What’s remarkable when you look back across the years is you see with more clarity that true change takes time.
True, sustainable change takes longer than we’d like to think. From personal experience, it’s occurred across years. As someone who both fears yet desires change, it’s been a scary and enlightening process for me. I’ve learned the greatest lessons looking back over the last eight years, especially with the emphasis on inner work and therapy in the past three years. And as I continue on my path, I know my learning will only continue.
What I’ve learned at this point is: if it’s sustainable change we want, change that becomes embodied as who we are, it takes time. It takes self-compassion and balanced action. True change requires patience. These are not what I would consider strengths for many of us in the fast-paced, tech-dependent society we live in today. Patience was certainly not my strength in past years, and it’s something I’m continuously working on. If we uncover what’s underneath the adage of time and patience (something we’ve all heard before), we can understand true change at a deeper level. Let’s begin with how the very aspect of wanting change can keep us stuck.
The Improvement Trap
With much of our world designed around instant gratification and convenience, we can easily forget that any significant change takes time. Many of us have a tendency to be impatient with ourselves. We worry about any perceived lack of progress over the days, weeks, and months, rather than viewing our progress more realistically over the years. I’ve been there myself — constantly looking at the next milestone and always feeling like I was “behind” compared to where I’d like to be.
While there are benefits to the desire to improve, this energy can express unhealthily into always feeling like we’re not enough. That we’re not doing enough, that we’re not enough as we are, and so we’d better work harder and faster.
Looking back, I spent so many years striving towards a nebulous goal of “getting there.” I thought that when I finally got “there,” then I would finally feel happy and satisfied. First, it was a reputable career track. Next, it was buying a house. Then, it was finding a different, more fulfilling career. Then, it was incorporating healthier habits. The milestone then changed into making a certain income amount from self-employment. Wherever I was, the “getting there” seemed just out of reach. This type of magical thinking keeps us stuck in the improvement trap — inevitably leading to burnout and disappointment. I didn’t know back then that approaching change from this perspective of lack would never give me what I was seeking. Little did I know that this way of operating would ensure the “there” would always be out of reach.
What happens is, because we never feel like we’re enough, we constantly strive to be and to do more. Our impatience with ourselves contributes to the underlying feeling of not-enoughness and the constant feeling that we need to do better. It’s a never-ending cycle of dissatisfaction leading to disappointment and exhaustion. So many of us aren’t even aware we’re in the improvement trap. While it has similarities to what’s referred to as the rat race, the improvement trap can be more subtle and include things beyond money and status. With all the messaging we receive from social media and other outlets on being and doing more, it can be hard to escape improvement trap thinking.
I sometimes still feel frustrated when things take longer than anticipated. At times, I will feel impatient with myself when I get tired, need a break, or experience deep emotions. These are things that I’ve considered as my limitations in the past, but they are the old unproductive patterns. While I still feel the old patterns, what’s improved is that I’m more aware of the tendency and how to manage them when they come up.
Why True Change Takes Time
True change comes from a delicate, personal balance that can be tricky. It requires self-compassion for where you are right now. The second part of the balance is taking proactive, dedicated, and sustainable action towards the change you want. A sustainable action is something small that can be done with ease. An action that is focused on showing up for the process rather than solely for the results.
For the longest time, self-compassion seemed like an alien, imaginary, and unnecessary concept. It seemed like something that would be nice, but I could do without it with enough hard work and persistence. This was reflective of how I was raised, and so it was all I knew. The way I was raised was based on fear of punishment for mistakes or for not working hard enough. This was a negative pattern that I continued into my adult life.
Furthermore, I had a tendency to be overly ambitious with my expectations of myself. I would often go too hard, too fast, only to burn myself out after a period of time. There was another side: a part of me that avoided and procrastinated on the things I told myself I wanted. These were things I thought I wanted — from feeling the need to prove myself, to be productive and to be enough. I felt guilty when I procrastinated and used it as rationale for why I needed and deserved the criticism and pressure. Now that I understand it better, this was self-sabotage in the form of misguided self-protection. It was a perpetual, self-fulfilling cycle of a lack of self-trust and disconnection to self that lead to even more self-doubt.
The younger me thought I could force and criticize myself into changes on my ambitious timeline. I tried so hard, but any changes made in this way were never lasting. True change starts with self-compassion and with small steps—smaller steps than your inner critic would like. That’s why true change takes time.
The Power Of Small Steps
The greatest pyramids in the world were built block by block. When you compare one block to the whole pyramid (made of an estimated number of over two million blocks), that one block seems extremely insignificant. But in fact, each block is essential to how the pyramid got built in the first place. This example illustrates our biased thinking when it comes to a big change we want compared to the small steps that build to the desired change.
Sometimes, the steps are so small that we think it’s not even worth doing. We think, “How is this ever going to add up to anything of significance?” And so we don’t do it; we don’t start. We tell ourselves that when we have more time (or insert this or that), then we will be able to make the big push towards change. And when we do start, we get overly ambitious and stumble when we inevitably encounter obstacles. We then think we’ve failed when we burn out or experience bad days or weeks.
I get it, I really do. I’ve done it time and time again: feeling like it’s not enough, then going too big, too fast, and burning out—even when I knew better.
We forget there is big power in how small the steps are. The key is to start with so small of a step that you’re able to do it. Pause, rest if needed, and then another small step. This way, you have a greater chance of starting and continually taking action towards the change you want. It’s simple, but not necessarily easy. It’s often the simplest of concepts that are the hardest to internalize.
Difficulty With Self-Compassion
A major obstacle in my process was I didn’t know how to apply the concept of compassion to myself. Learning about self-compassion was only the first step of awareness. When I first read about the concept, it seemed simple but out of reach. While self-compassion seemed wonderful, there was a part of me that scoffed at it. I knew I needed to start from a feeling that I was enough just as I was, but it seemed impossible to shake the feeling of not wanting to be where I was. It was a confusing, conflicting, and frustrating dilemma.
Ironically, where I was in that frustration and confusion was exactly where I needed to start. It’s a doozy. If you’re struggling with how to apply self-compassion, my suggestion is to not think too hard about it. Simply be as kind and encouraging as you are able to be to yourself throughout the day, while having compassion for the times when you catch yourself being self-critical.
It will take time, but as you continue to do the work, there will be changes. I’m not even sure exactly how and when self-compassion became more integrated in how I approach my life. But it happened gradually, in small ways that were barely perceptible week to week. There were also days when I seemingly took steps backwards, but looking back, that was just part of the process.
With continued focus on compassion and sustainable action, the shift happened over time. Change isn’t a linear process; it’s a messy path that includes stops, restarts, and deviations.
On Stops, Restarts, And Deviations
I see the messy stops and restarts reflected in how I’ve taken a long break from writing on this site. The last published blog post was about three years ago. I’ve judged myself for the gap until earlier this year, when I came to a level of acceptance about it.
Interestingly, the last article was about self-care. In retrospect, I was preparing the groundwork of what I needed for the upcoming work on self-compassion and balanced action. But I digress. From an outside perspective, one might’ve reasonably assumed that I had given up or abandoned the effort of writing on this blog. Certainly, there were days when I wasn’t sure what I would do with Uncoveries going forward. However, what was clear to me at the time, was that I needed to take a break for a while. What I didn’t know was that the break would end up being a few years.
One of the quintessential representations of transformation is the caterpillar retreating into its cocoon in order to transform into a butterfly. I’ve often felt this feeling of wanting to retreat and cocoon when a major transformation is in process. While I don’t think breaks are always necessary, what I know is because true change takes time, it’s understandable for breaks to be a part of the process.
Sometimes, we need to stop what we’re doing so that we can integrate updates to our status quo. Taking a break allows us to come back to something with a new perspective. When I read my past articles about the sabbatical I took and reflections on change, I will sometimes chuckle at the naivety and conviction that I had. It doesn’t mean there wasn’t wisdom in what I knew at the time; there was. But looking back, I see how I’ve grown in more holistic understanding throughout the years. Naivety and any mistakes made are simply part of the human process, after all. I can only hope that gentle amusement of my past work will continue as I continuously evolve, as it would be evidence of my continued growth.
Look Back Across The Years
When I look back across multiple years, I see the biggest changes in my life. I’m very different from who I was three years ago. The difference is even greater eight years ago—mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I’ve worked hard, especially with my focus on therapy and inner work starting in early 2020.
Really, the majority of us can resonate with having changed a lot from the past couple of years. Since 2020, we have collectively gone through major changes and events. The pandemic, longstanding issues of social inequity and injustice, significant economic impacts, supply chain shortages, tense political landscape—it’s been an intense time. While many of us have experienced challenges, some more than others, we have all grown from the experience. I use this example to illustrate that we are all capable of change, and we can see it more easily when we look back over a longer period of time.
There are two ways to look back, and many of us do so unproductively. I used to look back in this way: replaying past situations that didn’t go well and recalling mostly the bad. That’s not what I mean when I say to look back across the years. The benefit of looking back across the years is through compassion and understanding. Not with blind positivity, dismissal, or avoidance of what we could’ve handled better, but with a compassionate perspective of how things impacted us, what we’ve learned, and how we’ve grown.
We give ourselves a greater opportunity to change when we take the time to look back across the years compassionately. When we look back in this way, it’s easier to see the changes that have happened within us. The longer the period of time we look back, the more learnings and changes we’ll see. We see more clearly that we are immensely capable and adaptable. That we can make big changes that are sustainable, but that true change takes time. And maybe, we will also see learnings that we’d like to make going forward. Doing this encourages and reminds us to keep showing up for the things we want—even when there are stops, restarts, and deviations.
What Is Inside Is Outside
During my healing process, I came across the saying that what is on the inside ultimately gets reflected on the outside. When I first heard about this concept, I didn’t really understand it. Even though I felt like my life was hectic and overwhelming, I attributed the reasons as being out of my control. It was either because of work, this deadline, my husband’s schedule, obligations, travel plans, or whatever the current circumstances were.
What I’ve come to understand is this: when our internal state is chaotic, we will inevitably see chaos reflected on the outside. It can show up through over-committing, over-scheduling, miscommunications, or misunderstandings. Often, we experience greater stress, emotional outbursts, limiting beliefs, distractions, and coping behaviors. There can be dysfunctional energy patterns and invalidating behaviors—within and done to yourself, or done to others.
While a person’s life may appear picture perfect, appearance of being (on social media or with the public face we put on) is not the same as being. When the spotlight is off in our private lives, what’s really going on? What truly matters is if our energies are in alignment. What’s inside ultimately gets reflected on the outside in the unfiltered day-to-day that plays out in between the curated posts and stories.
As my internal turmoil (what I thought was my natural state) has calmed, I am starting to see the changes reflected externally in my life and environment. These days, my life is much more peaceful and at ease. The comparison is striking when I compare it to how things were even one year ago. At a cursory glance, my life now would appear to be rather mundane. There’s very little travel compared to before, and I spend most days at home peacefully reading, working, writing, cooking, tidying, and other daily routines.
I expect some things to pick up as I feel more of an energy to emerge from my cocoon. But, and I think I’m not alone here, my life won’t ever go back to the busy and hectic schedule that was my normal before 2020. We’ve all changed collectively as a result of what we’ve gone through in the last couple of years to recognize a new normal that’s more aligned with a healthier pace.
Compassion And Balanced Action
Before true change is able to happen, we must first accept where we are. This is where many of us struggle. Being patient, gentle, and compassionate with ourselves in the present moment is the best way forward. Otherwise, it’s easy for the process to turn into the improvement trap of never feeling like we’re enough. We then need the power of small steps—often, smaller steps than our inner critic would like. Any step forward is still progress, just as each block contributes to the whole pyramid.
It’s worth reminding ourselves regularly that true change takes time, longer than we’d like to think. That it’s a non-linear process with all kinds of stops, restarts, and deviations. While consistent action towards a goal is a good thing, it’s okay and normal to take breaks when we need it. Sometimes taking a break is exactly what’s needed so that you can recover and restart with rejuvenation and renewed perspective. When we treat ourselves with gentleness and patience, we’re better able to navigate life while enjoying the journey. With compassion and balanced action, we give ourselves more grace and space for true change to happen.