This is a core question in both the world of spiritual formation and in the world of psychotherapy. It is a question that lingers in the depths of our souls and in the ache of our minds. We are all here wondering what it means to be human, what it means to do well with our time here in the world.
Lessons from physical growth
Physical growth is not linear. Children grow in spurts after a long time of internal work gathering the physical resources to make new bone and muscle. Looking from the outside, we often see children’s bodies fill out and then stretch in almost overnight growth. On the inside, they have growing pains and a sense of losing their coordination as they adjust to longer arms and legs.
Mental development occurs in stages too. Each phase of a child’s life is characterized by a different task for them to learn. You might have seen videos of very young children where they can see that one cracker is broken in half, but they are convinced that they now have two crackers instead of two cracker halves. Or maybe you’ve seen the experiment where children are shown the same amount of water poured into two containers- one tall and one wide. Young children can’t conceptualize that it’s the same amount of water and believe that the taller one has more.
Importantly, physical and mental growth don’t end in childhood. Our bodies continue to grow and change throughout our lives, reaching a peak and then declining. The decline is part of the process too. When we lose physical and mental sharpness, we have gained in life experience, perspective, and wisdom. There is always something new to share.
Lessons from church history
Spiritual growth has also been spoken of in terms of cyclic growth. Early writers often referred to long periods of quiet internal work, dark nights, and desert times. Modern writers have said that spiritual growth is a marathon and not a sprint.
In the modern American church, however, there is more of an emphasis on chasing peak experiences. If you go to a camp or a retreat, it’s likely that someone will talk to you about how to keep the “camp high” going as you return to your normal life. There is too much emphasis placed on the emotional experience and the fight to stay at that peak feeling.
Looking back, church history has rightly placed more of the emphasis on spiritual rhythms. There are peak times of growth, a sense of closeness with God, and spiritual ecstasy. There are also times of dryness, loneliness, and a sense of distance from God. Each part of the cycle is normal and natural. Each part contributes to your growth in a different way. The journey is lifelong. It will never be finished.
Lessons from psychotherapy
Mental health growth has been best visualized as an upward spiral. You keep coming across the same problems, but you’re in a different place each time. As you grow, you learn how to respond differently. Like other forms of growth, it’s a continuous journey. Mental health is not something you can achieve once and then maintain indefinitely. And like other forms of growth, you can’t expect to achieve happiness or peace and then never feel negative emotions again. The full range of emotional experience is normal. Working on your mental health helps you navigate both the ups and downs with more equanimity.
Psychotherapy helps you learn about yourself and your internal world. As you become more aware of yourself, you can learn why your think and feel the way you do. With a better knowledge of your internal process, you are more able to see what is not working and discover ways to change. In psychotherapy, we explore how your past is affecting your present, what core beliefs are getting in the way, and how old patterns are not helpful anymore.
How we grow
We grow in cycles. We go through deep inner work. The unseen work provides a foundation for the outward visible growth that comes later. Growth progresses naturally on its own, but there are things we can do to facilitate the process. We can’t rush it, and we can’t make it happen all at once. We also can’t stay at the peak moment of growth forever- that’s unsustainable. The invisible growth that feels like a plateau is deeply important and can’t be skipped.
Growth is not repeatable. The conditions that created growth before aren’t necessarily the same conditions that will help us grow into the next stage. Growth can be stunted or delayed, but some growth is inevitable. Other growth depends on our participation and intentionality.
Therapy helps growth
Psychotherapy facilitates growth during the inner work phases. Through guided conversations, the inner work takes direction. An external perspective shines a light on places you can’t see. An outsider sees the things that are too familiar to you, the parts that are invisible and foundational.
I provide online therapy in California for people interested in spiritual and identity formation. I specialize in working with queer christians who are looking for growth and development. Contact me for a free consultation to learn how I can join you on your journey. Learn more at my homepage or about page. FAQ here.