On Falling Short and Not Getting "There"
I have a couple clients who are currently in the ‘Why the fuck is this not working?!’ phase of change. This is a normal and natural part of changing, and I’ve been through it myself, so I get it. But it is easy to me to be that jerk and say I get it when I’m looking back. Hindsight being 20/20 and all that.
I know I can’t grab these lovely people by the shoulders and shake them, declaring “It will get better! This will pass! Trust me!”. I wouldn’t keep paying a coach who roughed me up and shouted like that! But the urge is there because I know it will get better and I feel like shaking them about would emphasize the strength of my conviction.
Being naturally skeptical myself, it just doesn’t jive with me to say “Trust me, this will work”, with or without the dramatic effects of being shaken. It feels too much like selling snake oil. Lemme tell ya, if I were a snake oil salesperson I would be representing with a compelling sales pitch, research, and testimonials. Because that’s the kind of person I am. “Trust me” just doesn’t cut it for me.
Instead I will tell why I know this ‘why the fuck isn’t this working’ part will come to pass. And most of this I didn’t learn from reading books and listening to smart people talk. I learned it from living it myself.
When my relationship broke up, it was hard. It wasn’t just the unfortunate but natural dissolution of a relationship - it was the full spectacular destruction of the life I had built around this relationship, including my very idea of who I was, and what I was doing with my life. Oh, and I really did not dislike the person I broke up with - in fact, I still like them, believe they are a great person and have mad respect for them. So breaking up also involved confronting the reality that I was actively hurting this person, though I knew it was to benefit both of us.
I really seriously questioned whether I could pick myself up and start again, despite my lifetime record of 100% getting through whatever has happened (still maintaining, thankyouverymuch!). Throwing in my age for comedic effect - I was 32 at the time. A totally realistic time to ‘start again’, if that’s even a thing. But it didn’t feel that way. I had spent 8 years keeping myself busy and distracted by overseeing every aspect of this relationship and doing all the things. Suddenly I had a lot of free time on my hands. For thinking! And crying! And generally feeling like I was going crazy because my life had been turned upside down - by me!
So I decided to go to therapy because I was self-aware enough to know I needed and deserved help. Just joking! Nope, I had to be dragged there kicking and screaming by my best friend. BFF had to tell me “You need help. Go”. And for a long while I didn’t go. I was like “Pffffft! I got this!” even when it was clear I was getting nothing. I could barely get through my days, but somehow I was pretty sure I could handle it all because that’s what I had always done - I powered through. When I finally admitted that I needed to go, this amazing person drove me there. Because they are kind and generous - and rightly concerned that I would bail.
But I did not bail! In my first session, I explained what I was there for - recent hard breakup, and consequent need to figure out my life. She promptly (and rudely) started asking me about my deeper, darker stuff. I was like No, No, Fuck No! - we can’t go there because I really couldn’t afford that many therapy sessions, which was equal parts truth and jest.
The money issue was real: I was literally borrowing money from BFF so I could be therapized, and just squeaking out bill payments. I also had to walk uphill to work every day (not really but it certainly felt that way emotionally). The money issue conveniently aligned with the fact that I just didn’t wanna do that hard stuff. I wanted her to help me figure out my life, real quick, and then we would shake hands and walk off into our respective sunsets.
This sob story isn’t really about how sad and hard my life was at this time, because honestly it wasn’t the end of days or anything like that. It’s about how I felt about the whole experience. Feelings that sprinked “What the fuck?” and “Ugh, why?” and “I can’t do this” all over everything. Yep, I’m talkin’ ‘bout negativity to the max. It was so draining I thought I had mono for a while. As it turns out I was just really, really stressed and sad and tired!
At first I would leave my sessions feeling disoriented, worrying that I had made the wrong choice by spending a lot of money on something that felt like it could never ‘work’ for me. I was not on my A-game at that time, to say the least, and wasn’t sure I could count on myself to follow through.
But I kept going! Soon after starting, I was leaving the sessions feeling more hopeful, lighter, and with more clarity of mind. I remember one day in particular I walked home feeling physically like I was light and bouncy for the first time in forever. I remember it was raining lightly and I didn’t even mind, though normally I dislike walking in the rain (wet socks and all that). I was like “Therapy is cool!. And I’m awesome for doing it! I got this!”
Then IT happened, as in shit happened: I Fucked up. I lost my shit, I did the same stupid thing I always did, I slid backwards so hard and fast I hit the wall and crashed through it. Funnily enough, I can’t remember what I did, I just know it felt like a huge catastrophe that left me deeply disappointed in myself, embarrassed and right back in that space where I couldn’t do this, no matter how hard I tried. It felt like the little progress I had made has disappeared in a moment. It was all gone, there was nothing good left. I screamed at my amazing person that I would not keep going to therapy and wasting my money and their ideas were dumb and I sucked and everything sucked. Fuck all this shit!
It was so tempting to stop going - because I was struggling to afford this, and since I couldn't go forever, why not just quit already? I clearly didn’t deserve this help unless it was ‘working’ and there was clearly something deep inside me that was making it not work. Then I would calm down, BFF would help put things in perspective and help me dry my tears. I dusted myself off, and got back to work. Therapy was cool again! Good thing that was finally over, and would never happen again, I assumed.
But somehow this shit kept happening! I would promise myself to be better, try harder and keep myself ‘under control’ this time. And then, seemingly without warning, all that good progress would come crashing down around me. It always made me feel so low, because I had to start over again. From the beginning! So. Much. Work. So unfair! So defeating!
Except that story about losing all the progress and starting over isn’t true. It’s never been, and never will be, true. It’s an illusion that, as long as I believed it, could only help me feel like a piece of shit. Feeling so down on myself was great, because I could justify walking away from what was some of the most important personal work of my life so far, since it wasn’t working and was never going to work and all that.
Although I didn’t quit, I always had my bags packed, so to speak. If there was something so wrong with me I couldn’t be helped, then I might as well not bother continuing. It was a lie I wanted to believe that fed the fear which held me back from really getting through it all.
If it weren’t for BFF who stuck by me every messy step and misstep along the way, and wouldn’t let me quit, I might not have realized this very important truth: Every time that I fell short, failed, disappointed myself or someone else, lost it, hit the wall and generally fucked up - it didn’t negate or erase the good work I had done. In fact, quite the opposite - it enhanced it.
Losing my temper helped me realize why it was so important to get to the root of my anger and learn how to self-regulate emotionally. Criticizing my body because I was supposed to be a healthy role model for others (excuses, excuses!) reinforced the importance that I do the inner work I needed to do, so I could actually love myself. Every time I thought about giving up on my dreams because it wasn’t going perfectly, I reminded myself why it was important to surround myself with authentic people who demonstrated for me that we are all flawed, that we all have the same struggles, and to reach out for help when I needed it. And why it was important to be this person for others, too.
This illusion isn’t only my illusion. It belongs to all of us.
It seems so, SO hard sometimes. It seems like it will be impossible to sustain this amount of effort for very much longer. And it would be impossible to sustain forever, which is why it’s great news that change gets easier with time, if you let it. You can make it easier by just letting some of the pressure off. It gets easier when you keep trying, when you let yourself fall but you get back up and keep going anyway.
Sure, it could take a long time, and it could be really hard. But I can guarantee you it will take longer and feel harder if you keep fighting against yourself. When you keep beating yourself up for falling short, that’s all you’ll see. You won’t be able to let yourself celebrate your accomplishments - especially if they are seem small at the time. I’m talking about days when your accomplishment is “I went to therapy” and you are grateful because “I didn’t cry at work today”. Those are wins, my friend. Big wins that can feel small.
You are winning when you keep it up even though you have no idea if it will ‘work’. When you keep it up when you’re not really sure what the outcome is. When you keep it up when you are willing to embrace the parts of yourself that you’d rather cut out and get rid of. Because those parts of you are part of the whole you, and you are amazing.
Fucking up, falling short, and feeling like you’ll never get ‘there’ does NOT mean you’re starting over. It does NOT negate all the good you’ve already done. It does NOT mean you are flawed beyond repair, that you might as well stop trying, and that you don’t deserve to be investing in yourself. All of that bullshit is FALSE. You take that illusion, drop it on the floor, stomp, jump and dance all over it, and get on with the important work you need to be doing.
When you land in the ‘Why the fuck is this not working?!’ muck remember: It happens, and that’s okay. Just stay on your path, keep breathing, put one foot in front of the other and you’ll come through the other side stronger than ever.
Eventually you'll come out on the other side and have a big pride party for yourself (you know, the opposite of a pity party!)