We have this idea that progress means moving forward in a linear fashion. We picture someone hiking a hill, maybe, and consider it “progress” if that person keeps putting one foot in front of the other and moving from the base toward the peak. If that person slips and falls, we call that “taking a step back” or “giving up our progress” and having to “start over.”
And while this may be true with hiking, it is NOT true with many other things, such as learning a new skill, retraining your brain, or navigating your mental health. In these scenarios, progress is defined not by linear action but by attempts made.
Say, for example, that you struggle with depression and have just started therapy. You feel better after a few weeks, then “relapse” and end up not only feeling like shit, but also self-sabotaging and maybe even self-harming (physically, verbally, mentally, or emotionally). While it may be tempting to view this as a step backward, it’s actually a step FORWARD. Why? Because it gives you room to test your new skills, see what still needs work, and it’s a testament to the fact you are changing. In fact, sometimes, changing triggers depression or anxiety.
If you’re falling down, it means you’re trying. It means you’re moving. It means you’re learning. Every time you fall or hit a dead end or wonder how you’re going to make it, it gives your brain new information. You learn what works, what doesn’t, and attack the issue from a new angle.
Let’s apply this to a skill, like writing a story. Maybe you write 20 pages, realize it isn’t working, and delete the entire thing. It’s so tempting to see that as a waste, but what it’s done is helped clarify where your story actually needs to go, and why. If you hadn’t “failed” you might still be sitting around, wondering which ideas would work and which wouldn’t but not TESTING any of them.
The next time you fail, instead of seeing it as a step back or proof you can’t change, see it as a badge of honor. It means you tried, it means your brain is working on solutions, it means your brain is gathering data. You may not be moving forward in measurable terms, but your BRAIN is moving forward, gaining a better and better position from which to take the next leap.
When a toddler falls, we don’t say they’ve failed to learn how to walk. We rejoice! The fact they are falling means they will soon succeed! In fact, the more often they fall, the sooner we might expect them to be up and walking!
Challenge!: This next week, note any times you make linear progress and any times you make non-linear progress. Are you able to celebrate both equally? This may be tricky at first, so anytime you begin to berate yourself or feel discouraged for “slipping backward,” see if you can bring to it this new understanding of how progress works and celebrate your momentum regardless.