The Journey Towards Healing Includes Acceptance
Confession: I had a backslide. I recorded the first episode of my new podcast, Diary of an Anxious Therapist on the afternoon of Sunday, October 1st of this year, and in it, I talked about my journey towards healing from crippling anxiety. And, perhaps not coincidentally, I awoke at about 3am the morning of the 2nd in a state of panic that I had not felt in months. It was almost exactly like my prior event that I told of in Episode 1, only this time, I did wake up my wife Tracie, because it was just too much for me to face in that moment alone.
After sitting together for several minutes, I decided that I was going to get up out of bed, regardless of what happened next. This took courage that I wasn’t sure that I had at the moment, but I heard Mel Robbins’ voice in my head saying “5,4,3,2,1: move,” and that is exactly what I did. I counted down mentally from 5, and then immediately stood up. I felt a bit shaky, but I immediately counted down again “5,4,3,2,1,: move '' and started taking slow, methodical steps towards the bedroom door, then down the hall, into the bathroom, etc. The panic didn’t go away, but I distinctly remember sitting back down on the bed a few minutes later, and feeling proud of myself for pushing through that panic and getting up! Lying back down, we both fell back to sleep, awaking to our respective alarms a few hours later to start a new week.
Healing is not a straight line!
When people enter therapy, or decide to make any change in their lives, they often expect it to be a clearly laid out, direct path. Kind of like a road trip: “if I’m going from here to there, these are the turns that I’ll make, this is the starting point, this is the destination, and it will take me X amount of time to make the trip.” But, much like a road trip that runs into construction and heavy traffic, true change rarely goes in a straight line. This is something that I discuss with my clients frequently, and as my own journey illustrates, this is more often than not the case.
Whether it is healing from anxiety, changing a habit, or developing self-compassion, it is a journey. And part of that journey is accepting that it won’t be easy, and that it likely won’t be steady, upward progress in a straight, direct path. Change requires work, it requires tenacity, and it requires acceptance that setbacks are part of that process. You haven’t “failed” if you have a setback, you just hit a bump in the road. The sooner that you can realize, and accept, this the sooner you can get back on track and move forward.
I have seen this path play out before me countless times, both in my own life, and in the life of my clients. Take “Anna” for instance (name changed and circumstances altered for privacy..) Anna had been battling anxiety for years, but after months of therapy and a lot of concerted effort on her part, she found herself feeling much better, more in control, and more engaged in her life. In her words, she “hadn’t felt this good in well over a year.” Things were looking up, but then a sudden loss of her job due to layoffs sent her spiraling back into her old patterns of anxious thoughts, worry, and isolation.
Now, this could be seen as regressing, and perhaps that is an accurate word for the movement, but that didn’t mean that Anna’s progress was lost or that she was back to square one. With time, our working together again for a shorter period that we initially did, and the support of friends and family, she managed to rebuild her resilience and re-engage with life. Talking with her in our final session after this second round of therapy, she expressed how this perceived “regression” actually gave her a deeper sense of understanding of this journey, and provided her with more internal strength, knowing now that if life threw her a curve again, she would now be able to handle it.
Let’s reframe what a healing journey looks like!
When you think of a healing journey, it’s better to think of it as a topographical map, as opposed to a set of directions. There are going to be peaks, valleys, and plateaus on your journey. And while the map analogy is good for illustrative purposes, it is also a bit misleading, because the map will be different for each person. One person may have more peaks (which I define as moments of breakthrough and rapid change,) while another may have more valleys (regressions or struggles,) and a third may have more plateaus, (times where it feels like things are just kind of stagnant, not improving or regressing.) The important thing to remember is that this is completely to be expected, and to be embraced. My path won’t be the same as yours. I can provide you with my life as an example, but expect that your journey will be different. We are each the culmination of experiences we have had up to this moment, and since our experiences have been different, our journey to healing and change will be different, also. It’s not a one-size fits all, regardless of what the latest self-help book may try to sell you. If there was such a solution, there wouldn't be so many different theories, books, self-help “gurus” and the like.
Build resilience to build lasting change!
A word that you’ll hear come up a lot if you do very much research into change, especially in regards to mental health, is a word that I used just a couple of minutes ago: resilience. Without referring to a Webster’s Dictionary definition of it, I tend to frame resilience as being able to face setbacks without giving up. In my personal path towards healing, I’ve faced countless setbacks. What I’ve learned over time though is that the harder I push against the setbacks, and the more that I let them define me, the harder that they are to overcome. This isn’t to say that you should just give up and accept a setback as permanent, saying “it is what it is,” far from it. But what has become apparent to me is that by allowing them to define me, I was really just undermining my progress.
“It is what it is.” Hate is a strong word, but I kind of hate that saying! Let me explain why: when I hear someone say “it is what it is” that sounds an awful lot like “I can’t do anything about it,” to me, which I believe is not true at all. In almost any situation, we have some choice in the matter, even if the choice is simply how we choose to react to the situation. Things may be “out of your control” but that doesn’t mean that you have to let them drag you under. That is where resilience comes into play: you hit a bump in the road, and in that moment you remind yourself “I’ve been here before” or even “someone else has faced this problem, and figured a way through it, so I can too.”
Now, expect that when you start doing this, if you haven’t built up a lot of resilience already, it will likely feel impossible, or at least 100% fake, but that is okay. This is truly a time when “faking it until you make it” is not only acceptable, but completely appropriate. You have to start from somewhere. So even if you hit a bump in the road and telling yourself “it’s just a temporary thing” feels fake, that is okay. Just tell yourself that, “5,4,3,2,1” it, and then take action! Over time, what will happen is that your internal story that tells you how you “can’t” get back up will start to be overtaken by the new story of “but I DID get back up.” (sidebar: Without getting too science-y, this is exactly how neuroplasticity works and how you rewire your brain. Right now, you’ve built a pathway in your head that says “when X happens, I do Y.” The only way that you change that is by saying “when XX happiness, I’ll do Z,” followed by doing Z, and repeating it over and over again. With time, that new pathway will replace the old one! But I digress…)
Tips to get started.
Here are some tips that I’ve learned over the years that can help you to get change started:
Set realistic goals - if you have crippling anxiety that prevents you from leaving the house, deciding that you are going to drive yourself to a convention center and give a public speech next Tuesday probably isn’t realistic. But, perhaps walking out of your front door, sitting down in your car, and just allowing yourself to feel whatever comes up at that moment is a good first step. You can then build upon that, slowly pushing yourself to broaden your boundaries.
Seek support - yes, I am a therapist, so I believe that therapy is an excellent place for this, but that doesn’t have to be the only place. Recruit a trusted friend or family member and let them know that you are trying to make this change, and that it is likely going to be hard for you, so you need their support. And make sure that you are clear on how they can support you, so that it feels helpful and not shaming or condemning.
Journaling - when you write something down, it accesses a completely different part of your brain from just thinking about something, and it makes it more concrete. So break out that old college comp notebook, or buy one from a local store, and start journaling! Write about what you want to change, why you want to change it and how your life will be better once you have made the change!
Practice mindfulness - whether it’s mindful meditation, going for a walk and really focusing on the sights, sounds, and smells around you, or any other activity that you give all of your concentration to, the more that you can do this, bringing yourself into the present moment of “right now” the more that you can quiet the voices of self-doubt and self incrimination that keeps you stuck in your current, unfulfilled state.
Celebrate the small wins - Every step forward is progress, so recognize and celebrate that! Do something that feels positive and meaningful when you make progress, and try to make it something engaging that is novel/out of the ordinary. Doing so will help to build those new pathways in your brain that reinforce your new, changed behavior as being a good thing that you should do more of!
Give yourself compassion!
Please remember that you need to have patience with yourself and give yourself compassion! On any journey of change, you are going to have setbacks and regressions. That is almost 100% guaranteed. But, just because that is true doesn’t mean that you have to lambast yourself when they happen, and you don’t have to get impatient with yourself if change doesn’t happen overnight. If it is hard for you to not default into these thoughts, then ask yourself this question: if this were my child, best friend, or someone else that I truly cared about and loved, would I say that to them or respond to them in that way? If the answer is no, then ask yourself “why is it okay to do that to me?” I’ll answer that one for you: it isn’t, plain and simple. You are worthy of the same compassion, patience, and love that you would give anyone that you care about.
Swinging back to where we started, I’d encourage you to reframe how you look at a perceived failure, lack of progress, or regression. Even the word I used in the first line of this blog post “backslide” is probably not the most helpful way to look at things. While it may have felt like a backslide to me, looking at it now, my temporary regression into having a panic attack was actually an opportunity to move forward. I was able to incorporate something new (5,4,3,2,1: move,) into my toolkit, and in doing so, was able to feel a sense of accomplishment and hope, even in those moments of sheer dread, that I would not have had otherwise.
When looking at where you are now versus where you want to be, try to look at it as a journey that you get to take, or an adventure. Don't focus on the destination, but more on the path, and relish the growth that will naturally come from taking the journey itself!
Your path to change is exactly those two words: YOUR and PATH. It’s unique to you, so it won’t be like anyone else’s, and it's a path, meaning that there is a journey that you will go on. Embrace these two key points, and I promise that while it may not be a straight line, it will be an experience that you will learn from, grow from, and ultimately appreciate and feel grateful for!