The older I get the more I realize that many of the things I found insurmountable when I was younger changed when I wasn’t looking. In my early twenties I struggled with intense jealousy. It was crazy. If two of my friends even just talked on the phone I would feel insanely left out. And I hated being alone, to the point where the thought of having to be alone for extended period of times sent me into a panic. I spent 99% of my energy working on those two things. They felt permanent and overwhelming, and seemed to define me. I look back on them now and not only are they gone, but I don’t even remember when they left. It’s as if, one day, they just packed their bags and left.
But now I know they didn’t just leave. I got bigger. As I explored myself to find why spending time alone was so bad, I grew in self-awareness. As I wrestled with a nasty inner critic (that fanned the flames of jealousy) I grew in confidence. My sense of self grew bigger in relationship to my fears and anxieties.
When I work with people on their personal and professional development now, I think in terms of this distinction: What kind of change process is this? What needs to change, the behavior or the attitude towards it? Will this change of its own accord, and if not, what kind of efforts are needed? I find it helpful in working with people to parse their problems into types of issues and types of change.
So here’s my little Primer on Personal Growth and Change, and it starts with the question: What is the nature of the thing we’re tackling?
Is it a complex, trigger, or edge?
We all have scars forged in life’s battles and sometimes they get aggravated under the right conditions. These “triggers” or complexes create zones of non-navigability, and in some situations, they make us insecure and ineffective. These things rob us of our freedom. They are fears that inhibit us, triggers or emotional reactions that hijack our behavior, and moods that makes us feel dejected or dispirited.
These things can and do change, but only with sustained effort and awareness. Their roots are often tangled in past experiences. And sometimes the process of working on it is its own solution. Like me in my twenties, working on jealousy and phobias, unpacking, examining, and working through my fears and complexes changed me. While you’re distracting yourself by focusing on these triggers, you’re also growing a solid sense of self. In fact, these things take hold only to the degree that your sense of self (Big “S” Self) is small. Working on these old patterns and stories increases your self-awareness, and helps you carve out a deep and abiding center, capable of facing of life’s challenges.
Am I struggling with my nature?
Sometimes we struggle not with a complex or fear, but with our own nature. We don’t like ourselves, or some part of ourselves. We all grow up in a context that prizes some behaviors and disavows others. And so we grow up wanting to fit in, and be like others. We think we’re too loud and try to be quieter. We struggle being an introvert in an extraverted family. We’re called hyperactive so we try to chill out. It’s in the nature of a culture to prize some behaviors over others in order to socialize its members to adapt and survive.
Yet those things won’t, and can’t change. They belong to us, like white on rice, part and parcel of our incarnation. These are our unique traits, and like them or not, they are the raw material from which you form yourself. Your traits are the hand you are dealt in the poker game of life, and learning to play that hand is the only option you have.
Traits become a great source of strength and wonderful talents, once we grow comfortable with them and use them to their fullest. If we are comfortable in our introversion, others will be too. If we come to appreciate our bossiness and see it as potential leadership, it will be a great ally for us. If we can discover what’s good about being easy going and conflict avoidant, we can make it work to great advantage.
So, changing, in this regard, means acceptance, changing our attitude towards ourselves, or maybe changing what we do or who we socialize with, so that our traits more naturally fit in, and are better appreciated and put to use.
Do I need to learn something new?
Learning isn’t for the faint of heart. The more I work with people on their personal and professional growth, the more I appreciate the complexity of learning.
Learning is a behavior we have to learn! But we aren’t taught how to learn. In fact, many of us were taught how not to learn by focusing on being right and avoid making mistakes. And then we make it worse by trying to compensate against that, and defensively embracing ourselves as we are, seeing doubts or challenges as a threat or injury to our self-esteem.
When change means learning something new, it can be straightforward, but often it’s not. Because To learn, and learn well, we need a loving ability to hold ourselves at the edge of discomfort. Learning requires a good mix of muscle, self-love, and endurance. And we need to set ourselves up for success by breaking things down into manageable bites so we don’t get overwhelmed. We need the freedom to make mistakes, but also the discipline to examine them and learn from them.
Change and growth isn’t just a straight path from A to B. It’s a process. Thankfully. There’s a lot to discover along that path, as long as we take time to discover what kind of change process we’re in.