Gardening is like self-work (and I’m not the best at it)…

I kill all things green. This is my truth around gardening and, though I’m deeply unhappy about it, it’s factual. If you give me a plant I will kill it. Consider yourself warned- please don’t gift me plantlife.

That said, my mother-in-law is here this weekend, replete with her very green thumb, and she’s graciously offered to help me figure out the landscaping situation around my yard. The whole situation has me thinking about the parallels between our garden adventure and making personal changes and working towards life goals. Here are some truths I’m learning about gardening, that are also true of self-work:

So you’re bad at it. So what?

We can’t not know how to do something, and all of a sudden just know how to do it. Skill-building of every variety takes time and practice. This is true of everything – gardening, of course, but also communicating, demonstrating love, practicing self-care, managing anger, etcetera. The point is not to get discouraged or intimidated by the things that we don’t naturally do well.

When I was a kid, I was drawn to theatre and musicals, and desperately wanted to participate. I was fairly okay at the acting part, but not a natural singer. Not to be deterred, I took voice lessons and joined the choir, and guess what? I was still not a natural singer! But, it was enough to let me in on some community theatre productions, and some school plays, and it was fun and fulfilling and I loved it.

It’s totally all right to be novice at a thing. It’s the doing of the thing, and not your natural ability to do it, that’s important. Start where you are.

Proceed with respect and intention.

I am not a patient person by nature. I want to make a decision, execute a plan, and move on within the span of an hour. While this personal quality of mine does a great job of insuring I never fall behind on tasks, it is also likely at least partially responsible for why my plants always die. Mindful, slow, intentional activity is not my forte – but it’s a pretty good way to approach landscaping, and assuredly the best way to approach self-work.

In therapy, we take one little tiny thing at a time. We work to understand how parts of us have originated, what they have to tell us, what they want or need from us, and how we might help them heal or let go of their pain. We practice scary new skills – like identifying our wants and needs and saying them out loud, and prioritizing and valuing ourselves. We don’t zoom from 0 to 100 in one session because frankly, that’s traumatizing, and disrespectful to ourselves. Small practices and steps, over time, lead to big changes. You don’t grow a lush and thriving garden overnight. You start with a single seedling. I think.

Expect mistakes, and forgive yourself when they happen.

Here’s the hard truth – there are times in which you are going to suck at this. You might explode when you don’t want to. You might become overcome by panic. You might relapse. You might binge and purge. You might plant something and forget to water it for a day. Or five days. You get the idea. Okay – now what?

In our moments of “failure”, it is so important (essential!) to practice self-compassion and give ourselves a break. I don’t suggest this only because self-kindness is a gentler and more respectful practice than self-loathing (though of course this is true), but also because research overwhelmingly demonstrates that shame is not a good motivator for change. When we shame and bully ourselves, we set ourselves up to give up on the work altogether.

Accept that you will not do the work perfectly, and that the work will still count and be important and remarkable on days when you feel triumphant, and on days when you feel defeated. You are not a robot, and progress is not linear. Embrace the failures with the successes.

Appreciate what you create – no feat is too small.

For whatever reason, we seem to have a difficult time in this culture giving ourselves any credit at all if progress isn’t total and complete. Perhaps it’s the messages we routinely receive since childhood: Status is important. Second place is the first loser. Go big or go home. And so on.

We internalize these messages, and so we identify only a thorough and final victory as a win, and anything else as a loss. This perception isn’t helpful, and isn’t accurate. When we’re doing self-work, we’re making small wins all the time. A conversation with a partner was more respectful and productive than usual? That’s a win. A choice was made to say no to something you didn’t want to do, even something as inconsequential as a coffee date? That’s a win. A few steps were taken out the door on a particularly depressive and dark day? That’s a win.

In self-work, we are creating something beautiful and important, and it’s not going to happen in one day. Give yourself all of the wins that you deserve – you earned them.

And so – I planted some shrubs! Five, to be exact. This is an epic day. It’s a win.

Plan for maintenance.

Change is not sustainable if we don’t nurture it. This is why AA encourages participants to “keep coming back” – if we don’t continue to self-reflect, to seek the support of our communities, our therapists, our mentors, to return to the reasons why we are doing the work in the first place, we will likely return to old patterns.

Sometimes behaviors are helpful to nail new patterns into place – a journaling or meditative practice, yoga, walking, regular check-ins with a friend or a therapy appointment. I believe that spending internal time with ourselves is what’s most useful – going back to different parts of ourselves day after day to make sure that we are paying attention, that we are nurturing and caring for ourselves, and that we are recognizing when we need to be extra attentive. This insures that we are maintained from the inside out, cementing our changes into habits, and identifying new needs as they emerge.


There are lots of ways to go about planting a garden. I’m rather inept at all of them. But a garden is rather like self-work, and I’m quite familiar with that, so I will go slowly and be intentional, treat the work with kindness and myself with compassion, and celebrate every little success.

I’ve asked my mother-in-law to help me create a very low-maintenance garden, by the way. Baby steps.

Originally posted on my blog, Common Humanity, at Psych To read more, visit
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