Updated: Sep 24, 2021
Psychological growth, beyond our perceived limits.
Growing up feels so easy to do, it just happens automatically.
We learn to walk, interact, speak, run, play, work and much more. A predisposition to absorb and adapt at pace.
It’s all neurologically based of course. I say this not to add a dazzling science component to my argument, but to recognise that our drive for novelty and surprise is hard-wired into us. As children, we play and within learning, we experience repeated ‘aha’ moments that feel pleasurable and fun. Driving us to do more of the same.
Our perception of the world drastically shifts as we age and develop at a neurological level. At one point in time, we couldn’t perceive any object existing when it left our sight (object impermanence), but now we realise that the world is more than just what we experience (I hope you do!). At another time, we could not empathise with the complex multi-positional perspective our parents took on our teenage angst, but in later life, we empathise and often feel pity for our poor parents for enduring us.
We grow and shift, but rarely do we notice.
Similar, we don’t notice when this process slows to a grinding halt!
Play is replaced with work. Being is replaced with doing. Our lives become littered with deadlines, tasks and goals. We become schooled in rules, performance and outcomes which are many miles away from creative play and innate insight. The relief of meeting a deadline is a poor replacement for the spark of neurological serotonin release that we experience when we truly feel new insight or an epiphany.
In our world of to-do lists and aspirational careers — we don’t even notice that growing has become coping.
We are amazing creatures, us humans. Our psychology and neurology are littered with adaptive processes that can aid us in enduring almost any reality. We learn to repeat what works and to ditch was doesn’t. We learn to focus on what feels right and to keep attention away from what irritates or invalidates us. We can tune-up as an unbelievably capable instrument in a particular space, but in doing so — lose sight of how to bounce out of this space and invite new growth on a regular basis.
We cope and coping can be a successful approach.
But the problem with coping is that for most of us, we lean on it far too much, too often and too deeply. We lean on our strengths and shy away from our edges that feel anxiety-provoking, exhausting or confusing. We do this whether or not our coping skills are functional or dysfunctional.
My work as a therapist and a coach has revealed how very deeply dysfunctional coping strategies can be maintained despite ruining our lives:
beliefs that we need to just work harder
beliefs that we must be right, or we are stupid
beliefs that we are imposters
beliefs that when things go wrong, it is because we are failures
beliefs that failure is not acceptable
The list is very long, we all carry them.
Most of the people I’ve met have not heard of ideas that the development of our Psychology continues as adults. That we have stages that we can reach, which continue the journey of our development towards more complex thinking, freedom from poor coping strategies and opportunities to feel and be happier.
Most of the people I’ve met, even if they have heard of this idea or subscribe to it, have not conceived of why it is so difficult for us or why we can get stuck for most of our lives in stages that focus on rules, performance and goals.
Growth feels different from coping. It feels like a continued experience of ‘Aha’ moments, with release from old pressures and an expanded feeling of just getting what it’s all about.
This sounds quite vague I realise. But when I’ve witnessed clients experience it, and my own experience of it — it is so hard to articulate. Clients say things like, “I feel lighter” and “I just didn’t know this before” and “it kind of makes sense in a way I can’t speak”.
Just like object permanence arrived as toddlers who realise objects exist when not seen, new insights arrive as adults — but it is so very hard to notice this and to draw comparisons to an older version of our mind that now feels distant and less in touch.
For almost everyone I’ve supported, who has seen improvement, some form of growth occurred.
This includes patients I have worked with facing death in their 20s / 30s, recovering from illness and injuries or in tremendous permanent pain.
It also includes leaders and teams who have endured fatigue, stress and a sense of being in over their heads — to emerge calm, collected and serene. It is a human commonality and so seen in many spaces when stimulated.
Humans have the innate capacity and desire to grow — to expand psychologically. I know this and feel it, I’ve seen it in 1,000s of people in all walks of life.
We also have every ingredient to get in the way of this.
unfinished business in our past that irritates us and sabotages us now
roles and tasks that don’t invite play
a doing approach rather than a reflective approach
a lack of understanding on how to ‘think’ creatively to grow (supported by our education system’s approach to learning)
environments that pull us towards goals and don’t invite space to think
Much of this can be worked with, with the right roadmap.
A blended approach is needed in which we work towards a great insight into our past and why we have reached a dead-end in growth. This has to be paired with priming our environment to support our change, whilst also aiming our energy and efforts at growing the context of the challenges we already face. We don’t need new challenges, we just need to transform the ones we have from coping to transformation opportunities.
The last is developing compassionate and reflective thinking styles and spaces that in many ways echo the play and creativity of our childlike minds — but again, aimed at growth where we need it (more on how we support this here).
It is incredibly difficult to take this journey alone, although not impossible. I’d argue that when you feel exhausted, struggling to balance life and work or a sense of loss of control/disillusionment — you can get the best gains from being supported. We’ve written a lot about how to support yourself, which you can read for free on this site (Insights section).
As a most simple primer on growth, I’d advise:
consider your past and look for repeated self-sabotage/patterns of struggle. Tell your own story and know it.
consider what pain points in your life echo most often in your life and consider how stubborn they are. They may need to be wobbled out of your way.
LEANING INTO GROWTH
read about vertical development and supporting strategies such as mindfulness and self-compassion.
read further about existence and meaning-making (Viktor Frankl / Irvin Yalom are good writers).
create space in your environment to be strategic and reflective — an adult version of play at work.
aim your growth at what you need, not at solving a problem. e.g. I need to be more in control of what energy I spend on work tasks, I need to calibrate consciously etc.
REFLECT / INVITE GROWTH
invite a reflective practice on a regular basis
reflect on your own growth to spark ‘Aha’ moments
If any of this seems difficult to connect with or lands like a foreign language, perhaps you need help. See our ‘Find the Ground’ options for the types of help you can get in the world.
(Dr Craig Newman is a Chartered Clinical Psychologist & Coach. He designs and delivers award-winning leadership & team development programmes and leads one of the UK’s largest wellbeing coaching services, www.project5.org)