At a recent meeting to discuss a city improvement project affecting our neighborhood, I had the opportunity to request the planting of a new tree on the parking area in front of my home. I was thrilled when my request was granted, and began to envision what my new tree would look like, and how it would enhance the aesthetics and comfort of my property. I think trees are really beautiful.
It was only a few days later that I noticed an ugly web of multi-colored flags and stripes crisscrossing the yard and sidewalk in front of my home (evidence of a call to the Digger’s Hotline). Ick! Not beautiful at all. In fact, quite ugly and messy (and regular readers of this blog will know how I much hate messiness, particularly a messiness of this sort.
So, I hadn’t quite thought this thing through. I had forgotten that in order to plant a new tree in the area in question, not only would the planter have to eventually dig a hole for this tree (duh!), but also someone would first have to dig up the stump of an old maple tree that currently occupied the space. So things were clearly going to get worse before they got better. I continued to dream of my new tree, but with a more guarded enthusiasm.
Now, I was not a fan of this stump and was happy to see it go. Left behind when the city removed the old tree, I felt it was an unsightly remnant that marred an otherwise clean and green lawn. My sister-in-law disagreed with me vehemently on this point. “But it’s the Giving Tree!” she exclaimed one day, referring to the main character of the Shel Silverstein book of the same name, a selfless tree who gives and gives of himself until he is just a stump. This was actually a very sweet reframe, and the memory of it now was a bit poignant as I waited impatiently for the stump’s demise.
The wheels of city improvements grind slowly, so the ugly flags and stripes stuck around for quite a while. So long, in fact, that the 5-year-old twins next door decided to relocate the flags to their front yard in order to incorporate them into an impromptu war game. Concerned the stump removers would inadvertently blow something up (like maybe my house) without the information these flags imparted, I stole them back. My young neighbors did the same, and then it was my turn again, and thus we engaged in a clandestine game of Capture the Flag, with the boys repeatedly absconding with the flags for their creative purposes and me fetching them back to my yard for my beautification ones.
Finally (and, fortunately, at a time when the flags were safely in their assigned spots), a large arborist truck pulled up in front of my home and began the work of removing the stump. For those of you who’ve never lived through this experience, it is not a pleasant one. It consists of a half-day of bulky machinery, unbearable noise, teeth-chattering vibrations and a cascade of flying debris. And when it’s all over, when the trucks have all gone and the sawdust has mostly cleared, the stump is still well . . . there . . . but just mulched up into a lot of little pieces in a big hole. Still not very pretty. Hmmmm . . . I was beginning to regret initiating this whole project.
Funny. In my experience, this is what it’s like to enter therapy. We want to change, to grow, to experience improvement and renewal, and so we enter the experience with enthusiasm and thoughts of a better life. But when the therapeutic process first gets a little messy, as it so often does, we sometimes regret initiating the self-improvement project.
There are, of course, numerous benefits associated with psychotherapy. It offers us the opportunity to talk about issues in a confidential, supportive environment, and this experience can lead to new levels of self-awareness and self-acceptance, improved relationships and enhanced coping skills. Depression may lift. Feelings of anger, anxiety, guilt or loneliness may subside. The process really does offer the potential for great growth and change.
But engagement in psychotherapy can also sometimes lead to the emergence of unpleasant feelings or upsetting memories, so we may feel worse before we feel better. We may also experience real distress caused by decisions we make as a result of our participation in the process, distress that can bother us in multiple areas of our life, like at work or in school, or in important relationships. And let’s face it. Our tendency as human beings is often to avoid discomfort, even within a change process we choose to undertake.
So. How do we push through?
I think the idea of reframing, thinking about something in a different way in order to change our perception of it, is key here. We don’t have to look far for great examples of this process at work. My sister-in-law gave an unsightly old stump new life as the self-sacrificing hero of one of my favorite children’s stories. My young neighbors took unsightly construction materials, called them war banners, and built a game around them. Brilliant, really. And all of us can use this idea of reframing to help us through the hard, ugly parts of change. Because with a reframe, every stage along the way, no matter how difficult, can be seen not only as an important step in our journey toward growth and renewal, but also as an honorable and meaningful entity in its own right.
So newly expressed anger can become the impetus for much-needed change, profound emptiness felt during a significant loss can serve as fertile ground for new growth, and increased confusion can lead to a willingness to be open to new ideas and interpretations. Like that.
As I near the end of this post, there are still multi-colored painted lines and a large, mulch-filled hole in my parking area. And I’m still waiting for my tree. But I no longer regret starting this project. As I have previously observed, change is not easy, and you don’t arrive at transformation, renewal and healing without making your way through some discomfort, upheaval and mess first.
In the end, every step of the change process, perhaps most especially the inevitable ugly one, offers us a chance to see things in a new light, a light that can illuminate our next step more clearly. Moreover, any success we achieve at the end of the process turns out to be all the sweeter when we’ve gotten a little messy along the way. And, sometimes, like when an old stump reminds us of a childhood hero, or when bits of wire and colored plastic give us a window into the magical world of a five-year-old, we even miss the messy steps just a bit.