Surviving the Challenges
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | December 2018 (edited June 14, 2022)
Moving forward through the different stages of life requires efforts, cautions, and persistence.
We move from one stage to another in life. We have a general idea of what the next stage entails but are a little foggy on the details. Formulated in our heads is a picture of an ideal life, where we smoothly transition from one stage to the next. Life doesn’t play out in exactness to these expectations. Our visions must adjust to fit reality. Childhood hopes melt when exposed to the heat of reality. Our juvenile minds envision a smooth flow from high school, college, and onto a fantastic career and lovely family. As this drama unfolds, we are shocked that each stage has challenges that must be bitterly fought through, successfully making new adaptations, and sometimes settling on a new direction—a new vision.
Success Not Always Natural
Some have a knack for shaping the life of their dreams, living what appears as a charmed existence, instinctively knowing what needs to be done and how to do it. Perhaps, that is just my view—an outsider looking at successful others. I have to fight, bleeding for each painful gain. I’m not alone. I join a massive army of those who engage in battle for small achievements, hoping to gain ground, moving forward towards lofty ideals.
No matter which stage we are struggling with, moving forward stalls when we fear letting go. In order to move forward, we must free ourselves from the past, escaping the hurts, habits and relationships that weigh us down, stepping away from the toxic comforts that limit our existence.
Letting go of foundational pieces challenges our resolve for change. Our past is indelibly etched in our minds. Experiences form the essence of our being. Life is seen through the lens of these experiences. Walking away doesn’t diminish their impact; they follow us.
See Painfully Close a Door for more on this topic
Major changes are more than removing the noxious weeds. Pasts can’t be discarded; they must be transformed. Rather than plucking and discarding, we must process and integrate, working the past into a healthy present, creating a narrative of past experiences into a transformational story.
See A Narrative Identity for more on this topic
"Looking back isn't going to help you. Moving forward is the thing you have to do."
Momentum to Continue without Change
The unhealthy remnants of bitter pasts accumulate and drain psychic energies, limiting resources that would be better directed towards the present. Like a stone rolling down the hillside, we tend to continue in the same direction, doing what we have always done, adapting with the same destructive patterns. When our method is shortsighted or ill-constructed, each moment marks our future with injurious residue. The weight of life gets heavier and heavier.
When life takes a dramatic twist, we are shocked. Our patterns are disrupted. We must give energy to the newness in order to navigate the foreign landscape. These twists happen both unexpectedly and within the planned structure of our life. We discover at each new stage, whether moving on from college or settling into a relationship, the rules change. We face new demands, new schedules, and must learn new habits. We also must make adjustments. Whether forced or planned, we must let go of significant pieces of our life and absorb the emptiness of newly created space.
See Major Life Change for more on this topic
Returning to the Past for Comfort
A common reactionary response is to quickly fill a void, often returning to past adaptations. The pain of the known, unfortunately, soothes fear in the frightening darkness of the unknown. We return to unhealthy relationships, addictions, and destructive consumption. We stall, stagnating in the past, afraid of the future.
Flexibility to Life's Demands
We must adjust to the moment. Life demands flexibility. When disease ravages, relationships turn toxic, or careers stagnate, we must change directions, creating new visions and new goals.
Nancy Mairs, suffering from a debilitating disease, was forced to adopt flexibility. She graciously describes her challenges, "thanks to multiple sclerosis, one thing after another has been wrenched from my life—dancing, driving, walking, working—and I have learned neither to yearn after them nor to dread further deprivation but to attend to what I have." (Mairs, 1997, p. 1014).
Judith Stills, PH.D., in the November 2014 issue of Psychology Today, proposes that letting go of the destructive demands both thinking and doing. Thinking to maneuver around deceptive modes of thinking and the doing of behaviors that push us forward. Only by letting go can we invite new possibilities. Believing that leaving past habits and situations is an avenue for new opportunities motivates change but doesn’t relieve the immediate feelings of emptiness following abandoning a comfortable crutch. Sills beautifully states, “This hole is where the future lives,” (Stills, 2014).
Letting go is accomplished by playing an active role. Letting go is not a passive release but a dynamic process, requiring an active attempt to free ourselves from events, people, and habits that no longer serve a healthy role in our lives. A passive attempt often leads to the eventual return to the person or habit that we desperately want escape.
"All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on."
Moving Forward Demands Precious Resources
Leaving a relationship, career, or situation, requires willpower as we fight natural inclinations to return. Roy Baumeister found that when we fight against inclinations, we slowly deplete our will power (2012). The energy expended slowly diminishes energy, eventually leaving us exhausted and unable to maintain resistance. Our strength to direct behavior must be aided with other adjustments.
See Ego Depletion for more on this topic
During initial changes, emptiness beckons for our return. As we mentally distance ourselves from the past, these pulls fade. Without persistence, however, the hurt that originally sparked the desire for change loses its motivating sting; and we drift backwards. “It wasn’t THAT bad,” we muse. “Maybe I could return to those habits, this time will be different. With a few adjustments, the old life could be livable.” These are justifying lies.
"And oftentimes excusing of a fault doth make the fault the worse by the excuse."
Focusing Attention on the Goal
We keep attention on the future and small goals that lead us there. We must fill the void of change with new habits and routines. We must busy ourselves in our new life. A forced new focus looking forward lessens temptations in the past. We naturally move to where our thoughts point. By forward focused thoughts, we bolster resolve, conserving precious will power.
We must know where we are headed and why we want to go there, continually rehearsing these motivational goals, once we forget why, the work will be unbearable.
Another active step in letting-go of the past is discarding poignant reminders of the past. We are creatures of association. Many remnants are intertwined with old habits. We live in a tangle web of associations. It’s impossible to discard everything. Certain cars, locations, and events will continue to spike emotions, re-energize temptations and dragging us back. We must stand strong, courageously facing reminders, quell the storm and continue forward.
Reminders of the Past
We survive the impact of these influences by limited exposure to previous environments. By packing away photos, gifts, and items emotionally connected to the past helps conserve strength for the fierce battles moving forward. We often must distance ourselves from friends and locations that pull us back.
These are difficult changes in forward moving progress. Our drive to be loyal conflicts with our desire to change.
If we keep everything the same, except for the habit we intend to change, we will fail—too many reminders, too many temptations, too little strength. In time, the psychological associations to the undesirable past weakens. Relics only represent faint memories and small reminders. New life experiences multiply and strengthen as we move forward, giving new hopes and new connections.
Repair: Addressing Unfinished Business
Repair is another essential step to move forward. Unfinished business festers in our minds. No matter how much we try to busy ourselves with the future. If there is unfinished business, it invades psychic space.
Repair must be done with caution. It leads back to environments we desperately want to escape. Freeing ourselves from harmful histories, leaving friends and situations can create guilt. Instead of enjoying the dream we worked so hard to create, we feel guilt.
The ninth step in the twelve-step program is to make amends. When we are ready, it is beneficial to communicate our remorse. Not necessarily remorse for change but remorse for pain we have inflicted. This cannot be accomplished with a narcissistic desire for release of personal guilt through a one-sided presentation without openness to the expression of hurt from the injured.
True repair allows for the other person space to express their feeling and reveal their hurt. Rebuilding compassionate connections is essential to move forward.
New And Brighter Narratives
The narrative of our life begins to transform. With major change, we have the opportunity to rewrite our narrative. We don’t discard the facts of our past. We did what we did. We were who we were. But our narrative rewrite comes from the wisdom of change, seen through the eyes of deeper maturity, more balanced and empathetic. A new narrative of divorce allows us to incorporate our partner’s past and their struggles instead of angry resentments. A new narrative of addiction and recovery can focus on our strength to productively move forward with life.
Often there is not an obvious defining moment which differentiates from one step to the next in human growth. Life blends together. Other times the stages are very defined. Moving forward is conscious and potentially hazardous. Implementing change whether significant or not must be done with care, observing limitations in self-discipline, seeking supportive environments, arranging resources, and rectifying injured pasts. We can forgive our errors and move forward, finding beauty and peace that makes the change worth every ounce of invested energy.
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Baumeister, R. F., Tierney, J. (2012) Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength
Mairs, N. (1997, November 5). Letting Go. The Christian Century, 114(31), 1014.
Stills, J (2014) Letting Go. Psychology today
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