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The Four Steps of Personal Growth

I love systems.

I appreciate when someone can condense complexity into workable, understandable nuggets of thought and action. I believe it's because I grew up in such a complex environment. There were a lot of kids (four of us), big egos, narcissism in both parents, alcohol abuse and addiction in the extended family, lots of energy, chaos, lies, confusion, conflict, laugher, loud voices, angry silences, and general mayhem. Some of it was wonderfully fun and rich, but so much of it frightened and confused me.

Hence my penchant for systems. I abhor chaos. Systems, for me, are the answer.

So as a therapist, when I sense that I can systematize something down into its essential components and offer simplicity in place of complexity, I jump at the chance. We are such mysterious creatures, human beings, and much of the time spent in therapy is spent trying to understand ourselves and figure out what we need. Theorists and innovative clinicians offer "systems" of therapy, but I find they're unnecessarily complex. You essentially have to learn a whole new language to process what's happening inside of you.

Isn't there an easier way?

While I was working on the podcast this week on the conditions in which human beings thrive, I started thinking about how to help my audience apply the concepts I was presenting. These four steps emerged in my mind:

  1. Look at your childhood. What happened then? How did you survive?

  2. Look at your adulthood. What's happening now? How are you surviving?

  3. Normalize your pain.

  4. Ask yourself: what can I currently improve?

Let's break these down...

1. Look at your childhood. What happened then? How did you survive?

Looking backwards at our childhood years, while some really hate it, is essential. Why? Because it gives us a reference point for how we developed the patterns we developed, and it helps us confront our shame. So much of our shame comes from not understanding ourselves. We don't know why we did what we did, why we made the choices we made, so we beat ourselves up for what we've done. When we look backward, we start to see how we developed the thinking patterns that landed us in the situations in which we've found ourselves. Your current pain is connected to your current choices. Your earliest pain is connected to your earliest conditions. The past is the key to self-knowledge.

Looking backwards into childhood also allows us to remember how small and vulnerable we were. Children are the most vulnerable creatures of all because they simply cannot survive on their own. They're totally dependent on adults for food, clothing, water, shelter, education, and care. They lack the strength, size, age, resources, and knowledge to protect and defend themselves. When we remember how small we were, how innocent and dependent, we stop blaming ourselves so harshly for who we have become. We can see that we did our best. We were only children after all. We can look at how we developed coping mechanisms that worked in our childhood environment with compassion and understanding.

This allows to us come into contact with what we call the "inner child." This is the part inside each one of us that can become like a child again in triggering environments. Instead of acting like adults, we become scared and defenseless, like children. We might hide in plain sight, isolate, people please, avoid conflict, fight, blame, accuse, or shut down. All of these are childhood coping mechanisms we enact in adulthood because we lack better tools. As we grow in awareness and respect for the child we were and the child that still lives inside us, we integrate and become more whole.

2. Look at your adulthood. What's happening now? How are you surviving?

This is part of the brave work of therapy. We come clean now. We talk about how things are really going, how we're really doing now.

And we start connecting the dots.

We connect what happened during childhood, whether it was patterns of dysfunction or traumatic events, with learned coping mechanisms which are born out of a human need for survival, with our present habits. We start seeing the connection between the past and the present. We begin to understand ourselves on a deeper level.

This is called gaining wisdom. Wisdom is applied knowledge. And while it is true that the knowledge we apply might come from many reliable sources (spiritual texts, history, etc.) the best source of knowledge on YOU is your own life. This is why Socrates so famously said, "A life unconsidered is not worth living." Considering our own life: your past and past actions, then the present and present actions, gives us wisdom about ourselves but also informs us as to the very nature of humanity. We are humans, after all. And as card-carrying members of the human race, our experiences are often universal. We develop compassion, empathy, and a new sense of community with those around us who have considered their lives too. We deepen.

An honest look at our own lives reveals our patterns, both thoughts and actions, and whether or not these patterns and thoughts are healthy. We can begin to separate out what is healthy and not healthy. Not what is "good" or "bad," but what is healthy or unhealthy about how we're living our lives. Now we've got something to address.

3. Normalize your pain. Your pain, which stems from coping mechanisms, failures, mistakes, addictions, disconnected relationships, is directly connected to how you survived.

Before we attempt to change anything, we've got to make a pit stop at normalizing. What does it mean to normalize something? It means to declare it to be normal.

So much of the pain we feel inside our hearts is due to the presence of shame. Shame tells us that we're bad, weird, abnormal, wrong, strange, and different. Others are "normal," but we're uniquely bad or weak. This is the voice of shame, and it's a lie.

The truth is: you did what you had to do to survive. And the reality is that survival behaviors are rarely satisfying. A human might kill a skunk in order to survive, and that's probably not pleasant. A rich, red steak, medium rare, is far more pleasant. We might chomp on tree bark, but most of us would rather have a warm, crusty piece of bread. What's the point? Survival does the job, but it's rarely enjoyable.

The same is true of emotional survival. People pleasing gets the job done (kinda) in that others don't attack or abandon us if we give them what we think they want, but we're not attached. It's not satisfying. Losing our temper is effective in the short term. The people around us might feel intimidated and bullied into submission, but long term they don't trust us or feel safe to be close to us.

Our coping mechanisms cause pain. And while they are indeed our responsibility, the reason for them is not our fault. Give yourself some grace. Normalize the pain you're in. If you've been in survival mode, there's going to be a lot of pain. It's normal.

4. What can I currently improve?

Now - after self-reflection, self-discovery, and self-compassion - is the time for self-improvement. Make choices and changes. What can change in your life right now that would improve your health: physically, mentally, and emotionally? This is now an informed, empowered decision making process. You're not shooting in the dark, hoping you hit the right area of life. You're making a targeted, precise decision to improve your life where it needs improvement, with the self-compassion and self-knowledge to see the changes through.

These are the four steps of personal growth.


"Your sole work is to discover who you truly are and learn how to love that human being."

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