the risks of getting well. [alternatively titled: it’s painful to watch people keep making ‘bad’ choices, but maybe they have a reason to stay stuck.]

Ever been stuck? I have. I can think back to a time where I stayed in a situation that I knew deep in my bones was no good for me. It took me multiple attempts and months of deliberation to extricate myself from it, not because I didn’t know it was bad for me. I knew that full well. But because at that time the risk of moving to a healthier space was actually more frightening than staying stuck.

Often in counselling, clients will hear me repeat the phrase, “We have a better reason to do what we do than not do it.” This means we have a better (or perhaps, more emotionally adaptive and instinctively safer) reason to be defensive, to tell the lie, to not do the thing we know we need to do, to eat the bag of chips, keep the secret, stay with the abusive partner, tolerate the bad job…the list goes on.

This mantra helps me stay curious with clients. And I’d like to think it helps clients practice more self-compassion, as we suspend judgement over their behaviours and actions (or inactions) and instead get curious about what is fueling them.

Sometimes the risk of getting well, getting happy, or growing in positive directions just feels too scary. Sometimes there are casualties of growth, and we don’t want to have to grieve the losses. So we stay stuck in old patterns, old relationships, and old behaviours to stay safe. Even if they’re destructive and obviously not helping in the day to day.

As bystanders this can be an incredibly infuriating thing to see unfolding. Watching someone you love stay locked into seemingly unhelpful patterns, behaviours, and relationships – while often being leaned on to support them through their struggle with what seems obvious to you as a bad decision(s) can be soul sucking and super draining. Sometimes friends have a hard time being compassionate with the struggles they are watching. Sometimes they set boundaries around what they can tolerate and support (and that’s okay and sometimes necessary). Watching someone continue to hurt or be hurt is a really helpless space to be in.

I get it. I’ve been there as a friend, too.

But here’s a thought from the other side of the table.

Perhaps your friend/brother/cousin/mother/co-worker has a better reason to stay stuck than gain momentum.

Now let me be clear. A ‘better reason’ doesn’t mean it’s on the surface helpful. It doesn’t mean it’s advancing their life in any obvious way. But it does mean that there are emotional risks and consequences associated with every action or inaction, and sometimes these risks make staying in awful situations or staying locked into seemingly destructive behaviours the safer emotional choice.

Case in point. Your friend wants to lose weight. But she goes to the gym, and regularly stops at the drive thru after. You see her food choices and wrestle to be compassionate with her frustration and complaints about her body. You are tired of reassuring her that she’s okay, particularly because you have seen her make decisions that seem to sabotage her efforts. And you’re right. Her choices may be sabotaging her obvious goal.

But why?

Perhaps the amount of shame she experiences at the gym next to that woman who just makes things look so easy is actually crippling, and she uses food on the way home to comfort and self-soothe? Maybe the french fries help her not want to die. Or maybe she experienced negative sexual attention when she was thinner, and even though part of her wants to feel good about her body – getting healthy/thin may make her feel vulnerable and afraid of that same negative situation repeating itself? These may be underlying ‘better reasons’ to eat the fries or drink the Coke. Though on the surface, they’re not obvious to onlookers and it simply seems that your friend is deliberately keeping herself stuck.

In therapy I often let clients know at the start of our work that healing has both benefits and risks associated with it. The benefits are often obvious. But getting well, changing behaviours, growing, and learning to feel and believe new things about ourselves may change the way we move in the world in some pretty significant and hard ways as well.

When someone learns how to set boundaries they may lose friends who preferred to have all the control and who can’t share the emotional space that a now healthier human demands. When you really start to believe you’re worthy, perhaps you will no longer tolerate shitty behaviour from a partner – and be confronted with the choice of continuing on in a way that no longer feels congruent, or ending the relationship. When you confront and aim to heal hard parts of your story, it may result in having to acknowledge the pervasiveness of trauma, and the losses associated with the impact of that trauma on your life.

Ultimately, I think what I’m trying to say is that it’s not so simple. And the answer is never as obvious as it seems on the surface. To break up with him, stop eating the Oreos, to stand up to an asshole boss…these things may look simple and clear on the outside, but the underlying risks of movement can sometimes feel unsafe and like just too much. So staying put is safer, even if it hurts.

To those who are stuck. I get it. Change is risky. You have lots to gain, but you also have lots to lose. Be patient with yourselves. And please, be safe. I hope you can find people who will help you uncover your ‘better reasons’, and who can show you grace and mercy in your struggle.

To those who hate watching people be stuck. I get it, too. It can be infuriating to watch people skirt around ‘obvious’ solutions. Please be patient with your people. And please, ask them what the risks are of changing. Don’t just tell them that change will obviously solve their problems. They already know that it would fix one set of concerns, but they need support in fleshing out the fears associated with changing, and need help making sense of the ways that getting unstuck may cause new problems. I hope you can be people who can help others uncover their ‘better reasons’, and can be people who show grace and mercy to those in struggles that you yourself may struggle to understand.

And if you’re having a hard time with it, as someone stuck or as an observer, remember that we have a better reason to do what we do than not do it. Hopefully remembering this can help us all can create more space to be compassionate with all parts of ourselves and others, and all the ways we move in the world trying to keep ourselves safe and intact.

4 thoughts on “the risks of getting well. [alternatively titled: it’s painful to watch people keep making ‘bad’ choices, but maybe they have a reason to stay stuck.]

  1. N. says:

    What if where you’re “stuck” ends up actually being the conclusion to your story? What if you feel “stuck” because there isn’t anything else?


  2. bloomcounsellingwpg says:

    Good question. Not sure how to address your comment with any specificity, but I can’t quite wrap my mind around the idea that stories are static.

    I think some stuck spaces are really, really hard to get out of. And that sometimes the risks are high. And sometimes it can take a while. My work is built on the understanding that people can change and grow, and I believe that wholeheartedly, because I bear witness to such transformation daily.


  3. karinbrauner says:

    I like your phrase. In my practice I use something similar – it’s staying with the familiar, whether it feels good or bad for the client/myself/my friends. the familiar is safer because we know the results of staying there, whereas trying something new, like you said, brings a loss of friendships, amongst other things…it needs to be a calculated risk and therapy helps with that!


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