I go to an exercise class several days a week. I recently convinced a friend of mine, Marta, to go with me.  The classes are, to put it mildly, quite difficult. The instructors call out your name with both correction and encouragement—pushing, pushing, and pushing you to work harder.  Just when you feel like you cannot take it another moment, you hear “stay in the shaking, this is where your body changes.”  Sounds like fun, right?  Marta is a funny person, and she has always been able to make me laugh, but to hear her imitate our instructors—and her internal response to their comments—brings out a long, deep, belly laugh, making my face hurt.  Yesterday, she said, “Why does changing your body have to hurt so much?”

Why indeed?  And does it sometimes seem as though change, any sort of significant, lasting change, comes out of pain? Suffering even?  Just think for a moment about all the metaphors for change in the English language: “labor pains,” “growing pains,” “no pain no gain,” “it’s going to be a bumpy ride,” “we’re not in Kansas anymore,” just to name a few. Each implies that things are, or will be, different, and that it will not be easy.

Change does not come easily.  I think about the hard work of therapy.  I think about how I sit with a client as he or she does the hard work of change and I realize I am not much different than my exercise instructors.  I gently encourage each of my clients to move toward change, move toward what is difficult, even painful, so that he or she can experience a change—the kind of change that will alleviate depression or anxiety—the kind of change that will enable new choices, changed relationships, changed self-perception, a changed life.

But there is another side to the story.  Even in the midst of painful change, there can be joy.  The joy that comes after labor pains when a baby is born, when a marriage moves from the brink of divorce to a deeper emotional intimacy, when a man or a women begins living life from a place of hope, relational connection and a greater sense of self-esteem.

So maybe the lesson to be learned is not whether or not to avoid change, but how to enter into the process of change.  I would suggest not trying to go it alone; find a friend or a good counselor to walk the journey with you.  Look for evidence of incremental change along the way because, in general, change happens slowly—think baby steps rather than giant leaps.  Notice the moments of joy in the midst of the pain—they are there if we look for them and can go a long way towards easing our suffering.  Also keep your eye on the goal, the reasons you wanted change in the first place.

So yes, it would seem change of any kind does require some painful choices, difficult physical and emotional experiences, and challenging decisions.  Maybe the best advice resembles what I hear my exercise instructors saying, “Stay in it” because this is where the change happens, and the change will be for good.

~ Cathy O’Neal


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