An article by Renee W.
I’ve heard the phrase “doing the work” my entire life in a whole range of contexts. As a kid, “doing the work” meant doing homework and keeping my grades high. Or it could have meant going to track practice every day, no matter the weather, to develop my running skills for the next track meet.
Enter adulthood, and it meant going to college, starting a career, and raising two kids. While these are all examples of “doing the work,” this phrase means something entirely different in mainstream conversation.
Perhaps clinical psychologist Dr. Nicole LaPera’s book How to Do the Work has a lot to do with this phrase’s popularity. However, what does “doing the work” actually mean? Does putting in the effort to better ourselves really lead to a happier life, or is it an overhyped mantra with no real substance?
Let’s take a closer look at this phrase and dissect it piece by piece.
What does “doing the work” mean?
At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss the idea of “doing the work” as just another passing trend. After all, we’ve seen our fair share of self-help books, motivational speakers, and life coaches promising the secret to eternal bliss. It’s natural to question whether all this talk about personal development is just a way to sell more products or services.
I see “doing the work” as looking inward with genuine curiosity and compassion—all without judgment.
It involves asking yourself questions like:
Who am I, really?
What do I want to be?
How do I get there?
This sounds simple, but I can assure you, it’s not. Many people never get past this first step of authentic self-reflection.
For me, I didn’t understand how to “do the work” until I was in my mid-thirties. I had a failed marriage, two children to support, and an alcohol addiction. These three circumstances don’t mesh well, and it took years of taking honest inventories to get to any sort of result that resembled growth.
From the outside, my life may not have looked all that terrible, but once I could admit the truth to myself, I saw I was full of anger, grief, extreme insecurity, and self-hatred. I was also so full of shame that I couldn’t look into the mirror without cringing at my reflection.
Eventually, I entered rehab for my alcoholism and slowly started doing the work. It has taken years of work, and the process is not linear.
However, every day I am grateful for my life when I look back and see how far I’ve come.
“Doing the work” applies to anyone. It all boils down to knowing your authentic self and accepting yourself with compassion.
You don’t have to be addicted to alcohol or drugs. You may struggle with depression or anxiety. You may feel lost and alone in the world. You may be dealing with something specific—like financial difficulties or a lost job. You may just be tired—like really tired of the way you feel and want to make changes.
There’s no secret recipe here. Some things work well for some and don’t work for others. For example, perhaps your friend has benefited from professional therapy, but you are hesitant to go down that route. Maybe you know someone who swears by a strict diet and exercise regimen to gain peace and happiness, but you can’t see yourself in yoga pants or eating kale for the rest of your life.
While no specific standards exist for everyone, some common themes appear when “doing the work.”
Let’s take a look.
Get curious and ask questions.
In a world where we care too much about what other people think about us, this first step can be the hardest. It is vital that you approach yourself with curiosity as if you are meeting someone else for the first time.
Simply observing your thoughts and feelings with curiosity can bring enormous insight. Taking it a step further and asking questions is next.
Have you ever wondered why you clench up when certain topics are mentioned in conversation? Or how about when you are around someone specific and your heart races— and not a good type of heart race, but the kind that screams “anxiety”?
Other good questions include:
- How are you talking to yourself?
- What types of things are you saying to yourself?
- Would you say these things to someone you love? Why or why not?
Be compassionate, and don’t judge yourself.
Sometimes when I approach myself, I have to figuratively step back and pretend I am not actually myself but a friend. This approach helps me to be compassionate towards myself, and when I treat myself with compassion, I can make headway in “doing the work.”
No one truly changes through hating themselves enough with the hopes of changing.
It’s important to meet yourself exactly as you are and go from there. You can’t make any meaningful changes without compassion and a lack of self-judgment.
Treat yourself with the same kindness, understanding, and forgiveness you would give to a close friend. Acknowledge your mistakes and shortcomings, but don’t beat yourself up over them. Instead, use them as opportunities for growth and authentic change.
Allow yourself to feel whatever you feel whenever you feel it.
Think about this scenario: you’ve had a terrible day at work. You get home, and what do you do?
We often turn to things to self-medicate—alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling, sex, relationships, and the list goes on. A common denominator here is we don’t want to feel. The feeling is just too much—too painful.
Someone in my life said it this way: “Feelings are neither bad nor good. They are just feelings—they are indicators of something that needs to be addressed.” Labeling them or saying things like “I shouldn’t feel that,” “I don’t want to feel anything,” or “I just want to be numb” eventually backfires.
Sure, you can come home from a terrible day and eat a quart of ice cream and drink wine until you pass out, but then what? What happens when you wake up?
Allowing myself to simply feel what I feel and sit with the feelings has been a game changer. I have literally told myself, “You’re not going to die from feeling sad right now. But if you pick up a drink—you just might.”
Confront fears and challenge limiting beliefs.
This process of self-examination helps us identify areas where we can improve and grow. Self-examination allows us to shed old patterns and behaviors that no longer serve us, paving the way for personal transformation.
First, identify what’s holding you back. What are those nagging thoughts and beliefs keeping you from reaching your full potential? Pinpoint them and write them down.
Once you’ve identified your fears and limiting beliefs, it’s time to challenge them. Ask yourself, “Are these beliefs based on facts or just stories I’ve made up and been telling myself?”
Often, our fears are rooted in irrational thoughts and assumptions. We think the same things we’ve always thought simply because, well, that’s what we’ve always thought!
Question the validity of your thoughts and look for evidence to debunk them. Remember, just because you think something doesn’t make it true!
Embrace the discomfort.
There’s no sugarcoating it: “Doing the work” is not easy. It requires stepping outside our comfort zones, facing our vulnerabilities, and confronting difficult emotions.
However, it is precisely in these moments of discomfort that the magic happens. By pushing ourselves beyond our limits, we develop resilience and self-confidence. These qualities, in turn, contribute to a more fulfilling life.
Set meaningful goals.
Another essential aspect of “doing the work” is setting meaningful goals that align with our values. When we have clear objectives, we can direct our efforts toward achieving them, providing a sense of purpose and direction.
It’s helpful to break them down into manageable chunks.
For example, I struggled with being authentic toward everyone around me. I wanted people to like me, and I was afraid if they actually knew me, they wouldn’t. I set a small goal of connecting with just one person and being completely honest about my feelings and thoughts. Then, I added another. Then another. Through this, I slowly learned to trust others with my authentic self.
Accept and love yourself.
Accepting and loving yourself can feel unnatural, but it is a vital piece of “doing the work.” Like I said before, it helps to think of yourself as your own best friend.
Embrace your quirks, celebrate your individuality, and let go of the need to conform to what you believe you “should” be. Accept that you’re a work in progress, just like everyone else.
Additionally, make self-care a non-negotiable part of your daily routine. Self-love is not just about accepting who you are; it’s also about taking care of your whole self.
Prioritize activities that nourish your soul, whether it’s doing hobbies you love, spending time in nature, meditating, exercising, listening to music… and the list goes on. Self-care sometimes has a “spa day” connotation, but really it comes down to this: self-care is anything that makes you feel good about yourself. It can be anything.
It’s a continuous journey.
It’s important to note that personal growth and happiness are not destinations; they are lifelong journeys.
“Doing the work” is an ongoing process that requires commitment, patience, and self-compassion. It’s about embracing imperfections and celebrating progress, no matter how small. Whenever I experience a breakthrough, even something as simple as having an authentic conversation with someone else, I will celebrate.
Happiness, in this context, is not a fixed state but a result of our willingness to continually learn, evolve, and invest in ourselves.
The bottom line
So, does “doing the work” really lead to happiness, or is it all just hype?
While it may not be an easy path, the evidence strongly suggests that personal growth, resilience, and authenticity are essential to experiencing genuine happiness. The concept of “doing the work” is a reminder that true fulfillment requires effort, self-reflection, and a willingness to face challenges head-on.
Rather than dismissing it as a mere buzzword, let’s embrace the idea of “doing the work” as a call to action.
“Doing the work” encourages us to invest in ourselves and actively pursue our personal growth. By doing so, we will discover a deeper sense of happiness that transcends the fleeting promises of instant gratification.
How can Tikvah Lake help?
At Tikvah Lake, we understand that life’s challenges can affect your mental, emotional, and physical health. That’s why our professional staff are here to support you through your struggles and guide you toward a promising future.
As a leading recovery center, we specialize in supporting the unique needs of each client on their personal journey to healing.
Whether you’re seeking residential treatment, outpatient support, or aftercare services, Tikvah Lake is here to help you break free from the grip of addiction, heal from past trauma, and reclaim your life. Take the courageous step, and let Tikvah Lake be your partner in recovery.