Ten years ago, when I was 26, I was focused on “establishing myself” as a “high-powered professional,” and acquiring the relationships and possessions that fit with that “role.” I lived as if it was urgent for me to achieve these goals, because, my thinking went, I “wasn’t getting any younger.”
Today, none of those things is important to me. What’s important today is getting my creative work into the world. The only reason I ever do anything else for money is to support my artistic habit. The only thing I have in common with my old mentality is somewhat of a sense of urgency.
Rule #1: Try “Flaky” Stuff for Its Own Sake
How did I manage to get less stodgy over time? I think it’s because, at around the age of 29, I started slowly letting myself experiment and try new things that I would have scoffed at as “flaky” or “irresponsible” three years before.
One of these was buying a keyboard (a piano one, not a computer one). The fact that this seemed adventurous to me probably gives you an idea of my mindset at the time. More radically, I explored what now seems to me like a dizzying array of personal growth practices, including yoga, meditation, holotropic breathwork, men’s groups, ecstatic dance, etc., etc.
The more I let myself explore, the more I realized how much choice I had around the way I could live my life, and the more I understood that I could handle taking risks. Once I had a lot of “trying stuff for the sake of trying stuff” under my belt, my priorities started to shift.
Doing Whatever I Want Is Hard Work
At this point, the best description of my goal in life would be something like this: “do what I want, as much of the time as possible.” It looks like a simple plan on the surface, but sometimes it’s actually a lot harder to pursue this mission than it is to fall into familiar patterns of trying to look “respectable” and “upstanding.”
Occasionally, when I’m talking to someone, I find the urge coming up to drop a casual reference to the achievements I racked up back when I was intent on becoming a “superlawyer.” But usually, these days, I’m able to smile at the impulse and move on.
One thing I’m sure of is: I’m looking forward to getting younger, and less “settled down,” with age.
I used to worry about “overstaying my welcome” with people in my life — talking to them too much, or hanging out with them too often, and causing them to get bored or irritated with me. Or maybe, if I spent too much time with them, they’d start wondering whether I had anyone else to be with.
Believe it or not, the same concern would come up when I was about to write a blog post or say something on Facebook. If I post too often, I thought, won’t people get tired of me, and stop reading and interacting with me? Don’t I have to be really careful not to talk too much?
My Stunning Realization that Other People Are Grownups
These days, although the same issue still comes up for me from time to time, it feels a lot less important. The reason is that I eventually realized that other people, seeing as how they’re adults, can actually make their own decisions about how much time they want to spend with me.
After all, if I hold back from talking to someone because I’m worried that they’ll get sick of me, aren’t I assuming they can’t protect their own time? That they’re incapable of telling me that they’d like to spend some time alone, or spend it with somebody else?
In other words, if I assume people can’t say “no” to my requests for their time, I’m basically treating them like children who haven’t yet developed the ability to communicate what they want, and need me to take care of them.
. . . And That I’m a Grownup Too
Also, I’ve come to see that, if I’m avoiding someone because I’m worried about “taking up too much of their time,” it’s probably because, on some level, I’m afraid of how I’ll feel if they say they don’t want to be with me. In a sense, then, I’m treating myself like a child, because I’m assuming that I’m too fragile to handle the intensity of hearing “no.”
Now, there may in fact be people out there who just couldn’t bring themselves to tell me if they didn’t want to spend time with me. (Who knows, maybe lots of people secretly feel that way!) And it may be that, sometimes, I’m feeling kind of sensitive, and hearing someone say they don’t want to be with me will be painful.
Still, I think it’s more respectful, and does more to promote growth — both other people’s and mine — if I treat myself and others like adults, and I let others be the judge of how much time they want to spend with me, instead of trying to decide for them.
Some say we have an “inner child” — a part of ourselves that’s “emotional,” vulnerable, and open about its wants and needs. Lots of personal growth work is about accessing and nurturing this “inner child” part.
Personally, I’m not a fan of the term “inner child.” In our culture, it’s usually seen as a criticism to label someone or something a child. If I call you “childish” or “childlike,” I’m basically saying you’re weak, spoiled, selfish, irrational, and so on.
I think I’ve got a better name for this vulnerable, emotionally open part. I want to call it the “inner adult.” After all, doesn’t it take maturity and courage to step up and say what we’re feeling, and what we need and want?
I don’t know about you, but expressing desires and emotions can be scary for me. It can feel risky to tell someone that I want to spend time with them, that I’m angry with them, that I love them, or something along those lines. It took a lot of growth for me to get comfortable being that open.
Our Culture Has Adulthood Backwards
Of course, the conventional wisdom says the opposite. It seems the ideal adult, in our culture’s eyes, is emotionally closed, and never asks for anything. We’re supposed to be tough and self-sufficient, and “never let ‘em see us sweat.”
Self-development, from this point of view, isn’t about learning to express what we feel and want — it’s about acquiring money, credentials, and other stuff, so that we’ll become “important” and others will start giving us what we want even though we don’t ask for it.
Ironically, though, this “superman” or “superwoman” image is often just a manipulative strategy, developed in childhood, for getting our needs met. The idea is that, if we look invincible and “unemotional,” we’ll please our caregivers, and they’ll give us the love and attention we crave.
That invulnerable façade is really a ploy by a scared kid who fears that his parents will criticize him for expressing his needs, and thinks they’ll only care for him if he impresses them with his need-lessness.
It Takes Maturity To Be Vulnerable
What usually passes for “adulthood” today, I think, is really a deep-seated insecurity and immaturity. It’s the qualities we tend to see as “childlike” — openness, vulnerability and curiosity — that take real wisdom and maturity to develop.
To be clear, I don’t mean to say that, in order to grow, we should imitate children. We don’t need to throw tantrums or grab stuff we want from other people. One important distinction I think we come to see with age is the difference between telling someone what we want, and using force or acting out to get it. Children aren’t always aware of that distinction (though, of course, adults aren’t always either).
My point is that self-development, in many ways, is about unearthing the parts of ourselves we buried because we learned, as children, that they weren’t acceptable. A big part of “growing up,” I think, is rediscovering who we’ve always been.
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.
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.
For a few years, I believed that what we often call “the rational mind” was my enemy. I have a powerful rational mind, and most people would see this as a plus, but to me that was part of the problem. I thought all the analysis, judgment and criticism my mind did was holding me back in life.
For instance, when I was having a conversation and just trying to listen to the other person, the rational mind would kick in, coming up with counterarguments, different perspectives, advice and so on. Unconsciously, the other person would sense this, and it would be disconcerting to them. I often felt helpless in the face of the mind’s constant whirring.
How I Lost My Mind
This was partly, I think, because I had an intense, time-consuming job — being a lawyer — where the rational mind dominated everything. As a young attorney at a big law firm, I led a cloistered life, spending most of my time in my office drafting legal papers, memoranda and letters. This was okay with me in the workplace, but it wasn’t easy to silence the mind’s noise in my off hours.
In a sense, leaving that job and starting to coach and write was my rebellion against what I saw as the tyranny of the rational mind. I knew there were parts of me I hadn’t spent much time cultivating, and I thought leaving my old environment was the only way I could really do that in earnest.
I also immersed myself in ideas and techniques to help me discover “who I was beyond the mind,” as some spiritual teachers put it. I spent countless hours meditating, releasing emotions, taking workshops, and so on. Conversation, for me, became about noticing what I felt in my body and trying to give that a voice — “I’m feeling my shoulders relax as I talk to you.” I wrote a slew of articles, and ultimately a whole book, about listening to instinct and intuition.
I made some progress toward this goal of self-discovery — I experienced moments when my mind was blissfully empty, and all I felt was raw sensation — my pulse, breathing, tingling in my hands, and so forth. I saw that the rational mind was “just another part of me,” to paraphrase Michael Jackson, and that I was an okay person even when it wasn’t operating.
How I Found It Again
Perhaps the most important thing I noticed, in these “mindless” states, was that the mind no longer seemed so oppressive. When I began to feel more in control of it, I started to see that it was simply a tool I could use — not an enemy bent on destroying me or making me unhappy.
After seeing this, I started regaining my interest in using the rational mind, and discovering what I could give the world with it. I got back into reading about philosophy, psychology, and other disciplines I scorned for a while as abstract and “heady.” I started a new blog addressing some of the criticisms of personal growth, which has a more “pointy-headed intellectual” style, I think, than what you’ll read here.
I’ve noticed, as I’ve been reconciling with my mind, that I’m having a blast. I’ve been cranking out articles nonstop for the new site, which ideally will turn into another full-length book. The heightened awareness of my body I developed has actually helped me appreciate this — I’ve noticed how light and free my body feels as I’ve done this writing.
The moral of the story, I think, is that I needed time away from the rational mind to rediscover its value. Another takeaway is that we don’t serve ourselves by pushing away parts of who we are, and one of the most rewarding things we can do is make peace with the parts we find it hardest to deal with.
How about you? What part of you have you been pushing away? What could you do to integrate it back into your life?
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.