Everyone wants to improve their life.
Contentment is indeed a peaceful, worthwhile state of mind, but even contentment can be a goal. If we are not content with our lives, we are trying to be. Even contentment is a form of improvement.
We are hardwired, as human beings, to create. We imagine, ponder, and dream of better things for ourselves. This is part of the human experience, and when we don’t see a path forward to better living or a path out of our suffering, we can become restless, depressed, and lethargic. We settle into the status quo, not out of contentment but out of resignation.
We speak the most apathetic and hopeless of all human utterings: “It is what it is.”
These are the words of those who have run out of options, ideas, and possibilities. Sometimes, when we utter these words about other people and situations, it’s because they are truly out of our control. But when we do have control over the outcomes of our lives and we say, “It is what it is,” what we are really saying is:
“I don’t know how to get myself out of this.”
“I don’t have the tools to improve this situation.”
“I am not happy, but I think I’ve exhausted my options.”
We need hope. And in order to have hope, we need a path of growth.
We need to see that the distance between our present and a better life is a feasible journey.
Stop reading right now and ask yourself: what do I want to improve about my life?
Write it down.
I want to improve _________.
Now, you could make a decision to change right here and now. Countless books, podcasts, blogs, sermons, and self-help gurus focus on change, but I think that’s a weaker place to start than growth.
Because change is about emotion.
We feel frustrated, ashamed, fearful, sad, or angry. We say to ourselves, “Enough is enough.” We decide on a direction that will eradicate the unpleasant emotion, and we set our course. We plan and execute. If we do this for enough time, we might create a new habit. Habits are tough to start and even harder to break, so if a healthier habit forms, we are on a good track. We might even start to feel better (emotions again), but the trouble is this: if we don’t do the new thing for long enough, the new behavior does not take hold, and when the unpleasant emotions that originally motivated us to change pass, we flip back to old behaviors. This is why promises to change are so often unkept.
The emotions that motivate us to change -
very often shame and fear -
will pass, as all emotions do,
and when they pass,
we are right back where we started.
However, there is an alternative path to self-improvement: growth.
Growth happens on a different level than change. Change means we are altering our behavior to eliminate unpleasant emotions. It’s an action of the intellect and the will. Growth means we examine our belief systems about ourselves and how we came to believe these things. If we hold negative beliefs about ourselves, we are going to see them and identify them for what they are.
Maybe we don’t really believe we deserve love.
Maybe we don’t really believe we deserve to be making more money.
Maybe we don’t really believe that we are worthy of attention and care.
Maybe we really believe we’re unloveable.
Maybe we really believe we’re unworthy of success.
Maybe we really believe we have no value unless we’re succeeding.
Once we know what we really believe, we can begin to see: this is what we have been living. This is the reality we have been creating. Why? Because it’s what we truly believe.
Now. Let’s look at how we get where we want to go and grow.
Growth is accomplished by using and adhering to Principles, Practices, and Particulars. Everyone follows the same principles; practices are going to vary depending on personality and availability; and particulars are specific to you.
There are four principles for growth: Integrity, Accountability, Consistency, and Self-Compassion.
Integrity means we tell the truth about who we are, what we do, and why we do it. It means we talk about what happened to us as children and what we do as adults. It means we don’t embellish, minimize, aggrandize, dismiss, omit, or alter the truth of who we are or what we do - to the best of our knowledge.
Why is integrity so important?
Growth is impossible if we do not have a starting point.
We need to be clear and honest about who we are and what we are doing if we are going to have any place to go. A runner can’t chart a faster mile if she doesn’t know her current time. We come clean, become honest observers of ourselves, and start to move in a direction of healthier beliefs and subsequent behaviors.
Accountability means we accept responsibly for our actions and consequences. It means we are assuming the position of power in our own lives. Blaming others only reduces our own power. We are effectively saying, “My actions are dependent on your actions.” To say this is to abdicate our autonomy.
Once we become responsible for our choices and consequences, we become the drivers of our own lives.
Consistency means we repeat the same actions, day after day, until we see results. We are not awaiting the blinding flash of glorious, heavenly light that will transform our weaknesses into strengths. We are in training. We do the things that make us grow, day after day, and we trust the process to get us there.
Self-compassion is the Principle that binds all these together. It is the attitude we have with ourselves that says, “I understand why I do what I do. I know what need I was trying to meet, and it’s human. I am learning better ways of meeting my needs.” Without self-compassion, we are shame-filled task masters with whips on our backs. Self-compassion is what gives us the safety to really look at ourselves (Integrity), the courage to accept responsibility for our lives (Accountability), and the reason to be Consistent: self-love.
We are worth a better life.
Practices are the things we do that bring us into places of self-awareness within ourselves. We might write in a journal, see a therapist, engage in a yoga practice, run on trails or on roads, walk, hike, drink tea, meditate, pray, dance, paint, draw, go to a support group or 12-step meeting, or simply fix our gaze on a perfect flower. These are the actions we take that quiet our minds and hearts and help us to feel and see who we really are.
Particulars are the specific ways we engage any or all of the above:
Journaling: A leather bound book? A spiral notebook? In the morning? Over coffee? Tea? At night? A gratitude journal? In a coffee shop? In bed? At the kitchen table?
Therapy: Talk therapy? Group therapy? Couples therapy? Psychodrama? Equine therapy? Art therapy?
Yoga: Vinyasa? Bikram? Kundalini? In the morning? In the evening? Alone? With a friend? In the living room? At a studio?
And so on… we find the particular ways that we engage our growth practices, and with integrity, accountability, consistency, and self-compassion we grow.
We do this… not because of a nasty emotion we feel, but because we have come to believe that...
We are worthy of love, care, success, and peace.
This is a shift in our internal belief systems. This is Growth. The changes now happen organically.