I’m a lifelong learner; my need to grow and evolve is an important part of my being. I’m always striving to become the best version of me that I can be. Sometimes I fail miserably and other times, I make great leaps of transformation.
In the past, my efforts have consistently been self-improvement projects – during which I tried with all my might to change myself to meet others’ needs or expectations. My focus was on fixing my inadequacies. I thought I had to change who I was or how I behaved to please other people (so that I’d be accepted and liked). I would always fail miserably at these efforts because I would set a goal for the change without being clear on why I was making the change. I would create a self-development checklist of all the “actions” I needed to take and I’d attack the project with great vigor - at first. When I acted in a way that was opposite of the change I was trying to make, I’d beat myself up. I’d expect quick results; so when the quick fixes didn’t work, I’d scrap the whole project.
No matter how much we want to make a change in our attitude, our behavior, or our ways of thinking, the process is still difficult. We easily get stuck in our old habits, swirl in our fear-based beliefs, and get trapped in our outdated (and often inaccurate) patterns of thinking. When we’re stuck here, we can’t see or understand why the change isn’t happening. We want the change, we want to become a better person, but we critically judge and berate ourselves for not being able to make the shift. Or we excuse or rationalize it away – telling ourselves we’re just wired this way so why bother trying to change?
I’ve come to see that personal growth, at its core, is not about fixing our inadequacies. True personal growth, real transformation, is about slowly uncovering and evolving into the person that we already are – at the deepest level of our soul. Personal transformation is about letting go of the false parts of ourselves that no longer fit: the masks we wear to try to please or fit in with others, the self-protective behaviors we’ve been learning our whole life, and the traits we lean on when we feel like it’s not enough to just be who we are.
Real transformation is less about striving to become someone we think we’re supposed to be and more about relaxing away and releasing the parts of us that no longer fit so that our true selves can emerge. This process takes time; we’ve been building our personas for our whole lives so expecting them to change overnight is not realistic.
There are three things I’ve learned to be true about personal growth:
When we keep these three truths in mind, it creates an environment that supports transformation. We view the whole process more realistically and we find comfort in knowing that we get more than one shot at it. Personal transformation is not often something than happens in a few months; it can take a lifetime to evolve into the person we were created to be. Personal transformation is rarely about learning new behaviors. It involves unlearning our old ways of being, letting go of our fear-based beliefs, and relaxing old habits and patterns.
Transformation is a process, and as life happens there are ups and downs. It’s a journey of discovery – there are moments on mountaintops and moments in deep valleys of despair. (Rick Warren)
When you find yourself in the valleys of despair, remember to give yourself grace and forgiveness. Don’t beat yourself up for not being able to make an immediate change. And when you find yourself on a mountaintop, remember to acknowledge your effort, and to celebrate!
When we awaken to our truth we realize we are free (Kristi Bowman).
What is our truth? Sometimes it's hard to find because we are easily influenced by external sources. We hear a good idea and think, I will do that too! And we excitedly start down the course. We muster up our courage and we take swift action. And then - nothing happens. What we were hoping for doesn't materialize. We don't get what we wanted. We feel disconnected from people. It's harder than it should be, or takes longer than we thought it would. We feel isolated and alone.
Then the negative self-talk kicks in. "What was I thinking?" "Why did I think I could pull that off anyway?" "No one understands me." "No one wants what I have to offer." <Insert your version of negative self-talk here.>
We become filled with uncertainty, doubt, and fear and we are unable to act. We get stuck, we stall, we freeze.
And then one day, we step far enough away from the situation to look at it with objective eyes. Then we see what's really going on. We realize: "Wait, this isn't what I wanted at all." In some cases, we discover that the path we pursued is actually opposite of what we really wanted to begin with, had we just taken a moment in the beginning to consider that. Perhaps the path we followed doesn't align to our deeply held beliefs or our innermost core values. Or maybe we neglected our deeply held talents and gifts and tried to do something that we didn't love.
And this new awareness comes not from harsh negative self-talk, but from a more gentle and understanding place. This new awareness is presented to us in a more loving and compassionate tone, because it comes from our heart.
We approach this new awareness with curiosity and openness. We can then say to our self with honesty, grace, and self-compassion: "That way may work GREAT for that person. But it doesn't work great for me." We let go of what's not working. We reframe what it means to "fail" and realize that every situation we encounter - every single one - is an opportunity for learning. Every situation brings with it a lesson and we just need to open up and give it space to emerge. When we are ready, the lesson becomes clear. And then we can choose a new path.
Our heart is wise and knows what it is that we truly want. Our heart approaches everything with light and love and joy. Our mind, on the other hand, swirls around our fears and doubts. Too often, we allow fear to run our life. When we choose fear over love, we dim our inner light.
When we follow our heart, we know our innermost desires. When we follow our heart, we radiate light, love and joy. When we follow our heart, we tell the Universe that we are open to possibilities and are ready to receive the synchronicity and miracles that are just waiting for us to be ready.
My #6 character strength, hope, is defined in VIA materials as expecting the best in the future, working to achieve it, and believing that I have the ability to create it. When I set goals that align to that ideal future, hope helps me move toward the accomplishment of those goals. With hope, we are open and flexible, seeing many pathways to our goals. Connected to hope are the concepts of optimism, future mindedness, and future orientation.
Last week, I drew upon these concepts and created a vision of my ideal future. After writing this vision, I reviewed the intentions and goals I had set for myself at the beginning of the year, and revised them to better align to my vision. I wrote a picture of my best possible self – the me that I want to cultivate, starting now. The me I will need to be in order to accomplish my goals and make my vision and dreams come true. This research-based exercise helps us boost our hope, optimism, positive emotions, and happiness. I also created a life list and documented over 100 things I’d like to do or experience over the next several years. Then I started the process of putting these ideas into a more concrete plan so I can start taking action.
Not only am I feeling excited about what my future holds, but I am feeling optimistic about my ability to accomplish at least some of my dreams. I won’t accomplish them all this year, or even next, but I can identify the most important ones, the ones I want to start with, and I can start taking action now.
Ideas for Action
Do you feel hopeful about your future and your ability to make your most desired dreams come true? Or could your hope use a boost? Choose one of these activities to try over the next week:
Document and/or reflect on your past accomplishments. How did you persevere when things got tough? What strengths did you deploy that you can use again in the future to accomplish challenging goals or handle difficult situations?
Reflect on past risks you’ve taken. What did you learn or accomplish by taking those risks?
Create your life list. Write down everything you are interested in learning more about, or everything you’d like to do “someday.” Don’t limit yourself to what you think you can realistically accomplish in the next few months. Some people take years to accomplish everything on their life list, and keep adding to it along the way. For more inspiration, check out Caroline Adams Miller’s website or her book, Creating Your Best Life Now.
Begin to put some of your life list goals into a plan and take action! Creating the list is one thing, but then you need to take the next step and determine which goals you want to accomplish, when, and what support you’ll need to make your dreams a reality.
Try the Best Possible Self Exercise. Visualize yourself in a future time, having accomplished your goals and reflect upon how you got there. Which character strengths helped make your best possible self a reality?
What does your future hold for you?
Hope lies in dreams, in imagination, and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality. --Jonas Salk
Resources: Character Strengths and VIA Survey
Peterson, C., & Park, N. (2009). Classifying and measuring strengths of character. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology, 2nd edition (pp. 25-33). New York: Oxford University Press. www.viacharacter.org
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. www.viacharacter.org