Why Is Progress So Difficult?

I think that most people want to improve their lives in some form. We would all like to feel better, look better, improve our financial situation, be better parents, be happier, have more fun, or some variant thereof. The desire for self-improvement is pretty universal to all peoples and all cultures.

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Come January 1st, we take a fresh look at our goals, old and new. What have we achieved, what would we like to achieve, what new strategies should we strive for given what we know about ourselves and the world we live in? Coming through (not yet out) of the pandemic, I think the desire for something new, something different, perhaps something untried will be stronger than ever.

When you first try something, progress can feel really great. You see the numbers dropping on the scale, you are going out and having new and exhilarating experiences, you feel pride in learning something new, etc.

Then at some point, you hit a roadblock. Someone tells you something that takes the wind out of your sails. Maybe you run across a financial hurdle that tells you, “You have bigger priorities now, whether you like it or not.” You get tired, exhausted, and you feel lonely, miserable, and discouraged. You wonder why you even started your goal in the first place. Is it really worth it – all this pain and disappointment? Life seems so much easier on the other side – the side of not trying and going with the flow.

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It’s at this brick wall that most people give up. We go with what’s easy, what takes little effort, what is simpler, what produces the least amount of pain. At my local gym, there is a saying on the wall that reads like this “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” I never thought I would be a gym person. I like being outdoors walking or running on trails, streets, anywhere outside. I experienced bullying on the playground and at physical education classes as a child. No way was I going to be around “those types of people” again! But when I hit a plateau in my weight loss goals, my integrative medicine specialist said I needed to work on resistance training. I thought I was the expert on resistance, I had been resisting going to the gym and exercising my whole life! So I stubbornly did the video training exercises at home in my condo. That would happen maybe once or twice a week when I could make the space for it in our small condo, modifying workouts that were done in a professional gym with professional gym equipment, using whatever I happened to have on hand. These exercise sessions were happening in between vying for space in our lovely open floor plan with two other wonderful beings that I share my condo with, along with having to balance the noise level with the upstairs neighbor. Needless to say, this didn’t last for long, and the effects of it were minimal.

I also had a lot of very good excuses for not going to the gym. I didn’t know who would be there, who the trainers were, what the trainers were like, how to use the equipment, how to act in a gym, or even what to do or say. Plus I had my traumatic memories trying their best to keep me “safe” in a way that was really impeding my progress. In my mind, I imagined worst-case scenarios, a typical anxiety response. I imagined what I had grown up with happening again. I would be made fun of for not knowing what to do, for being overweight, for not having the right clothes, etc. People would get mad at me for “not getting it, ” not being tough enough, for not being able to do or complete the exercises, for letting them know when I was in pain.

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I put off going to the gym for several weeks. On a whim, I suddenly had the inspiration to go. All of my anxiety thoughts were saying not to, but I knew in my heart I had to go now, ASAP, if it was to happen at all. My body was shaking, my heart was racing, and I felt like crying. These are all typical trauma responses and normal when you face a situation that reminds you of previous trauma.

The timing couldn’t have been better. It just happened that my integrative medicine specialist happened to be finishing a workout there, something I wasn’t expecting. Because he was someone who I knew and trusted, I felt a lot safer about going inside and “just taking a look.” He introduced me to the owner, who I chatted with for a bit and got a tour around the place. I was invited to a session that afternoon, but I wasn’t ready to take that big of a leap just yet! Just getting in the door was hard enough for me as is. But at least I was able to go home, process my emotions, and make a plan with the new information I had.

I decided I would try different classes and get a feel for each one. Some classes were harder than others, but I finally settled on a time that worked best for my busy schedule and caseload. Some days I come into the exercise classes with tears in my eyes as I work through the emotions of the day. I made and still continue to make a lot of mistakes. I battle with a lot of doubt about myself, my ability to progress, and fears about how I will be treated by others. It’s natural, given what I have previously experienced to have these doubts and negative thoughts. To this day, I am grateful for the training, education, and experience that helps me to see these obstacles for what they are – just my brain’s way of trying to protect me. But I can also acknowledge those thoughts, thank them for their efforts, but understand that in order to heal, grow, and make progress, I have to keep moving siempre adelante.

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As I have moved forward, I have discovered that by facing my own fears, I have gained so much in the process. My old negative beliefs about people who exercise have been replaced with more positive beliefs about people who exercise. I now see myself in a more positive light in regards to my ability to exercise. I am learning slowly to connect with my physical body, which has provided a lot of healing for the trauma related to exercise, and other various traumas. I have learned so much about myself, especially in relation to others. I have learned that even when I feel like I have failed, other people will not have the same beliefs about me, fortunately, and I can keep going, no matter what I happen to be feeling at the time. I have learned that I don’t have to hide my imperfections, but can just show up as I am and I will still be accepted. Some days will be harder and easier than others. Emotions and other old negative beliefs will show up as we keep challenging ourselves. I am also slowly, carefully, cautiously taking the next steps to connect with others – like so many other people coming out of the pandemic mindset. However, unlike so many other people, I know that my difficulties with connecting go much further and much deeper. And that’s okay because everyone is different and everyone has their own story to tell.

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When progress seems difficult, here are a few reasons you might be hitting that brick wall:

Why Progress Might Seem Impossible

  • You might be facing a previous trauma, and not be aware that you are experiencing a trauma response.
  • If you have experienced trauma or attachment issues as a child, transition can be really hard. Progress can seem dangerous when previous transitions have resulted in major loss or disruption of attachment figures.
  • You may have some emotions that are starting to rise to the surface, emotions you would rather not face. All emotions can be helpful, and can actually help you achieve your goals. Find a safe person you can talk to who can help you process your emotions, learn to get comfortable with feeling those emotions, and make good choices when those emotions arise.
  • You might be exhausted from stress or physical depletion. Remember that when you are challenging yourself, you are going to feel more tired than usual and emotions will be high before they go low. Be sure to balance your challenges with lots of self-care. And don’t be afraid to take a break.
  • You might have some false, negative beliefs about yourself that are not helping, but rather holding you back from achieving your full potential.