When You “Mess Up”

At some point in therapy, clients may come into session and begin with something like, “I really goofed up,” (Okay, sometimes the language is more colorful!) or, “I’m not proud of this, but….” Or something like that. 

And I’m not surprised. Active participation in therapy involves willingness to learn and make changes.  You get to know your thoughts and beliefs, feelings and physiological reactions in all kinds of situations.   You start being able to observe yourself in your family, work and life systems. You take responsibility for your self and surrender the hope that others will change along with the belief that if they do, THAT will finally make your life better.   People sometimes leave my office in anger when I tell them I cannot help them change someone else.

And following this path of self-responsibility also means that as you learn and bravely make changes, trusting your gut for what resonates and staying on course as well as possible, you will also mess up.   

Boy will you. 

After messing up, you might then blame yourself or others, feel ashamed, lose hope, throw your hands up in despair or declare that this work on self and making changes is too hard.

And what I’ll tell you from deep knowing and experience, because I am a human being working on my self right along with you, is this:  It’s all normal.  It’s all expected.  And it’s all alright.

I’m not saying that it’s fine to lash out at yourselves or others, repeat a hurtful pattern in a relationship, gulp multiple glasses of wine, buy or eat something to make yourself feel better, or avoid life by binge watching Netflix.  But I do understand those choices as common ways to avoid your pain and temporarily alleviate your suffering. And I know that lasting change takes time.

So after making a mistake, it’s important to remember that in order to be brave, awake, and self-responsible, you must turn toward yourself with kindness and forgiveness, identify what triggered the “mess up” and return to what you have decided is a healthier path for you. You may need to apologize to yourself or someone else.

You will do this over and over.  You will “mess up” over and over.  And part of what determines how you learn to navigate the world with greater ease, courage, and strength is how you decide to handle your mistakes.

I know this because I live it.  I revert to old, non-productive ways of managing stress, thoughts and feelings.  I blame others.  I stew.   I forget my ways to deeply care for myself and stay engaged in the world.  I forget that I am part of a wider family, cultural, economic and social system.  

Recently I really “messed up.”  One of my significant triggers, which I’m mentioned in an earlier post, is worry about money.  I come from a long line of money worriers, Swiss and Germans who worked hard, lived frugally and didn’t have a lot extra.  When I am calm, I can remember the patterns in my family history, and the way I am prone to absorb similar worries about money.

When I am triggered, however, all of that dissipates. If I forget to slow down and comfort that scared part of me, I will lose it.  I’ll target my spouse for my worries.  I’ll lose sleep and start to spin catastrophic scenarios of poverty, bankruptcy and humiliation.  Yup, that’s what I do.  Even while, at the present moment, I have a warm home, plenty of food and clothing, savings in the bank and a robust private practice.

I’m human and it feels awful to careen down that particular lane. That lane is narrow, rutted and filled with potholes where dark clouds loom overhead, where I believe I am unprotected and alone, the only one facing these worries.

But I’ve learned I can return to my truth and my tools for calming myself  – these constitute a much broader, smoother lane:  deep breathing, journaling, meditation, recalling my deepest values (and how I can live them regardless of any financial statement), talking to trusted friends, gratitude, and sometimes calling my own therapist!  That lane is smooth and lined with leafy trees and benches for resting, friends are available down side lanes and I can be grateful for all the resiliency and muscle I’ve built from years of working with this.

So, if you are a perfectionist, or think working in therapy will produce instant results with a clear upward trajectory, I am here to ruin that delusion.  But all is not even remotely lost. Therapy, undertaken by those who own responsibility for self, while letting go of what is not theirs to focus on, can be an invaluable accompaniment to lasting change, reduced symptoms, and a lifelong commitment to learning and re-centering after you “mess up.”

I’ve always liked the following poem, Autobiography in Five Chapters, by Portia Nelson.

Chapter 1

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am hopeless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in this same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it there.
I still fall in… it’s a habit… but,
my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter V

I walk down another street.

—————————————————————-

Change, however, is usually not linear and sometimes, despite hard work, we revert to early chapters.  The difference that work on self makes over time is the ability to more quickly pick yourself up and walk down a different street.

I close with a quote by Daniel Hillel:   

“I get up. I walk. I fall down. Meanwhile, I keep dancing.”

Brenda Hartman-Souder, LCSWR

January 2020

(photo by by chuttersnap on Unsplash)

In the Beginning

BlueSquare

“Each of us must confront our own fears, must come face to face with them. How we handle our fears will determine where we go with the rest of our lives. To experience adventure or to be limited by the fear of it.” ~ Judy Blume

I intended to start blogging several years ago, but procrastinated, reframing the delay as “pondering” or “carefully planning.”   When I got honest, I recognized that really, I was just scared.

For me, working as a therapist is also about developing my own self while I walk with clients in the often messy and also beautiful path of being human.

Being human meant I was scared. And working on my self meant I had to face and move into and through those fears.

So when I decided that a website overhaul and blogging could be integrated into a step by step process that I was going to complete, I had to take practical steps to calm anxiety about being so visible in the world.

I also needed to recognize that I often speak to myself in old, ingrained, and unproductive ways that feed fear: ”No one is going to read this. You are going to be too vulnerable. You don’t know that much to be writing a professional blog.”  I had to face some fears about “sticking your neck out.”

I learned to work hard at telling myself that redesigning my website, becoming more clear about how I work, and blogging might be powerful, challenging and fun.  It might actually work out!

I had to learn how to start a blog, how to tag and optimize the likelihood of being read and a whole bunch of other technical details that can easily scramble my brain (still learning!). There’ve been glitches and times I’ve doubted the whole process.   And it’s also been an invigorating path I’ll be on for a while.

Those steps, coupled with vision, intention, and support from family (especially my spouse for the graphic design, and son for the artwork), friends, and an online business community, (huge thanks to Heart of Business!) sustained the work that brought me here to these words.

That’s similar to the process of therapy – it can be hard to face fear and contact a therapist; parts of society and perhaps our families will undervalue or stigmatize the act of seeking help, conveying the message that to call a therapist shows weakness, is futile or god forbid, might lead to someone else knowing our secrets, fears and worries.

If the thought of working with a therapist is new to you, research and learn about it. Ask potential therapists or friends who have gone to therapy what the process is like.  Ask yourself if this is a step worth taking.

You may already know what you need to work on and for therapy to be helpful, you must be willing to take responsibility for your life.  You will need to face your fears, and you can do that at your own pace and with your own style.

Good therapy provides a safe space, not from someone who’s got it all together and has risen above life’s challenges, tragedies, and concerns, but from another human being who has worked on their own stuff enough to be able to bring an open mind, accepting spirit and a deep belief in each person’s goodness, resiliency and potential.

I hope you’ll find something in these posts that provokes, inspires or encourages. If not, that’s okay too. This blog is as much for me as it is for you, helping me get clear about how I work, what I believe, face fear and step back into writing.

Brenda Hartman-Souder, April 2018