I usually don’t feel drawn to doing “list posts.” Some of this is because of my unease about doing something “everyone else” seems to be doing.
So, as a personal growth exercise, I’m going to jump right in and do a list post! I also think this is a pretty cool and valuable list of questions for building awareness about how we limit ourselves with our ways of thinking and being.
Without further ado, here are some questions I’ve gained a lot from asking myself. Some of them may be uncomfortable to think about, but I think that kind of discomfort is usually a sign of growth:
1. What quality in other people irritates you most? (For example, is it ambition, shyness, laziness, or something else?) How do you have this quality in the way you live your own life?
2. What quality in other people do you envy the most? How do you already have this quality in the way you live your own life?
3. What emotion do you least want to feel? Is it fear, anger, sadness, or something else? What do you do in your life to avoid feeling it?
4. What do you most want people to think about you? What do you do in your life to make sure others think that? What is that costing you?
5. What do you least want people to think about you? What do you do in your life to make sure others don’t think that? What is that costing you?
6. What have you done that you least want people to know about? What do you do in your life to make sure no one finds out about what you did?
7. What have you done that you most want people to know about? How do you go out of your way to make sure people know you did it?
8. If you knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the only reason you’re alive is to enjoy every moment, would you change the way you live? How?
9. If you knew that, no matter what you did or didn’t do, you would love and respect yourself, how would you live your life?
10. What would you create if you knew no one would ever see it? In other words, if you were 100% certain that your work would never make you famous or rich, and the only thing you’d ever get out of it was personal satisfaction, what would you choose to do?
11. Here’s another interesting way to put Question # 10: How would you live if you knew that no one would ever approve of you? If you knew that nobody would ever be happy with the way you live, and that you might as well do whatever fulfills you, what would you do?
12. How are you trying to please your parents with the way you live? What is that costing you?
13. If you knew that you were 100% forgiven for everything you think you’ve done wrong, how would that change the way you live?
14. If you cried in front of a stranger, how would they react? (Take the first answer that comes to mind.)
15. If you got angry at a stranger, how would they react? (Same rule as Question # 14.)
16. In what situations do you try to look happy when you really aren’t?
17. In what situations do you hold back from speaking the truth to avoid hurting someone’s feelings?
18. If you’re a man, how do you think a man is supposed to act? How do you make an effort to act that way?
19. If you’re a woman, how do you think a woman is supposed to act? How do you make an effort to act that way?
20. How is the “public you” different from the “private you”?
Whew! And we’re done. It was an intense experience for me writing and thinking about those questions — I’m curious what it was like for you to read them. You don’t have to share your answers to the specific questions, but if you want to that’s great too. Thanks!
In other news: I did an interview with Evita Ochel of EvolvingBeings.com on meditation, how to do it and the benefits it can bring. I hope you enjoy it.
Once upon a time, my goal was to lead a life that was completely criticism-proof. Once I had the “right” job, credentials, relationship, and so on, no one would ever accuse me of falling short in any area. I’d get nothing but respect from everyone I worked with and knew.
Of course, this plan didn’t quite pan out. As wonderful as my job and education may have looked to the world, and as hard as I worked, there would always be someone who’d come up with ways to find fault with me — whether it was a client, boss, intimate partner, or someone else.
“Spiritual Bulletproofing” Didn’t Work Either
So I tried another approach. I decided that, instead of trying to create a life no one would ever criticize, I’d make myself immune to criticism. I’d find some spiritual practice, or personal development tool, that would help me grow a skin so thick that nothing would ever get through.
Unfortunately, this didn’t work either. As it turned out, no amount of meditation, going to men’s groups, forcing myself to do scary stuff, or anything else completely took the sting out of people’s jabs. It became clear that, probably, I was never going to feel completely okay with getting ridiculed, condescended to, and so on.
This seemed like a depressing discovery at first. But eventually, it led to a valuable realization: If there will always be people who criticize me, and I’ll never be 100% “zen” about it, I might as well just do whatever I want with my life. How liberating it felt to give up my painful quest to build a “bulletproof life,” or numb myself to the pain of people’s putdowns, and just live the way I wanted.
It’s Okay To Get Hurt
This points to an area where a lot of personal development ideas, in my opinion, go astray.
On one hand, so many tips and tricks out there are meant to help us avoid criticism — ways to ask questions in a job interview to make sure we don’t get rejected, things to say when talking to the opposite sex to make sure we don’t get “shot down,” how to deliver a presentation that won’t bore anyone, and so on.
On the other hand, on the more “spiritual” side of personal growth, we see many practices intended to get rid of the “ego” — the part of us that gets attached to our status, relationships, possessions, and so on. Once the ego is cut down to size, the thinking goes, we won’t get offended or hurt so easily, and we’ll feel blissful even as our significant other is yelling at us.
Unfortunately, I think, neither of these approaches can get us what it promises. There will always be people out there who can hurt us with things they say. Getting hurt in that way, and in other ways, is just part of the human experience.
I’ve come to believe that self-growth, in its highest form, is about accepting that we’re nothing more, and nothing less, than human. No matter how developed or enlightened we become, we’ll never be fully rid of our neuroses, hangups, and sensitivities.
The big paradox here is that, the more I accept that getting criticized and hurt once in a while is just part of life, the less I’m bothered by things people say, and the freer I feel to forge my own path. Living is much simpler and easier when I can embrace my humanity, in all its perfect imperfection.
I used to be in search of a book, workshop or practice that would, in a matter of hours or days, change me forever. I’d stop doubting myself, my relationships would always go smoothly, I’d become courageous enough to always say how I felt, and so on.
I had this goal in mind, consciously or not, with every self-help book I bought, workshop I attended, and spiritual practice I tried. “This is going to be the one,” I’d say to myself. “This teacher will transform my life and end my suffering, once and for all.”
As my self-development journey wore on, it began to become clear that this wasn’t going to happen. I wasn’t going to have some sudden breakthrough that would blast all my neuroses and shortcomings to ashes with white-hot divine light.
Being Okay With Being A Mess
My first reaction, when I realized this, was to blame the personal growth teachers I’d been learning from. “They promised me all this wonderful transformation, but I’m still the same old mess,” I griped. “They must all be frauds.”
But after spending some more time working on my growth, I began noticing something remarkable: I was becoming more okay with “being a mess.” My insecurities, the weird ways my body tensed up in certain situations, and so on started to seem less shameful and more acceptable.
Gradually, what I discovered was that having fears, neuroses, and other “flaws” is actually a built-in part of being human. I recognized that most of my suffering actually came from expecting myself to be more than human — to be a perfect, godlike being, free of limitations. No seminar, book or practice, I came to understand, could turn me into that.
Acceptance Creates Transformation
And here’s the real kicker: the more I began accepting my hangups, the more they started falling away. The more “okay” I became with my humanity, and all its quirks, the less I suffered. Tight spots in my body that I thought would stay clenched forever finally began to relax.
One of the practices I found most valuable was to sit across from someone and just admit, as honestly as I could, what I felt as I sat with them — whether it was a fear that they were bored with me, a concern that they might not find me attractive, an irritation with them, or some other “compromising” fact about my experience.
Simply revealing, to another person, all the thoughts and feelings I was once too ashamed to discuss has been deeply healing. There’s nothing like the experience of showing up as the imperfect human being I am, without being criticized or shunned, and sometimes even being loved.
After being on this path for a while, I’ve come to believe that self-development, at its best, is about learning to embrace being human, with all the gifts, and limitations, that come with being part of our species. It’s great to strive for “neverending improvement” and all, but working to change ourselves can bring great suffering if we do it from a place of disliking who we are right now.
Interestingly enough, I think, when we become able to honestly say “if nothing about me ever changed or improved, that would be okay,” that’s when real transformation takes root. But at that point, transformation is really the icing on the cake — the greatest gift is being able to accept who we are, right now.
A common idea in personal development circles is that “what you focus on expands.” For instance, if you’re feeling sad, focusing your attention on your sadness will only make you sadder. Instead, you need to distract yourself from your sadness by visualizing rainbows, playing with your cat, or doing something else to take your mind off what you’re feeling.
In my experience, the opposite is actually true. I’ve found that, when I turn my attention toward an uncomfortable emotion, or a place in my body that’s tense, I actually find myself relaxing, and starting to put the discomfort into perspective.
Getting To Know My Back Pain
For example, as with many people, my lower back sometimes tightens up. I used to buy the conventional wisdom that people just get “back pain” from time to time, and nothing much can be done about it short of taking medication.
Today, however, I have a practice for dealing with tension in my lower back that’s worked wonders. I just focus my attention on the discomfort. I get familiar with where it is, whether it’s sharp or dull, whether the painful area has a shape, and so on. You could say I get intimate with it.
Does this practice “attract” more pain? Not at all. Instead, I usually find that the sensation I’m feeling begins to shift, and the tight spot begins to loosen. By probing around in that area with my awareness, I get a sense of how I’m creating the tension, and often that’s enough to have the discomfort fall away.
Feeling Into “Bad Feelings”
I’ve had the same kind of experience when it comes to “negative” or “uncomfortable” emotions. In our culture, we’re conditioned to think that, when we’re “feeling bad,” we should do something to push the feeling away — taking a warm bath, drinking alcohol, saying affirmations, or something else.
The trouble with running from an emotion we don’t like, in my experience, is that pushing it away actually puts it in control of our lives. The “bad” emotion, not us, ends up in the driver’s seat.
Why? Take boredom, for example. When we’re working on a task and we start feeling the discomfort we call boredom, many of us are in the habit of automatically doing something to “take the edge off” — playing Solitaire on the computer, Twittering, or something else.
But here’s the problem: if we, like Pavlov’s dogs, automatically surf the web every time we feel bored, that means our boredom gets to control our work schedule. If we don’t have the ability to keep making progress in our work, even when boredom is coming up, we’re basically slaves to our boredom.
The solution for me has been, instead of turning my attention away from boredom, to turn toward it. Just as I do with back pain, I get conscious of where the boredom is in my body, what it feels like (perhaps aching, itching, or tightness), and so on.
The more familiar I get with my boredom, the more comfortable I become with it. It no longer feels so weird and disturbing — instead, it’s just another sensation I feel in my body from time to time. And the more comfortable I get with being bored, the more I can choose to move forward in my work, even when boredom is arising.
I think it’s amazing how much we can do just by shifting the focus of our attention.
Robin recently said something, in one of her many uplifting comments, that really got me thinking. She asked how I came to be so insightful about human nature.
I agreed with her that I do have a pretty good sense of what makes people tick, and I pondered for a bit how I got that awareness. Eventually, I realized I got it by being kind of withdrawn and alone as a kid.
When I was little, I didn’t feel very comfortable relating with other children. The way they communicated and played looked easy, but when I tried to get involved it didn’t come easily to me. So I took to hanging back and observing, hoping to get a sense of how I could have the fun they seemed to be having.
This was a painful time, but it had wonderful benefits. All that people-watching did give me a strong sense of what motivates human beings, why they hurt and how they heal.
Is Personal Development About Avoiding Pain?
As I thought about this, it occurred to me that the story of my own growth is very different from what we normally hear about personal development and how to create it.
Often, it seems to me, personal development is presented as a bunch of “tips and tricks” for avoiding suffering. Common examples of what I mean are:
* If you master the right lines and body language, you’ll always “get the girl” (or guy), and you won’t have to feel alone.
* If you learn the right way to organize your e-mail, you’ll be super-productive, and you won’t have to feel anxious about your work.
* If you use these super-savvy-SEO marketing tips, you’ll escape the 9-to-5 grind, and you’ll never feel trapped and frustrated again.
And yet, I think my most profound periods of growth have been the times when I’ve suffered the most – like those hours I spent on the outskirts of the playground as a kid.
What’s more, in moments when I’ve matured the most, suffering has been unavoidable. When I was little, I had to go to school and be with other kids, and no one was around to teach me “social skills” and make relating easier. But if I’d been able to somehow escape that situation, I wouldn’t have gained an acute understanding of people’s inner lives.
Sitting With Suffering
Experiences like this have taught me that, when I find myself suffering, turning to “tips and tricks” to escape isn’t always the best idea. Sometimes, it’s more helpful to “sit with” the hurt — to let go of distractions and turn my attention toward what I’m feeling.
When I’m feeling lonely, for instance, I’ve taken to getting intimate with my loneliness. I try to tune into the body sensations that tell me I’m feeling alone. For me, aloneness shows up as a heaviness in my solar plexus.
Interestingly, the more familiar I get with that sensation, the more comfortable, and the less threatening, it seems. I start to realize that, as Michael Jackson put it, it’s “just another part of me,” and there’s a peace that comes with that realization.
Of course, I’m not recommending that anyone seek out suffering to mature more quickly. As I’m sure you know, there’s no need to go looking for pain in this world — it’s here in abundance. The Buddha put it simply: “existence is suffering.”
What I’m suggesting is that “crappy” times in our lives are often our most powerful periods of growth — and that the deepest self-development happens when we open ourselves to pain, instead of numbing ourselves to it.
We hear a lot in personal development circles about how it’s important to “play to our strengths,” instead of wasting time trying to improve our “weak” areas. I want to rethink that notion a bit in this post.
It’s probably true that we all have our natural aptitudes. It’s hard to dispute, for example, that some people are born with body types that make them better athletes.
But sometimes, when we see ourselves as “bad” at some activity, it’s simply because we don’t like the way we feel when we’re doing it — not because of any inborn lack of talent.
The Making Of A “Weak Point”
Early in life, many of us heard — sometimes in a harsh or mean-spirited way — that we weren’t good at something. For example, maybe we tried to paint, and heard that we had no artistic talent. Or perhaps we were the last kids to get picked for the sports teams at school, and we decided we weren’t athletically inclined.
The result is that, today, if we do the activity we got the hurtful feedback about, some of that shame we experienced early on will come up. Because we know this, consciously or otherwise, we avoid doing it — and we excuse our avoidance by telling ourselves we “just aren’t good at it.”
This has been true for me when it comes to building stuff with my hands — doing things like carpentry and metalwork. When I tried these activities as a kid, I made some mistakes, and heard that I couldn’t do these things because I “had no common sense.”
The upshot has been that I’ve largely avoided “working with my hands,” except in the sense of typing on the keyboard. Instead, I’ve gravitated toward “working with” abstractions like law, philosophy and spirituality — which I’m supposedly “better at.”
How I Played To My Weaknesses
So, I’ll bet you can imagine my anxiety when I volunteered to build houses with a local organization. I not only expected to mess something up and get accused of lacking common sense — perhaps a house I worked on might collapse, due to my incompetence, and hurt someone.
Of course, none of this happened. The people I worked with were nothing but understanding and appreciative. And, as far as I know, the houses I took part in building are still standing. But I’ll keep reading the local news just in case.
Anyway, the bigger point is that I was going through life assuming I was “just bad at” building things, when in fact my stumbling block was shame and my unwillingness to feel it — not a lack of skill or talent.
I think it’s great to get a sense of what we’re naturally good at, and cultivate our strong areas. But I also get the sense that, by exploring our so-called “weak points,” we can learn about gifts we have to offer the world that we may not have been aware of before.
It’s not just a line from the Alan Parsons Project — it’s the truth.
I know how you’re feeling and what your intentions are. What’s more, everyone else does too. Human beings are extremely empathic creatures.
I’m exaggerating a little — sometimes you can trick people into buying your facade. But much of the time, when you think you’ve got us all fooled, you’re only fooling yourself.
People See The Concern, Not Just The Technique
I think this is the single most neglected fact in marketing literature. The techniques in marketing books are usually about what you say and do: the content of your “elevator pitch,” the right questions to ask sales prospects, how you should smile and use “confident body language,” and so on.
The assumption behind these techniques is that, when we’re with another person, the only thing we see is what they’re saying and doing. But that’s simply not true. We don’t just see their words and movements — we see the concerns that motivate what they say and do.
Networking events, which I’ve been attending a lot recently, are a great example. I’ve had the experience many times of hearing someone give me an impressive-sounding speech about their business — but also being intensely aware of fear or sadness they’re feeling, and of any hidden agenda they have.
In other words, although I see their well-rehearsed words and actions, I also see the beliefs and emotions beneath those words and actions. If they’re thinking “I’ve got to make this guy do what I want, or I’m not good enough,” or “I just want to get this conversation over with and leave this crappy event,” I can hear that just as clearly as I would if they said it out loud.
Let’s Just Admit We’re Mind-Readers
Why don’t “marketing gurus,” and personal development writers in general, acknowledge how empathic humans are? Part of it, I think, is that many people are after a quick fix. It’s easier to copy someone else’s words and body language than it is to take a deep look at what you really want and what you’re afraid of. Thus, books and programs that teach us “the five sales tactics of successful people,” and so on, are an easier sell.
At a deeper level, I think it’s also unnerving to contemplate the possibility that others are aware of what we’re thinking and feeling. I think we all find it comforting, at times, to believe that others don’t know our true intentions, and that they’re seeing only what we want them to see.
What we don’t often realize, I think, is that it can also be liberating to admit how attuned we are to each others’ emotions and thoughts. If you know my true intentions and how I’m really feeling, there’s no need for me to try so hard to have you see me a certain way — because it’s not going to work anyway.
In other words, if there’s no point in trying to convince each other we’re charismatic, dominant, secure, or whatever else, we can all just relax and let go of the strategies we rely on to deceive each other, and maybe even start having little fun in our relating. I know this sounds wonderful to me — I felt some tension drain out of my shoulders as I wrote it.
So, I invite you to consider, if just for a moment, the possibility that people in your life can “read your mind,” and notice whether that offers you a new sense of freedom.
I’m excited to announce that I’ve launched a new blog I’ve been thinking about for some time. It’s not a replacement for this blog — I’m going to keep writing for both of them, because each of them deals with a different aspect of my work. The new blog is called Development In Context (or DevInContext for short).
As you may know, particularly if you’re a personal growth junkie like me, the personal development area has been the subject of some controversy of late, and many books and articles critical of the field have come out in recent years.
I think this is wonderful, because it gives us personal growth junkies an opportunity to get back to basics and understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. The goal of DevInContext is to do just that — to explore and explain some central ideas of personal development, and answer some criticisms made against them. I think personal growth has a lot to offer, and that it would be a mistake to hastily dismiss it as just woo-woo navel-gazing.
If this is a topic that interests you, I look forward to welcoming you there, and you’ll be seeing another post here within the next few days.
Many of us know the story of Narcissus — the boy who drowned because he fell in love with his reflection in a lake, and jumped in hoping to embrace his image. At first glance, this story seems to be about the dangers of loving yourself too much. If Narcissus had only taken his attention off himself and put it on others’ needs, we tend to think, he wouldn’t have died.
But a mentor of mine told me a different, and convincing, interpretation of the story. As he pointed out, Narcissus didn’t actually love himself at all — he loved his reflection. After all, Narcissus didn’t need to jump in the lake to be with himself — he did it because he wanted to be with the image he saw in the water.
I’ve thought of this story lately because I’ve been reading books that are critical of personal development as part of my research for an upcoming book. I’ve noticed that one common criticism of personal growth ideas is that, by asking us to love ourselves unconditionally, they encourage us to be selfish — to focus only on our own finances, relationships and so on, and stop helping others.
I think this criticism stems from a misunderstanding of what self-love is, and I think it’s important to correct that misunderstanding in light of all the negative comments we’ve been seeing recently about personal growth. In fact, I think personal growth, in its highest form, is about moving away from narcissism — away from loving the image we present to the world — and toward loving who we actually are. What’s more, once we fully love ourselves, real compassion for others becomes possible.
Why We Fall In Love With Our Reflection
Out of necessity, when we come into the world, we’re deeply concerned about how others — usually our parents — see us. Because our survival depends on their willingness to care for us, we quickly learn which behaviors please them and which ones don’t, and we shape our personalities to give them what they want.
Unconsciously, we carry this mindset into our adult lives. We still think we need to win others’ approval, and so we design our careers, relationships, hobbies, and so on to appeal to the world. Like Narcissus, we get fixated on the image we present to the world, as opposed to who we actually are.
Because it seems like our survival is at stake, we’ll do practically anything — including hurting others — to make sure the world sees us the way we want to be seen. Our love of the image the world sees, instead of ourselves, leads to greed and abusive behavior.
What Real Self-Love Does
When we start to love ourselves unconditionally — no matter how others see us — the need to maintain the right image falls away. Energy we once used up putting on a pretty facade can be used to care for others. Helping people is no longer a strategy for looking like a good little boy or girl, or showing that we’re morally better than someone else — it’s now an expression of genuine compassion.
This is why, I think, we see a focus on self-love in many spiritual traditions. For example, in Buddhist metta or loving-kindness meditation, the meditator is to focus first on loving him- or herself, and then to focus on the wellbeing of the rest of the world. Similarly, Hindu teacher Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj told his students “by all means be selfish — the right way. Be all; love all; be happy; make happy.”
When we truly understand what self-love is and what it isn’t, we can see why it’s part of many personal growth teachings, and the good we can do for the world by creating it within ourselves.
As I’m sure you know, some people doubt that personal growth work has practical benefits. Some scoff at the idea of working with our thoughts and emotions, seeing it as just a tree-hugging hippie way of escaping the harsh reality of survival and conflict. Others only see value in personal development work that teaches nonstop action, and don’t see much reason to spend time sitting alone with yourself.
Despite all the “inner work” I’ve done, sometimes even I become a skeptic. I’ve had moments in meditation when my mind has griped “what am I doing? I should be writing an article.” In the middle of a few weekend retreats, I’ve found myself wishing I could go home and explore different ways to expand my business.
Some “Down-To-Earth” Benefits of Spiritual Practice
What I forget in these moments is that I wouldn’t be able to do my “outer work” without the time I spend in my spiritual practices. I don’t just mean that meditation, yoga, taking workshops and so on help me feel peaceful and grounded, although they do. What I mean is that I actually have many of the ideas at the core of my writing in the midst of my inner work.
I had the idea to write my recent book, for instance, in the middle of a meditation. I’d written a book before called Path of the Demonslayer — a somewhat misguided attempt to combine the fantasy and self-help genres that I don’t plan to release. For a while afterward, I was wondering whether a decent book idea would ever come to me, until it suddenly appeared to me in a state of deep relaxation and mental quiet.
Another important point I want to make about inner work is that you can do it in real time – while you’re working, talking to your partner or doing other “real world” activities. You don’t have to sit in a lotus position, burn incense or go to a monastery to do it — as much as I enjoy doing those things.
One great example is the way that my spiritual practice helps me stay centered when I’m speaking to an audience. I used to get nervous and distractible in front of groups, until I got into the habit of focusing my attention on my body as I spoke, noticing the pressure of my feet against the ground. I borrowed this exercise from a meditation I do that has me slowly scan my attention over each part of my body, and it helped me to feel solid and focused as I gave my talks.
Defusing the Doubting Mind
What I’ve learned from these experiences is that “my inner world creates my outer world” isn’t just some New Age slogan — there’s clear evidence that it’s true in my life. Keeping these stories in mind is a great way to calm my cynical part whenever it pipes up during one of my practices.
I don’t mean to say that the only benefit of inner work is the “results” it gets you in the outside world. In fact, approaching meditation, yoga or a similar practice with the goal of getting richer, more attractive, or something like that would probably lead to suffering. But I have no doubt that spiritual practice, if we stick with it, has positive effects in our day-to-day lives.
Do you have stories about how your inner work has affected your outer world? I’m curious to hear them.
David Cain has a subtle — almost subversive — way of relaying spiritual wisdom through anecdotes about his life and social commentary. His blog is a great read.