Emotional Intelligence, Mental Health, Self-Development, self-perception

WTF is “Doing the Work”?

[I wasn’t going to write a post today because I’ve been sick for a week, but the kernel of this one appeared in my head at 2am two nights ago as the Ick was finally starting to loosen; as every writer knows, when the Muse shows up, you shut up and write what she tells you to write.]

The scene: a comfortably furnished counselling office on a weekday evening; seated as far as they can possibly get from each other on the tufted velveteen sofa, a man and a woman. Across from them, quietly observant, their therapist.

Woman, angrily: How can you not see what’s happening right in front of you? I am SO FUCKING TIRED of feeling like all of the relationship shit falls on MY shoulders to manage for us both! I feel like you don’t even know what it takes to be in a partnership with someone, and I’m so resentful now that I’m the only one trying to make anything better!

Man, pleading: I know you’re unhappy! I don’t know what to do! Can’t you just tell me what you need me to do??

Woman: I need you to step the hell up. Do the fucking WORK.

Man, turning to the therapist, hands dangling limply between his knees, defeated: I don’t even know what that means.

Woman: [throws up her hands, exasperated]

Most of us who have done couples work will have seen variations of this scene play out time and time again. Even if we’re working with individuals, we’ll often hear variations on statements like, “I need (or need someone else) to DO THE WORK”, or “I don’t know what DO THE WORK actually means.”

So… How is it that some of us know what this phrase, “Do the Work,” means, and some of us don’t?

Usually, it boils down to something simple: it’s a commonly used (some might suggest “overused”) phrase that has come to mean a lot of different things to different people, and while you may have an idea of what it means to YOU (whether you have even a vague clue of HOW to do the Work or not), you may have no idea what someone ELSE means when they’re shouting it at you in anger or frustration or disappointment. All you’ll know in that particular moment is that whatever you have been doing, clearly hasn’t been working.

You need something TO work. You might even need to DO work to change things, hopefully for the better. But you have no idea what that actually entails. If you’re on the receiving end of someone’s demands to “do the Work,” the message you’re probably hearing is, “Everything you do sucks and why can’t you just magically and instantaneously be a better lover/partner/spouse/friend/parent/sibling/whatever??” I can guarantee that’s not ACTUALLY what your partner is trying to communicate to you, but by the time you end up in my office (or one like mine), you’ve probably heard frustrated iterations of this messaging so often that you can’t hear them as anything else. And if you’re on the delivering end of this message, it probably means something to the effect of, “You need to change so I feel better, and you should just magically intuit what I need that to look like from you.” And I can also guarantee this kind of approach is setting up everyone in the relationship for mountains of frustration at best, and catastrophic sabotage at worst.

So… what is “the Work”?

In an introductory note to her book, How to Do the Work, Dr Nicole LePera describes, “A long, rich tradition of the work of transcending our human experience […]” involving “the pursuit of insight into the Self” and the development of “tools to understand and harness the complex interconnectedness of your mind, body, and soul.”

Or, as we like to say in The Biz, “Figuring your shit out.”

By the time someone(s) gets into a therapist’s office, especially from the perspective of relational conflict, “the Work” means “learning how to see and understand how your own patterns of thinking and acting are (negatively) impacting your life and/or the lives of those around you and changing those thoughts and behaviours in positive ways.” While it’s not entirely true that knowing is half the battle, admitting there’s a problem in what you’re bringing to the table is kind of a crucial starting point. “You can’t fix what you can’t see” is only nominally less true than the idea that you can’t fix what you WON’T see. At its core, “doing the Work” means first learning to see and accept that there IS a problem in how we engage in the world, then figuring out how to improve the ways we engage.

I often break the Work down into the following stages of personal development, each with its own subset of tools and tactics and potential revelations:

  • Self-observation (looking inward at our own internal workings with genuine, nonjudgemental curiosity)
  • Self-reflection (thinking critically – as opposed to simply being self-critical – about what we perceive when we look inward, exploring where those thoughts, feelings, behaviours come from)
  • Self-connectedness (this is a new piece of the process in my approach, because I realized the skillset for seeing and understanding how our individual existence impacts others in systems around each of us is its own piece of Work)
  • Articulation (the ability to communicate what we’re observing and learning to the Important People in our lives is a skill unto itself)
  • Implementation (navigating the actual iterative change processes within ourselves and our relational systems)

The Caveats of “The Work”

Jessica Grose, Opinion writer for the New York Times, encapsulates a lot of the current backlash against the phrase itself and what it has come to mean in pop culture, in her article, ‘Doing the Work’ and the Obsession With Superficial Self-Improvement (New York Times online, June 3, 2023; free account subscription required):

I confess a visceral aversion to “doing the work” used in this particular way. My gut reaction is: I simply decline to do more work. My life is already filled with many kinds of labor. I work full time; I cook dinner every night; I shuttle my children to and fro. I’m not asking for a medal here. This is just what’s in many people’s inboxes. But does tending to my mind and soul have to be framed as yet another job, another box to check, another task to optimize and conquer?

I asked [The New Yorker journalist Katy] Waldman over email what she made of my aversion. She also finds “doing the work” a “uniquely annoying phrase” and explained that it “can come off as patronizing.” It implies that our big issues in life “are simple and clear-cut, that everyone agrees on what they are and that the only reason a problem hasn’t been solved is because somebody isn’t working hard enough.”

Jessica Calarco, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, had a similar take. “This idea of ‘doing the work,’ is just the latest manifestation of the kind of self-improvement culture that has long permeated American society and that is closely linked to America’s obsessively individualistic bent,” she told me via email. Self-improvement culture can deny the larger societal issues that often cause people strain, and it “can lead us to punish people who are struggling or deny them the support they need,” Calarco wrote. Therapy is expensive, and having time in your day to reflect can be a luxury, something that’s rarely mentioned when “doing the work” is used.

These are all good and valid concerns around the way the terminology has evolved culturally over time, especially both the connotations of Yet More Emotional Labour, and the chilling divisiveness when the term is used to dismiss those who haven’t done some unclear amount of said emotional labour towards self-betterment. I remember reading a science fiction novel decades ago—I don’t remember anything else from the book except this particular plot point—that made a sharp class distinction not between the rich and the poor, but between the Therapied and the Untherapied, and all the snobbish, snubbing judgement you’re probably already reading into “Untherapied”.

The opponents to the terminological hijacking are dead right; therapy IS expensive, and for a lot of people, time to reflect IS a luxury. Being asked to take on more emotional labour IS going to be a big NOPE for a lot of people. As I have written often throughout the years in the blog, change IS hard, and some will work their asses off for literal YEARS in or out of therapy for the smallest of incremental changes. Other people can read one self-help book and suddenly seem like they’ve seen into all the deepest secrets of the universe**.

I am always honest with my clients when I’m explaining what this loaded term means in MY office, and how I approach being a guide/coach/teacher/companion/witness/emotional sherpa for my clients doing their individual versions of the Work: I have NO idea what the Work will look like for each of you. I have NO idea how long it will take you. Until we do the Gap Analysis to understand what resources are already available and which might be lacking or needed to reach the goals you set for yourself, we really have no framework in which to understand what Work is necessary. And even once we do start to fill in those gaps, a lot of the Work isn’t going to be silver bullet-level magic fixes; it will be trial and error, assessment and adjustments based on what you learn along the way and over time.

And that can be disheartening to hear for people who come to therapy believing that just walking through the door is enough to check a box labelled “Did the Work”. Therapists have a name for the broad category of potential clients who come in once or twice to try on the idea of changing things in themselves or their relationships but decline to take on the process, or maybe aren’t even ready to admit yet there IS a problem, let alone they might be the source of it; we refer to these kinds of potential clients as “precontemplative”, taken from the Transtheoretical Model of Change. Not everyone who comes into therapy is ready to change, and we must respect that. Not everyone who is ready to change comes equipped with the tools for change, and we must respect that, too. Sometimes before we can build a house, we must make the tools with which to build the house.

The onus is on us as therapists to be honest about these realities, and to be clear about both how we define the Work, and what we bring to the table to help our clients in that Work. But once we’ve gotten that straight and mostly clear… the responsibility then shifts entirely onto the client to (you guessed it) Do the Work.

(**—someday I will tell the story of how Gloria of Sainted Memory unleashed the self-developmental equivalent of The Big Bang the day she put into my hands my first copy of Bennet Wong & Jock McKeen’s The Relationship Garden. That story is not for today, but it is an excellent example of how “doing the Work” can literally become a lifelong endeavour.)

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