I grew up in the 70’s. Since both my parents are music lovers, there was a lot of great music from that era played in our home while I was growing up. One of the songs that has always stuck with me is Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, which opens with these lyrics:
When you’re weary, feeling small
When tears are in your eyes, I’ll dry them all
I’m on your side, oh, when times get rough
And friends just can’t be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
We’ve all been there – right? And wouldn’t we all like to have a friend like this: someone who “gets” us? Someone who accepts us for who we are, and is willing to be there through thick and thin?
Let’s start at the beginning.
Life is hard. So much of our time is dedicated to trying to keep all the proverbial balls in the air. The idea of putting energy and time into self-reflection and personal growth seems like too much effort. Even in pursuit of a more meaningful life. Plus, self-reflection means poking around the murkier recesses of our minds and hearts where we’re likely to find a bunch of junk we’d rather not deal with.
Emotions such as shame, disappointment, loneliness, and fear are bound to arise at some point. It’s reasonable to ask – is the upheaval worth the payoff? It’s much easier to stay in our comfortable routines and maintain the status quo. Life is complicated enough – right? Why poke a hornet’s nest?
But if you’re feeling directionless or dissatisfied you may be motivated enough to change your life. Perhaps this describes you. Maybe you’ve tried keeping your head down and hoping that these feelings would just go away. But if this isn’t working, you are ready for Plan B, so you can live with less stress.
If you’re warming up to the idea of digging deeper, you may be ready to poke the hornet’s nest. (But just a little. And with a very small stick.)
If you are on the cusp of a personal growth journey and aren’t quite sure how to proceed, I kindly suggest that you gather a few tools and resources to help you along the way. I suggest you build yourself a sturdy and dependable bridge to help you over any troubled water you come across.
Dispel shame, seek understanding
When we poke around our psyche to learn more about our motivations, behaviors and habits, we’re likely to find some things we don’t like very much. You might even experience some shame. Since shame does nothing but keep us stuck, confronting and dispelling shame is key to moving forward in a positive and healthy way.
Author David Bedrick says that shame “is powerful, insidious, injurious. It’s the air we breathe, the sea we swim in. It informs how we look upon others; it informs how we look at ourselves. It’s a deadly virus attacking our capacity to love each other and ourselves.”
But how can we work through our shame? In my experience, when I’ve experienced shame (or loneliness, disappointment or fear, for that matter) it has helped immensely to seek out the stories and insights of others – in person or in prose – who have been down a similar path. Finding company in the journey makes us feel less alone, and can give us insights regarding how to deal with the issue at hand. Remember, personal growth doesn’t have to be a solitary journey – in fact, it shouldn’t be!
The great thing about living in an information culture is that there is no end of personal stories out there. Pick up a magazine, poke around online, or browse a bookstore to find people confronting the same personal challenges you are. If you need a more direct connection, talk to a good friend, a competent therapist, or a support group.
Seek improvement, not recrimination
Self-awareness, and the personal growth that emerges from that, gives us the opportunity to become a better version of ourselves. We can take the time to understand and learn from our mistakes.
As writer Melissa Kirk says, “When we mess up, screw up, fall flat on our faces, make mistakes, and, in our own minds, fail, can we look at those incidents as just more opportunities to learn about ourselves and what makes us tick? Each time I get upset, I learn more about the nuances of why it happens, and the telltale signs that I’m about to blow up. Each time it happens, even though I still regret the pain I’ve caused others, I get better at knowing myself.”
Brené Brown says that a critical step in managing successful personal growth is to “get curious” about the situation. I agree with this, but it does take effort. Taking the time to ask specific questions about the issue at hand, and then seeking answers to these questions gives us insight to move forward constructively.
Questions like, “Why don’t I like this thing about myself? What harm has it caused me or others? What can do to avoid the problems this has caused in the future?” lead to specific answers that are actionable. Journal writing can be incredibly useful as it gives you a private place to both pose and seek answers to these questions so you can transform your life for the better.
Pursuing self-awareness also gives us the opportunity to practice self-compassion. Exercising self-compassion is more than just a great way to practice self-care; it helps you navigate your emotions in a productive and healthy way. Plus, practicing self-compassion increases your ability to feel compassion for others.
Psychologist and author Kristin Neff says that “Our research shows that people with higher levels of self-compassion are…more likely to engage in perspective taking when contemplating the failures and weaknesses of other people.” (Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself). Our ability to “engage in perspective taking” reminds us that our thoughts and feelings are temporary, and only have the power that we assign them. Practicing self-compassion and gaining critical perspective can mitigate the destructive power of negative thoughts such as shame or inadequacy, while also reminding us that others face similar struggles.
How does one practice self-compassion? When confronting an unsettling truth about ourselves, author Melissa Kirk suggests asking yourself this question. “If someone you loved had this flaw, what would you say to him or her?” We tend to be harder on ourselves than on those we care about.
Reframing our reaction in this way helps us tap into our capacity for understanding and compassion and avoid a downward spiral of negative self-talk. To learn more about self-compassion and how to practice it, I highly recommend Kristin Neff’s book, “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself”.
Carl Jung says, “I am not what happened to me; I am what I choose to become.” Personal growth isn’t something anyone else can do for you. Only you can undertake this journey. If you decide to poke the proverbial hornet’s nest and start a bit of self-exploration, I recommend you gather some tools and resources to help you when the going gets rough. Tap into those things that help you build yourself a bridge over troubled water, and put you in the driver’s seat of your own personal growth.