Breakdowns are inevitable for people who are wired for achievement. It’s the nature of the beast. Anyone who wants to achieve a big goal will have to stretch themselves and make sacrifices along the way, but this state of being constantly “on” is like a simmering volcano that will eventually blow. The extent of the eruption depends on how long you’re willing to let that pressure build.
I know this because I’m currently dealing with the aftermath of a huge breakdown.
What makes this surprising to most people who know me is that I’m ultra-disciplined when it comes to monitoring the markers of my health. It’s what I do. You could say it’s my calling after 30 years of exploring traditional martial arts and different movement paradigms. Day to day, I help my clients at PIVOT meet their peak performance goals by giving them tailored health and wellness programs, backed by research. These programs are designed to help unlock their potential — and alleviate them from their already stressed-out states.
Yet, despite all of my knowledge, I still hit a wall in a pretty big way. Many entrepreneurs, start-up founders, professionals, sports people — any high kind of high achiever — will go through a big breakdown but most won’t feel comfortable talking about it. I want to change that because I believe it’s an important issue to discuss. Which is why I’m sharing my story with you now — even though talking about it is really fucking hard.
The pressures of a start-up
In 2014 I was pretty much in a financial position where I didn’t need to do anything after completing my earn-out period of the business I sold with two of my business partners. I could’ve stayed on earning great money in a job that I had mastered, or taken any number of offers from companies willing to pay significant money, as this was a period in my career where my currency was high. Yet, the only thing that would make me happy was to make an impact on the world in a meaningful way, so I chose to take a risk and go back to learning — starting from scratch in a totally new industry and launch another start-up.
I made promises to my wife about its success — I thought it would take us 12 months to get to a sustainable point — and how it would affect our lives. I broke all these promises in the first five months.
The concept of the business seemed to make so much sense because the evidence of the product itself was strong, but the business model wasn’t proven. I was so optimistic I had rose-coloured glasses on and I wasn’t willing to ask the tough questions. I desperately wanted the business model to work because I believed the product needed to exist in the world.
After six months of capital burn, I had to decide whether we were going to close the business or double down and relaunch a whole new business model. We invested in the rebrand but three months later, because of that decision, we came to the end of my financial resources. By mid-this year (2017), we still didn’t have an investor and the bank had locked me out of my accounts.
To keep my shit together, I was using the tools that we teach people at PIVOT to build resilience but instead of using the tools to face what I needed to, I was using them to mask how I felt. Because underlying all the decisions I made that got me into this predicament were certain beliefs and emotions that I’d been running from for a very long time.
I will guarantee that every entrepreneur does this. They all have their demons and it’s those demons that are a part of their brilliance. But it’s also those demons that can create the self-sabotage and problems. Not facing your emotions will be to your detriment. It will absolutely bite you in the ass and bring you to your knees. Those emotions will lead you to an inevitable breakdown if you don’t face them early enough.
Honestly, I felt like a failure because I’d put my family through bankruptcy before in a bad business venture. I still felt the scars of that. I was also angry I didn’t ask the hard questions of people I was taking advice from in the early stages. I’ve done this in life many times: when I see something great, I almost put it above me on a pedestal. I lose the belief in myself and I’ll put the belief in that thing, those people, that idea. Having to face that again was really painful.
The warning signs before the breakdown
Our director of HeadSpace at PIVOT, Vanessa Auditore, knows me very well. She kept calling me out on the behaviour she was seeing — in the same way that she does for our clients. She told me I was running; I wasn’t facing what I needed to and we had many sessions where we tried to touch the edges of that. I had to make the conscious decision to stay in this space and sit with whatever came up. I made that promise and this then kicked off a sequence of events that unfolded over the course of a month.
Another thing we offer our clients at PIVOT is a regular lifestyle assessment to give them unbiased scientific feedback on their stress levels and recovery. Over five days, they wear a heart rate variability monitor, which reports on stress and recovery balance, restorative effect of sleep, health effects of physical activity and energy expenditure. If we can see how someone’s nervous system deals with that stress, we can then tweak their activities during the day so they can have enough recovery time throughout the day and at night while they go to sleep, so that they regain resources.
I decided to use this data to provide me with some objective feedback so I did the lifestyle assessment over a week where I subjectively felt great, I was hitting my training goals and sleeping adequately. The data told a totally different story. My days were just burning red all the way through, and I scored a low 10 out of 100 for stress and recovery balance. Sleep wasn’t much better with a score of 20 out of 100 as I had zero parasympathetic (the rest and digest division of our nervous system) bounce-back during my sleep periods. If I was a client of mine I would be saying, “You’ve got a problem.” But instead, my reaction was, “It’s bullshit. No fucking way.”
I even went back to our partners FirstBeat and told them there was something wrong with the monitor. But as you can guess, there wasn’t anything wrong with the tool. My denial really proved why we use this technology for our PIVOT clients. The data doesn’t lie: it’s not biased; it doesn’t care who you are. The science behind heart rate variability as a measure for nervous system functions is very strong. You can argue with it but you’ll only be arguing with yourself.
Once I accepted the report, it triggered a mini-depression. Then my body followed my mind and my lower back seized. I woke up a couple of days later with really bad sciatic pain in both my legs, which persisted for the week. So every morning before I’d take clients through their NeuroPhysics Therapy sessions — a form of movement therapy we offer to help people to get back to homeostasis — I was doing the therapy for myself. I chose to sit in that space with my pain and not run away this time. It was a really tough space to sit in.
Sitting in the discomfort
It’s hard to be present to your business, and the people in your business, if your body’s resources are fighting to maintain homeostasis. In that state, you’re not paying attention to the things you need to, and you’re taking resources away from your higher-order thinking processes.
It took me a week to get back on top, and I’m still doing the work on multiple levels. It means feeling uncomfortable more often, but I would rather hit those points regularly and come out a lot faster than put a load of bricks on the pressure cooker and just wait for it to blow, which I’ve done a lot of in my life. I honestly believe this is the accelerated pathway to building a resilient self, because resilience is about the right balance of vulnerability and that warrior reserve. Here’s what’s working for me.
You need that independent third party arbitrator, whether it’s a life coach or therapist, who’s going to help you. You need someone who knows how to ask the right questions and understands how to keep you in that really uncomfortable place that you will want to run from. You will want to tell them to fuck off. You will want to get frustrated. But unless you keep collapsing those systems and beliefs, you simply can’t rebuild or improve.
What people don’t realise is your adrenals and sympathetic nervous system are overworking when stressed. So when you do an intense workout, thinking that it’s helping you, you’re instead stimulating those power points and potentially putting yourself in a chronic state of stress where you’re constantly burning your sympathetics. This is why I’m making smarter decision about my training. I’m still making progress with my strength goals, but I’m not going after it as aggressively in denial of my body, and I’m not using exercise as a way to desensitise myself. I’m also spending more time leveraging the NeuroPhysics Therapeutic Program weekly as it has a unique way of exposing our reactions to discomfort.
Sleep is absolutely paramount. It’s paramount for learning. It’s paramount for recovery. It’s paramount for everything. I’ve made sleep a priority so I have cut back significantly on my beloved coffee, as caffeine can affect sleep quality. Using the data from the DNA test we conduct at PIVOT, which shows how your body responds to different food types, I’ve also made decisions about what I eat and when, in a deliberate attempt to keep my nervous system calm.
Stress for me isn’t going to change. I’m not going to pick an easier job — it’s not my nature and if you’ve read up until this point, it’s probably not yours either. There’s a balance we all have to maintain which respects who we are and how we’re wired. And that’s the delicate balancing act we all have to work with. I’m very lucky I have the support, the infrastructure, the team, to support me through this process. Make sure you have yours in place, too.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
When it comes to Peak Performance and Flow Science, Frank Cuiuli is a leading practitioner.
Frank has been tested in combat and business. Having competed as a professional martial artist at elite levels, and building companies in the competitive High Tech sector, Frank brings 20+ years of acquired wisdom and successes. As a NeuroPhysics Therapist, and combined with the track record of performance provides Frank with a unique perspective and combination of skills that allow him to drive results for his clients in a manner that is difficult to match.
Popular presentations include: Sales as a contact sport, Entrepreneurs Guide to Peak Performance, Leading through complexity, & Scaling a high performance culture