Photo credit: © 2008 David Joyce from Flickr used with CC-BY-SA licensing
Most people I know think that progress is supposed to be a steady forward march in a straight line at a constant speed.
My observation of people, organizations, systems, and groups would indicate that this model of progress that we so often try to hold ourselves to is completely out of touch with reality.
Everything naturally has bursts of growth and expansion followed by times of contraction and seeming regress.
The more I work with my own transformation and that of others, the more I am convinced that this is not only be expected, but it’s actually necessary.
Forward and backward
Consider the last time you were experiencing a period of major transition and change.
You likely had periods where you seemed to be changing in very positive ways—starting healthier habits, embracing change more readily, noticing inner growth happening before your eyes.
Then there would come a time when all that progress would seem to melt. Your new habits would disappear, and the old ways you always did things would return. Change would suddenly seem like more than you could bear, and all that inner growth? Just an illusion.
All the hope and optimism of the previous days would turn to ashes, and it would feel like your life was just a big rocking chair—moving forward and backward over the same territory without ever making real progress.
But what if that’s not really true?
Consider the trees
As we move into spring each year, the deciduous trees all around us go through major spurts of growth.
There are leaves budding out all over as the trees produce vast amounts of new foliage in what appears to be an enormous advance.
Then every fall, all of those leaves drop out of the trees, and it seems as if the trees go backward to being as bare and as dormant as they were before the process started.
In some ways, of course, this is true. But this misses the fact that the tree in the fall is now larger than it was in the spring and that there is a good deal of growth that is taking place underground.
This seeming backwards move of fall is a chance for the tree to consolidate all of the growing it did during the spring and summer by expanding its root system to keep that new growth nourished and supported.
Consolidate and integrate
The same process happens with us when we going through periods of growth.
We have our seasons of spring when we really do seem to grow and expand in amazing ways, but inevitably there come seasons of fall when that growth appear to die away.
In reality, though, we are only pulling back our resources to give ourselves space to consolidate and integrate all of the changes we have made.
We appear to go backward in these times, but if we pay close attention, we’ll notice that even our “backward” movement doesn’t really go back to the place where we started. We are still farther along than we were before, even if we have pulled back some from the sharp edge where we were.
These are only momentarily pauses in what is overall progress, and we will make our next push forward from a more advanced place than we were before.
In the meantime—like trees expanding their root systems—we are solidifying what feels like the loose, uneven ground of change under our feet into a firm foundation for our next push forward.
Refining the direction
Another benefit of these moments of contraction is that they allow us space away from the intensity of change to assess the direction we are taking.
Sometimes these lulls in the action may help us see that we have gotten slightly off course or that our original goal needs some refinement to help us get where we most want to go.
These subtle adjustments aren’t always easy to make when we are in the thick of things, and our subconscious may pull back from the edge precisely to give us the space to make these small shifts.
Transformation is a hard process to go through on so many levels, and it’s easy to get discouraged when you start to feel like you are just rocking back and forth without making any progress.
Next time you find yourself feeling like you are losing ground in your growth toward the person you want to be, take a moment to consider what might be happening under the surface that would indicate that even this lull is actually a sign of continued progress.
- In this period of contraction, look for indications that you are still farther along than when you started. If you can’t see them, check with someone close to you who is likely to be able to be able to see you more objectively than you can see yourself.This is something I do often for my clients when they have lost sight of their growth. From the outside, it’s easy to see how far they’ve come from the starting point instead of focusing on the small amount they’ve pulled back from the peak of progress.
- Look deeply for ways that shifts you have made are being consolidated and integrated below the surface.What shifts in thought or action are feeling a little more natural these days? Where are changes feeling less like unstable rubble and more like solid ground under your feet?As you identify these signs of progress, celebrate them and congratulate yourself on the hard work you’ve done so far! And in so doing, choose to go easy on yourself for those areas where you may have pulled back a bit from the edge of growth.
- Use this time instead to explore whether any of your goals or current movement toward those goals may need slight tweaks to make your next push forward (when you’re ready) more productive.
In the meantime, this time of contraction, although it may feel like you are going backward, is actually a powerful sign of growth.
You’ve clearly made so much progress that a season of integration is needed, and that’s something to be celebrated!
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