As a therapist, I work with people on a variety of topics that can range anywhere on the intensity spectrum. Some individuals want to work on setting and reaching personal development goals, while others seek me out because I’m a certified trauma therapist and they’ve walked through the searing fire of life-altering experiences. Even though the spectrum of counseling is wide, there are several common themes that may be present, such as a wave of grief that often accompanies reaching new levels of healing and growth.
As the therapeutic process continues, people begin to see a transformation happen within themselves. They can point to tangible evidence that shows they’re getting healthier and feel themselves coming to life from achieving their goals. Each person who reaches this place of growth expresses heartfelt gratitude, but can also be surprised that the other emotion they’re now feeling is grief. This grief centers around the years lost and wasted moments that feel unredeemable. Often, this grief can turn into self-blame for feeling like you could’ve done things differently or not waited so long to begin making healthy choices.
With all growth, whether after trauma or personal development, there comes a wave of grief. It sounds like, “Why didn’t I do this sooner? Why did I let myself live like that for so long? How could I have wasted so much time? How could I have been so blinded by what was happening?”
While we don’t expect sadness to accompany reaching a milestone in our growth, it’s a common experience. Once we’ve tasted the goodness of restoration in an area of life, we kick ourselves for not having made the changes sooner. In order to fully enjoy our growth, we must address this new grief.
The good news is that the bouts of sadness that come with growth are often short-term. It’s not the sort of grief that lingers and drains your soul. If addressed properly, growth grief should only last a few weeks. Once acknowledged, this grief dissipates rather quickly because regret isn’t the same as a fresh trauma experience or remaining stuck without hope for change. It’s sadness for what could’ve been sooner.
I believe the grief would linger longer if growth wasn’t the catalyst. In other words, if change hadn’t already taken place, the sadness would be a present issue, not looking back at lost days. The sadness would be about being stagnant, not having already overcome. This helps move the growth grief needle along quickly and for that, I’m grateful. It would be terrible to work hard at making lasting changes only to get trapped in a box of shame for what could’ve been sooner. What a complete waste of time and effort towards growth.
Radical acceptance is at the heart of moving past any grieving experience that’s associated with personal development. Once we feel regret settling in, we can move forward by acknowledging exactly what’s been lost during the years of stagnation or trauma wounds. This form of acceptance doesn’t mean we force ourselves to be okay with the harm done. Not at all. Radical acceptance means that we face our sadness, regret and feelings head-on and that might be confusing after reaching a positive milestone.
Any personal growth we experience must be celebrated because it’s not easy to change our habits and hang-ups. As the saying goes, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. All we need to do is look around to see plenty of people who aren’t putting in the hard work to change themselves for the better or find true healing post-trauma. If you’ve been confronted with the unsettling emotions of regret and sadness after the high of personal growth, be gentle with yourself. You worked hard to achieve the healing, so don’t allow this new season to get bogged down by unnecessary shame or regret. Change happened when you were ready, so enjoy and embrace every moment.
Keep Dreaming Big!
People are unique and strangely similar all at the same time. By this, I mean that although no two people are identical, the way that individuals handle certain aspects of life are very similar to other people. There seem to be patterns and clusters of ways people respond to life. I especially see this with personal growth.
Having been working with individuals and families since 2000 and in private practice since 2007, I’ve had the opportunity to observe how people respond to and live through life events. I’ve noticed that people are either givers or takers and that people either get better or bitter from significant stress.
It always fascinates me as to why someone can go through horrendous things yet come out of the experience as a vastly improved version of themselves. They shine from having walked through the desert. On the flip side, someone else goes through what would be perceived as less traumatic and they seem to have gained little to no personal growth from the experience. Why do some people pull themselves up by their boot straps and others lay down on the ground in defeat next to their boots? I think it has to do with the four levels of willingness to change that I’ve noticed in all people.
First Level: “Nothing is wrong with me.”
It’s exceptionally hard to change what we don’t see as an issue. People at this first level might come into counseling for just a few sessions because a loved one externally motivated them to or it was court ordered. These types of folks are a counseling nightmare. They have no true interest in changing much, if anything, about themselves. They might throw out a few things they could see that they need to work on but quickly rationalize away any need for personal growth. The extreme end of this level are the psycho/sociopaths and narcissists. They can’t change because they don’t authentically see anything in themselves to change. In their own minds, they are the personification of perfection. I know, it’s startling to think that people actually roam the earth with this much arrogance. But trust me, they are out there. A few have landed in my office, and heads up, I’m kindly blunt. At least with me, first level folks never stay in counseling long. They might stay slightly longer with a counselor who is willing to do their perfection dance with them, but eventually all counselors need to see actual growth. That’s when these first level folks tap out of counseling.
Second Level: “I know I have some issues, but I won’t actually do anything to fix them. Ever.”
These people are not necessarily narcissists, but rather see and talk about areas of change yet won’t actually do any work to change. You’ll hear them say things like, “I need therapy” and “I want to master my thoughts and actions better” but then also say, “I’m exceptionally lazy.” In their laziness or lack of motivation to improve their lives, second level individuals live the same way today as they did 10 years ago. The seasons change, the calendar changes, but second level folks do not. The saddest part is they know they need to improve their lot in life. They’re keenly aware, and at times painfully aware, that healthy steps are needed, but make no physical advancement towards doing anything about it. My heart goes out to the second level folks the most because it’s a lot like being in a cell with the door open. They just won’t stand up and start to walk out.
Third Level: “I’m going to see change in my life and I’m excited! Until it gets hard.”
Third level people are willing to invest their time and resources into counseling and will see aspects of growth, which can be very exciting. Unfortunately, this level is where some people retreat and return to the second level. No one said change was easy. Third level people often get hung up on fears, inconveniences and social pressures that tell them that change will cost them greatly in some area of life. For instance, I see clients who really want to improve their physical health and lose significant amounts of weight, but as they start walking towards their personal goal, people close to them start sabotaging their growth. The client has a dilemma to face and must decide to keep walking towards health or succumb and slip back into old habits. I also see this with those who want healthier relationships. They might be willing to make radical changes if the people around them don’t treat them better or engage in the relationship. Third level people see glimmers of personal growth but it doesn’t last. Weight may be lost but it’s put back on, and relationships don’t improve so they settle for the present or another version of throwing in the towel on reaching their hopes and dreams.
However, don’t lose hope yet. Some third level people do fluctuate from second to third and back to second but sometimes, they jump up to the fourth level!
Fourth Level: Lasting Change!!!
Now, this the level that as a therapist I see as the most rewarding. It’s where people go from the second level to the third, and then ultimately reach the fourth. If we look back on our own personal growth, we can see that we were probably at all the levels at some point, including the dreaded level one. We’ve all been in denial about ourselves and the need for change (first level), we’ve wanted change but didn’t make the effort to make it happen (second level), we’ve tried a few things to change but didn’t see it happen quick enough or gave up at some point (third level), but then we miraculously started over and eventually made it to the fourth level of seeing real, significant personal growth in ourselves. It’s so exciting when that happens! But believe me, it doesn’t come without a cost. All change requires us to give up things. It’s just a fact. Hopefully what we are gaining with reaching level four will be far more valuable than anything we’ve stuck out in the past.
Take some time and reflect on these four levels of personal growth. Be honest with yourself. Today, where are you? Are you happy with your level? If not, what are you planning to do about it? I truly believe in small, incremental steps toward reaching goals. Some of you know that my life story includes overcoming some major obstacles and I promise you that one step at a time truly does work. Today is a great day to get started towards your own hopes and dreams. I know you can do it if you want it bad enough!
As I looked at this picture on my friend’s phone, I had the thought of “sometimes we need to put on a pink tutu and run through bubbles.”
It got me thinking about some of the other “sometimes” moments that happen.
Sometimes we need more sleep.
Sometimes we need to sit on the couch and watch a marathon of Marvels on Netflix (a Boy Mom thing to do for sure).
Sometimes we need to have a bag of popcorn and glass of wine for dinner.
Sometimes we need to take time away from work.
Sometimes we need to jump in the warm ocean waves.
Sometimes we need to share our opinion on a topic.
Sometimes we need to not take another person’s irritation personally.
Sometimes we need to stop waiting for someone to get emotionally healthy.
Sometimes we need to say “Go away.”
Sometimes we need to not feel guilty for saying “Go away.”
Sometimes we need to trust our gut.
Sometimes we need to welcome new people into our lives.
Sometimes we need to know that everyone has a story.
Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of how far we have come in our personal growth.
Sometimes we need to not care what other people are doing in life.
Sometimes we need to laugh loudly with our friends.
Sometimes we need a couple of friends who love us unconditionally.
Sometimes we need to not be a part of a person’s life just because they invited us in.
Sometimes we need to say “No.”
Sometimes we need to say “Yes.”
Sometimes we need to act silly and not care about our age.
Sometimes we need to take someone’s name and contact information out of our phone.
Sometimes we need to take a nap.
Sometimes we need to push ourselves out of our comfort zone.
Sometimes we need to tell our story.
Sometimes we need to not sit on the sidelines.
Sometimes we need to stop making an excuse for being mistreated.
Sometimes we need to buy ourselves a bouquet of flowers.
Sometimes we need to buy a plane ticket.
Sometimes we need a new stamp in our passport.
Sometimes we need to know other people love us.
Sometimes we need to face our fears.
Sometimes we need to listen to other people’s viewpoints.
Sometimes we need to fight for a relationship that is important to us.
Sometimes we need to know when to let go.
Sometimes we need to buy a Groupon to something we would never think of trying.
Sometimes we need to realize we are doing better than we think we are.
What are your “sometimes” thoughts?
Keep dreaming big!
To know me is to know that I have a few favorite sayings. Over the last eight years of chatting with clients in a private practice setting, one of my favorites is that personal growth is like a measuring stick. When we want to make changes in our lives, we are not typically going to go from one inch to twelve inches overnight but instead we are on the little black lines of change. I have even asked clients to go buy a measuring stick or put a picture of one on their phones. This can serve as a reminder that we are not expected to become different overnight. What an incredible burden that would be. Yet, it’s how many of us were raised or came to believe as adults. Do it better and do it better now! Let’s all say a collective NO to that sort of internal pressure. Because guess what? It usually backfires and we end up not changing at all for fear of not doing it fast enough and without enough “perfection.”
The measuring stick approach is much more gentle and kinder to ourselves. Like the saying goes, if we are not nice to ourselves, who’s going to be? When we are not nice to ourselves, it’s funny too how we end up magically attracting people into our lives who are also not very nice to us either. Ever notice that? I sure have; both as a therapist working with people and as a woman with my own history of love and friendships.
Why is the measuring stick a good visual for folks? I think it works well because it nicely illustrates that small changes do get us somewhere and the stick shows that to be true. It may be slow and it may be small changes, but eventually we would end up from one inch to twelve inches and isn’t that super, duper, amazingly fantastic?! It’s also a whole lot less overwhelming when we make small incremental progress, rather than turn-your-life-upside-down changes. Sometimes I like to call those “snow globe moments.” We take our life snow globe, shake it all up and wait for the dust to settle. That sounds remarkably un-fun to me. I don’t think un-fun is a word but you get my point.
What kind of changes can we make using the measuring stick idea? Any change! That’s the fabulous thing about it. It works with all personal growth. Try it out. What goal would you like to achieve? Consider that your twelve inch mark. Now back track all the little steps it would and will take to reach the goal.
Next, we write those steps down and start working from one inch, which is today and where we are in the process (or lack thereof) in reaching our goal. We often have to break down goals into even smaller sizes to fit the small black lines on the measuring stick. That’s the point. Small, small, small changes.
For instance, some of you know and some of you don’t, that since my twenties I have lost over 125 lbs. Yes, it’s true. I lost a whole skinny person. It’s still very weird for me to get an off glance in the mirror and see a size 4 rather than a size 24. For me, losing weight has been a life changing experience for the better. I am not saying that everyone who is a size 24 should lose a small person of weight and poof, they will be happy. I am saying that for me, it revolutionized my life. I think it was because the weight was symbolic of other healing that needed to happen for me and when I truly dealt with those issues, the weight naturally came off.
I have previously written about my journey of weight loss and you can read them at “112 lbs and Going” “Sabotage Weight” and “Our Relationship with Food” In the 112 lbs, you even get to see my Before pictures. Now you want to go click on it, don’t you? It’s okay. I put them out there for the world to see, so go ahead and peek.
The measuring stick worked for me regarding weight because I gave myself very small, very doable goals. The little black lines of change goals. Things like “only order two Whoppers at Burger King, instead of three” or “do ten push ups against the wall tonight.” Eventually, those black lines of change became “run 10 miles in prep for the half marathon that’s in a few weeks away.” Did I start out running 10 miles? HA! I don’t even think I have to answer that, do I? Even training for the one and only half marathon I ever did and probably will ever do (check off Bucket List item), it was a lesson in the measuring stick practice.
To train for a ridiculously long run, you break down those runs into small growth in distance over several weeks. That way you gradually condition yourself to the mileage and your body adjusts to what you are asking it to do. Same theory goes for all personal growth.
What if your twelve inch goal is to have a happier and healthier relationship? Well, then, take some time to visualize what you would like that to look like at its best and then back track the small changes that would get you to the goal. See how the measuring stick works for at least the two types of growth of weight loss and improved relationships? I promise it works for all life goals.
What twelve inch goal would you like to reach? Write it down. What are the really (really) small steps to get there? Write those down too. Be realistic that it won’t be done perfectly and that’s perfectly okay. But if you keep moving forward, it will be done eventually. All the growth along the way feels really good too; not just the end of the measuring stick. As you see your hopes and dreams come into focus, the entire journey of growth is amazing.
I can’t wait to hear about what goals you have set for yourself. Enjoy the process of change.
Counseling clients talk about wanting to move forward in some area of their lives; that’s why they chose to take the time and invest financially into figuring out some things for themselves. Life is complicated and many people get tired of feeling like they are burdening their family and friends with conversations about the same areas of needed growth. Finding a counselor that someone feels very comfortable with and has similar views on life can be a huge help to moving forward.
I will say it again, life is complicated. One of the areas that seems to stumble a lot of people is sorting through competing feelings. Our opinions and emotional ties to one topic can have several different, often opposing, viewpoints. I see many clients who come into the office to talk about relationships. These are sometimes romantic but they are often also relationships with family members, co-workers or friends. People get tripped up when, within their own minds, they can’t sort out what they are feeling because there are so many different thoughts, like a bunch of bubbles floating through the air.
To really grasp this idea, either take a good look at the picture above or better yet, go get some bubbles and blow some. Really look at the perfectly round, self-contained circles as they catch the breeze. They are not dependent on one another. Each one is completely autonomous unto themselves. Our feelings are often like this and we can have all these different bubbles of emotions and thoughts happening within us at any given time. When working with clients, I try to normalize the bubble experience and help clients be more comfortable with the feelings within themselves.
As an example, someone could believe that the time might be right to end a relationship. That client may have very different reasons that led them to this moment in time and more than likely, they ping-pong back and forth to all the different “bubbles.” One bubble might be that they have been in the relationship for a long time and therefore have much invested into the relationship working out for the long haul. But the bubble right next to that one is full of sadness because they feel overall very disappointed in the genuine connection within the relationship. Another bubble is full of the fun memories that the two people have created together. The laughter, the good times and the moments they share with only that person. Floating near by is the bubble of resentment for hurts that have happened within the couplehood. There are usually many bubbles to sort through when someone is facing a possible break-up with a loved one.
I think it’s important that we start to become aware of the bubbles within ourselves. They may not be about ending a relationship but I am 100% sure that each and every one of us has our own set of bubbles. The question is whether we are aware of the discord within our own emotions. It could be changing a career or job, starting something new in life, ending something old in life or a thousand other variations. Do you know what your bubbles are filled with and on what topic? Do you feel the need have only the “right” bubbles floating and try to pop the ones that make you uncomfortable? Don’t feel bad. It’s a common desire to get rid of those bubbles or thoughts that don’t fit neat and tidy into how we see ourselves or what a nice person would think and feel. The problem with just trying to pop the bubble or get rid of unwanted thoughts is that unless we really grapple with the topic, just shoving down the emotions won’t really solve anything because guess what? The bubble comes back and floats around again and again. Simply wanting something to be true doesn’t make it so. We must fully work through those things that rattle around in our brains.
Next time you see a bottle of bubbles, go ahead and grab it, open the top, get that slimy wand and blow some bubbles. Watch them as they exist separate and apart from each other. Then think about what emotions and feelings would be in each bubble you see. Then just let it be as it is; until you are ready to really look at the fact of whether there are more positive aspects or negative regarding a decision you need to make. Eventually what we need to do becomes clearer and clearer and then we can take the action we need to. Until that time comes, let all the feelings be separate and try not to force what is complicated to become uncomplicated just because it’s uncomfortable.
So, what are in your bubbles today?