On Feeling Worse When Things Get Better

by | Sep 21, 2020 | Inner Work | 6 comments

Someone I work with regularly just had a number of significant wins.

They just nailed an interview. They were offered the exact position they wrote down as a goal.

It’s a life changing opportunity, and an immediate, significant change of income bracket.

They are crushing it, and I am super happy for them. I have much respect for their work ethic, which I get to experience first hand in how they approach our time together in the context of inner work and coaching.

From the moment this good news happened, it has of course been nothing but celebration, positive feelings and happy images, along with an immediate relief of all previous stress. Right?

Definitely not.

Not because something is wrong, but because everything is “right.”

One of the greatest challenges I find with moving forward for both inner and outer work, is the fact that progress is rarely linear. In fact, I am not sure I can recall any area of my life that continually improved in a straight-line of better feelings and results.

Anyone that I have looked up to, the better I have gotten to know them, they inevitably reveal that they too experienced certain challenges and setbacks along their path.

By the way, they all still perceived themselves as being on the path. This includes a jazz icon I performed with for their 93rd birthday.

Perhaps the most confusing, and potentially destructive moments, are when:
Something really good happens.
Then you start feeling really bad feelings.

  • An increase in fear or anxiety
  • More intense negative self-talk
  • Vivid images of yourself failing
  • A sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop

I can’t emphasize enough that this is perfectly normal, and does not mean, by itself, that you are doing something wrong or have gotten off track.

In fact, it is a sign that changes are actually happening and you are making true progress. Things may be “getting real” now, as opposed to just ruminating on the idea of progress.

With any change, you are starting to rock the boat. Remember that there is a very sophisticated mechanism within you that is designed to keep you safe, and in order to do so, it loves the familiar.

It doesn’t matter if it is good, bad, or horrible. Familiar means that you have internally mapped this territory. You know how to function and survive in it, and that is all that your safety mechanisms are concerned with. This can be deep down in the nervous system.

In your brain, the amygdala will often react to any significant change by kicking in the familiar fight-or-flight response. The entorhinal cortex has new environments to learn, habits to integrate, plus a lot more stuff going on that is way beyond my knowledge to speak about.

Making real change is no joke. The resistance is very real, very primal, and there’s a reason that most of us (certainly me) require the right things in place for it to happen. Not only the inner work tools, but support, engagement with others and often a structure to enforce and integrate it.

This is why having means of measuring your progress other than purely external results, or purely how many happy thoughts and feelings you have each day, is critical.

Remember, the moment you start actually making progress in such a way that your environment, your circumstances, your life itself may change…

There is a destabilization in that.

When this starts to happen, that negative self-talk, those uncomfortable images and everything else being thrown at you is designed to coax you back into the familiar. Remember that this is the job it has been assigned with. Familiarity equals safety, and to a very powerful part of you, this is a much higher priority than expansion, freedom, self-expression or fulfillment.

As with most things in my approach to inner work, I do not recommend purely ignoring or trying to suppress these intense thoughts and feelings. You can actually listen to them, acknowledge what they are trying to communicate to you, without hooking into them emotionally.

Remember, if you are moving forward in the direction of change, there is literal resistance in the brain and body, it is not just some metaphysical or spiritual concept.

When you start moving forward for real, faster, more significantly, it only makes sense that it is going to turn up the dial on the intensity.

That connection to your breath and body, the ability to have that certain amount of distance between your awareness, and the thoughts and feelings that arise within it, are critical.

Most importantly, you are NOT off-track when you begin to see this. As far as I’m concerned, it is a sign that you are ON it.

As with everything you have ever learned in your life, with persistence and a healthy attitude, your brain, body and nervous system will adapt. It will become used to the new environment and you will feel safe and comfortable in the new, upgraded space. This is worth it, but it’s not always easy to get through to that other side.

Have you experienced this resistance? Are you experiencing it now? Are you having trouble differentiating between what is actually moving you forward and causing some push back, versus simply spinning your wheels? Let me know in the comments below.



  1. Sarah

    This article really grabbed and shook me, otherwise I would be doing the 101 things I have to do before sunrise tomorrow morning. The emotional dead weight that I lugged through a lot of my life has lifted because of years of spiritual work that finally saw fruition thanks to the love, knowledge, talent and kindness that G and Evan brought into my life. Since meeting them I have had big wins in my personal and professional life and each one has been followed by a painful contraction that makes me feel worse than when I started so many decades ago. This does not bother me anymore, however because I know that I have just broken through another layer of unneeded crust from the past. I am now tough enough to no longer need it and fit enough to function without it. Funny thing is, I never see it coming, and never understand immediately where the break is. But soon enough I see how I have become more aerodynamic in my approach to the flow of this wonderous thing called life.

    • Evan

      So glad your work is paying off, and happy for any part you feel what we’ve done together has contributed.

  2. Johanna

    I’ve been thinking along the lines of this subject lately. In my case, I wonder if there’s a part of me that actually likes negativity, not because of an evolutionary bias, but because this part of me really grooves on the “bad” feelings. For example, when listening to classic music, I’m much more attracted to the movements that sound melancholy, and dislike it when there is a change that sounds like a (musical) hopeful resolution. I may not be making much sense. I agree that staying connected to my body, and letting the thoughts just be themselves, but not attached to me, helps. Awareness always seems to be the solution, even if an uncomfortable one.

    • Evan

      I’m a huge fan of darker sounding harmony, music, aesthetics – there is a beauty in them for sure, and you’re definitely not the only one who is not a fan of ‘happier’ music or moments of it 🙂

  3. katherine

    Thank you Evan for bringing this into the light. I am relating this experience of rebound effect to my awakening process – 2 steps forward and 3 steps back. At least this is how it appears temporarily. I experience profound periods where I SEE and that inner knowing is solid – real and all encompassing. Each time I know it is greater than anything I have previously experienced and each time I deeply know I will never ‘lose it’ again because of its totality. So expanded that my mind, as I know it, can scarcely participate. Then there appears to be a period of rest or adjustment – pleasant and affirming. I feel encouraged, blessed and loved. And alas, as days go by, I feel thrust into a more contracted place than ever – sometimes wondering how I could’ve even been all that beauty. That THAT must’ve been the illusion.
    Indeed, this inner/outer expansion is a wild ride 😉
    Thank you to the others who commented as well. I feel encouraged.

    • Evan

      Thank you for sharing! It is a wild ride indeed. It also gets very subtle when getting into the distinction between profound and beautiful experiences, contractions, the entire journey of the ebbs and flows, and consistent fundamental awareness that all of that appears in – including the aha’s and insights. That of course is where many spiritual teachers put their emphasis and priority. Glad you are continuing to move forward and sharing it.


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