It is essential to determine your progress through observable behaviors and not on how you are feeling because feelings are finicky. Feelings come and go. They change from moment to moment based on what is happening at that moment. Feelings give us information for the moment but not for the long term. We can feel that we are better without anything changing in our lives. We can also feel horrible and be doing better. Isn’t that something? How is that even possible?
When we are trying to change deeply embedded behaviors, it is hard work. While we are doing the work, we can feel bad and be making great strides towards improving the behavior. Often people do not realize how much they have changed until someone reminds them of where they once were. I like to think of change as a tightly wound staircase. As we go up the stairs, we are going around and touching the problems we are dealing with again and again. At the time, we do not realize that we are making progress until we look down and see how far we have come.
Here’s an example of why we believe it is more beneficial to focus on getting better rather than feeling better.
Darlene,* a young woman in her twenties, was overwhelmed with anxiety about her new job. Each morning she struggled with getting out of bed. Her heart beat so fast at times she thought she might pass out. She began therapy to reduce her anxiety. She discovered that she felt calm when petting and grooming the horses, so each session she engaged in this activity. When she was with the horses, she felt calm and when she was out living her life she was overwhelmed with so much anxiety that she was unable to perform at work or to experience any joy in her life.
Darlene’s therapy team challenged Darlene’s insistence on spending her sessions grooming the horses because she was not learning any new skills to reduce or cope with her anxiety. Darlene said that she did not want to give up the hour of calm she felt when she was with the horses despite the negative impact anxiety was having on her life. She focused on how good she felt in that hour. Week after week Darlene’s anxiety grew. Eventually, the horses did not want her to be near them. This caused tremendous hurt for Darlene who cherished her time with them. It also provided Darlene with information on how her anxiety was hurting her relationships. This was a tough message for Darlene to hear. She decided she wanted to quit therapy. Darlene’s therapy team was able to validate her pain and to support her in looking at the underlying issues contributing to her anxiety so that she could have better relationships with the horses.
As she worked on this, she decided to quit her job and find a new one. At first, this change produced positive results. Darlene felt less anxious at her new job. She decided that her anxiety stemmed from her previous job and again thought about quitting therapy. But shortly after starting the new job, her anxiety returned, and it was worse than ever! Darlene decided to use her time and energy to learn how to calm her body. As she learned how to calm her body, the horses wanted to be near her. The better she became at calming her body, the longer the horses stayed. Darlene began exploring the beliefs underlying her anxiety and challenging and changing them. She felt awful at times. However, Darlene started using the skills she was learning with her therapy team. She was able to keep her new job and to thrive in her position despite having times of feeling awful. She was able to maintain relationships in her personal life and to manage her anxiety in public settings successfully. Darlene learned that feeling better wasn’t the goal because it was fleeting if it wasn’t a result of the changes she made in her coping. Doing better was the goal, and by doing better, her life was better.
It is hard not to judge progress or the quality of your life by how you are feeling in the moment. Feelings are after all important in our lives because they provide us with information on how something is impacting us. But feelings are temporary. When we judge progress by observable changes, we are able to know what changed and not wonder or guess or be persuaded by what we feel in the moment.
*client composite, not an actual client