By Helen Paulsen, LMSW
An interesting phenomenon occurs when someone asks us about our goals or wishes for our future. As people, we are oriented to the vision of success at the end stage of that goal. We ponder completing a marathon, earning a degree, publishing a novel, or relocating to a place that we love. We do not often warmly envision ourselves during the various steps of that goal.
The same can be said for our wellness and mental health. We do not often give ourselves credit for the small milestones on our way to being mentally well. We remember that we want to sleep better, but we forget that it’s been almost a month since our last nightmare. We recall that we want better relationships, but we do not recognize that we have had much healthier communication with our friends and colleagues for at least two weeks.
Mindfulness toward progress on our goals, each small step, helps us to maintain our successes on these goals. Let us bear in mind the goal to complete a degree. If we had to relearn our study skills for each class, we may find the task of completing the class very difficult. However, many times a new class requires adjustments in strategy— we may not always apply our study skills in the same manner to every class or individual assignment. Each time that you can navigate a separate situation, you are applying fresh wisdom to that situation. That is progress because you are synthesizing the information you have learned, which is a known indicator of deep, lifelong retention of a concept.
It is vitally important to respect the progress you make toward coping with anxiety, reducing unwanted behaviors, and overcoming responses to trauma. Through therapy, you are doing hard work, and it is essential that you acknowledge your progress. The most important part of respecting your progress is the acknowledgment that “in progress” is acceptable as a status. If we cannot accept our progress, we get trapped in a common thought distortion called “all or nothing thinking”. This means that we can either be fully well or fully sick. It diminishes the important role of progress. Finally, another great reason to respect your progress toward wellness is that acceptance of your progress defies stigma. While the stigma surrounding mental health
concerns has decreased in the last two decades, there is still a large amount of stigma and criticism toward those with mental health issues. Acceptance of people in a “person-first” or “person-centered” approach values the individual above the illness. It defies shame. Shame tells you only what is a deficit. It highlights brokenness and the areas in which you are lacking, without presenting a hope to remedy the want. Respect tells you that you have inherent value and that your experience is important. Here are a few ways to mindfully track and understand progress.
1. Keep a journal of your experiences as well as your thoughts, feelings, and questions. Review your journal often to see what connections you can find. You can also log symptoms and positive experiences in a datebook. If you have trouble remembering what happened, this is a great way to track your experiences over time in a short form.
2. Use comparison to determine how close you are to your goals. What things would you want to be different? What things are helpful as they are currently?
3. Request to complete or re-complete assessments. This can help highlight how you presented previously in contrast to how your concerns are presented more recently.
4. Be careful not to isolate a day or event as overly telling of your overall progress. Both wellness and illness are best revealed by your patterns.
5. Review your goals and current well-being with a licensed therapist to help you reach that goal. A clinical therapist will help present your progress to you in a way that honors your voice and choices in treatment.
Respect and kindness for yourself will serve you much better than shame, guilt, or ridicule. Making momentum on your goals often looks and feels different when you achieve them than how you had envisioned. The hard work of the goals you are striving to achieve is all in the “messy middle”, not at the finish line. Respect each step along the way— that is the true victory.
Helen is a licensed social worker and therapist at Perspectives Counseling Centers in the Troy office with children, adolescents, and adults.