TOP 10 Takeaways From Breaking Point

By Darren Kavinoky

Perhaps I’m just suffering from one of the Deadly Sins (like pride), but I really loved doing Breaking Point for Investigation Discovery. People have known me as a criminal defense attorney and TV legal analyst for a long time; what many didn’t know, because it often wasn’t relevant to my work providing “expert legal blah blah”, was my own crash-and-burn backstory. Being able to be transparent about who I was, who I am now, and reframing my own past transgressions to be helpful to others is one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in life.

In fact, many expressed surprise when they learned about my own battle with addiction, and my desire to make use of those experiences by becoming an interventionist and helping others find their way to health. I don’t say this to sound braggy, but I don’t look or act anything like the person I was over 15 years ago, and, thankfully, people have a hard time imagining me as that guy. There’s a joke that goes something like “What’s the difference between an alcoholic and an addict? An alcoholic will steal from you, but an addict will steal from you, and then help you look for it!” That was me; I definitely qualified as an addict, and the idea that people have a hard time imagining that now is only a testament to the amazing power of people to change, to transform, and to transcend their problems.

In fact, if I had my own flag to fly, it would say “If I can do it, YOU can do it too.” My life has been nothing short of amazing in the last 15 years, and I know that there’s nothing special about me that isn’t special about all of us. If you would have asked me then if it was possible to get where I am now, I would have said “absolutely not.” I was a fat kid that has now done seven Ironman triathlons. I was bankrupt and now have successful businesses. I lacked integrity in every way possible, and now my word means something, and I even get to share it to audiences worldwide. You just can’t get here from there.

And, at the same time, I know to my very core that I could go back to being that guy in the snap of my fingers, if I don’t keep these lessons in mind. That’s one of the things I’m so grateful for about Breaking Point; it kept these lessons present for me. So what follows are my Top 10 Takeaways from doing the show. Funny thing, I used to be really ashamed of my past. Though my work in the fields of criminal defense and intervention, and through the amazing experience of Breaking Point, I’ve got a very different view of that past now. In fact, that’s probably a good segue to Takeaway number 10…

  1. Reframing the Past.

Anyone who’s heard my keynote speech knows that I was “two full scoops of crazy” as the result of the lifestyle I began embracing at the tender age of 13. I started down my own path of debauchery because I so desperately wanted to fit in, and thought that was the way to do it.

When I emerged from this haze two decades later, I was ashamed of so much that I had done at an age when I was certainly old enough to know better. What finally allowed me to truly be free of the past was learning how to reframe those events, so they were no longer a source of shame. I actually came to view some of the most horrific events of my past as an opportunity for me to share myself powerfully with people so that they could live their best lives. Now, the things I thought were secrets I would take to my grave are things I share freely about on a one-to-one basis, from the speaker’s platform, and even on TV. To call it liberating is an understatement; it’s one of the greatest tools I’ve ever used.

Over and over again, as I worked with the subjects on Breaking Point and their families, I heard people suffering from events of the past. Sometimes these were events that they felt victimized by; sometimes it was guilt for harms done to other people. Those that were ultimately successful on the other end of the experience were the ones who were able to see that their bitter, ugly past was truly the most valuable asset they had. It gave them the unique ability to help other people, and with that new perspective, with that “reframing” of the past, they could be free from it. Until they got to that place, they were still controlled by it.

2. We Are As Sick As Our Secrets.

One of the best tools I’ve found for reframing my past in a positive way is the “three buckets” approach. There are three categories of thoughts, feelings and experiences that we all have. They go into one of three “buckets”:

  • Secrets;
  • Private; and
  • Public.

The first is what I call the “secrets” bucket. This bucket is filled with the things that you are going to take to your grave, the stuff that no one can ever know about, the worst, most embarrassing stuff you’ve thought, felt and done.

The next bucket is the “private” bucket. It is made up of things that some people get to know about, but only a few, and you are very selective about who gets let in on this private stuff.

The public bucket are the things in your life that you will happily share with anyone. Think of it like your Facebook feed; anyone who signs on gets to know about it.

So with that in mind, here’s what I’ve found has allowed me to be free of the past:

  • First, start emptying my secrets bucket, so that I have more material that may be private, but as little as possible (or even better, nothing) that I have to take to my grave; and
  • Next, start moving things from “private” to “public” (this may take a little more courage, but it’s worth it).

There are many things that I swore I was going to take to my grave, that I thought I would never share with anyone ever, and I went from begrudgingly telling one person all my deepest, darkest, most embarrassing stuff to now sharing it on the speaker’s platform with anyone that will listen, or even talking about it on television. Did you hear the stuff I revealed on Breaking Point?! To say it is liberating is a gross understatement! It is an amazing thing to be truly free of the past, and moving “buckets” is one of the most powerful tools I’ve ever used to accomplish this.

What was so impressive about the subjects and families on Breaking Point is that they were courageous enough to share their secrets, the stuff they were ashamed of, on television for the entire world to see. At the beginning of every intervention, I make the bold promise to these families that life as they’ve been living it will never be the same again. I know I can always fulfill on that promise, because one of the things we do in every intervention is start to move stuff around from one bucket to another.

3. Change the People You Spend Time With.

If you lie down with dogs, you’re going to get up with fleas. When you wallow with pigs, expect to get dirty. If you hang out in a barbershop long enough, eventually you’re going to get a haircut. (Even if you have a “hairstyle” like mine… I’ve always wanted to try one of those hot towel barbershop shaves!)

Want to change your life with velocity? Change the five people that you spend the most time with. Ideally, you’ll choose people that are actually producing the results that you want to produce for yourself, since this works both for the good and the bad! When I look back over my downward spiral, and my climb out of the gutter, I see that there was always a strong correlation between the people I surrounded myself with, and the results I was producing in my own life. Just like water seeking its own level, my behavior rose or fell, depending on who I was surrounding myself with. When I sought out “lower companions” I inevitably produced results that aligned with that. It certainly wasn’t their fault; it was all on me. But it would be folly to overlook the influence that others have on my own thinking, decisions, and actions.

Similarly, on Breaking Point, the subjects always seemed to have people in their lives who were invested in their remaining sick, whether through co-dependency, a desire to have a party-mate, not wanting to have to take a look at their own behavior, or a myriad of other reasons. Want to change your life today? Change the five people you spend the most time with.

4. Recalibrating Normal.

I was a fat kid. I used to wear these jeans my mom bought at Sears called “Toughskins.” Mine came in a size they called “husky.” (When last I checked, they still make them, which means there’s a whole new generation of people who will have the same emotional scars that I do!) When I finally had a pivotal moment and made a true decision to change my life, I committed to go in a very different direction. To truly leave that fat kid in my past, I started doing Ironman triathlons. (To date, I’ve done seven of them; I’ve never done them fast, but I’ve survived to the finish line every time I started.) Every time I stuck my toe on the starting line of one of those things, I always felt like I was leaving the husky-sized Toughskins a little further behind.

Now, I do this modified-CrossFit high-intensity training with a group of friends (see number 9, above). We meet up most evenings to do this work out together. When people hear what we do for our daily routines, they think we’re crazy. And maybe we are, but if so, we are all crazy in the same way. We are all committed to up-leveling our performance, and because we do it together, we have completely recalibrated what normal behavior is.

This works in the other direction too. What I experienced myself, and what I consistently saw in Breaking Point, is behavior that was consistently self-destructive and dangerous at levels that would leave jaws unhinged. The power of denial, of the failure to see the truth about ourselves, was so powerful it is like wearing blinders. Everyone around the affected person can see their negative behavior so clearly, but the person engaged in it simply can’t. They’ve “recalibrated normal” in a negative way, where these patterns that are so dangerous seem to be just an average part of any ordinary day.

That’s what makes interventions so powerful! When done properly, it is like ripping those blinders off, and allowing people to get a glimpse of themselves as they really are. In that moment, change can happen. In that moment, a window of opportunity opens. The challenge is, when those windows open, they don’t stay open long.

5. Change Happens in a Moment.

People have lots of stories that they tell themselves about change. They say things like “Change is hard,” or “Change takes a long time.” I don’t think that’s true at all. In my experience, change happens in a moment, in the time it takes to snap your fingers or blink your eye. Implementation may feel difficult (as opposed to actually being difficult); it may feel awkward or clumsy or like it’s going to take a long time, but those feelings aren’t facts, they are just feelings (and not very empowering ones at that).

The challenge on Breaking Point, and for each of us who are considering what it takes to produce different results in our lives, is how do we produce these moments of change for ourselves? Thankfully, I have some answers here (keep reading!) But one of the first things here is to recognize that the stories we tell ourselves, while they may sound convincing, and while other people may agree with them, aren’t necessarily true. That’s why there are three areas of opportunity that we always confronted on Breaking Point, and which can be massively helpful to anyone. These are the areas of:

  • Thinking,
  • Decisions, and
  • Actions.

Just like the subjects on Breaking Point, who were sometimes on the threshold of jails, institutions, or death, if we are going to make changes in our lives, it happens in these three realms. And it happens in a moment. Maybe, just maybe, if you’re reading this now, and there’s something in your life that you want to change, this could be your moment! Why not? It’s as good a moment as any! If you choose it.

6. I’m Thinking That I’m the Common Denominator in ALL of My Problems.

Einstein famously said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” I love this quote for many reasons. I find it prescriptive. It tells me exactly where I need to start if I’m interested in solving a problem. It starts with my thinking! I need to get some new information to my brain, and to improve the quality of my thinking, which will give me a new perspective on the problem. Failure to change my thinking will keep me in a closed loop, where I can only see the problem (and therefore its solution) in the same way I always have. So it must begin with my thinking.

Perhaps I’m just optimistic by default, but I believe that people generally do the best they can with what they’ve got, and the subjects on Breaking Point were no exception. If people are to do better, it must begin with an acknowledgment that things need to be different, and that is an evolution in thinking.

But what I find many people blow past is the second part of what Einstein said, the part about not using the same thinking “we used when we created them.” The thinking that I used when I created my problems. I created them! Ugh, that seems like a bitter pill to swallow, but it actually is the good news. I’m the common denominator in all of my problems. Me. All of my problems have me in common. The reason that it’s good news — no, GREAT news — is that if I’m the common denominator in all of my problems, I have the possibility of being the common denominator in all of my solutions too.

If not, if I’m not the common denominator in all of my problems, there’s only one thing for me to be: a victim. Victims are powerless over their circumstances, they are things that just happen to them. But if I can find a thread for which I’m part of the problem, where my thinking or decisions or actions have played a role in causing the problem I’m experiencing, then I can be part of that solution too.

7. Decide to Burn the Boats.

Do you want paper or plastic? Do you want a Diet Coke or an iced tea with lunch? We all face lots of choices each day, but there’s one kind of choice that’s special. We call that a decision. What’s the difference? Absolutely everything.

When I make a choice, I’m expressing a preference for one thing over another. But when I make a decision, a true decision, I’m in another realm. I’m now committed to ignoring any other possibility. The Latin root of the word “decision” means literally “a cutting off,” a removal of all ideas to the contrary. Making a decision is truly to say that regardless of what happens, no matter what circumstances change, I’m doing this.

It’s like the oft-repeated story of the Spanish conquest of Mexico by the famed explorer Hernan Cortes, when, in order to ensure his forces didn’t retreat when under attack, he ordered “Burn the boats and take the island!” If I’ve made a real decision, I’ve made a declaration that when I take that island I’m going to fly a flag that reads “No Matter What!”

I don’t know about you, but when I look back over my struggles, my biggest problem wasn’t trying to do better. I was always interested in doing better, I wanted to do better, and I hoped to do better. But for years, I didn’t make a true decision. In fact, the biggest problem I had was not my desire to change; it was my willingness to sell myself out, to “undecided” in the blink of an eye. When a true decision is made, there is no “undeciding.” Remember what’s on our flag? No. Matter. What. No matter what new thought hits my brain stem, no matter what happens when I’m struck by the “Good Idea Fairy.” No matter what.

So how do we do this? How do we truly fly the flag of “No Matter What!” and make these changes in our lives? I know from working with the subjects of Breaking Point that one critical tool is to tell someone else about your decision, and ideally someone that can hold you accountable. A silent decision, one that is only between my ears and not shared, is a fragile thing, something that is likely to perish on the rocks of life when things get tough, as they inevitably do. Remember our three buckets? Keeping that decision a secret is a recipe for disaster. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people that support your new way of being is also critically important. Here’s where picking the five people you spend the most time with, and working in concert to recalibrate normal, is where the rubber meets the road.

8. Stop Picking Up The Damn Shovel!

The true price of our misbehavior is unpredictable… but it is predictably greater than what we predict it to be. That is the very essence of denial, the inability to see the truth about something! On Breaking Point, it was usually the failure to see the truth about the subject’s drug addiction, their life of crime, and the families’ failure to see their enabling behavior allowed this to continue.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard that a person needs to “hit bottom” in order to change. I agree that there’s a moment when change happens, but hitting that bottom is a tricky thing. Each time I thought I had hit a bottom, I found a trap door! Some people say that “You hit your bottom wherever it is you stop digging.” I think that’s true, but it’s incomplete. In light of how many people sell themselves out by “undeciding” something they just decided, I say that “The bottom is wherever you stop digging… and then stop picking up the damn shovel!”

In each and every one of the times someone on Breaking Point failed to achieve the results they wanted was because they “undecided” and then picked up that shovel again to start digging. I’m only able to spot this behavior because I did it myself for years. I would wake up in the morning (or “come to” is more like it) and make what I thought was a decision that I was going to quit. I would pour out the booze and throw away the drugs and paraphernalia. In just a few hours, I would inevitably find a reason to “undecided” and I’d be back to buy new stuff. The problem wasn’t my unwillingness to consider change, the problem was my willingness to pick up the damn shovel and start digging again.

Unfortunately, for people who are trying to change grooved-in behavior patterns, whether that behavior is overconsumption of drugs, alcohol, food, gambling, or anything else, once you pick up that shovel and start digging again, it’s like having sex with a gorilla: It ain’t over until the gorilla says it’s over! Once that monster is out of the cage, you are no longer in control.

9. Action Is the Magic Word.

It’s sad but true that all the improved thinking and better decision making will make little difference in my life if that’s as far as it goes. There is one final element, and without it, nothing else matters. It is action. Action truly is the magic word.

People who are behaving in chronically unhealthy ways prefer that the world judge them on their intentions. Healthy people get that the world actually judges me on my actions. One of my dear friends and mentors is fond of saying “Act like a gentleman, and the world won’t know the difference.” He is absolutely right. I may have larceny in my heart, but if my actions are pure, my fellow human will treat me accordingly.

It is a bit of a paradox that the sequence for change is Think-Decide-Act, but that when it comes to my feelings about change, it starts with Act. In fact, I can act my way into better feelings, but I never feel my way into better actions. It’s totally out of sequence, yet many people (on Breaking Point and otherwise) get this completely back-asswards.

For example, people say to me all the time that they want to work out with me. But, since people vote with their feet, I will often bump into someone who promised to join my group of five friends and didn’t show. Inevitably they will say to me things like “When I feel more healthy and energetic, and when I’m in better shape, I’ll show up at your workout.” No! That is exactly the wrong sequence. The key to success is absolutely the opposite of what they think it is. If you wait to feel better before working out, you will never get results. Instead, if you drag your ass to the workout regardless of what you think/feel/undecided about it, you will inevitably feel better afterwards. I’ve started countless workouts with that little voice in my head wondering why I’m not at home, full of pessimism and negativity and self-defeating talk. By the time I’m done, that voice is always silenced. I’ve never left a workout with regret for having worked out.

But this is about far more than exercise. The point is that action is the key. Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens without it. Like this material that you’re reading right now, I’ve thought about it for a long time. I made a decision to actually write it. But the words didn’t show up on the screen until I put my fingers on the keyboard and got into action.

Where else does this show up? Everywhere. On Breaking Point, and in my life as a criminal defense lawyer and interventionist, there are plenty of examples of people who think that change is a good idea, and they even make a choice (not a decision) about that change. When do they want this change to become effective? When do they want to kick into action? Rarely is the answer “right now.” More typically the answer is “tomorrow.”

It’s just like dieting. Perhaps I’m the only one, and this won’t apply to you, but from time to time over my life I’ve thought about going on a diet. I always like my diets to start on one of two days: either on Monday (because that allows for a weekend full of gluttony), or tomorrow (as in, I can pig out today but I’ll start my diet tomorrow). The other benefit of my little scheme is that when I get to Monday, the start day for my diet, I can easily shift to Plan B, and undecide myself right into starting my diet tomorrow.

10. Example or Warning? Sometimes both.

There were times on Breaking Point when I was pissed off, frustrated, and ready to give up on folks. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true. Anyone who’s got me confused with Mother Teresa has clearly not read my bio! I had to remind myself over and over again that everyone I was meeting was in pain, and even though I didn’t like the symptoms, if I was in their shoes I would feel the same way, and whenever possible, treat them as a sick friend. In extreme cases I had to remind myself that everyone I cross paths with is always teaching me one of two lessons, either teaching me what I want to be like, or what I don’t want to be like.

It made me realize that everyone goes through life being one of two things: Either an example of what’s possible, or a warning of what’s possible. It’s like we are all billboards advertising something. Is it something positive and something to aspire to? Or is it something to be avoided? We are all always being an example, or being a warning. What is it we want to choose?

For me, this is the greatest gift of Breaking Point and my personal and professional experience to date. The power of choice is an amazing thing. For those that are steeped in addiction, like all of the subjects of Breaking Point when I first met them, there is no choice. Every one of them needed their thing — their drugs, their alcohol, their life of crime — just like a drowning man needs air. The power of choice had been lost long ago.

The greatest gift that I’ve received, and the greatest gift I was able to give anyone on the show, was the chance to have the power of choice restored. Today I don’t need drugs like a drowning man needs air. But I’m one choice, one action, away from letting that gorilla out of the cage. And then it’s not over until the gorilla says that it’s over.

Of course, this isn’t something to take on in the same way I’ve started diets. This isn’t something that starts Monday, or something that starts tomorrow. There is only one time to start it, whatever “it” is for you, and that time is right now. That’s the only time life is happening. It’s happening now, not five minutes ago or 30 seconds from now. It is only happening now.

I’m reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. It is, without a doubt, one of the greatest speeches ever delivered. Of course people remember the dream that Dr. King had, it was (and remains) an incredible dream. I love watching that speech; I’ve watched it dozens of times. As amazing as Dr. King’s dream is, there is one line that stands out to me as even more powerful. About five minutes into the speech, Dr. King says:

“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of ‘now.’ This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time…!”

Isn’t “now” the only time we have? What decision do you want to make for your “now”? Example? Or warning? Now is the time. It’s the time to make a real decision, and to fly the flag of “No matter what!” I will proudly fly that flag, and I’ll fly it right next to the other one, the one that reads “If I can do it, YOU can do it too!” Because whether you know it yet or not, I know you can.