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Truth Telling & Emotional Breakdown

Healthy relationships grow from a strong foundation of sharing the truth of who you are with your partner and experiencing acceptance.  But sometimes telling the truth about your inner experience and/or behavior or otherwise sharing your vulnerability can trigger an emotional breakdown or panic attack.  Why does this happen?

Getting to know someone and allowing yourself to be seen ever more deeply is typically a gradual process.  In this gradual process you test the waters.  You share a little and watch to see how the other person receives you.  If he or she receives you with acceptance, you continue to share more, building trust as you go.  In this process, your usual ways of protecting your vulnerability become disarmed over time and you relax into the trust you have built.

However, if you suddenly reveal more vulnerability than you trust the relationship or yourself to hold, it can be like slipping off a cliff edge into a tumbling cold river.  There is shock, disorientation, and a lot of flailing about.

When your emotional defense system has been unexpectedly bypassed, a variety of things seem to happen all at once.  The shock of being vulnerable is often quickly followed by shame.  You imagine that what you have revealed will show that you are a basically bad person.  You may perceive your partner as a threat and imagine you have to protect yourself.  You also might attack or run away from your partner to keep from feeling the shame.  On top of all this there is disorientation.  Your usual way of operating has been interrupted.  This gives rise to panic.

If you were to watch a video of yourself in this state, you might see yourself moving erratically, alternately trying to flee and fight.  You might hear yourself blaming, defending, and attacking.  You might notice that you don't make eye contact with your partner and your eyes either fix in one position as you shut down or dart about in flee and fight mode.  Whether you are shutting down, fleeing, or fighting, your heart is racing and your breathing is shallow.

The most helpful thing you can do when this happens is name what's happening as it occurs.  The moment you can say to yourself, "I'm reacting" you will start to calm down.  The next thing you can do is ask for a timeout, sit down, and drink water or eat something.   Drop the content of whatever it was you were upset about.  Focus on the water and food, and breath slowly and deeply as you do.  Notice the impulse to shut down, flee, or fight and keep bringing your attention back to water, food, and breath.  When you keep your attention engaged in this simple way, your physiology has time to reset and your thinking will begin to clear.

It's especially helpful if you can tell your partner how to be supportive in these situations, at a time when you are not in the middle of it.  Let your partner know that you are working to catch this reactivity and intervene with yourself and at the same time you welcome support.  Be specific about what support would look like for you.  Here are some examples of what support might look like:

  • Tell me that you're not judging me.

  • Just reach out to hold my hand and sit silently with me

  • Sit down and invite me to sit and take some deep breaths with you

  • Tell me that we are okay

  • Tell me you are not going to walk out on me

  • Tell me you are committed to working this out

  • Offer to do something physical with me like take a walk or go for a bike ride

  • Give the timeout sign, drop the content, and stay with me

Of course, the best way to handle this kind of emotional breakdown is to prevent it.  If you are perceiving internal or external pressure to share something you might not be ready to share, there are at least three things to remember.  First, share edgy stuff when you are the most resourced - well rested, fed, comfortable, and centered.  

Second, share with someone who is less risky to share with than your partner first, maybe your best friend or your therapist.  This allows space for any shame to dissolve as you are received with compassion by another.  

Lastly, you can tell your partner that what you are about to share is edgy for you  and that to share it you will need some reassurance that he or she can stay with you.  You might ask for physical touch as well, holding hands, or other gentle touch is a powerful message to your whole being that you are safe and accepted.


Take a moment now to reflect on truth and vulnerability in your relationship.  What have you taken the risk to share with your partner and how has he or she received you?  Name the ways that you and your partner have built trust around vulnerability.  In what other ways would you like to build trust with your partner?

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2 Responses

  1. Sep 26, 2013
    pat mcveigh

    This was an especially touching and valuable gem for me. Gave a perspective which I did not realize, and it will be fun to share it with my loved one as we develop more closeness over time, and practice NVC.

    Thank you so very much for your wisdom and sharing.

  2. Sep 28, 2013

    Thanks Pat, so glad to hear this and know how it landed for you.

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