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Growth Isn’t Always Linear: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

“If you are going through a time of discouragement, there is a time of great personal growth ahead.” ~Oswald Chambers

If I were to look back at my life thus far, as I often do, I’d notice a pattern of events and feelings resembling the activity on an EKG monitor.

For every peak, there’s been a valley. For every leap forward, there’s been a stumble backward—sometimes just an inch, and other times, what seemed like miles.

Recognizing and embracing this has brought me a tremendous amount of peace, because I once believed that progress required a steady, consistent ascent toward perfection.

If I struggled with something I’d struggled with before, I felt I’d somehow failed. If I experienced a personal or professional setback, I thought I’d done something wrong.

Growing, to me, meant always doing and feeling better than I did the day before. But I’ve realized that’s not growth; and when I believed it was, growth wasn’t what I was seeking.

I was seeking permanently better. I wanted persistent happiness—a reprieve from difficult, overwhelming feelings, and a sense that every day of my life, I was one inch closer to the ideal.

I’d say that life’s about the journey, but in the back of my head I believed it would have no purpose if not for the destination, which made it hard to truly pull my focus from it.

In this mindset, ever fixated on getting there, and deeply upset by any seeming break in momentum, I constantly felt angry with myself.

But I wasn’t supposed to be feeling angry—I’d been cultivating peace for years.

I wasn’t supposed to feel uncertain of what I wanted professionally—I’d been working on my career for years.

I wasn’t supposed to doubt myself—I’d been building my confidence for years.

All this emphasis on where I should be made it difficult to ever experience those elusive positive feelings I wanted to feel. 

Then one day, I considered that maybe this mindset was paralyzing me. I wondered if maybe I was actually hindering my growth by expecting growth to be linear.

It’s often in our struggles that we stretch and come to better understand ourselves. They’re part of the growth process—not a departure from it.

We grow when we do our best to learn from and move beyond our challenges instead of obsessing over them and making ourselves feel stuck.

This may sound simple, but for a long time, it was hard for me to wrap my head around this idea, mainly because of all the messy emotions that came up when I thought I messed up.

Isn’t growth supposed to feel good?

That’s the thing, though: Just like a muscle needs to tear to grow stronger, sometimes we need to wade into our own darkness to find a brighter light.

We don’t need to worry that every setback indicates something’s wrong. So long as we’re making progress on the whole, we can trust we’re doing just fine.

We will all make mistakes in life. We all go through phases when we need to relearn lessons we’ve already learned, and that can be frustrating when we’re in that moment, feeling regret, remorse, or impatience.

But if we looked back on our lives, despite the peaks and valleys, we’d recognize how far we’ve come. We’d see we’ve learned and grown, as we do every moment of every day.

We’d see we’re not the same people we were before, and know we won’t be the same tomorrow.

Still, while we’re always becoming, we can’t ever experience happiness if we’re fixated on who we could or should be. We can only experience happiness by being who we are, because it’s only available right now.

We may never attain the ideal, but maybe that’s okay. Maybe our purpose isn’t just to grow—maybe it’s also about growing to love our perfectly imperfect selves.

Avatar of Lori Deschene

About Lori Deschene

Tiny Buddha Founder Lori Deschene is the author of the Tiny Wisdom eBook seriesTiny Buddha's Guide to Loving Yourself, and Tiny Buddha: Simple Wisdom for Life's Hard Questions. She's also co-founder of Recreate Your Life Story, an eCourse that helps you change your life. For inspiring posts and wisdom quotes, follow on Twitter & Facebook.

Announcement: Wish you could change your past? Learn to let go and create a life you love with the Tiny Buddha course!
  • Carmelo Bryan

    Yes! Great conclusion, Lori. If we can love our imperfect selves, what could there be in the world that we can’t learn to love?

    We so badly want to improve, right? What if we just observed instead? What if we dropped literally all judgment? What if we simply allowed and realized that absolutely everything is already perfect?

    My guess is that we’ll make far more “progress” (if we want to call it that) simply by being incredibly aware of ourselves (self-knowledge without judgment) than any effort we put into improving or striving for a more spiritual or enlightened existence.

    Love the way your presentation brought us through all those things we think and strive for to the fact that we’re already there. So, relax, enjoy, be happy.

  • Irving Podolsky

    “…maybe it’s also about growing to love our perfectly imperfect selves.”

    Your last statement is the crux of the issue – can we be happy while beating ourselves up for failing? Because, if you’re anything like me, you’re still the observer of your own life, scoring yourself day by day. I think we all do it, but some people are less judgmental about themselves. They don’t devalue themselves when they don’t hit their marks. Some even blame others for their own failures or refuse to take responsibility for major mess-ups.

    That’s the downside. The way you wrote about coping with failure is the upside.

    But let’s be real about this. All society, starting with our parents and teachers, have tried to shape us by inflicting shame when we do something that doesn’t conform to our master’s wishes. We’re told we are bad boys and girls. We didn’t behave. Or worse, we’re not good enough. Try harder!

    But that’s life isn’t? Aren’t we all competing with each other to be the best? Aren’t we competing with OURSELVES to be the best?

    Well, some of us don’t. We drop out. We rebel. We deliberately break the rules as if to say, I deserve to be loved no matter how “bad” a girl I am! And if you don’t love me the way I am, (because I’m confused about the rules and they’re making me something I’m not) then I divorce myself from you. I will no longer allow you to judge me and tell me I’m not good enough!

    THAT we can do, and we all have.

    But how do you divorce yourself from YOURSELF? How do you fire your own observing judge, or at least shape her?

    That’s what your post is about, isn’t it – how to be kind to ourselves when we’ve been trained not to be.

    It’s a tough struggle, at least for me.

    As always, thanks for sharing your battles.

    Irv

  • Craig Ruvere

    This was wonderful. So many times we look back on our lives as a sea of failures rather than a continued evolution. As long as we learn something from the past (good or bad) nothing is a failure.

    Someday soon I hope we all can put less pressure on our selves to accept who we are in the present, rather than continually judging ourselves on where we think we should be in life.

    Thank you for reminding me of that today.

  • Irving Podolsky

    This is so odd. I just spent left a heartfelt comment and posted it and then it disappeared! So I left this one as a test.

    Irv

  • Devon

    This is exactly what I needed to read today. The comments below as well. Thank you so much!

  • alison

    This was a perfect message for me to think about. I’ve had my ladder against the wrong wall all along! What a relief to read this. Al

  • http://optimalternative.com/ Mark B Hoover

    One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. ~ Nietzsche

  • http://optimalternative.com/ Mark B Hoover

    I spent all yesterday in a sadfest, trying to sleep as much as I could. I suppose we all have to go through these times, no matter what we believe is our fair share of abuse. I used to try to fight it, feeling that giving in was counter to the way I *should* be handling it. Not so true any more. The quickest way through something is, well, through it. Experience it, taste it, feel it, be it for a while.

    “When faced with a challenge, look for a way, not a way out. – David Weatherford.”

    Sometimes we’re so obsessed with getting it right that we fail to see the learning experience we gain from having it all wrong…at least for the nonce. Fighting feelings amounts to Band Aid fixes, the long way around and frequent dismissals of what really vexes us. Acknowledging that “…pattern of events and feelings resembling the activity on an EKG monitor” is the integration of our shadows as well as the ever-desirable light. In other words, half of our path be it linear or not.

    “Be careful when you cast out your demons that you don’t throw away the best of yourself. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche”

    What the hell would we learn if everything went our way? Without a hitch?

    ~ Mark

  • lv2terp

    Okay Lori, I am forever grateful for you and Tiny Buddha!!! Thank you for this post, it is like I saw myself in the mirror once again, and I am so appreciative to have all that struggle and change of perspective written in such a concise, wise, and inspiring way. My mom and I were talking about you the other day actually, she is reading your book (Simple Wisdom…) that I lent her. She understood quickly why you resonate so well for me, and she really is enjoying your writing style, pureness, honesty, wisdom and love that you convey! :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=565595533 Andrea Lewis

    I love this post Lori. The last paragraph really struck a chord with me. Thanks!

  • Nelsi

    Thank you so much for this post Lori! You remind me to have more patience and love with myself. Love from Indonesia :)

  • Nelsi

    Thank you so much for this post Lori! You remind me to have more patience and love with myself. Love from Indonesia :)

  • Nelsi

    Thank you so much for this post Lori! You remind me to have more patience and love with myself. Love from Indonesia :)

  • The Davieses

    Just what I neede to read today. Thank you x

  • Connie

    True words of wisdom.

  • http://www.facebook.com/melvinhoyk Melvin Hoyk

    Thank you, another great article. It opens up all my blockages. :)

  • Moonlover62

    Lori – your words always seem to be on point for what is going on in my life. I always feel better and less lonely after reading your articles. “Ah, other people experience this, too.” I think to myself. I look at your picture, and read of your talents and see a beautiful and smart woman who must have the world at her feet. So regardless of what the world sees, we are all more alike than we might realize. Thank you for being there, for being a “friend”, for making me feel less alone and for continuing to give me the peace I seek (even at the ripe old age of 50!)

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Thanks Carmelo! I think you bring up a great point–about how we tend to make more progress when we stop focusing on improvement so much. Relax, enjoy, and be happy–beautiful advice. =)

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome Craig. It’s something I’ve needed to remind myself often. I know that whenever I drop the pressure and judgment, I feel free.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I’m glad this was helpful to you Alison!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    That’s a great question Mark. I love what you wrote about the only way out being through. Sometimes it feels so instinctive to fight everything uncomfortable, but if we avoid that, we can’t move beyond it. I’ve used a lot of Band Aids in my life. At times, I miss them terribly, but I know I’ve healed much more deeply as a result of wading into the discomfort.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome–and thank you! I’m honored that you lent my book to your mother, and so thrilled she’s enjoying it!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome Nelsi. Love back from California. =)

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re welcome Melvin!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    What a beautiful comment. You’re most welcome, and thank you so much! I think that same thing about other people sometimes, and I wonder if they deal with some of the same things I do. It’s reassuring to me to know we are so similar. I’m honored to be a friend, so thank you for being here. =)

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    That’s so true–about how we learn by being shamed. Our inner voices become those critical outer voices. At times, I’ve heard my inner monologue and recognized someone else in it. And then I thought, “Didn’t I fight this all growing up? Didn’t I say it was wrong? Why have I let myself become as cruel as the external voice I once tried to silence?”

    It’s a tough struggle indeed. I think about it all as a ratio. I know there was a time when I was mean to myself 100% of the time. I’m not sure what the percentage is now, but I know it’s an improvement. I think I’ve also learned to be gentle with myself for not being gentle with myself. As ironic as it might seem, there have been times when I’ve gotten down on myself for getting down on myself, and then it’s just an endless cycle.

    So if I can notice the thoughts and forgive myself, I can break out of it a little more quickly. It’s something I work at!

  • Claire

    Lori, this resonated deeply with me. It’s a year today since I broke up with my last boyfriend and even though I think I did the right thing, over the last few days I have been wondering about the what-ifs and beating myself up for not growing more as a person over the last year. Your post reminded me we are all works in progress, evolution is slow and it’s ok to have doubts.

    Your quote ‘Just like a muscle needs to tear to grow stronger, sometimes we need to wade into our own darkness to find a brighter light’ reminded me that last October I tore my hamstring really badly climbing – the recovery process made me look after myself physically when I wasn’t caring for my health, and come back to climbing with more determination and joy to be finally better. By the same token I also think plunging into the guilt and sadness over ending a relationship forced me to look more closely at myself, and learn to live alone.

    Thankyou, as ever, for writing from the heart.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome Claire. I think we’ve all been there before–questioning our growth and getting caught up in what-ifs. I know I have. I’m glad this resonated with you. =)

  • Katie

    Love this post, once again and just keep re-reading it. I like the part of what I was “supposed” to feel. I often get discouraged when I feel like I’m relearning a lesson I’ve learned, what feels like a million times-then obsessing over it. But that’s just it-growth may not always feel good but it doesn’t mean we aren’t still growing. When I look back how far I’ve come with struggles w/anxiety it is HUGE!

    Thank you so much for this community that makes me feel encouraged and not alone. It reminded me that I’m not striving for perfection. I’m already “there” by loving the imperfect journey.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome Katie! That’s awesome you’ve come a long way with anxiety. That’s been a big challenge in my life, as well. Even with yoga and meditation, sometimes anxiety is such a knee-jerk instinct. But like you, I know I’ve made great progress over the years. Thanks for taking the time to write! =)

  • Bobby

    Thank you for this perspective. This is exactly what I need right now, because I have been stuck on this point, this concept or false notion, namely: I am building a more peaceful, ‘spiritually complete’ self block by block…and nobody or nothing should be taking away my blocks. I gotta stop thinking like a block head. One thing I do grant myself is that: even though I still have these ‘lapses,’ I am able to bounce back much more quickly because of progress I have made. The negative emotions are going to come, I’m not going to eliminate them, but I am able to snap out of that compulsion to identify with the negative, that need to interpret the negative and make it into something worse than it is. Anyway, thank you! I love this blog. I read it every day.

  • http://twitter.com/HappyTreePose Emily

    Thank you Lori, beautiful words!!

    I have been in a funk for a a few weeks now, and without even realising it part of the pain was the feeling that as a yoga teacher I ‘shouldn’t’ feel like this. I ‘should’ be able to work this out on the mat and float away happy and content again.. Hahaha. If only!! Perhaps this is the lesson that I need to learn – that life isn’t always getting what we think we want, but learning what we need to learn.

    Deep breath, and on we go xx

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Thanks Emily! I know “should” guilt quite well, especially since I write about so many topics related to personal development. Whenever I get caught up in “shoulds” as it pertains to feelings, I get stuck. When I stop judging myself and my experiences, it’s so much easier to move forward.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome! “The negative emotions are going to come, I’m not going to eliminate them, but I am able to snap out of that compulsion to identify with the negative, that need to interpret the negative and make it into something worse than it is.” <~ This is what I'm working on as well. Letting go can seem so hard sometimes, and yet it always feels good to do it. Whenever I stop judging my feelings, they start to transform.

  • http://twitter.com/Grownupkidsonly Joanna Warwick

    I so agree..I would perhaps add that when we accept that we all have both a masculine and feminine nature (yin/yang) within us and learn to see that goals & dreams and forward thing/ striving/desire(masculine) have their place but the nature of growth is like all things in the world – like the ebb and flow of the tide or the windy bend of the river to the sea(feminine) we can surrender to the journey with hope for the outcome but not rigid to the process …;)

  • Paula Johnson

    “I was seeking permanently better. I wanted persistent happiness—a reprieve from difficult, overwhelming feelings, and a sense that every day of my life, I was one inch closer to the ideal.”
    I love what you write Lori, a lot of what you say could have come straight from my own heart…Persistent happiness – isn’t that what we’re all seeking?
    Seems the more I change/learn/grow the harder it all becomes and the bigger I fall. I get to the top of the mountain and say “yay, I made it, I ‘get’ it”, only to come crashing down again harder than ever. It makes the climb to the top again such a struggle…I long for “a reprieve from difficult”, I’m ‘over’ difficult. I want a holiday from my ‘lessons’…I’ve done “the only way out is through” so many times and am back there again, waiting to come out the other side…I know it will happen, I just don’t know when.

  • Joice

    Very good :)

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    And your comment really resonated with me. I know what you mean about crashing harder than ever. I think sometimes the more we learn and grow, the more devastating it feels when we fall back because, well, as you said, it feels like a much longer and harder fall. Sometimes I’ll find myself thinking, “Am I really here again?” I try to remind myself that it’s not *wrong* to be there again. It just is. I admit it’s not always easy to take the judgment out of it, but when i can do that, it makes dealing/learning/moving forward easier.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    That’s beautiful Joanna. There’s peace in that surrender. =)

  • http://www.bechronicallywell.com/ Tina Tarbox

    I totally agree with this philosophy. The older I get, the more tolerant I am of myself and my imperfections. I think the “two steps back” are sometimes necessary to renew the lesson we are learning and to show us some new angles in which we can grow further. Thank you for this piece! Very nice article.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome! That’s a great point, about stepping back and seeing new angles. I’ve noticed in my life that I’ve often grown the most from the times when I felt the most stuck!

  • Pris

    Wow claire I am in the same boat right now it’s only been 2 months for me, and im stuck in the what-if’s, in total darkness desperatly wanting to grow stronger as each day passes.. :-( I’m learning how to live alone now too.
    Thank you lori for the message and it’s great to read how others are coping in this whole growth process.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re welcome Pris! I also find it helpful to read about others’ experiences. It always gives me strength to realize I’m (we’re) not alone.

  • Karma Kittyn

    Patience is something I would like to work on. Right now I have no patience with myself or others, for going off course in my growth or anything else. Any patience posts in the past or in the future? :)

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    There actually isn’t a lot on the site regarding patience, except this one post:

    http://tinybuddha.com/blog/the-true-meaning-of-patience-let-go-and-take-your-time/

    Perhaps this is something I will write about some time soon!

  • Anna

    I know this is two years later, but I just had to thank you both, Lori and Paula. This is what I have been struggling with, the terrible falls, I thought there was something wrong with me and was even wondering if I was better off when I was in an unaware state. The last few days have been awful, just knowing it is not (yet again) something wrong with me helps so much, thank you so much for your honesty. This site helps me get through.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Hi Anne,

    You’re most welcome. Even two years later, I am still dealing with the same thing! There is definitely nothing wrong with you–or me.

    Thanks for taking the time to write. I’m so glad the site has been helpful to you. =)

    Lori

  • Nat

    Lori, thank you so much for this article! I needed to read this today. Infinite gratitude. :)

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome. I’m glad it helped!

  • http://www.lightwayofthinking.com Noam Lightstone

    Hey Lori, I really like your analogy to a muscle – I’ve never heard it put that way before, but it’s true. We grow through our struggles and in the moment a lot of times we think things are a big deal, but often when we look back we’re happy we went through it and that we learned from it.

    We take every negative and turn it into a positive.

    We don’t REPRESS negative emotions, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a bright light at the end of the tunnel :).

    I went through repression recently when, after having a high period of 2 weeks I suddenly felt scared and depressed for a week. I tried everything to logic my way out of my feelings but it wouldn’t work. It was only when a close friend reminded me that it’s OK to be sad sometimes because sadness can’t last forever (all things arise just to pass away) that I suddenly felt better, because I was OK with feeling scared and depressed. This was actually about quitting my job and turning to being a blogger and author full time, OF COURSE I’M GOING TO BE SCARED LOL!

    Life is all about doing interesting things and creating connection. And to do both those things we have to risk, but that risk leads to growth!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    That’s definitely a big step (congrats!), so I understand why you’d feel scared. It can be so instinctive to resist uncomfortable feelings, but I’ve found that this only prolongs them.

    I love what you wrote about risk. Whenever I’m scared to take a risk, I remind myself of what I want to see and how I want to feel looking back on my life. I don’t want to see an endless number of days that all looked the same. I want it to be like watching Forrest Gump–different adventures, different places, different roles, different relationships. And to do that, I need to take risks!

    I wish you much joy and adventure in your new endeavors. =)