Merry Christ"mess" ... Get Out of the "Messy Middle!"

It was on Christmas Eve around 8 PM that my phone rang. I assumed it was a “Merry Christmas” call. A worker at the Alzheimer’s Care Home had accidentally turned my dad’s wheelchair over and his head was split open. He was in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.

We immediately turned the oven off, and shoved all of the food we were preparing into the refrigerator to race to the Emergency Room to be with him. We were relieved that despite all of the bleeding, he seemed alert. There were many stitches required to close the wound.

Not what we had in mind for Christmas Eve. 

At the moment, it seemed like a “mess” had been made of our Christmas. We all have times when things become a mess!

It’s in what I call “the messy middle“ that we become discouraged, disappointed, and we sometimes quit. But I’ve also heard it said that it’s in the “messy middle“ that we have our greatest opportunities for growth, character development, and building a fire on our backside. (More about that later!)

It’s easy to make a decision and start out strong. Whether it’s a weight loss program, a project, or a commitment to someone we love. We jump in, we give it all we’ve got, and we have high hopes. In the words of a classic tune: “high apple pie in-the-sky hopes!”

When we are nearing completion of any of those things, we are so exhilarated to cross the finish line. No matter how fatigued we may feel from the journey, nor how difficult it has been … it seems like that last little stretch is somehow adorned with a fresh burst of commitment, energy, and determination.

Starting strong and finishing strong are rarely the problem. It’s in the “messy middle“ that we experience the greatest difficulty.

I’m writing this at the Christmas season, but of course, it applies at every time of the year. The topic came to my mind after three of my clients said to me this week, “I love my family, but I wish I didn’t have to be with them for Christmas.“ Why? Because they are in the “messy middle“ with their family. They have unresolved issues with uncle Bobby Joe, and he’s going to be there. Or they are at odds with a sibling or a parent.

The messy middle brings out our worst, but sometimes our best. It all depends on what we choose to do.

The “messy middle” is often where divorces occur, where jobs are quit, where weight loss plans get totally thrown off the wagon. Why? Because the “messy middle” is difficult. Sometimes the short-term relief of quitting or turning back causes us to overlook the long-term results.

Many times a week in my office, I speak the words “you are in the messy middle!”

It appears to me that in the “messy middle”, pride often keeps us from making good choices, and to stay determined and finish the course. I worked with an excellent example recently.

There had been an infidelity in the relationship, and as is often the case, the person who committed the infidelity pointed a finger at the other. ‘If you had only… If you had stopped… If you had been… If you had acted…“ One devastated, the other ashamed that they had been “caught.“

The devastated party just wanted to separate themselves from the marriage because they didn’t think they could take anymore. And being held accountable for the other’s poor moral choice just seemed grossly unfair.

The one who was “caught” felt shame wanted to escape, because they did not want to pay the price of owning their choices and behaviors. Or the price of experiencing the anger and disappointment of the other. It was easier to walk away, bear the cost of a financial settlement, rather than owning the wrong, and offering healing and restoration to the one who was devastated.

I think they came and poured their story out and actually wanted me to referee the situation, call fouls, and declare a winner and a loser. But rather than do that, I repeated those words I often use … “You are in the messy middle.”

“It’s understandable that each of you would want to walk away at this moment. But it’s in the ‘messy middle’ that your marriage has the opportunity to grow beyond anything you imagined. It’s in the ‘messy middle’ that you can begin to examine your character and to work diligently to grow. It’s in the ‘messy middle’ where you need to look into the future and consider the consequences of such a drastic choice.”

We began to look at growth opportunities, like remembering why they fell in love. Like looking at the wonderful memories they have shared together, instead of focusing on the distance. To look at the consequences of giving up the dream of growing old together. To look at the sacrifice of not turning the vacation home into their permanent home which was only a few years away.

Whether it’s a relationship, a career, a weight-loss program, a new business, or anything else… There is likely to be a “messy middle.” If you reflect on your life, there is no doubt that you have experience some “messy middles.”

I am a big proponent and champion of using the “messy middle” for an opportunity to step up to a higher place! And pressing forward to the finish line! How?

1. Consider how you could grow in this situation! Ask yourself that question when you’re in the “messy middle”. Usually, if you look closely, there are truly many things that could offer growth. One is learning to not take the easy way out. It’s human nature. Given an opportunity to exercise daily, or to use that time sitting in an easy chair with a remote control… and most of us would choose the easy way out. Or given the opportunity to get resourceful and pull a project or relationship back together, or just walking away and starting a new one… human nature would invite us to walk away.

But you are better than that! There are so many opportunities to grow when we do not escape the scene of the crime.

I remember when I had inpatient and outpatient treatment centers, and insurance and referral fees changed. It seemed like every treatment center was struggling and about to close their doors. My first inclination was to walk away. But I dared to look at the potential for growth, and when I pressed pause on the fears rumbling inside me, and re-examined my purpose and my cause… I turned my focus to the hundreds and hundreds of people who came through, and not only pulled their lives together, but found purpose and excelled! Where would they go? How many would we miss?

Against all odds, I decided that we were creative and smart enough to figure out an better plan than walking away.

We did! And I am so grateful we did, even though it was a treacherous journey. My personal growth was immense,  and I believe it made me the therapist/coach that I am today.

2. Assess how the “messy middle” could help build your character. The “messy middle” builds character, as it requires us to examine the situation we are in and determine the role we play in that “messy middle”. Again, human nature in us would prefer to walk away. However, when we pause and ask ourselves, “What is my role in the position we are in? How can I get the courage to own my role, and make appropriate alterations?” … we are developing character!

The person who had the affair (in the story of the couple I related above), asked me, “What would it mean to me if I looked at character growth in this ‘messy middle?’ I said to him … “I’m so glad you asked!”

I went on to say, “It would require that you look your spouse in the eye and say, ‘Our marriage has some real challenges in it, but my poor moral choice is neither deserved nor caused by you. I am willing to hear about your anger, dry your tears, and address the real problems in our marriage.’” So we began a journey out of the “messy middle.”

After a trip down memory lane about how and why they fell in love; remembering some magic moments; and remembering why they worked so hard to obtain their vacation home on the beach in hopes they would retire there together… He reached and took her hand and said all of the above and more… Including his recommitment to the marriage. It was beautiful!

3. Calculate what you’re sacrificing if you escape the ‘messy middle’ and light a fire on your backside! On any worthy venture or journey, there is a ‘messy middle’. When we start strong, we pretty much know our “why”? There is some incredible research about having a strong “why” to start on any venture. I agree with that totally.

But that’s half of what you must have in place. I call your why your “fire in your belly.“ Why you want something so badly, why it’s so important to you and what the amazing results will be.

Yet research tells us that we will all work harder to avoid something painful then we will to achieve something wonderful.


I know the second half of what we must have in addition to our “why” or our “fire in the belly” is a “fire on our backside.” What does that mean? It means determining what we will miss out on or lose if we do not achieve our goal. Whether the goal is to obtain a management position for our career, to lose 43 pounds, to develop a healthier relationship with our adult children, or to stay together long enough to celebrate our 40th anniversary (to take a European river boat cruise) … we need a “fire in the belly” AND a “fire on our backside!”

A strong “why” may get you halfway there, but a “fire on your backside” will get you across the finish line.

In the ‘messy middle’, we need to pause and take inventory of what we will sacrifice or miss out on if we forfeit at this stage in the game. That’s the “fire on our backside.”

When I first released my lifestyle plan for health an weight loss, I had a client who drove from Houston weekly. She wanted to lose 35 pounds. She had plenty of “fire in her belly”. She and her husband had not had a honeymoon, and in five or six months, they were going to his son’s graduation, in Florida, and taking a honeymoon cruise. She had already bought her a little black dress with fringe on it and could see the two of them dancing together. She had plenty of “fire in her belly, but she had no “fire on her backside”.

I worked with her several sessions, but she could not come up with any “fire for her backside.” I told her that I had no doubt we could reach her goal if she could identify some “fire on her backside”. She continued on the plan, and I assured her I would pray the best for her. Occasionally she would send me a message and say, “I’m way behind on my weight loss, but I’m gonna keep trying.”

Then came the day that I got the tearful voice message with desperate words and tears that I could barely comprehend. “I have the “fire on my backside!” Please call me ASAP. I’ll be in my car the moment you can see me!“

She had learned that her husband’s ex-wife, who had not planned to attend the graduation, had changed her mind and would be there. She simply did not want the ex-wife to see her 35 pounds heavier.

That was all it took. She was in the ‘messy middle’ and struggling, but the “fire on her backside” She lost the 35 pounds, plus 5 more. She went on the cruise, danced in her little black dress with fringe, and now, 15 years later, the weight is still off.

Why? Because she looked at what she would sacrifice, miss out on, or forfeit … and that was her “fire on the backside.”

If you’re not in the “messy middle“ in any part of your life right now, congratulations! However, you are likely to experience it at some point. Use it for stepping up to higher place in your life!

In summary, in the “messy middle,” look for an opportunity to grow, get determined to do some character development, and get some “fire on your backside.”

That Christmas, my mother had been decorating our home since September. The local news channel had come out to film both the inside and outside of our home for the second year in a row. All the groceries were bought, dinner was started for the next day when we were going to get my dad and bring him home to celebrate Christmas with us. We had a strong start for Christmas. When we got him back to the Care Center, all tucked in and loved on, we found ourselves in the “messy middle”!

Surely the turkey was ruined, surely the half peeled potatoes were brown, and surely there were no stores open to buy another turkey. Someone said, we might as well just go and have our Christmas lunch at the Alzheimer’s Care Clinic. (And trust me the food was not delicious, to say the least!)

It dawned on me we were in the “messy middle.” I said that I bet everything was salvageable. That’s all my mother needed to hear and she immediately went into a plan that could save the day. Because we didn’t know if we would have another Christmas to bring my dad home too. And sure enough, we didn’t. Because we lost him the next Christmas Eve.

We flew into action, and we were still in the kitchen at 3 AM giggling as we repared food in creative ways, in order to finish strong.

It was an amazing Christmas day. My daddy was more lucid and alert than normal. He laughed with us, he ate a delicious meal, and it was a Christmas I shall never forget. In my mind, it’s not the Christmas that they dropped my poor daddy on his head. It was the Christmas that we chose to hang on in the “messy middle” and to finish strong!

If you’re in a “messy middle”, my heart is with you. But I want to encourage you. Get a “fire in your belly”, get a “fire on your backside”, and look for ways to grow and step up to a higher place. Watch your character sore! You can and will finish strong!