“Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that but simply growth, We are happy when we are growing.”
William Butler Yeats
Happiness is Growth
Remember the moments when you were the most happy in your life. The moments when you had butterflies in your belly and things were really going your way. It could have been your first kiss, getting the best grade of the whole class on your paper or being promoted at work. It could also have been moments when nobody else was around and you experienced flow; being totally immersed in what you were doing.
Chances are some of those moment had to do with learning and growing: suddenly realising that you were getting better at something or experiencing something new, giving you a deep feeling of satisfaction, confidence and purpose.
As human beings we were made to grow. Our capacity to reason and think, as well as learning new skills, is unique in the animal kingdom. The other side of that is that our ability to ignore chances, deny facts, repress emotions and isolate from others is there too. There seems to be no middle road: either we grow or we stagnate. The former ensuring a life of meaning purpose, the latter being a ticket to boredom, lack of purpose and even depression and burnout.
The Comfort Zone
So, what is personal growth? Self development is an ongoing process of increasing your awareness of who you are, becoming more conscious and successfully being able to improve one’s habits, behaviour, actions and responses. It is learning to master not just new practical skills, but also to manage better one’s thinking, emotions and energy. Who would not want to do that?
The thing is that as humans we are creatures of comfort. Our comfort zone is a place where stress and anxiety are minimal, where we know what’s coming next. The reason why we retreat into our comfort zone and cease taking on challenges is because a necessary ingredient of growth is exactly that: discomfort.
Taking risks, moving out of the known and experiencing the unknown creates a certain amount of stress. Fear of possible humiliation and failure is likely to appear. As a result we try to be perfect from the start and eventually freeze, paralysed in our attempt to make a statue of Venus before we make a few sculptures that might look something like an alien from another planet.
The Growth Zone
Nothing wrong with the safe and familiar, but by consciously leaving the known and entering the unknown, you will gradually expand the area in which you feel comfortable and safe. Having a larger comfort zone provides you with more choices in life and gives you a sense of freedom. At some point, regularly leaving the safe and familiar to enter your growth zone will feel natural and become an intrinsic part of your life. That’s where things start to get interesting.
Stepping outside one’s comfort zone is an important, and almost universal, factor in personal growth. We cannot expect to evolve in our lives and careers if we only stick to habit and routine.
In studies of successful people, being open to new experience has been shown to be the best predictor of creative achievement.
Successful personal growth requires motivation, the desire to improve, and the willingness to strive to make changes. Here are some ways to help you go out of your comfort zone and into the learning zone:
Wanting to avoid a person or a situation could indicate that there is a potential for learning. Grab a piece of paper, and write down 10 fears that you’d like to overcome. It could range from asking someone out for a date to speaking with your partner about a difficult issue or to quitting your job. Number the fears from one to 10. This is your fear hierarchy. What we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do. Resolve to overcome one of your fears on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, according you your level of courage and ambition. Start with your number ten, working your way up from the least fearful to the most fearful. That way you get used to confronting your fears, instead of avoiding them
Ask your best friends for feedback about you, first negative, then positive. We all have blind-spots. Getting information from people who are willing to be honest with you will make you aware of what you are good at as well as what you can improve. Be willing to give your own feedback about the other as well, if the other person is open for that. The end result is more awareness and a more intimate connection with the other. The rule is: Your feedback should elicit a “Thank you!” and not a “F… you!”. A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.
If you cannot find anyone in your network which you would feel comfortable asking for feedback, that in itself is good feedback about your life. It is time to re-evaluate who you spend your time with. Seek to be with people who will challenge you and support your growth. Join a women’s/men’s group or do a workshop for personal growth to find like-minded people like yourself. You will learn a lot from watching other people overcome their own obstacles. It will also inspire you with ideas for what you can change in your own life and give you the courage and discipline to actually do it.
Create a Vision
Envision the life that you could have if you pursued everything that you wanted with the certainty that you would succeed, without any fear. Imagine it is 5 years from now. What does your life look like? What are you doing? Where are you living? Who are you living with? What excites you? Write like your life depends on it, because it does. If you feel different about your vision tomorrow or next week, re-write it until you get it right. Dare to write down your true dream.
Transforming Your Habits
A vision is great and will give purpose and direction, but what will get you there are your daily habits. They are the steps you make in your chosen direction. One way to start is to identify the habits that sabotage your goals and replace them with more functional ones. Just stopping your old ways will not do. You have to replace them with something else. Someone I know stopped smoking by drinking a glass of water instead of lighting up a cigarette. Be creative and find something that works for you.
Meditate for 10-15 minutes every day. Sit with your back straight and breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, making sure the out-breath is longer than the in-breath. Whatever is happening in your mind, just watch it without any judgement whatsoever. Let it be, accept and let it go. Sounds easy? You would be surprised at how quickly you get caught up in the workings of your mind. If you keep at it, this practise will do wonders for your ability to focus on what is really important in your life.
Keep a diary and make it a daily ritual. Use an app, record your voice or use a good old fashioned book.
You can start your journaling endeavour by for two weeks every day writing down 3 things that you are grateful for in your life and also one nice or fun event you experienced in the last 24 hours.
Don’t repeat yourself and you will soon start to appreciate all the little things that enhance your life. People who are thankful for what they have are better able to cope with stress, have more positive emotions, and are better able to reach their goals. By focusing on stuff which is going well in your life, you create an energy for more good things to happen.
Writing about yourself and your personal experiences — and then rewriting your story — can help you make positive behavioural changes. Write a brief story about your struggle; about your money problems, about your relationship conflicts or about how difficult it is to make friends. Now write a new story from the viewpoint of a neutral observer, or with the kind of encouragement you’d give a friend.
We all have a default personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. By writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of our personal development.
Get a Coach/Therapist/Mentor
One of the things which helped me the most in my search for meaning was finding a mentor. My teacher was an ex-addict who trained as a therapist. His no-bullshit experiential training gave me get the ballast I needed to navigate the unchartered waters of my life. Getting input from someone I could trust saved me a lot of trouble and made my own growth process more fun. Being able to listen and learn from others is also an art to be learned. Learned well, this art will benefit you for the rest of your life.
Step by Step
What is clear from all these steps is that you will need courage to make them. The good news is that courage is something you can learn and train, just like anything else.
Growth is making small steps and making them regularly. In the end you will see that you have covered a lot of ground. You reward is that with every little step your self-esteem will grow and you the next step will feel even more meaningful.
By taking an attitude of keeping things open, always being willing to learn and open to change your belief system, learning becomes second nature. The great thing is that then nothing actually goes wrong and everything becomes another learning opportunity. There is no such thing as failure, only results. The word failure has a negative load. With a result you can do something. It is not a problem, but a fact. What went wrong? Change it, move on and make new mistakes. Do your best, but know that perfection does not exist.
There is hardly anything more fulfilling than overcoming your own fears and obstacles. Happiness is that ‘aha’ moment when you move one step closer to mastering something and you experience the thrill of growth and learning.
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