Self-work is hard sometimes, and it’s understandable that people may want to back away from it for a while. It can feel like you’re slogging your way through quicksand, feeling as if you’ll never get out. Sometimes there’s a sense of vague anxiety that can get attached to spending too much time or money on self-development, and you might start to think about backing away from your work. There can also be a feeling of repeating yourself, trying to resolve an issue you thought you’d resolved already — and maybe even more than once. On the other hand, sometimes therapy can feel as if you’re sailing with the wind at your back, almost as if it’s too easy, and this feeling causes you to question if you’re moving forward. If you’re considering taking a break from your self-work, it may be beneficial to explore this more in depth.
There are a few different ways to do self-work. In this culture, psychotherapy is the most likely way for people to do their work, and the shifting experiences of slogging, anxiety, repetition and easy sailing are often interpreted negatively. The slogging can feel hopeless, as if there’s too much intense work to do. The repetition can also feel hopeless, causing people to wonder if they will ever get through certain issues. Anxiety about therapy can often be interpreted as not having enough time or money for therapy, when the real basis for the anxiety is that an important issue is on the horizon. Self-critical messages like, “I shouldn’t be spending so much time on this” can add shame to the mix. Some people feel confused or hopeless when the work gets easy, as if they must not be accomplishing anything.
Here’s what’s really happening. We all have very few life lessons, and they need to be learned at the deepest level. Each time a major issue arises, if we follow it and allow the process to unfold with full awareness, we learn the lesson at a deeper level than last time. The work can feel a little like what a snail must feel going up stairs. Sometimes it’s straight up, very hard work. That’s the slogging. Sometimes it feels like easy sailing, going along the tread before getting to the next riser. This is as important in therapy as it is in going upstairs. The “easy” part is allowing the time to integrate the work that’s been done. You can’t get to the next level of the issue without it! Integrating gets you strong and ready for the next part, just as the snail can’t get to the next riser without inching along the tread.
When the snail makes it across the tread and reaches the bottom of the next riser, that’s a signal that some tough work is about to begin, and anxiety can pop up. Climbing straight up is really hard work. Thus, many people drop out of therapy during this time. But if the snail continues working, he reaches the top of the riser, shifting his direction from up to along the tread of the next step. The issue feels resolved, and the snail breathes a sigh of relief… until the next step begins to feel like the step before, and the one before that. This is because the same lesson is coming up again; however, this time it’s being learned at the next level. It’s difficult to appreciate this progress until after the integration, but each step is leading to the top, to final resolution.
Sometimes when people feel anxious or discouraged in therapy, they consider stopping. Terminating therapy is valid. Some people want to get a piece of work done and then stop. Others want to use therapy for ongoing self-development. If you had a piece of work in mind when you initiated therapy and it’s done, you may want to discuss termination with your therapist. It might be time to step away from therapy. It’s important to go through the termination process with your therapist, first setting a date for the final session and then actually attending the final session to say good-bye. (More on this in a future blog.)
If your commitment to therapy has been for self-development and you’re thinking about terminating, you’re probably tired of slogging, feeling hopeless about the same old issues arising, having that vague anxiety that signals another step up, or engaging in self-recrimination because it seems too easy and you’re not getting any “real” work done. You might even think of a time when you were at ease; life seemed fine without self-examination. The truth is, this is a superficial examination of the past. If you do quit this work, you will soon feel yourself moving slowly backwards.
Now imagine self-work as swimming across a river. Sometimes it’s cold, sometimes warm. Occasionally a wave rocks you in a scary way. Sometimes the current is strongly against you, and sometimes it seems to lift you, helping you make it to the other side. There is a party boat always nearby. You can hop on board anytime you want and stay as long as you like– it’s warm, dry, and the drinks are cheap. However, the moment you do, the boat starts floating downstream. This doesn’t mean never step onto the party boat. Breaks and vacations are fine. Just be aware of the choice, so you’re more likely to set a limit to the break. If you meander onto the party boat without noticing, you’re more likely to find yourself having gone far downstream, which means lots of work to catch up to where you were.
Back to the snail. Once you’ve traveled up enough of the stairs, you learn to more easily recognize those feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, repetition and ease as part of the larger process. You also begin to notice that, unlike real stairs, some of the risers are very high, some are low, and some of the treads are deeper than others. The whole process eases, so that when you feel the anxiety about what’s coming, you also feel a little excited about deepening awareness. More and more, you love the truth of your own discovery, and this love fuels your focus and energy toward your inner work… The more you work, the more you discover, and the more you discover, the more you love the work, thus creating an upward spiral of increasing strength, awareness and capacity for love.