Four Sticky Stages of Healing and Growth

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These are a few observations what happens, or what can happen, along the path to healing and growth.

(Of course, it’s best to seek out professional counseling help on how these ideas may or may not apply to you; I’m a lay person and quite the amateur in these matters.)

I call these four stages (or steps) “sticky” because it’s possible to get stuck at any one of them – and sometimes you kinda gotta “peel” yourself out of the stage in order to move forward.

First stage: Sympathy

Right after experiencing a significant loss, like a long-term relationship or job, the traumatized person needs sympathy from caring people to help him or her grasp the significance of what happened.

People who don’t get sympathy at this stage tend to minimize what happened – or over-spiritualize it – and the loss never is clearly identified or fully grieved.

The person who gets chronically stuck at the sympathy stage constantly wants people to know how bad things are for him or her. People who get stuck here are not usually interested in other people’s problems, because that might distract from the shock value of their own oft-repeated tales of woe.

Second Stage: Admiration

After fully grasping the significance of a loss, injured people need to be encouraged, even admired, for their recovery and rebuilding efforts. Learning to trust (safe people) again takes a lot of courage and concerted effort. Praise for this kind of hard work reminds the person that he or she is valuable and matters, regardless of the serious rejection that person experienced.

People who get chronically stuck at the second stage constantly remind others what good people they are . . . or how generous, or compassionate, or full of faith (or something else) they have become. They regale in the stories of their hardships and how they pulled themselves up from their own bootstraps.

These people can become dependent on the perceived admiration of others in order to shore up their never-fully-healed self-esteem.

Third Stage: Actualization

People at this stage have fully grieved their losses, and are grateful for those who came along side of them in the recovery process. While it’s nice to be admired, they become settled, and at peace, with the unique individuals they have become – regardless of what others think of them.

People who experience “actualization” realize that going through significant losses is simply a part of the human experience, and that there’s much to learn from these events (as painful as those lessons can be).

This person fully entrusts herself “to Him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23) and is able to forgive those who have injured her . . . (though she may never trust, or be reconciled with, her remorseless offenders).

This person is able to take a hard look at how he or she may have contributed to the problem (usually by tolerating a bully’s destructive behavior for the sake of “peace”) and resolves to not do that again. The actualized person moves from asking “Why did this happen to me?”  . . . to . . . “How can I use what I’ve learned?”

I suppose it’s possible to get stuck at this stage, but I’ve never seen it happen. People who have experienced “actualization” are almost compelled to move to stage four . . .

Fourth Stage: Extension

Second Kings 7 tells the story of four starving lepers who come upon an abandoned camp full of food and clothing. They say to one another, in essence, “We can’t keep this good news to ourselves . . . let’s go tell the others.”

Actualized people can’t keep good news to themselves – they naturally reach out to others who are going through the earlier stages of what they’ve already gone through – to sympathize, encourage, and help newly-injured people to get back on their feet.

They live out Paul’s observation in 1 Corinthians 1:4

[Jesus] comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

I love watching this when it happens. It’s almost palpable: the moment when a previously-injured person’s focus turns from herself to someone else who is hurting. It’s one of the those “wow” moments you never forget – even though, the person who is “turning the corner” rarely even realizes that it’s happening.

If someone gets stuck at this last stage . . . it’s a good thing.

Especially when …

Schmidt Happens

For Reflection …

In regard to the most recent significant loss you’ve experienced, at which step of healing do you find yourself?

What needs to happen to get to the next step? If you’re at the final “extension” step, upon who could you make an impact?



  • This is interesting. From my experience, when someone is mistreated, I think initially there is a stage of denial, difficulty accepting that the offense happened. Then, I think there is an angry stage and the desire for justice or revenge. Next, comes acceptance and the realization that this really happened and the injury has really occurred Then, there is the redefining of who one is as an injured person and the quest to make new meaning of the suffering, the forgiving process might begin here.. Next, the individual reassesses the direction of his or her life and initiates steps in that direction.


    • Great point! Makes me think about the relationship (if any) between these four stages and the five stages of the grieving process (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance) … I’m going to go out on a limb and say that these four stages (and perhaps getting stuck in the first two) is located somewhere in the Bargaining Stage of Grief … where it’s easy to mistake the good feelings associated with empathy for actual healing (namely, the last stage of grieving: acceptance) …


  • Good stuff. I can totally see how this applies to healing from loss. While reading, “sparks” flew – been there, felt that. My sister passed away recently and I can say that some family members are stuck. Upon reflecting, I am a little father down the steps, possible entering step four! Maybe I can use this new found insight to understand their place in the healing process and hopefully, encourage them. Thank you, Doug!


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