Making Peace to Make Change

Finding compassion for the less savory parts of ourselves is an essential first step in personal growth.

Stuck. It’s a word that I hear all the time as a therapist. It’s thrown around in first sessions as clients articulate their presenting concerns. Myself and other clinicians often use the word on our websites to convey to clients our an understanding of the problems they may face. Oftentimes, the word “stuck” is used in the context of describing things we dislike about ourselves: stuck in a rut; stuck in the post-breakup blues; stuck in the a bad habit.

We all have parts of ourselves that feel stuck- parts of who we are that we feel frustrated about and that we feel constantly at war with. These habits, feelings, behaviors and fears feel like roadblocks that seem to impede wherever it is we are going in life.

We may repeatedly set an intention to change the aspects of ourselves that we feel so at odds with. We tell ourselves: “Get your life together.” “You ought to lose some weight.” “Can’t you drink less?” “And stand up to your bullies while you’re at it!” Again and again, we try and fail to force into submission the parts of ourselves we dislike. As we do so, the self-criticism and resentment we feel towards those aspects of our being grows.

Ironically, the self-criticism we harbor in our efforts to banish certain aspects of ourselves actually work against us. Not only do we have to push past our patterns and habits, we have to dodge the storm of negativity we project onto ourselves.

Although it may seem paradoxical, it is not until we make peace with the more challenging parts of ourselves that we are able to really make change in those areas. When we do so, we free up the mental energy that was once spent on self-loathing thoughts and negative emotions. As Carl Rogers said in his book On Becoming a Person, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

I tell my clients that there is a reason that each part of them exists. Even our most frustrating habits serves (or has previously served) some purpose for us in life.  Part of the healing work in therapy is acknowledging and making peace with the reasons our various parts exist. We feel a burden lifted as we shift our focus away from judging our behaviors and patterns and as we begin to look instead towards what lies beneath.

Here’s the kicker: the true origins of our more challenging parts oftentimes lie in our unconscious mind and outside of conscious recognition. The parts of us that feel most “stuck” are oftentimes encoded in our brains early in life or in response to ongoing stress or traumatic events. The behaviors and beliefs that helped us persevere in these stressful times can become limiting as our brain attempts to deploy them later on in life. Meanwhile, our conscious brains may develop all sorts of blaming narratives for why we behave in self-limiting ways, although they oftentimes don’t have the full story.

This is where working with a trained mental health professional can be very helpful. In therapy, I help my clients recognize how their core and unconscious beliefs about themselves and about the world contribute to the their sense of feeling “stuck.” In doing that work of acknowledging, my hope is that my clients can foster more self-compassion and greater understanding for the parts of themselves they hope to change.

Mind you- we don’t have to like the parts of ourselves that we want to change. And I am not promoting permissiveness towards harmful behaviors or patterns. I will, however, encourage you–just as I encourage my clients–to mull over the idea that there is a valid reason why the various parts of your being exist. Your brain is working hard to utilize all of its parts to make it through the day, and you owe it to yourself to acknowledge that truth.

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