Managing the Messy Middle

Setting on a path to make a change in your life can be exciting and fill you with hope. In fact, there’s some evidence out there that resolving to make a change in your life actually gives you a boost of hope and confidence and this boost may last into the first couple weeks of making a change (McGonigal 2012). Many times, coming to therapy can feel like this. It’s exciting to start something new. However, change, especially in the context of therapy, is not always linear. 

Brene Brown calls this “the messy middle.” Any creatives or entrepreneurs know that the messy middle looks like. If you’ve ever watched a Disney movie, you also know what the messy middle looks like. In Brene’s book “Rising Strong,” she talks about the typical Disney story arc where the main character is called to adventure and accepts it in the first act. In the second act, the character faces a problem and tries every easy and comfortable way of solving the problem. Eventually, the character realizes that they have to face their fear to solve the problem. This second act is the messy middle.

In real life, you may face the messy middle in many situations, both big and small. I have a messy middle moment every time I start a knitting project. Somewhere in the middle of the project, I make a mistake that unravels a couple of rows or I lose count and mess up my pattern. I’m faced with the messy middle of figuring out how to get my project back on track to complete it.

In therapy, sometimes the messy middle looks like having new insights but not knowing how to translate them into new actions (or reactions). Other times, it may happen in the midst of trauma reprocessing. You may have worked really hard to challenge some of the beliefs tied to past experiences and yet those negative beliefs about yourself still feel true. Or perhaps, you have been doing really well and then you are faced with a huge trigger that overwhelms your ability to cope. This is the messy middle. This is the part where it gets hard to hold out hope that things will change.

So what can you do to make this messy middle more manageable?

1.       Acknowledge that you are facing a struggle that many other people are facing at the exact same moment.

Researchers Polivy and Herman (2002) argue that people give up in the midst of making a change because they underestimate the time it will take, the amount of effort it will take, and the consequences of the attempts to change. I share this information not paint a hopeless picture but acknowledge the common humanity aspect of change. We all struggle. You are not alone in facing the messy middle. Many people are struggling just as you are.

2.       Give yourself a bit of compassion for facing the messy middle.

Change is not linear. Setbacks happen to all of us. However, it is up to you to decide how you want to react to the setback (if you want to call it that) and how you choose to persevere. You can shame and blame yourself into preserving or you give yourself some compassion and acknowledge how difficult it is to preserve when things get difficult.

3.       Know that the messy middle is Act Two and that there’s an Act Three that you get to define.

There is hope. The messy middle doesn’t last forever, and there is an ending to the middle that leads to resolution. Judith Herman describes trauma therapy in three phases: safety, remembrance and mourning, and reconnection. Remembrance and mourning is Act Two. Reconnection is Act Three. Next week, we will talk more about what can happen in Act Three.

Ready to get started? Call or email me to schedule your first appointment.