Healthy is Messy, Despite What Certain Self Help Gurus May Try to Sell You

Healthy is messy. I’ve been to seven therapists, struggled with and overcame an eating disorder, and dipped in and out of substance abuse for years. I’ve been in emotionally abusive and codependent relationships up the wazoo, and struggled with PTSD and depression. Am I fully healed? No. Have I come out the other side, years later, feeling like a new woman, having shed a majority of my baggage? You betcha’.

Take it from me, healthy is messy.

Whether you’re unpacking old beliefs in therapy, digging up family wounds, or even making healthier choices in your eating habits and lifestyle, healthy is messy.

Watch Out for Promises that Sound Too Good to be True

Anyone who tries to tell you you can heal overnight, or that your suffering can be wiped away for the low price of $99 a month, or that they never have down days, or off days, or occasional slips into unhealthy coping mechanisms is lying.

Don’t get me wrong. I love self-help and personal development, and I accredit many books from the genre to my healing (which is and always will be a work in progress.)

I am vary wary, however, about the kind of self help that promises you’ll never feel bad, or that you can (or should, for that matter) be happy all the time. Happiness comes in waves, like everything else.

If you’re really doing the work, it gets messy. It is dark at times. Making the decision to radically change your life doesn’t mean you wake up one day and all your burdens are wiped away forever. Life is cyclical and new problems arise all the time in between periods of peace or even boredom.

If you want to radically change your life, it’s time to roll up your sleeves, get uncomfortable, and get messy. It’s not always going to be fun, but there will be some bright spots, and it will ultimately be worth it.

Healthy isn’t perfect. You don’t just go from emotionally unavailable to emotionally available in one therapy session. You don’t eat salads and work out every day for the rest of your life after being a lifetime smoker and coach potato. You need repetition to build new habits, and often there will be a lot of falling down and getting back up. It’s not always pretty.

Any time we seek to radically change our lives or ourselves, it’s going to be a messy process. That’s a good thing. Here’s why:

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Dragos Gontariu/ Unsplash

We Don’t Grow in Perfection, We Grow in the Struggle

We may enjoy when we can do something perfectly with minimal effort, but the real growth takes place during the ugly parts. We grow in struggle and in pain.

This isn’t to romanticize pain, but instead to see it as a portal, and a necessary step we need to endure to get to the next chapter.

This is also not to say that happy or “easy” moments can’t teach us more about ourselves and what lights us up, because those moments can be teachers, too.

If we allow ourselves to see pain as a teacher, our most impressive growth can occur in the moments of struggle, when it feels like we might not make it through. We can grow and learn from our pain, if we allow it to teach us.

If you think back on your life, when do you feel like you went through the biggest transformation? Think about what was the catalyst for that growth. I’ll bet it was something that was painful at the time.

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Jeremy Bishop/ Unsplash

It’s More Satisfying This Way

When we do things perfectly the first time, we don’t exactly learn anything new. It might feel satisfying for a moment, but long term, isn’t it more rewarding when you achieve something you’ve worked for?

When you’re learning a new skill and get it right away, you get a little jolt of satisfaction, but when you try it and flail (or fail) a few times and finally get it, you’re much more likely to squeal with delight because it is that much more satisfying. You worked for it, and there is a sense of accomplishment.

Say, for instance, you want to do ten pull-ups. If you just hopped up on a pull up bar years after never going near one, and did ten perfect pull ups, it wouldn’t be as satisfying as it would if you got yourself from zero to ten with training, sweat, discipline, slow progress, and some discomfort.

That day you reached ten after some work, in comparison, would feel victorious.

It feels good to work for and wait for something, even if it denies our desire for instant gratification. It’s worth it to get uncomfortable for health — whether that’s emotional health, physical health, or mental health.

Life is Complex

Instagram and social media and irresponsible self help gurus can trick us into thinking that there is this perfect life, where you never have an angry thought, you always communicate gently with your partner, your family is full of well-adjusted individuals, and your kitchen always looks like a still life from Home and Garden Magazine. This is a brilliant marketing tactic, but it can warp our view of reality if we don’t see it for what it is — a marketing tactic.

The perfect life doesn’t exist. Life is not always easy, clean, photoshoot-ready and certainly not always a straight shot. There are detours, inclement weather situations, construction, wrecks, and aggressive drivers. There is unhealed trauma, tears, and words we never meant to say out loud.

Throw away the idea that your path to healthy- whether it is financial, physical, mental, or relational, is going to be a straight ascent on a graph.

There’s going to be a few plateaus and dips, and you’re going to grow in those times.

Life is never black or white, good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. Our bodies, minds, and our world, are far too complex and too full of things we can’t explain.

Lean into the weirdness, the messiness, and the grey area of life. Get used to it.

Embrace the “Both/And”

One of my favorite relationship experts, a professor and psychologist, Dr. Alexandra Solomon, talks about embracing the “both/and” aspect of life and relationships. The both/and perspective teaches us that we can love someone and be frustrated by their behavior. We can feel both passionate about our work and at times like an impostor.

We can both be making progress towards healing and backsliding and making mistakes from time to time. We can quit drinking and slip up and start over.

Healthy is messy. We’re imperfect humans and we can’t expect to get it right or do it perfectly all the time.

Keeping it Real is Healthy

If we only talk about the things going well, we deny others access to our truth. I’m not saying you have to share your struggles with the world, but it can help to be validated by those close to us, and to know that we’re not the only ones with imperfect, messy, human lives.

Let’s keep it real with each other, and remember to see the perfect life for what it is — a great advertising technique and something that doesn’t really exist. We can acknowledge the messiness of real life, and find satisfaction in the fact that healthy IS messy, and we’re not damaged or wrong for experiencing it. In fact, we’re probably perfectly healthy.

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