blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, self improvement

How To Achieve Personal Growth (Without Giving Up Everything In The Process)

Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.
Rumi

Raise your hand if you’ve tried self-improvement and failed at it? I have, more times than I can count.

I recall trying self-improvement but instead of gaining anything, I lost my way.

I started working with Finding Your Own North Star by Martha Beck. My life was super stressful with work and family challenges, and I felt defeated. The idea of resetting my internal compass was very appealing.

The book asked probing questions designed to reveal my true needs and aspirations. When I reached the chapter called Getting to Yes which asked me to create a best-case scenario for my life, I choked. Literally and metaphorically. I couldn’t go on, even though Beck had written about this exact reaction. Why?

Every positive scenario I thought of completely excluded the major elements of my life.

Whether it was work, family, or friends, I simply could not imagine how to improve my life without cancelling everything and starting with a clean slate. And I couldn’t cancel my life. So I was paralysed; unable to stay or go. I put the book away and tried to forget it.

Why couldn’t I change?

What Everybody Wants

I think we have a right to change course. But society is the one that keeps demanding that we fit in and not disturb things. They would like you to fit in right away so that things work now.
Anaïs Nin

I was bound by ties of duty to be a good doctor, wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, boss, colleague, and more. But I didn’t want to sacrifice everything I valued for personal growth.

My only solution to this tangled Gordian knot of expectation seemed to be cut and run.

Expectation reduces the amount of thought we have to put into interactions. For example, you buy a sandwich every day from the same store. Both you and the cashier know roughly what to expect from each other, especially if you’ve met a few times.

Now imagine that the next time you hand over your money, the cashier asks you how you’re sleeping and what medication you take.

Or imagine that you visit your accountant’s office and find her painting in oils. She says, “Sorry, I didn’t finish your accounts because this is who I am now.”

Both these scenarios lead to puzzlement and/or anger on your part. Why is this person acting in a different role to what’s agreed, and who’s going to do your accounts now?

Everyone has a role they expect you to play, and it messes up their plans if you don’t go along with it.

If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you?
Not much.

Jim Rohn

If you try to change yourself, you’ll find no shortage of people nudging you back into a place that feels comfortable for them. If you dare to step outside your box, society will discourage or even punish you.

Society runs on external validation and social proof, and it takes courage to chart your own path. When you do, you’ll find the people closest to you are confused. You act differently and they don’t know how to respond, so they try to bring you back in line with veiled or overt threats.

At some point on your journey, you’ll have to choose between what everybody else wants, and what you need. Are you ready to choose yourself?

Photo by Zachary Nelson on Unsplash
 

Never Alone

Even if you cannot change all the people around you, you can change the people you choose to be around. Life is too short to waste your time on people who don’t respect, appreciate, and value you. Spend your life with people who make you smile, laugh, and feel loved.”
Roy T. Bennett

You’ve probably read that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, or you might lean towards the idea that it’s more dispersed than that. There’s definitely some influence, whether larger or smaller.

Imagine you’ve moved on. You don’t want to gossip over lunch or complain about your boss or otherwise play small anymore. But your colleagues are the same. You can’t change them. Habits are triggered by cues, so you decide to work out at lunchtime instead of going to the break room to whine. Which is great for your abs, but you just lost your social group at work.

Some self-improvement writers present this social drift as a virtuous circle. The more they improve themselves, the less they have in common with previous friends. So they find new, better ones more suited to their higher vibration. Which makes them even better, and so on.

That can come across as rather shallow and self-serving. Some relationships are temporary, but if you treat everyone as disposable you’ll never make lasting connections. Plus you risk finding yourself out of the circle once they move on, again. If you find it difficult to make new friends, discarding those you have has little appeal.

So can you change without giving up all your relationships and risking society’s scorn?

The Same But Different

People can’t live with change if there’s not a changeless core inside them.
Stephen R. Covey

Most people don’t want to sell all their possessions and go meditate in a cave in search of personal growth. Maybe you don’t have to reconnect with your first love on Facebook and leave your husband and children behind to find happiness in life.

You want to live a truer version of yourself, not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Self-improvement is Michelangelo carefully cutting away all that’s inessential to reveal the glory of his David. It’s about finding the core of your self by discarding what no longer works and then living in accordance with your truth.

Change is evolution, not revolution.

Taking tiny steps and testing the waters is less daunting and likely to be more successful than a wholesale revision.

  1. Get clear about what you want to achieve. Finding the right guru is important, but you have to do the exercises in the books to refine your vision rather than just read without reflection.
  2. You will have to give something up to move forward. There’s no lesson in life that doesn’t cost something. Outdated ways of thinking and childhood programming are burdens you don’t need, but they can be comforting because they’re familiar and the unknown is scary.
  3. Reach out to your new tribe. Hang out where your people hang out. The internet makes this simple, no matter your location or interests. If you want to be a writer or a potter or a vintage car restorer, go find them. Lurk in online groups before introducing yourself and if the group isn’t for you, move on. The stakes are lower online, plus you still have your real life friends, right?
  4. Practise assertiveness. People will challenge your new behaviour. Don’t fold or apologise. When they accuse you of having changed, smile and say, “Thanks, I hope so.”
  5. Give yourself time to emerge. A snake sheds its old skin to grow only after the new skin has formed. It’s tender and delicate for a while and the snake will often hide until it feels safe again. Try out your new behaviours in sympathetic settings first. Read to your poetry group before entering a poetry slam. Visit the gym at quiet times before tackling that huge, intimidating spin class. Practise saying no to your annoying co-worker before your demanding boss. Note the response and adjust your aim next time.

Stepping outside the shared comfort zone of what’s expected will never be easy, but the pain of change is worth it. Approach with care, know the danger spots, and keep the end in mind.

Better to endure breaking down in the chrysalis and emerge a butterfly than refuse growth and stay a caterpillar forever.

 

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

How to Escape the Blame Game and Reclaim Your Happiness

leave blame behind and take control

balloons-boy_bugent
bugent via pixabay

We all have baggage.

Yours isn’t the same as mine but it’s all heavy. It weighs us down in the present because we can’t face the future without looking back at what happened in the past.

And then we place blame.

“I can’t succeed as a writer because my English teacher said I lacked imagination.”

“I can’t get close to anyone because my mother said I was unlovable.”

“I lack confidence because someone said I was ugly.”

Blame lets you off the hook. The blame game is satisfying because it allows you to simultaneously wallow in past hurt and dodge any remedial actions. It’s not your fault, you cry. People or life or the universe did you wrong. You can’t help the position you’re in.

Well, guess what? That story you tell yourself and anyone who’ll listen is BS.

Not My Fault!

A few years ago The Secret by Rhonda Byrne swept to the top of bestseller lists all over the world. It sold people one beguiling idea: that you could bring about anything you wanted by asking the Universe for it. It repackaged ideas about the power of positive thinking that had been around since Think and Grow Rich was written in 1937 and brought them into the modern age.

But this bright smiley idea has a dark side. It’s this; if bad things happen, you brought them on yourself by negative thinking. Got laid off? Ill health? Betrayed by someone? You weren’t thinking right and now it’s your fault.

This idea is insidious and fails to acknowledge that some people have very real challenges that aren’t necessarily avoidable. Nobody chooses a hard life if they have a choice.

In this case, something bad happened and it was not your fault. You shouldn’t blame yourself for events that are out of your direct control.

Fault lies with whoever caused the event.

Blame is something you lay at the feet of the person who caused it.

But while they are responsible for causing the event, you also have a responsibility. It’s your job to fix yourself.

Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

Still On The Hook

Understand you’re not letting the person responsible off the hook. If your father was a violent alcoholic, he made his choices and acted accordingly. Your task now is to choose how you go forward from the place you find yourself in through no fault of your own.

Constantly pointing back to the past won’t help. You have to accept the task of building your own happiness, without either sacrificing it on the altar of blame or outsourcing it to someone or something else.

It’s not necessary to forgive what happened. Remember that forgiveness is a gift for you, not a prize for wrongdoing.  You get the benefit; you release yourself from the burden of grief and move forward with a lighter heart.

That might be too much to ask. But it’s not necessary to forgive or forget. What you must do is focus on yourself and your future.

Time To Take Charge

It may not be your fault, but it is for sure your responsibility to fix it.
Will Smith

Will Smith posted a short video in which he explains his idea. He advocates reclaiming your power by facing the truth of your situation and any necessary change head-on but leaving fault behind.

Once again, the person with a strong internal locus of control is better equipped for the task of forging their own path. They’re used to setting their own standards and goals before working out how to achieve them. They accept help if needed and work together with their advisers to succeed.

The person with an external locus of control believes that when things happen to them they’re relatively powerless to change the outcome. They look for answers and remedies outside themselves and are typically passive observers of their lives. They want to be saved. They get angry when the solutions don’t magically appear and don’t expect to exert any effort to achieve them.

But It’s Not Fair

I know the world isn’t fair, but why isn’t it ever unfair in my favor?
Bill Watterson

From my first day of school, I faced relentless bullying. It never really stopped as I got older, it simply changed. The boys chanting names behind five-year-old me all the way home gave way to the woman who was enraged that eighteen-year-old me got the university place that rightly belonged to her son. And so on.

I was hurt and confused and angry. I wasn’t at fault, I simply existed in the same space as people who thought I shouldn’t be there. Many tears were shed in secret.

We all live in a story of our own making. Sometimes we write the script, other times we speak other people’s words. We don’t always control the scenes. But our lives are stories, and we can change them.

The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide you’re not going to stay where you are.
John Pierpont “J.P.” Morgan

So you’re going to take a long hard look at some of the scripts that run your life. You’re going to be brutally honest about how you react to the bad stuff. And you’re going to change and do better.

For me, that means acknowledging things that have happened without laying blame. Blame is a trap that steals both agency and hope.

People act at their current level of thinking, and they cannot do better until they think better. It’s not my job to change their minds. It’s my job to change mine.

I have to do the work of repairing my wounds, grow a thicker skin, strengthen my resolve, and claim the life I want. It’s not fair and it’s not right, but that’s life and we deserve to thrive despite it all.

Get Up That Ladder

If lightning strikes your roof, you can cry or curse the weather. The rain will keep coming in as long as you fail to fix the problem that you didn’t cause.

Or you get out the ladder and call someone who can help because you’re the one getting wet. Choosing to stay wet? That’s on you.

Stuff happens. It is what it is. What the future will be is up to you.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

New adults, old times

the nest is never quite empty

dennisflarsen via pixabay

 

My son is home for the summer from University. My daughter never left, since she chose a college five miles away. She’s working now in a job not worthy of her first class degree, but okay for a start.

It’s been good for her, but this isn’t how I planned it.

She was meant to do what I did; fly the nest at eighteen with never a backward glance. She is part of a modern trend, whereby more adults aged 18–34 live with their parents than ever before. She can’t afford even a tiny rented place of her own on her current salary. I bought my first house aged twenty-five, on a mortgage of twice my salary. I try not to think about how or when she will be able to do the same.

So we’re four, a nuclear family again. Just like old times, except not. They’re adults. They don’t have to tell me what time they’re coming home. But I do have to include them in dinner plans apparently, except for when I don’t because he’s been invited to Tom’s ad hoc barbecue and oh, can you give me a lift?

I’m struggling to calibrate my parenting. On a scale from ‘call social services’ to ‘paranoid mama bear’ should I be ‘kitchen’s stocked, clear up after yourself’ or ‘give me your schedule, I’ll make that chicken casserole you like.’ Or something else entirely?

Back to the future

There’s something about returning to your childhood home that unearths long-hidden behaviour patterns and dysfunction. I saw that with my own siblings. Despite having partners and jobs and adult stuff, we still somehow lined up in age order, complete with ancient resentments about favouritism. It was ridiculous and exhausting.

We all get on, mostly, and I’m grateful. The family unit is reformed differently each time he returns, a minefield of unspoken rules and covert expectations between generations and siblings. I slide reluctantly into a role whose restrictions I was all too glad to leave behind. The apron strings bind both sides. Maybe they think I chose my role. Perhaps, but it is well past its expiry date, for me anyway.

Spread your wings and fly?

Around my garden, birds are feeding their young. It’s full time work, but at least there is a clear contract. I feed you until you’re as big as me. Then you’re on your own.

My kidults are caught between dependence and freedom. It feels to me like they have the best of both, feeding my resentment. Some lessons, like the mechanics of being fully responsible for yourself, cannot be taught. Those lessons must be lived and learned.

No doubt we should sit down together and lay ground rules, and we will. Just as soon as she gets back from her night out and he gets out of bed.

Meantime… dinner at seven okay for everyone?

blog

Mother’s day, present

 

Pink rose by Miss_Orphelia via pixabay
Miss_Orphelia via pixabay

 

It’s not mothers’ day that gets to me, not now. The days of buying cards for my small children to give to grandmas are long behind me. There is only an old scar now at the place where I used to wonder where my card was coming from. Like running my tongue over the edge of a broken tooth that’s unexpectedly sharp, it’s best to avoid such things.

Eventually children are grown enough that they too are sucked into the consumerism that rewards a lifetime’s toil with over sweet chocolates and limp tulips from the supermarket. It’s a little late of course, but still welcome for what it is.

No, it’s the birthday card I don’t need to buy, the expectation I don’t have to meet that pricks at my chest today. The mother-daughter dynamic is a complicated, beautiful, terrible thing to negotiate. It feels impossible to make it completely right from either side, try as we might. But from this distance jagged edges are smoothed by time, and murky waters settle and clear.

She was not perfect. Yet with each passing year I see her somehow more clearly; younger, brighter, dancing in a striped sundress of lemon-yellow. It may exist only in my mind’s eye, but that is what my brain wants to remember.

No matter how stamped upon and twisted her roots might have been, no matter what secrets she held close like a gambler’s winning hand, she blooms in my memory on a still summer day. Birds sing and she pushes through the mud and dirt to flower, brilliant and defiant under a cloudless blue sky.

 

audio, blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, poetry

Judas

alone_AngeloMazzotta
AngeloMazzotti via pixabay

listen: 

I have only myself to blame. And you of course, but you’re not here, are you? I walk alone with my thoughts and self-recriminations.

You fell in step with me and we walked a path, uncertain but less perilous because we were together. I believed we were equals.

I should not have listened.

My history, yes, I thought that sack of stones was behind me, sorted and catalogued, stripped of hurt.

I should have remembered.

A pat on the back, a smile, a confidence shared. Comrades, or so I thought. A friend’s blow unseen until the final moment, sharp blade sliding into exposed skin.

I should not have dropped my guard.

(A gasp, not a scream, because this cannot be happening.)

Ruby drops pump from my scandalised heart onto stony ground. No pain, just numbing cold as you step away, carelessly wiping my blood from your hands.

Now you seek a safer harbour. Take your traitorous smile and self-serving machinations, go where you will.

I am the strength that protected you, but in the end you gave me nothing but a wound.

Another scar. I walk on alone.

One day, I will learn.

audio, blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, short story

Timeworn

 

padlock-hinge_KRiemer
KRiemer via pixabay

Listen: 

She checks the bedroom one last time, gaze sweeping around the walls, into each corner, over the floor. The desk is empty, bed stripped and bare, walls blank, almost like a prison cell.

She remembers watching some TV drama, the new inmate arriving in an ill-fitting orange jumpsuit with a small pile of possessions in her arms. There was fear in her eyes, anxiety for the future and regret for the past. But there was nowhere else to go. She had to enter, and face whatever lay ahead.

Now it is her turn to move on. She pulls the door close, without shutting it completely.

“You could stay, you know.” He stands by the window, staring out at the light rain pattering on the rose bushes outside. His hands are jammed in the pockets of his sweatpants. He never does that normally. Through the fabric she sees his fists, balled up and tense. Her stomach twists. Those hands, like that mouth with its thin upper and generous lower lip, are still capable of so many things.

“We could—”
“I’m all set to go.” She forces her mouth into a smile, huffs out a breath. She uncurls her own fist, nails dug into the soft flesh. “This is yours.”

The key sits on her palm, its gleam dulled by time and repetition. If she took her hand away, would it float there in the air between them, given but not taken?

His jaw tightens and he presses his lips together. She does not offer comfort. Her hand remains steady, not shaking as she feared it might. She looks away from his face and down at the key, examining the tiny nicks and scratches, an unwritten history.

New objects have crisp, sharp boundaries that separate them from their environment. But over time, a thing rubs and chafes against the outside and loses its shape. Eventually the edges are so worn that its original form is forgotten under the onslaught of a thousand tiny collisions with the world. Nothing survives life intact, and no-one knows where the lost pieces go.

She steps forward and sets the key on the kitchen table. He glances at it and then directly at her. She gazes back, breathing deliberately, consciously slowing her racing pulse. Nothing stops time. It runs fast or slow, but it wears everything down.

“I’m sorry,” he says finally. She notes with detachment that his eyes are still the startling blue of a summer sky that knows no grey.
“Me too,” she replies, nodding.

She slings her bag over her shoulder and walks out, away, closing the door softly behind her.

audio, blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, poetry

Imperceptible

a poem

sunset-orange_kordi-vahle
kordi-vahle via pixabay

Listen to this poem:  

A certain shade of vulnerability
Dark smudged beneath a weary, teary eye
Faint fingerprinted hip where passion turned angry
A shadowed brow, but not like this
The place where things slid from binary
Into uncertain gradations

When did day surrender, when did light flee?
Night now, but let your eye adapt
And catalogue dim fractions
Pupils stretched wide until all the darks are one
Swallowed ghostly whole entire by dusk
Obscuring every boundary and line

You think you’ll know when
You think you’ll see it
But the shift is imperceptible.


first published in Poets Unlimited on Medium, 10 January 2018