn away from under us and we lose our sense of ground and security. A couple of days of crying or feeling numb will at least result, but the consequences can be more severe too. In the case of my first heartbreak, an identity crisis ensued, and I don’t think that’s a rare occurrence.
Probably in most cases, we see our scars as emblems of our failures and lost fights. Everything we didn’t achieve is showcased on the silver lines of our wounds. They are embarrassing to show, so we hide them. We reject them or downplay the pain we feel. Instead of repairing them with gold, we use transparent instant glue, hoping no one will notice. I’ve done that a lot: No, no, everything is fine. It’s no biggie, I would say, ignoring the feeling of my inner world falling apart. Maybe you’ve heard yourself utter those words as well.
If we focus on the outcome of those battles — the breaking in itself — this is most likely how we will understand what we went through: We failed. We weren’t strong enough or good enough. We don’t see what got us there and we don’t appreciate the risks we took. The result is all we see. The pain is all we feel.
There is another perspective though, aligned with Kintsugi: We can see those same scars as bearing witness to our courage and as something to be proud of. We believed in our dreams and had the guts to follow them. We were brave enough to take a risk, take a leap of faith, and take a head-on approach to the consequences of that.
It doesn’t mean it hurts less when the breaking happens, but it hurts for a shorter period and is more likely to entail growth. We break, but don’t break apart. If handled well, it can even become a process of breaking free from a past self and previous life. We might pivot on our journey and head in new, more focused directions and become improved versions of ourselves. Sometimes breaking is the push we need to move on. My identity crisis after my breakup was just what I needed to let go of another big chunk of my father’s influence on me. I’m extremely proud of having made it successful through it and becoming who I am today as a result of it.
If we live a life of constantly avoiding situations that include risk, we won’t suffer any less than if we actually take those risks, I would argue. If we don’t allow ourselves to break apart, but we either try to avoid the risk by all means or try to keep it all together, our psyche suffers and our potential is rarely reached.
We need the risk to experience love. We need the risk to grow personally and professionally. We need the risk to feel abundantly alive.
It may be that there is some kind of superhumans out there with luck enough to conquer the world without ever getting hurt. But I haven’t met or heard of one yet.
However, as strongly as I promote not shying away from opportunities that contain the risk of breaking, as strongly I also promote giving yourself time to heal. Our society has become one of constant pushing oneself at an increasing rate in order to keep up with everything happening around us. As mentioned in my former article, Between Self-care and Self-development, I’m also prone to do this and struggle a lot with finding a balance that serves me. In essence, we shouldn’t be scared of experiencing breaking, yet we also shouldn’t disregard that breaking is hard and hurtful. It is one thing to be covered in scars, and another to be covered in leaking wounds. Break apart mindfully, not desperately.
Breaking Is Beautiful
So as tough as it is to break, it is usually these experiences that shape who we become — as said, in both positive and negative ways, depending on our mindset. If handled with care, we can turn those painful experiences into moments of intense growth, becoming richer and wiser people. Our scars give witness to what we have been through and to the fact that we survived it — and maybe even made the most of it.
There is true beauty in this.
For as painful as those fractures are, they also hold a unique chance to discover a little of our inner gold and let it shine through. Many times what actually breaks away are old ideas of who we are (or are supposed to be). In the process of breaking, we are given the opportunity to revise who we thought we were and how we thought we wanted our lives to look. Just as the world is in a constant state of flux, so are we. We learn, gain experience, meet new people and discover new places. If we stay inert and static, we will never reach our full potential. It allows for a fresh start and allows for a deeper connection to who we want to be.
Breaking helps us discover and helps us showcase who we are. It allows glimpses into our inner being: We uncover a strength we might not have known we possessed. We connect with our vulnerability. We let go of the old and keep reinventing ourselves. How many times haven’t I been inspired by people who have gone through great personal and professional challenges and who refused to give up and instead turned those challenges into opportunities of growth?
When I was seventeen, my father broke his back in a bicycling accident, an event that completely disrupted our family structure. Yet, instead of tyrannizing us from his bed, my father actively decided to show us his fragility and to step off his control and give us a chance to blossom. This action pivoted my view of men being strong and dangerous and brought immense healing to my childhood wound. My father was literally broken, but there was beauty in it, we discovered. It allowed a softness, compassion, and spaciousness to enter our family which none of us would have believed possible. It created a whole new foundation for the family.
For me, this is the beauty of hero journeys. It’s only after the hero experiences breaking down that she discovers her inner qualities that enable her success. These are the moments that build character, as Calvin’s father would have said. And my father probably as well.
Another aspect of the beauty of breaking is how it connects us with other people. Few of us manage to deal with our breakdowns completely alone. Instead, we reach out to friends and family, have deep conversations and share our vulnerability with those we love and trust. In my experience, many relationships grow stronger in those moments. Our breakdowns force us to take off our daily mask, at least partially, and it has a lasting effect on the people we allow a look behind said mask. We get reminded that we’re not alone and don’t need to carry the load of our suffering all by ourselves. If we reach out, someone will be there to help us find our inner gold to repair our broken selves. Often we might be surprised how much support is actually there.
Breaking Is Bold
In a world optimized for instant gratification and build on old systems of linear growth, breaking is a bold path to take. For those in search of quantum leaps, breakdowns are an unavoidable part of the journey. Exponential growth on a personal level will only happen if you from time to time allow yourself to fall apart from old identity structures holding you imprisoned in outdated frameworks. It is not without reason that a hero needs a crisis to reach the point of no return that will turn her into the hero she was born to become.
If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. — Henry Ford
Breaking is the basic principle so revolutionary in the Theory U of C. Otto Scharmer. It is in those moments of deep personal crisis that we have the power to make the bold choices we need to make in order to make progress. It is easy to get caught up in our personal status-quo when everything is fine. We rarely seek to disrupt ourselves unless we’re forced to. We are addicted to comfort. This might have been what kept us alive thousands of years ago, but in current times we have the luxury to actively seek discomfort. The personal growth we’re able to achieve today is miles ahead of that of our distant forefathers.
Seeking out situations that include the risk of a breakdown is bold. However, it also makes the breakdown process easier to handle if you consciously know what you are doing, know where you are in the process, and know that better days are ahead of you. The pain becomes a lot more bearable, and the breakdown may even be utilized as an unburdening of what no longer serves you. When everything hurts and I feel like I’m falling apart, I always ask myself: What can I let go off right now? What is it time to leave behind? And always I keep reminding myself that this is just part of the journey, that time will heal all wounds, and that a new and stronger version of me is emerging. I see myself as a snake shedding its skin, or as a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. With this focus, the pain becomes easier to bear, and the challenge of the situation turns into an opportunity.
Of course, the situation doesn’t turn rosy and wonderful, but the sense of helplessness and of being lost eases. I become able to find the strength to refocus my attention on the future instead of the past and to find solutions to the problems I’m struggling with. It is still painful while it lasts, but also more than rewarding in the end and, usually, I end up being grateful for the breakdown. The person those experiences have made me have brought me one step closer to who I want to become.
Perhaps this sounds like romanticizing breakdowns. That is definitely not the purpose of this article. Breakdowns hurt like hell and for those who have enough on their plate already, I would not suggest seeking them out without any professional guidance. For those of us who can afford it, however, I see an immense gain in pursuing experiences that hold the risk of breaking down. It makes us more alive, moves us closer to our full potential, and gives us scars golden if we see the value of being broken and the developmental opportunity.
You are broken and brave.
You are broken and beautiful.
You are broken and bold.
And your scars are golden.