(Part 2 of 2)
By Marc Gilson
In part one we explored some of the misconceptions about the personal growth field and how “pushing the button” with the expectations of radical life changes isn’t quite as easy as the hyperbole makes it sound.
I also introduced you to Harold, a difficult coaching client of mine who had a long history of failure, despite his best attempts to take advantage of the broad scope of self-help techniques and programs available. I delved into the various reasons why Harold had been failing at his personal growth efforts – chiefly that he had effectively been lied to by the advertising and had developed such a distrust of the industry that he was inadvertently sabotaging all his efforts. For him, simply “pushing the button” was not working, and my sense is that it’s the same for many others. What was lacking for Harold, and for those disillusioned with their efforts to improve their lives, is an awareness of some “cold, hard truths” about what it really takes to become a happier, healthier human being.
Click here to read Part One
Here in part two, we’ll get into the specifics. Just what are these “cold, hard truths” about personal growth? What is it we should take into consideration when we set out to improve our lot in life?
Cold, Hard Truth #1: Stop Telling Your Story
“Your life story would not make a good book. Don’t even try.”- Fran Lebowitz
I’m a big believer in the power of story, and one of the basics of life coaching is that, like belly buttons, we all have one. In fact, we have many (stories, not belly buttons). We have stories about our upbringing, about our health, our relationships, etc. We weave these little stories about the smaller parts of our lives into a larger narrative that defines our “sense of self.”
When first meeting with a therapist or coach, a client will usually present their story in terms of cause-and-effect. They’ll speak from the “effect” end of that spectrum and tell you all about what’s happened “to” them. Normally, of course, they’ll speak in terms of the negatives. They’ll tell you about their difficult childhood, difficult relationships, etc. They’ll sometimes tell stories of abuse, addiction, fear, loss. Sometimes the stories are absolutely gut-wrenching, and they can evoke a kind of aching empathy in even the hardest of hearts.
But empathizing with a client isn’t enough. In effective coaching, one of the main goals is to move your client out of the “effect” end of the spectrum and to the “cause” end. Why? Because the causes are where the action is. The cause end of the spectrum is where the power lies.
Even if you don’t know much about physics, you know that effects flow from causes, not the other-way-around. Even so, beginning at the effect end is a perfectly reasonable place to begin life change because we’re usually busier coping with effects than we are creating effective causes in our lives. So the effect end is where the story begins, or at least where we begin telling our story.
Life can be filled with many joys, and if you’re like me you’re probably guilty of not counting your blessings often enough. At the same time, it’s not all fun, flowers, and fishing (as one of my clients likes to say). Most of us endure a barrage of pain in life. We lose loved ones, sometimes far before their time. We suffer frustrating failures, painful embarrassments, quiet heartbreaks, cruel injustices, heavy judgments, and a myriad of mental and emotional cuts, fractures, and breaks that can take years to heal, if ever they really do.
Creating stories about these experiences isn’t just a technique for explaining what’s happened in our lives, it’s also how we make sense of what’s happened, and sometimes how we heal it. Historians say that the propensity of human beings to discuss their collective history in terms of “story” is not an accident. Story serves as a vehicle to describe the way a given set of events unfolds, but it also provides some context within which we can understand the meaning of those events. And in a world where things don’t always make much sense, meaning is crucial.
It’s by storytelling that Shakespeare revealed the human machinations of love, power, jealousy, and betrayal. It’s how the ancient Greeks conveyed complex philosophical concepts (like Plato’s dialectics in his Socratic Dialogues). It was Jesus’ favorite and most effective teaching method (as with his many parables). It is, in fact, how most of us learned about life (think Goodnight Moon, The Cat in the Hat, or Where the Wild Things Are). It’s also one of the most useful tools a coach or therapist has.
After I ask a new client to “tell me the story” of their lives, I sit back and listen. Hearing their story helps me know not just what’s happened to them in the course of their lives, but how they narrate that story. I learn how they see the effects of their life experience. I get to see if they tell their story from a dissociated perspective (as if telling a story about someone else) or whether they’re deeply entrenched in and attached to their story. I can see what parts of the story for which they own responsibility, and what parts are – in their mind – something or someone else’s fault. I get a glimpse into whether they see themselves as a hero, villain, victim, sinner, saint, or what-have-you.
It’s a very helpful method. But there are a couple of issues to be aware of when it comes to having a story. The first is that the more you tell your story, the more attached you can become to it and the more you identify with it, defend it, and believe in it as truth (more on that in a moment). The second issue is that at some point, a coach or therapist will probably have to destroy your story. And if you’re deeply attached to your story – if your story is your identity – you can feel destroyed along with it. Stories, you see, are usually myths. Even more than that, stories – even your stories, and mine – are sometimes outright lies.
There is “what happens” in life, and then there’s the story we create about what happens. And it’s worth noting that there’s usually a teleological element to this; a kind of domino effect in reverse, going back over time. It’s a history told backwards to explain the present: “My life is hard because mom left us when I was little, because she didn’t love me, because her mom didn’t love her, because her mom was a drug addict, because she was being abused by her husband, because he had money problems and drank too much, because, because, because…”
Perhaps that’s all true. Perhaps only partially true. Or, just maybe, it doesn’t matter either way. Maybe your story is really just a bunch of dog doo that, true or not, has been holding you back and needs to go. Yes, true or not true, the story needs to go.
So the first cold, hard truth is that your story doesn’t matter. Stop telling it. Nobody cares about your story. I realize that sounds harsh, but here’s the thing: Before your story can really matter, you have got to disown it, even if it feels true to you. Let it go. Stop trying to turn it into a Shakespearean play. Stop with the heroics. Stop with the villainy. And for crap sake, stop with the victimhood. Don’t get stuck thinking that in order for your life to matter you have to create something worthy of a summer blockbuster movie or soap opera.
It might be tempting to make our stories interesting to ourselves and others by imbuing them with a lot of drama, but that doesn’t change the truth. Someone once told me that drama is symbolic of the truth but is never truth itself. (Write that down.) Drama is all the crap we feel about what happens in life. Drama is the stuff we slather on top of what happened so it makes for a worthy story. It’s frosting. It’s empty calories. It’s excess fat. It’s food coloring and preservatives. It’s sweet and pretty, but it’s not emotional nutrition and it should never, ever be mistaken for the more substantive pure truth of what we’ve experienced in life.
The truth is that your story only matters in so far as you know that it’s just a story. It might be a really compelling story with a lot of genuine emotion, but it’s not what happened. It’s what you think what happened means. There’s a difference. Let me illustrate:
Yesterday morning on my way to work, some jerk driving an exotic sports car cut me off in traffic and almost caused me to run off the road. Didn’t even signal. Guys like that have no regard for others. They’re discourteous, self-important dimwits who just don’t care. They drive like they live, selfishly, as though they’re the only ones on the road and everyone ought to just move out of their way because their car costs about five times what everybody else’s does. Probably some overpaid attorney or multimillionaire late for his tee time at his exclusive golf course. When he cut me off I honked at him and he didn’t even look back or acknowledge that he’d been an inconsiderate idiot! Just kept driving! Totally oblivious! That’s what the world is coming to. Nothing but a bunch of reckless narcissists on the road who just don’t give a damn.
Did you like my story? This really happened to me. Something like it has probably happened to you too. But the thing is, it’s just a story. Now, there’s nothing wrong with me telling my story, and telling stories this way can help us relate to one another sometimes. Telling stories builds rapport. But telling it has an effect, not just on me but on others who hear it (did reading my story provoke an emotional response in you?). And if I’m not careful, I’ll end up living in the midst of those negative effects and affect you with the splash damage.
If the effects of the story are keeping that ember of anger burning in my stomach – if they’re generating feelings of frustration and irritation coursing through my brain – if they’re making my blood pressure skyrocket and my head ache and my jaw clench – if they’re causing me to get snappy with the people I work with or with my family – if they’re contributing to my ulcer or my need for a strong drink or whatever else – if they’re causing me to detest people driving expensive cars or resent entire portions of the human race – if they’re doing any of these things, then maybe it’s time for me to stop telling this story. Why? Because it ain’t helping.
So how could I tell a less dysfunctional and drama-filled story while still being truthful? Well, how about this:
A guy driving an expensive sports car cut me off in traffic and I got mad about it.
Yeah I know, that’s a pretty boring story. But is telling an interesting story layered in drama worth the sacrifice of my health and emotional balance? Is it worth the irritation I absorb and reflect upon others I care about? Am I not really handing over far too much control to the guy in the expensive car? What do I really know of this man? What am I getting, and what am I giving up, by holding onto that story and retelling it? What happens when I develop a habit of telling stories like that? What happens when my life – my identity – becomes defined by such stories?
If you really want to change your life, get ready to watch your story get obliterated. In fact, welcome it. Don’t wait for a therapist or coach to do it, rip up the pages yourself. There’s really no other way to change and grow. You’re not Peter Pan, Huck Finn, Joan of Arc, Indiana Jones, or Cinderella. You’re you. Nobody else. And when you really think about it, that’s kind of liberating! Once you give up the story, you’re no longer limited by the script of the Hero, Heroine, Fool, Lover, Sage, Princess, or what-have-you. You can write your own story as you go. But only if you let go of the stories you’ve been telling, no matter how good they are.
So are stories bad? Not as long as you are conscious of the fact that it’s you constructing and telling that story. But if your story is creating feelings and beliefs that are unresourceful, dysfunctional, and maybe even unhealthy, it’s time to let the story go.
Cold, Hard Truth #2: It’s Simple, But it Ain’t Easy
“Everybody has talent, but ability takes hard work.” – Michael Jordan
Personal development involves work. Duh, right? But many people are somehow caught off guard by this fact. As I suggested in part one, I believe some of that can be blamed on the marketing experts who love to portray personal growth work as “easy.” “Just come to the seminar! Just take the supplement! Just attend the yoga class! Just read the book! Just push the button!”
In truth, if you’re serious – really serious – about change and growth, you’re going to have to gear-up, roll up your sleeves, and work. And while it’s easy to blame the advertising for making us think otherwise, the truth is we should know better.
Real personal growth is simple, but rarely easy. Instead, it’s sometimes sloppy and uncomfortable. It’s not a sleigh ride in the snow. It’s an uphill climb with 40 lbs of gear and a rock in your shoe. Sounds fun, right? So why would anybody want to do it?
If you go to the gym to get in shape you can expect to feel some stiff, sore, achy muscles sometimes. You’re going to get sweaty and stinky. Does that mean you should stop exercising? Of course not. In fact, it means it’s working. You’re putting in the effort to get the payoff. And the payoff is worth the sacrifice, or nobody would do it.
To gain self-knowledge or expanded awareness requires effort, sacrifice, and usually some heavy duty soul-searching. Your mental muscles might get tired. Your emotional joints might ache. This is hard work. No one can do it for you. Does that mean personal growth is nothing but suffering and strife? Is it a case of “no pain, no gain?”
It’s been said, “A freedom given is less liberating than a freedom earned.” But that doesn’t mean we have to suffer endlessly in order to gain freedom and happiness in our lives. It doesn’t mean that we should intentionally put ourselves through misery in the false hope that we are somehow “building character.” In fact, there’s a lot to be said for the path of least resistance as long as that path will yield benefit and growth.
So improving your life doesn’t have to be a horrible ordeal. But it does require a willingness to sacrifice deeply rooted beliefs and behaviors that may be holding us back. We have to be willing to really look at ourselves and the effects our thoughts, actions, and beliefs are having in our lives, and sometimes in the lives of others. We have to be self-honest in all matters. And we have to take action.
If this sounds easy, you haven’t tried it.
Make no mistake, if you are truly intent on changing your life, knowing who you really are, and experiencing real value and meaning, you will have to earn it. It takes time set aside to self-reflect. It takes alone time. And even that takes work. You will need to draw on your deepest resources of intuition, persistence, and open-mindedness to complete your quest. Otherwise, like a forgotten New Years resolution, the blooms of intention are quickly choked-out by the weeds of complacency.
Cold, Hard Truth #3: Without a Sense of Humor, You’re Screwed
How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb? Just one, but the lightbulb has to really want to change.
Most people don’t associate a sense of humor with personal growth. In fact, self-improvement is often depicted as a very serious experience where you “get in touch with your inner child,” or your “higher self” or something equally intangible, and go about the very sacred and austere business of “healing.”
In truth, personal growth can be chaotic, awkward, messy, and graceless. And sometimes, it can be pretty funny. Erma Bombeck said, “There’s a thin line between laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” Perhaps even more to the point, Charlie Chaplin said, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”
Personal growth is often a task undertaken by people not happy about something – their finances, their health, their relationships, their wardrobe, their golf game – something, maybe big or maybe small. So they end up focusing on all the dire heaviness and problems at hand because that’s what they want to change. The problem is, well, The Problem.
They’re thinking in terms of “if only.” If only I could make more money! If only I could make my marriage work! If only I could write a great novel, take a vacation, get a new car, win the lottery, lose 20 pounds!
Makes sense, right? If your car breaks down, you want to fix the problem. If you have money troubles, you tend to think about a lack of finances. If your job stinks, you think about changing jobs. But that means spending a lot of time thinking about The Problem. If only The Problem would go away! Constantly thinking about The Problem is, in the technical parlance, a real drag.
Worse than that, it limits our awareness of opportunities to fix The Problem because all we can see before us is The Problem. Focusing solely on The Problem is a sure way to stay painfully serious, worried, stuck, and miserable. If you can’t find a way to turn your troubles into something to smile or laugh about, then you’re stuck.
But wait, there’s more…
There’s another topic I’d like to bring up here. It’s a serious one and not an easy one for some people to talk about. That topic is grief. Grief is a complex and sensitive issue, the mere utterance of which can stave off suggestions of levity. Grief isn’t funny. But it’s critical, especially as one gets older, to distinguish between grief and victimhood. Grief is a process; a process, implying movement. Not stasis. Victimhood is not grief. It’s a state that can concretize around our feet while we’re busy grieving and never let us move ahead.
Because our culture too often rewards victimhood, many people believe that their grief, loss, frustration, sadness, and dissatisfaction has some kind of sacred or eternal component to it that demands that we venerate it. They want it taken seriously. And sometimes that includes the belief that everyone else must also empathize, constantly and in perpetuity, in order for them to to feel justified in their sadness. So they inadvertently create a “grief cult” around their loss where the very pain they are suffering from becomes a protected part of themselves they can’t afford to let go of. Grief becomes a sacred icon to venerate. To belong to the grief cult, we are asked to honor – not the memory of the loss – but the grief itself. And, over time, members of grief cults allow their grief to transform them into – not just the bereaved – but victims.
For those of you familiar with Transactional Analysis and the work of Eric Berne, this is an example of playing the “Ain’t It Awful” game. You gain entry into the grief cult – not by offering healing and change or by helping the griever to gently move – but by nurturing the grief (as opposed to the healing) and constantly finding ways to remind yourself and others that, “ain’t it awful?” In extreme situations, one can actually worship, in an almost literal sense, their own sadness, sacrificing any chance at happiness or peace in order to feed the beast of their own anguish.
You lighten up while you still can.
“But Marc. You don’t understand! I’m sick! I’ve lost people close to me! I’ve suffered abuse! My boss hates me! My ex is suing me! My car broke down! And my dog ran away! How can you tell me to just ‘lighten up?!’”
I get it, I really do. But even so – and please excuse the weak attempt at irony – I’m serious about humor.
Understand that I’m not saying that your financial hardships, illness, divorce, the loss of a loved one, or any other agonies life deals out are funny. They’re not. They are not to be made light of. They’re serious. They can be terrifying. They can hurt. Sometimes that hurt is so sharp and runs so deep that you’ll never be able to put it into words or completely break free of it. Some losses will haunt us for the rest of our days. Another rarely-admitted truth is that not all wounds heal. Despite the adage, time does not heal all wounds. But there are other tools besides time to heal grief. And humor is one of them.
A colleague of mine is a grief counselor. Her clients have experienced the toughest losses one can endure and the stories she tells about them are, frankly, soul-crushing. But she tells her all clients this, “After a loss, you’ll know you’re beginning to heal the first moment you find yourself laughing.” Laughing is usually the last thing someone in the throes of loss or suffering is going to do. Even so, another old adage – “laughter is the best medicine” – is absolutely true in my experience. There is no substitute for humor; it is a salve for the wounded soul.
So how do you do it? How do you smile or laugh when things can be so dark and heavy? Sometimes you have to “fake it ‘til you make it.”
Did you know that even by forcing yourself to smile you’re activating pleasure centers in your brain? We all know the brain is amazing but it isn’t always quite as brilliant as we make it out to be. It can be fooled, and sometimes that’s to our advantage. So when you muster a silly grin on your face, the brain goes, “Hmm. Apparently we’re finding something amusing or we wouldn’t be smiling. Okay then, cue the serotonin! Hey, pain receptors, take a break! Circulation, get that blood moving! Activate the immune system! Endocrine system, wake up! Let’s liven this place up! Pronto!”
This has been clinically demonstrated. People who smile, whether they feel like it or not, are healthier and happier, and the effects on physiology are almost immediate. They experience less pain, both physical and emotional, and are better able to combat illness. That’s not thanks to prescription medication or years of therapy, mind you. That’s just by smiling. And you don’t even have to worry whether your insurance covers it.
Finding the humor in life is a skill that cannot be overvalued. Author Norman Cousins tells a famous story about the power of humor he experienced first-hand. Cousins was diagnosed with a particularly rare and severely painful form of arthritis and was already battling advanced heart disease. Most people with these conditions suffer with chronic pain, discomfort, and eventually succumb to a range of infections and ancillary illnesses because their immune systems are simply worn down like a pencil point.
Told his chances of survival were slim and that he faced a rather painful death, Cousins declined conventional treatment methods and instead embarked on a regimen of mega-doses of Vitamin C and, oddly, Marx Brothers films.
“I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep. When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.”
Thanks, apparently in part to Groucho and his brothers, Cousins survived. This confused a lot of very smart doctors, and Cousins went on to chronicle the remarkable story of his recovery in his book still studied today by those interested in the mind-body connection, “Anatomy of an Illness.”
Now, you can’t laugh away every illness. Nor can you always smile when things are tough. But where you can find the humor in life you’ll also find healing and change in yourself. Guaranteed.
So cold, hard truth #3 is that if you really want to grow and change – heck, if you just want to survive on this planet – and you don’t have a sense of humor about life, get one. Rent one. Borrow one. Steal one. It’ll lighten your load. And it just might save your life.
Cold, Hard Truth #4: Try The Green Eggs & Ham
“I am always doing things I can’t do. That’s how I get to do them.” – Pablo Picasso
You know the Dr. Seuss story, Green Eggs & Ham.* That pesky little twerp, Sam-I-Am, constantly, persistently, incessantly goads that poor guy in the tall black hat to try his green eggs & ham. This, despite the fact that he of the tall black hat has resolutely refused and firmly asserted that he DOES NOT LIKE green eggs & ham. He just doesn’t. When pressed for comment, he stated:
I could not, would not, on a boat.
I would not, will not, with a goat.
I will not eat them in the rain.
I will not eat them on a train.
Not in the dark! Not in a tree!
Not in a car! You let me be!
I do not like them in a box.
I do not like them with a fox.
I will not eat them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them ANYWHERE!
I do not like
It would appear that the man doesn’t like green eggs & ham.
“Ahh, but Marc, you’re forgetting something!” you say, “He hasn’t tried the green eggs & ham, has he?” Well you know what? You’re right!
Personal growth sometimes means having to try something different, even something we think we won’t like. If we want change we have to come to terms with the fact that change doesn’t usually happen without us doing something new. This means stepping out of our comfy zone now and then (you heard me, a comfy zone).
Success and happiness depend on a certain willingness to experiment. I don’t mean risking your health or well-being on some foolish gamble. But if any part of your life needs changing, you’ll have to do some things, try some things, and think about some things differently.
You’ve heard it said that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. Or at least futility. So if you hear yourself saying things like, “I keep getting myself in relationships that fail,” or, “No matter what I do, I can’t seem to succeed,” or, “Every time I try to accomplish something, I blow it,” you can be pretty certain that it’s more than coincidence. And it’s not that God or the government or anybody else wants you to fail. You’re doing something, probably out of a set of unconscious and dysfunctional beliefs, that are resulting in failure. This isn’t your fault and you’re not to blame (blame is an irrelevant and useless word, by the way), but it is your responsibility.
The good news is that there’s a relatively simple formula for improving this: Changing beliefs changes thoughts. Changing thoughts changes behaviors. Change the behaviors and the outcome will change too. It has to. That’s how life works, each and every time, sure as a western sunset.
Beliefs >> Thoughts >> Behaviors >> Outcomes
But to make this happen you have to think and act and maybe even believe differently than you’re used to. It’s simple but not always easy. It’s not easy because we get pretty comfy with our habits, including our habits of dysfunctional beliefs. We develop methods of thinking and acting that, while questionable and even unhealthy, are familiar. Even when we know our actions will fail, we often still take them, like someone taking the long, dangerous, and bumpy road home even after the new, paved, safer, shorter road has been constructed because it’s simply what they know.
There’s an old joke: guy goes into his doctor, lifts his arms above his head and says, “It hurts every time I do this.” The doctor nods, writes something on a piece of paper, and hands it to the man. It says, “Stop lifting your arms above your head.”
Sometimes the secret of success is not held within arcane knowledge but is hidden in plain sight, in the obvious. And it starts with our beliefs. If you allow yourself to believe that you are a failure (even though you’ve failed), or that you can’t succeed (even though you haven’t succeeded) or that you’ll never be happy (even though you haven’t been happy), you’re going to end up thinking and doing the very same things that unhappy, unsuccessful people do. You can’t help it. And doing those things will only continue the same pattern because those are the same beliefs, thoughts, and actions that produce such a result. Obvious, right?
So why do we do it? Why do we get stuck in this situation so often? Because there’s a payoff. The payoff is that we get to be right…and miserable!…but right!…but miserable!.. And we do it because it becomes part of the story (see #1) we tell about ourselves, to ourselves, consciously and unconsciously. So we closely identify with the very beliefs that are creating outcomes we don’t want, so much so that we rarely even consider the possibility of changing the channel to a set of beliefs that yield healthy and successful outcomes.
The good news is that if you give up that payoff of being right all the time, and start doing things that happy, successful people do – even if it just means believing things could be better – it’s often enough to move you right into the very heart of happiness. Will you be proven wrong sometimes? Will you fail? Of course! All happy and successful people have experienced that. But they’ve factored that into their plans and they know that, with some persistence, the benefits of a single success can easily outweigh the risks of a dozen failures. That’s what happens when we try the green eggs & ham, meaning, when we start believing the kinds of things that move us ahead, uplift us, compel us, inform us.
Assuming you don’t want to perpetually live as an expert on failure by experience, try listening to Sam-I-Am, pick up that fork, and give the green eggs & ham a try. Just one bite! Maybe you’re right and you won’t like them. Or maybe you’ll discover something new and wonderful. What do you have to lose?
(*For the record, you could do far worse than having Dr. Seuss for a therapist! )
Cold, Hard Truth #5, The World is Not Your Oyster
“So the universe is not quite as you thought it was. You’d better rearrange your beliefs, then. Because you certainly can’t rearrange the universe.” — Isaac Asimov
Sit down. Take a deep breath. I have some bad news. You ready? Okay, so it turns out that the world is not here in order to make you happy. Sorry to ruin your day.
Okay, I kid. The point is that no matter who or what you are, the world at large doesn’t really care all that much about you. But that’s okay.
Personal growth gurus like to talk about the “universe” as a place of love, joy, and as one self-help expert enthusiastically proclaimed, “unbounded and unlimited opportunity!”
Well, yeah, sorta, sometimes.
But it’s also a place of excruciating difficulty. No matter your lot in life, living is hard work. But that doesn’t give you an excuse to sit down and give up. It’s up to you, not the rest of the world, to adapt if you want to survive and thrive.
One of the main reasons people struggle with personal growth is that they believe that just by pushing that button the world somehow changes to make it possible for them to continue thinking and acting the same way they’re used to, but with less stress. If we could just change the external, it would make it feasible to keep living according to our favorite internal values, beliefs, thoughts, and actions. Let’s not change us, let’s change the world! Wouldn’t that be great??
Any efforts on your part to be happier and healthier depends, at least in part, on your ability to know that the onus of change is on your shoulders, not your mother’s, father’s, boss’s, teacher’s, pastor’s, son’s, or friend’s. Assume that these people and situations in your life will always be the same people and situations they have been, whether they’re wonderful or difficult. They are influences in your life, but that’s all they are. Influence is not control. YOU are in control, but only of YOU. You’re in the driver’s seat of your life. Real maturity in life – the kind that actually empowers you – starts with that acknowledgement.
Any coach or therapist can tell you about clients they’ve had who are the “Nothing-Works-For-Me” type. My client, Harold, who I described in part one of this article was like that. He’d tried meditation, yoga, exercise, success seminars, hypnosis, and a dozen other things, and kept insisting that, “None of that stuff works.” Of course these things do work for some people. In fact, if you really persist with them, they’ll work most of the time for most people. So what’s the common thread when “nothing works for me?” Could it be that the client is playing a role here? Could Harold’s attitude be the wrench in the works?
Sure, it’s possible that – for some reason – none of these things resulted in positive change. Maybe yoga’s just not your thing or you think hypnotherapy is a scam. But if you have a long list of things that have worked wonders in other people’s lives and you seem to be the constant exception, like Harold, it might be time to examine how you’re managing the energy of change in your life, starting with taking responsibility for the whole messy lot.
In fact, unless you’re really willing to take responsibility, you might as well not even attempt to improve your life. It will turn into a huge waste of time and money. Taking responsibility can seem daunting at times, but the thing about responsibility is that it’s where the power is. Remember the cause-and-effect spectrum? Responsibility, power, and control exist at the “cause” end of the spectrum. Unfortunately, most of us were brought up to think of responsibility as a problem. More specifically, we’ve been conditioned to think of responsibility as blame. This often goes all the way back to childhood. When we broke mom’s china cup or we dinged-up dad’s car, we had a finger shaken at us and were asked, “Are you responsible for this?” This was bad. This meant punishment. This meant we were in deep doo-doo. And we’d do just about anything to avoid saying, “Yeah, that was me. I did it. I messed up.”
So we’re more or less conditioned to think of responsibility as a problem to avoid. We then fall into a trap in which the less we can be responsible for in life, the easier life becomes. That’s a lie that nobody actually told us but that we often unconsciously believe anyway because of our conditioning. And that lie leads us to become very good at the Art of the Excuse: “No mom, see, the cat came running around and hit the table and your china cup fell off the table and shattered into a hundred pieces!”
But the fact is that responsibility combined with clearly intentioned action equals power. Responsibility isn’t something to avoid, it’s something to embrace, if we want power in our lives. Power. Real power. The very same kind of power people who change the world use. Who is on your list of people who have really changed the world for the better? MLK? JFK? Gandhi? Mother Theresa? Jesus? Muhammad? Doesn’t matter who you choose, I can assure you that anyone who has impacted this world for the better understood this one principle: that none of them shied away from taking responsibility for their actions and words. Some of them even died for that kind of power. (But don’t worry… you probably won’t need to.) They knew that they were here for the world, and not the other way around.
If you want control of your life you have to also assume responsibility. In fact, don’t just “assume” it, immerse yourself in it, run directly to the big responsibility pool and cannonball yourself right into the deep end.
If you constantly avoid responsibility, you’re also giving away the power you need to change and control your life. What you get for your trouble is a one-way ticket to Victimsville, and that place is already overpopulated with people you don’t want to hang around with.
There are really two kinds of change we experience: change that feels out of our control, and change that happens as a result of something we’ve done. Even though it’s easy to think about all the horrible things that have happened in our lives, the truth is that far more of the change we experience in life is actually of the latter type, and tied to our beliefs, thoughts, and actions than we’re willing to admit.
Armed with that information, what do you do? Too often, people who embark on personal growth efforts take a passive approach.
Let me explain: Imagine someone who climbs up on the plastic surgeon’s table, plunks down a lot of cash, and expects to come out of the anesthesia a few hours later looking like a gorgeous or handsome movie star. In other words, they expect to undergo some sort of passive procedure where they just sit there, endure some discomfort and bruises, and then, magically – POOF! -they’re transformed.
They fail to realize that personal growth isn’t plastic surgery. Where personal growth is concerned, the surgeon is really them, not the therapist, guru, teacher, book, or coach. They fail to see themselves as a participant in the process of changing their lives, but rather as a consumer who pays the money, pushes the button, and waits for the prize to drop out of the slot. If you’ve been paying attention to my blather thus far, you already know precisely what I’m going to say: That’s simply not how intentional, directed life change happens.
The world will change. Your world will change. But it won’t change for the sole purpose to make you happier and healthier. You, and only you, have the responsibility to make that happen. Hold onto that responsibility, (chase it down, tackle it, and hogtie it if you have to), and put it to work for you. Do that, and you can’t lose.
Cold, Hard Truth #6 – Patience, Grasshopper
“The two hardest tests on the spiritual road are the patience to wait for the right moment and the courage not to be disappointed with what we encounter.” – Paulo Coelho
Change can take time. I know, I know, that’s obvious. So obvious, in fact, I almost didn’t include it in the list. But then I reflected deeper on one of the main reasons people fail when they try to change their lives: impatience. And impatience, in this day and age, can be a serious impediment to lasting change.
We live in a world addicted to expedience. We want our eyeglasses in an hour, an oil change in 20 minutes, and our meals prepared while we sit for a couple of minutes in a drive-thru or waiting for the microwave to beep. We get our news in soundbites and use text messaging shorthand to convey laughter( LOL!). We don’t always say what we mean, but rather what we have time to say. We have an insatiable appetite for speedy results, and are often willing to sacrifice quality and meaning for it.
It’s likewise with our development as human beings. We want the shortcut, the quick-n-easy way to enlightenment and healing.
Why should personal development take so much time? Well, in a way, it really shouldn’t. In fact, if you master the ability to change your beliefs, thoughts, and actions, you can effectively become a happier, healthier person in the time it takes you to read this essay. If you master it.
The problem is, change doesn’t happen on the sidelines. It doesn’t happen while reading a spectacular blog post like this one. We’re already in motion. Our lives are on the move. We have jobs, kids, spouses, friends, hobbies, etc. Changing your life for the better midstream is a little like changing the tire on your car as you’re speeding down the interstate at 65 mph. Most of us don’t have the luxury of ascending a remote mountaintop and spending the next ten years in solitude learning the secrets of peace and happiness (and few of us would do it even if we could). Nope. We have to learn that stuff on our way to work, during our lunch break, or during a quiet moment on a Sunday evening. Life doesn’t stop to make itself easier to attain inner peace.
I included a Paulo Coelho quote above and now I’ll share another one of his here:
“Why is patience important? Because it makes us pay attention.”
Attention is really the key because when you’re paying attention and are conscious of your thoughts and actions, you’re less likely to make unresourceful choices. Your attention is required because it keeps you in the moment, and the moment is where it all happens. You can’t change what happened five years or five minutes ago, nor can you change what might happen in the next moment. Something could happen before you finish reading this sentence that could totally upend your life, or mine. So the more of your energy you can keep focused on the moment, the more control you’ll exercise in the patient attentiveness any given moment allows.
So be aware. You can’t text your way to happiness. It doesn’t come in soundbites. It’s not an instant process. It takes time. Sometimes a lot of time. But I would argue that the fact that personal development takes time is a positive, not a negative.
I said earlier that it takes hard work to change your life, and I characterized it in some rather somber terms. But it’s not all drudgery and agony. It can also be very pleasurable work. In fact, I encourage my clients to approach personal development the way you might approach eating a well-prepared gourmet meal. Think of the most delectable meal you could eat. For me, this would involve something cheesy, creamy, or maybe some seafood, or a medium-rare steak with some red wine-marinaded mushrooms and garlic mashed potatoes with a nice caesar salad. You wouldn’t grab a fork and shove that down your gullet, would you? No. You’d take your time and savor each bite. You’d chew your food carefully and delight in the flavors and textures. When you eat something that tasty you take your time. You want to keep eating and tasting and making those “MmmmMmm!” sounds that annoy your spouse and those sitting near you in the restaurant. If you enjoy a truly magnificent meal, you’re in no hurry to see it come to an end. You want the experience to last.
Personal growth can be tedious work, but it should also be something you savor and enjoy. You are, after all, engaging in the task of making your life better, not worse. You’re improving things, little by little. And that’s one of life’s greatest pleasures. Don’t make it something you do on the weekends. Make it last!
Even when your personal growth work is NOT enjoyable, and it feels more like you’re choking down a stale piece of toast, make your peace with that process. You can do certain things to speed up the process, but it’s still a process. You might as well take a deep breath and enjoy it.
Personal growth takes time and work. But depending on how you can approach it, it can be the most beautiful, rewarding, thrilling endeavor of your existence.
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” — C.G. Jung
When I first began working as a life coach I barely knew what I was doing beyond having had some basic training and some experience with various personal growth methods like meditation. Back then, I really didn’t give a lot of thought to the kinds of “cold, hard truths” I’ve shared with you here. In fact, I probably would have dismissed most of them if I’d read an article like this one. I might have even criticized someone who would share what I’ve shared with you here.
I wasn’t interested in telling people to rip up their story or to get used to the fact that the world isn’t here to make them happy. Back then, I was trying to focus on “the positive;” on affirming and encouraging people, on supporting them and always working toward solutions, improvements, and ways of enhancing life. My coaching method was to be relentlessly uplifting and designed to move my clients out of their misery. I was trying to be a cushion between my clients and the sharp edges and harshness of their experiences.
This was not only incredibly difficult, it was also naive. Even worse, it sometimes did a disservice to my clients.
Whether intentionally or not, I steered clear of using techniques that challenged my clients. I resisted calling their thinking and beliefs into question. And I avoided almost anything that could make them feel uncomfortable. I wanted to walk them toward light and joy and happiness, not into the dreary darkness of their lives. I didn’t like hearing stories of abuse and heartbreak, and sometimes even dissuaded them from talking about it, instead trying to reframe it in a positive light. In retrospect I now know that was partly because I too became affected by these stories, drained by them, and just plain bummed out.
But it was also because I hadn’t come to terms in my own life with the fact that things aren’t always going to feel good, fair, happy, or positive. Sometimes things were going to hurt. Sometimes I’d make mistakes that undermined my chances at happiness or damaged other people in my life. Sometimes people I trusted hurt me, although I didn’t want to admit that to myself, let alone show it to them. I was allergic to this truth. I wanted everyone to think I was above such pain and suffering. So I pretended I was. I put on a facade of peace, tranquility, and calm in the face of suffering. But no matter how much I meditated, prayed, contemplated, read, studied, or engaged in any number of spiritual or personal growth efforts, life occasionally just sucked. Even though I worked like crazy to avoid the darkness of life, sometimes it just seemed to overtake me. I was missing a certain obvious aspect of the human condition: pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice.
Dealing with those moments privately filled me with a sense of frustration and failure. For many years, I wondered “what was wrong with me” that I would endure the sensations of failure, sadness, grief, and anger – as though I ought to somehow be above these very real human experiences. It was a darkness from which I thought I ought to be immune.
What’s changed for me is not that I don’t have stressful days (I have plenty of those), or that I don’t grieve, feel depressed, feel angry, or sad, but rather that I now believe – and I try to help my clients see – that denying the darkness of life is the same as disowning a part of the life experience we’re here to have. Besides that, denying it doesn’t work. In fact, it usually makes its sharp edges cut yet deeper.
Life consists of shadow and light, and they work in tandem. Without one, the other loses meaning. Imperfection is part of the human condition. It’s impossible to create order unless there is some chaos out of which to do it. Legos don’t come fully constructed, you have to make something out of the pile. Gotta break some eggs to make the omelet. You get the idea.
It’s an imperfect world, and whether you ascribe that fact to a theology, a philosophy, a science, or just blind chance, it is, perhaps, the most obvious fact of our existence. Yet still, the world works just as it should – or at least how it does – and all things unfold according to, well, God’s will, cause-and-effect, quantum mechanics, or happenstance – it depends on your beliefs. The trick is not in avoiding this or pretending the darkness isn’t there, but in learning how to live in harmony with it, and when necessary, to gear-up and descend into that darkness to retrieve some piece of ourselves we need to reclaim in order to take the next step out of despair and into something better.
When I talk about “gearing up,” I’m talking about learning how to select and use tools in life that allow you to accomplish your goals. Human beings are, amongst many things, toolmakers. We don’t just wander into the cave without a torch. We don’t carelessly stray into the burning desert without some water. Wherever we go, we ought to take the proper tools with us. Common sense tools. Survival tools. Tools that will allow us to fully explore that darkness without the fear and trepidation that can cause us jump at every noise and run away in panic from our own shadow.
Darkness doesn’t have to be avoided or feared when you’re properly geared up to explore it. Life doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be good. And there is always value in working toward improving our lives and the lives of others. In fact some would contend that doing so is why we’re here. Don’t just take my word for it. Virtually every spiritual thinker, every major religious text, and every inspirational individual you can name taught or exhibited these very same principles.
My intention with this piece was not to reveal “the secret of life,” or even to articulate anything particularly profound. That’s well beyond the likes of me. Nor was it to indict the personal growth industry (an industry I have, after all, happily worked within for many years). But I do hope I’ve shared some tools we can use to gear-up and better explore life together; tools that are too often overshadowed by hype or overlooked in the rush to sculpt-out the perfect life worthy of a good Facebook status update.
Personal growth work isn’t very glamorous. And it’s certainly not quite so simple as pushing a button. Even so, when we’re equipped with this information and then set out with a clear intention and dogged determination to make our lives better, we really can’t fail. In fact, if we’re really willing to commit ourselves to improving our lives, glamorous or not, the experience can be one of the richest and sweetest life has to offer.
So I’d like to leave you with one last cold, hard truth, one you probably have already guessed by now: When it comes to the work of personal development, there is no button to push.
There is no magic pill, no silver bullet, no instant gratification. But when we’re properly geared-up, self-honest, and unafraid even of the blackest shadows life can cast, we don’t need a button.
If you haven’t guessed by now, the “button” does not exist. And that, my friend, is a good thing.
“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.” ― Gilda Radner