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, creativity, productivity

Is Self-Help Really For Everyone?

think before you choose your guru

helping-up_sasint
sasint via pixabay

Make the most of yourself….for that is all there is of you.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Self-improvement is everywhere. It’s a multi-billion dollar business and popular non-fiction niche on Amazon. There’s no shortage of people telling you how to achieve success in life, just like they did.

Picture person A, your typical guru. He’s young and healthy, with a bright smile and muscular arms peeking out of his short sleeved tee-shirt. He wakes very early, meditates, then writes in his gratitude journal before exercising. One cold shower later he’s ready to crush it! He has a blog, a book, and a course you can buy.

He has daily, weekly, monthly and life goals, and reviews them every week.
He reads. A lot. Business books, biographies of the famous, maybe a little light philosophy like Marcus Aurelius or Seneca.

Does this sound like you?

Or are you more like person B? You drag yourself out of bed, rushing around to get children and pets organised as well as yourself, before fighting with a million other commuters on your way to do something soul-crushing that pays the bills.

You haven’t read anything more than a headline in months, and evenings are a chance to collapse in front of TV before you do it all again. If you do read, you want light relief from all the stuff that weighs on you, not long words and tough concepts.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be more like the guru. The real question is, are self-help gurus the best guides for people like person B?

The Past Is A Different Country

He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.
Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

Memory is a tricky beast. Rather than fixed rail tracks, memories are more like paths worn through grass that are slightly different each time. Memory is approximate, and the passage of time makes it more so.

This means that when people look back to see how they arrived where they stand, it’s difficult to see the exact route. There are mileposts where something significant happened, and those memories are stronger. But there are also many days without particular events, and those are harder to recall.

Recall isn’t the same as a recording. We tend to over emphasise some points and downplay others. Some memories fade with time, making others look brighter, and often we tend to rose-tint the past.

So when someone tells you how he got from there to here, his account is likely to be distorted by emotion and time. Also he might downplay the difficulties or lucky breaks he had to make the journey seem more achievable.

Person A is an unreliable guide to his own history. We all are.

All Things Being Unequal

Photo by Deva Darshan on Unsplash

You can’t get there from here.

There are assumptions baked into most self-improvement schedules. Person A tells you that he reached his current position by following specific rules and behaviours, and you can do it too.

But can you?

Maybe your 5 o’clock morning is dark and cold for most of the year, and/or you’re up most nights with a child so need all the sleep you can get.

Maybe you’re not blessed with a mesomorph build and fast metabolism that responds easily and predictably to diet and exercise.

Maybe you have medical or physical challenges that make yoga a huge challenge.

Maybe you don’t have the temperament for introspection and you’ve never kept a journal in your life.

We all have different handicaps and starting points. There’s no level playing field in life.

The question is…what do you do about that?

Before You Climb, Sit Down

Never ask advice of someone with whom you wouldn’t want to trade places.
Darren Hardy

You can and should challenge yourself to be better in pursuit of personal growth. But your journey isn’t exactly the same as mine, and there’s no single route to the goal.

Even more important, you need to be sure you’re climbing the right mountain for the right reasons. Only then should you pick a guide.

Your peak might be Everest or Kilimanjaro. You might aim for the very top or be satisfied to reach the foothills. Each requires different techniques.

Are you looking for inner strength, resilience, or a specific skill?

Get clear about what you want. Try the following, and if one doesn’t work try another.

1. Journaling is a reliable route into your innermost thoughts. It doesn’t have to be done first thing though. After dinner or before bed are good times to jot down a few thoughts about the day and what’s currently missing from your life.

If the idea of keeping a diary is a turn off, try this; once a week, write a list of the things that would make your life better. After six or eight weeks, see what comes up repeatedly. That’s a clue.

You could also try the future you exercise. Think about a future where you have everything you want. What does it look like? What are you doing, and with whom? Where are you living and how? Write it all down, in detail. This helps to crystallise the targets you’re aiming at.

2. Meditation is popular for stress reduction, improved mental health, and gaining insight. But you don’t have to do it in one specific way. The aim of meditation is a single point of focus to clear the mind. You can gain benefits from as little as ten minutes, as long as you practise regularly.

Apps are good for getting you started, but you can reach the meditative state through exercise (walking, swimming, running), prayer, or simple repetitive actions like washing or sweeping. Even focusing on the water raining down in the shower might work.

Or you can chant and focus on a candle flame. Do whatever works for you. The insights come not during your session, but later when your subconscious has had time to work out answers to the questions of what you want or need.

3. Talking might appeal more than endless navel-gazing. Choose your listener with care. You want someone who knows you well, but with less baggage and expectations than your mother or childhood friend.

A pet can be the best listener. They don’t interrupt and stroking them lowers your stress level as a bonus.

However you do it, form a picture of where you want to be. The question is, who will get you there?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Are You Gonna Go Their Way?

People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.
John C. Maxwell

Once you know what you want specifically, look around at the people offering guidance. Are they where you want to be? Did they share some of your challenges at the start of their journey?

If you can, look inside the range of books on offer. Is the writing easy to read? You might prefer an upbeat can-do style or something more measured.

Don’t automatically buy the best seller of the moment. Of the top twenty best sellers in self help on Amazon UK, only five are by female authors and one of those is about tidying up. Different authors have values, insights and goals that might not align with yours at all.

This can make the difference between success and failure. You must adapt the method to your unique circumstances and problem solve ahead of time.

If you have primary childcare responsibilities, pay attention to what the guru says about their family. If childcare doesn’t factor into their morning routine, ask yourself who is going to handle that in your life. Either someone else has to do it, or you’ll have to work around it.

If you’re not a lark, or you already rise at five to commute, the morning routine could shift into an evening routine. Try listening to books or podcasts while travelling. You could give up an hour a day of mindless TV in favour of working on your development.

Exercise is good for everyone, as long as it fits with your routine and current level of fitness. Don’t think of it as an all or nothing game. Simply walking has benefits if you do it regularly, and over time you can move on to more intense exercise in a gym or at home.

If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.
Martin Luther King

Start at the lowest comfortable level and set yourself up for success. Consistency is more important than intensity. Don’t overload yourself with too many changes at once. It’s still worth improving just one aspect of your current status quo, and the next change will be easier.

Choose Your Piece of the Pie

To achieve greatness, start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.
Arthur Ashe

We can all be better versions of ourselves, but we have to be real about the process. Self-help is a crowded arena and every guru promises success with their methods. But you’re an individual and one size never fits all.

Remember caveat emptor — buyer beware. You don’t have to take on every suggestion — and you don’t have to do it all on day one.

    • Get clear about what you want.
    • Survey the options on offer.
    • Seek guidance from someone who’s overcome challenges similar to yours.
    • Make sure the guru stands where you want to be.
  • Adjust the route to fit your own needs and preferences.

There are many ways up the mountain — go find your best path.


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