Working on oneself in the ongoing pursuit of personal growth and self development is tough; at times, it’s akin to climbing a mountain that appears to have no summit!
I’ve experienced and pursued many forms of growth over the years, beginning with various qualifications in fitness and holistic health and more recently regular sessions with a therapist. Plus the biggest container for growth: My relationship with my partner!
There are certain lessons I’ve learned that have stayed with me and endured throughout; some of these aren’t easy concepts to grasp but when you do, they can shift your entire perspective on life…
#1 Is your normal really ‘normal’?
Nowhere has this been more keenly illustrated to me than the reaction I’ve had from not one but two highly experienced and qualified therapists when I told them of my experiences of flying halfway across the world, aged 5, on my own with my younger brother as an unaccompanied minor to stay with my father, every single year.
To me, this was ‘normal’ – it’s just what happened. To others, it’s far from normal and the truth of that hit home when my therapist asked how I’d feel if I shipped my same-aged son off on a plane, accompanied by a stranger, to go and stay with a father he barely knew and only saw once or twice a year!
We each have our own versions of ‘normal’ in our pasts, and it can take an outside perspective to question these.
Sometimes, our version of ‘normal’ can be presented to us by others – parents, siblings, friends etc. – and repeated so that we never even think to question them. They have a vested interest to maintain the ‘normal’, while you may not.
It can be a really useful exercise – if you’re noticing that your typical MO is no longer really working for you – to look back at your ‘normal’ life and begin to question whether you’d consider it ‘normal’ and even ‘ok’ still.
Or another way to look at it is:
How would you feel if your ‘normal’ happened to someone you cared for deeply?
The purpose of exploring this is to begin to create your own truths and narratives, less influenced by those around you, especially if they’ve been holding you back with their versions.
Underneath those ‘normal truths’ may lie grief, loss, and other painful feelings that once they’re released, you will find yourself free to move forwards in a way that you’d previously been held back from.
#2 Can you hold more than one truth at the same time?
You’ve probably heard the one about different people witnessing the exact same event but recounting utterly different ‘facts’ when asked what they witnessed. This concept of there being many different versions of the truth has been a powerful one on my journey.
While the adoption narrative for most people is one of positive benefits only – ”Oh you were so lucky to have been adopted and given a much better life than you’d have had” – there is also the narrative of loss, grief and the totally unnatural event of a child being taken away from their birth mother. Both narratives are true about the same event at the same time, one is not more true than the other, nor does one negate the other.
On a related note, this is a similar concept to being able to hold conflicting feelings about something or someone simultaneously.
For example, when I’m talking to my kids about their emotions, we talk frequently about how they can be utterly furious and hurt that their father is planning to move 5 hours away from them, at the same time as still loving him and craving his attention. Both things are true and it can be a tough ask for them to hold both truths at the same time.
This is related, on a much deeper level, to the ability to hold the light and the shadow – firstly in ourselves and then in others.
It’s about being able to embrace and love ourselves, not just for the good and positive we see but also the ‘bad’ and ‘negative.
We are a complicated mix of many things and being able to integrate and hold the whole is the absolute foundation of self acceptance and self love.
#3 Respond, don’t react.
There’s a difference between the two – responding is a more conscious, considered action and reacting is typically an unconsciously-driven, knee-jerk action.
When we react, it’s usually a sign that we’ve been triggered – that one or more of our painful buttons has been pushed and an existing ‘wound’ has been poked and prodded. We then act (out) from this hurt and wounded place, often unaware that this is what’s going on.
If we want to respond instead – to be able to act in a way that’s more in alignment with who we are beneath our shields, defences and existing wounds – it means getting out of a triggered space.
It means taking a breath (or several), and if it helps, write out what you want to say, in all its steaming, ranting glory first. Then take another breath.
Then ask yourself the question below – is it more important for you to be right or connected? – then delete what you’ve written (or burn it, safely), and RESPOND instead of reacting.
If you need to, wait until the next day and use the space of a night’s sleep to get yourself back on a more even keel.
#4 Is it more important to you to be right or be connected?
This is something I’ve learned most from my partner who has frequently challenged me with the question: “Lea, would you rather be right or be connected?” – when we’re in the middle of an argument and it gets to a stage where it seems pointless to continue!
We use this with the children too, when they’re adamant that they’ve done nothing wrong, the other party is to blame and they can’t move past it.
While it feels good to blame – to shift the responsibility as far away from you as possible and onto the nearest easy target – it usually gets you nowhere fast, except perhaps a temporary feeling of relief.
Fundamentally, blame is divisive. You can stay wronged and be right, and alienate those around you – revelling in your ‘rightness’.
But most of the time, we want to be connected. And to do that, you may have to not be right for a change!
(Note that isn’t necessarily the same as being wrong – let’s not go that far, shall we?!).
It’s ultimately your choice in a situation: Stay right or get (re) connected?
#5 Fault is not the same as responsibility.
It’s really easy to blame others for our woes and for us not being where/how/who we want to be. Maybe you had a difficult childhood, you’ve had a traumatic past, you’ve been the victim of some awful events – and while it may indeed have been at the hands of others and their fault, it is not their responsibility to heal you.
Whatever your trauma, past or emotional wounds, nobody but you can do your work to heal those wounds and help you recover from past trauma. Nobody but you can learn how to change your patterns, behaviours and responses that are no longer working for you and are rooted in past defences.
You may feel like you’re ‘owed’ something, that it’s someone else’s job to help you but it’s not. And if you don’t do the work to help yourself, no-one else can or will.
While the cause may be someone else’s fault, the responsibility to move on with your life and heal those wounds is yours and yours alone.
#6 What’s the story you’re telling yourself?
If you watch Brené Brown on The Call To Courage, she illustrates this concept brilliantly.
Most of the time, underneath the surface we are all constructing a narrative; we decide upon the story and then we filter everything through that story.
So if the story you sometimes tell yourself is “Well, I’m really stupid and ugly and I’m never going to amount to much” – if someone close to you says something that hits this nerve, you’re going to easily go into this narrative and behave as if this is the only truth (when as we already know it isn’t!). That may mean lashing out, or being defensive (or offensive), or it may mean going into a cave of isolation and not wanting to come out.
Understanding the stories you tell yourself is the first step in being able to change the ones that aren’t currently serving you well and are keeping you stuck.
You likely have all sorts of stories around many aspects of your life – relationships, families, money, career and more. Do you know what they are?
The other useful aspect of this is knowing that other people in your life have their own stories.
When you’re in the middle of an argument or someone appears to be behaving irrationally or blowing something out of all proportion (in your opinion), try asking them: “What’s the story you’re telling yourself right now?“. Or if that’s too hard, ask yourself: “What’s the story they could be telling themselves right now?“
#7 Own your own stuff. Wholly.
When faced with difficult truths about ourselves, it is far, far easier to shift the blame, shift the responsibility and shift the truth onto someone else. But this is not the path to growth.
When we find ourselves in repeating patterns, destructive relationships and situations we find difficult, there’s one truth and one truth only…we cannot control anything or anyone but ourselves.
This is powerful to understand; when we give up trying to control the things we can’t control (other people) and focus instead on controlling ourselves – our responses, our reactions, our behaviour and our choices – we begin to fully own our selves, and look at the part we play in creating what we’re experiencing.
All the time, YOU are fully responsible for creating your own reality.
Even when others are involved too, how you respond and behave is still your responsibility and no-one else’s. No-one can ‘make’ you feel anything.
(Think about it: How on earth could I ‘make’ you feel happy if you didn’t choose to feel happy yourself?).
No-one else can control your emotions or the feelings you experience, but you.
No matter how someone else behaves or what they do to you, how YOU respond is YOUR responsibility.
This is quite a shocking concept for most people, so reluctant are we to fully own our selves, including the ‘dodgy’ bits!
Growth and self development work is tough and is not for the faint of heart but the concepts above have been fundamental to my growth and absolutely vital in the quest for radical self honesty and awareness…and as a wise man once said:
“Awareness is the greatest agent for change” – Eckhart Tolle