Am I Growing or Staying the Same?: Embracing the Incremental Nature of Change
Unlike other cities, in Los Angeles, the transition between winter and spring is not drastic. All the seasons seem to stop and start a few times. Right now, we’ve had a few days of rain, followed by weeks of full sun, then back again, at seemingly random intervals. And while the tree in my yard has new leaves that are starting to sprout, there are also parts of the tree that are still barren and still others that have dried up leaves waiting to fall.
It’s surprising but true, that when we want to make a change in our lives, it’s a similar process. We can’t flip a switch and change ourselves all at once. Most of us have days where we feel we’re making progress, and then we might have a few days where we feel we’re taking steps back. New habits do not emerge all at once. Often, they come and go.
In the mental health field, there is a model for this: the Transtheoretical Model of Change. In it, change is described as a dynamic, nonlinear process with several stages. Rather than being a binary, or a switch that gets flipped, this model conceptualizes change as something cyclical. Meaning, change is made up of a series of actions, over and over again, sometimes forwards, and sometimes backwards, but it all adds up to progress!
The most interesting thing about the Transtheoretical Model of Change for me is that you can enter and exit the cycle at any time. You can skip to the end or return to the beginning. You could be 30 days away from making a change, then return to not thinking about it at all. And that’s a perfectly normal way to implement change in your life.
However, this understanding of change and growth being a naturally back-and-forth process isn’t popular knowledge. Culturally, we value fresh starts: we talk about “a blank slate,” or “turning over a new leaf.” But really, we take all of us with us into every new venture, all of our messiness, and all of our imperfections. And change often comes as a series of small changes, rather than a complete overhaul. This is incremental change, rather than transformational change.
Are you wondering how to put this into practice in your own life? Here are a few suggestions for embracing nonlinear change:
Consider your self-talk. Oftentimes, we are much kinder to others than we are to ourselves. When you’re feeling frustrated or down on yourself for not changing as rapidly, as intensely, or as consistently as you would like, choose kindness. You can say things to yourself like, “I am moving at the right pace for me,” or, “Change takes time.”
Keep a journal of wins. When we have a bad day, it can feel like the good days are a million miles away, or just plain nonexistent. Consider taking the time to jot down your wins when you experience them: what felt good, what you’re proud of, and how you felt. This can help you keep track of your journey and feel connected to your good days even when you feel like you’re facing a setback.
Find common ground. Whatever the change you’re trying to make is (doing “the work” in therapy, changing your self-care habits, or getting out of your comfort zone), it can help to share it with other people who are on their own nonlinear journey. Often, we compare our path to what we imagine other people are doing, and our imagination can sometimes tell us that other people are doing it “perfectly.” The reality is, most people change incrementally rather than all at once. Finding relevant threads about personal experiences on Reddit, or reading mental health experts’ take on your chosen subject at PsychologyToday or VeryWell Health, might help you put your own journey into perspective.
We are always changing and developing, even if we’re not doing it consciously. The average age of a cell in a body is 7 to 10 years. You are constantly reinventing yourself, even if you don’t know it. Try to trust the process, do your best, and be kind to yourself.
As always, if you’re feeling stuck or having trouble finding any kindness for yourself and your growth process, accessing support from a professional therapist could help. We are always here, ready to witness your growth, remind you of your wins, and cheer you on as you move forward on your chosen path, at your own pace.