Seems like we’ve been hearing a lot lately about “doing the work.” This is meant to invoke personal growth and positive change and maybe even healing from whatever traumas you’ve escaped or dragon bellies from which you’ve managed to emerge. “Do the work.”
But what does it mean? Sometimes a good starting place for definitions is to look at what something doesn’t mean. Here are some cheap imitations of what “doing the work” might look like:
- It might look like hardening up, collecting memes and quotes about being a bad a** and demanding respect.
- It might be sharing articles with titles like “Ten Red Flags You’re in a Toxic Relationship” and thinking yourself informed.
- It might be using psychobabble in a just effective enough way to sound reasonable. (This will probably include the popular (mis)use of words like narcissist, OCD, PTSD, bipolar and “toxic” for everything a person just might not happen to like.)
- It might be surrounding yourself with cheerleaders who tell you how amazing and brave you are and cutting people out of your life who challenge your narrative, then calling it “boundaries”.
Those are all forgeries of what “doing the work” actually is.
Doing the work isn’t just knowing the red flags of a relationship. Anybody can Google up some information about mental health. But knowledge isn’t change. Doing the work is about testing your thinking and modifying your behavior to protect and respect yourself and others, in order to live authentically in this world.
Doing the work isn’t just passively waiting for the healing season to begin and end. Honestly, time does NOT heal all things. Some wounds need prescription strength antibiotics!
Doing the work means getting professional help—the right kind. Not from someone who is happy to earn a paycheck just by co-signing on the nonsense you’re tempted to spew. Not your friend who took a life coaching class online “that one time.” Get serious. When I was searching for my own therapist, I interviewed a few before finding the right fit. I didn’t want someone who would pat me on the back and tell me how wonderful and insightful I was. I wanted the truth. It’s critical to have experienced and wise help in noticing our own blindspots.
Doing the work means getting your hands on excellent literature, specific to the issue you need to overcome— whether it’s codependency, addiction, abuse, manipulation, or an eating disorder— and reading about it from reputable experts, not journalists or pundits.
Doing the work means voluntarily exposing yourself to situations that are scary or hard or uncomfortable (provided they’re safe of course) because that is where the growth is. It’s reducing the intensity and frequency of trauma triggers so that they no longer master you but you master them.
Doing the work means not being afraid to challenge ourselves with honesty. It means having a relentless pursuit towards self knowledge and the integrity enough to confront our own flaws. So that when we turn a sharp corner and find ourselves in the dark, seedy parts of our hearts, we don’t run away. We don’t make excuses. No projecting, blaming, dismissing or denying the unsavory things that we find lurking there. We pause. Ask questions. Study the situation. And then pull out the damn sword to begin the conquering.
Doing the work means having an appropriate estimation of oneself. Being able to confidently name your strengths and weaknesses alike. Having genuine compassion for yourself and all that you’ve experienced, while nudging yourself onward consistently. It’s about taking responsibility for your life and owning your story. Making practical amends where possible and repairing relationships that may need it.
In short, doing the work requires humility, courage and perseverance. You won’t come out the other end feeling pain-free and drying up all the tears. Rather you’ll come out the other end with an appropriate balance of the head and the heart. You’ll still have issues, cry out in pain and otherwise live the drama of the human story; this is a lifelong process. But attaining ‘happiness’ isn’t the moral of the story here anyway (though happiness may be a byproduct of the work). No. “Happiness” by itself is far too transitory to ever make for an excellent aim. The moral of the story is meaning and growth and adaptability.
Some people may wonder if they are doing enough to battle their demons and correct their dysfunctions. Maybe you aren’t. Maybe you can do better. But know that at least. And own it. Ultimately, you will know you’re on the right track if you can live inside of this quote by M. Scott Peck: “Mental health is an ongoing commitment to reality at all costs.”
Written by: Elizabeth Rose, Licensed Mental Health Counselor Associate