Self-Love vs. Self-Loyalty

I was recently asked whether I *love* myself. I didn’t have an immediate answer. When I first began my personal growth journey that seemed an aspirational goal – certainly it sounds very good even now, doesn’t it? To LOVE yourself.

What I said in response to the question was, “I don’t know, but I am unfailingly LOYAL to myself.”

In the week since, I’ve been contemplating the difference in those two statements – I love myself vs. I am loyal to myself – and trying to figure out if said difference matters.

First, what does one mean by “love”? Is it a feeling state, or is it actions?

For me, love is both. It IS a feeling state. But I also find the feeling state cannot be divorced from the actions of the real world. I don’t care what I or anyone else feels if those feelings are accompanied by unloving actions and behaviors. The feeling state of love is not enough; to BE love, it must also be expressed in behaviors that are themselves acts of love.

I would define acting in a loving way to be treating someone with respect, consideration, and compassion.

And this is where the question gets complicated. I have a personal ethic to treat everyone with respect, consideration, and compassion, to the best of my ability, because I believe that is the right way to behave toward other sovereign beings. This is a principle of behavior that I choose to act out as an expression of my identity, as a way to make my actions congruent with my beliefs about what is right and who I want to be.

So, essentially, what I consider to be basic moral/ethical behaviors are indistinguishable from what I consider loving behaviors.

I have treated myself in the past in unloving ways. I have treated myself in the past in violation of my ethic to treat EVERYONE with respect, consideration, and compassion. I am part of everyone. If I do not treat myself in that way, then I am in violation of my own code of ethics. When I saw that, I immediately corrected my behavior to myself.


Was this correction an act of self-love? Or an act of self LOYALTY, to live and act according to my chosen code of ethical conduct?

Furthermore, does it MATTER if I choose to treat myself in these ethical=loving ways from loyalty to my own identity and moral code, or from love toward myself specifically out of all human beings? The actions would be the same. The part of me that receives the consideration, respect, and compassion from the part of me that chooses those actions cannot tell the difference. I am not another person external to myself with whom to exchange the energy of emotion, so I cannot receive the loving feeling from myself the way I could from another person, or the way another person could from me.

Literally the only part of me which MIGHT experience a difference is the part of me that chooses to act. But for me, acting ethically and on principle is MORE important to me than acting from an emotion or a feeling state – so even if I were acting from love, what would matter to me as the more important part is whether I was acting in accordance to my principles.

Perhaps this question is, for me, a distinction without a difference.

Perhaps it is a question that I could not answer from where I am right now. If I have never experienced true self-love, I would not actually know how it feels to act from it or receive from it; perhaps I am projecting incorrectly that it would not feel any differently.

Perhaps somewhere out there is a way of defining love, or self-love, specifically, which could help me identify whether I have or have not experienced it/acted from it or whether it is any different.

For me, for today, with the personality type preferences that I have and the experiences I have had up to this point in my life, it is an unanswerable question. And that is actually a satisfactory answer: it tells me I do not need to chase some idea of “self-love” which may not even, in the end, be different from my current state of being. Instead I can be content that my unwavering devotion to the ethical treatment of myself as a human being is indistinguishable from self-love unless and until I spontaneously discern a difference.

What Is Inner Parenting?

Inner parenting is a form of self-coaching or self-leadership, where one consciously and consistently uses the most mature, developed, skilled, “adult” parts of the self to compassionately guide the less developed, less mature, less secure parts of the self. The inner dialogue mirrors how an attuned, respectful parent would guide a child.

Inner parenting, or self-parenting, or self re-parenting, is related to the concept of the inner child. The inner child can be viewed variously as a prior version of ourself (the echo of the child we actually once were), the emotion- and fear-driven part of our mind (amygdala/limbic system and its beliefs about the world received in our imprint period), or the parts of our psyche which are less developed because we have not spent as much time there.

Our minds have a cost of specialization – getting really good at certain types of cognitive tasks and building neural “superhighways” between the parts of the brain involved involved in those tasks means that other parts of our brain will only have “backroads” going to them. It’s not that we can’t access those parts, simply that we have to choose to go into them, work harder to get there, and probably get less return for that work because we don’t have a lot of neural infrastructure there. Thus those parts can feel more childlike, both in the sense of being unsophisticated and hard to handle with finesse, and also in the sense of being filled with wonder and curiosity because that space is a novelty.

Our inner child is both a resource and a vulnerability.

As a resource, our inner child can energize and inspire us. It can remind us how to play. It can make us feel alive and excited about life. It can make us feel whole inside our own self, rather than looking for wholeness externally. It can look at the world with fresh eyes, seeing the beauty and the marvelous, looking through the lens of possibilities instead of limitations. It can fire up our imagination and point us toward the experiences and people that bring us joy.

As a vulnerability, our inner child can be easily hurt, sometimes in ways that other people view as incomprehensible or silly. It can be manipulated or fooled by others. It can get frustrated and give up instead of trying again or trying a new way. It can throw tantrums. It can be fearful and needy and demand those fears and needs be catered to. It can get tired and overextended quickly, like over-using muscles we don’t engage very often.

Basically…our inner child shows up as a child would. And, like a child, if the needs of that part of us are not attended to, it will get louder and louder in its demands for attention, support, and fulfillment. Eventually the strength of that demand can wrest control of our adult-life actions from our adult parts, leaving the inner child’s impulsiveness, self-indulgence, and narrow scope of perspective running our life.

The form this inner child “hijack” takes can vary. For some the inner child’s choice is to live in a fear-avoidant way, keeping life to a series of known and therefore “safe” experiences rather than being open to a variety of interactions with the world and other people. For others the opposite might be true – a total rejection of routine, structure, or predictability. For some the inner child’s emotions run the show as demanding, dramatic, and unpredictable, while for others the inner child has withdrawn so much they appear not to have emotions or to be totally closed to connection and intimacy. Self-indulgence or self-soothing with food, drugs, or extreme or risky behaviors can happen, or being trapped in anxiety, overbusyness, and hypervigilance.

If those examples sound extreme, it’s because the needs of the inner child have to be extreme before that part can overpower our more adult parts.

We can also have more muted inner child reactions that might still grab the wheel from time to time – feeling hurt by something we “shouldn’t” be so upset by and being unable to get past it; feeling anxious and in need of soothing or support we don’t know how to find on or own or articulate to another; feeling hopeless and lost in a project that “should” be easy for an adult but is proving to be very difficult for us; feeling scared and alone and uncertain; not knowing what to do say or where to go; procrastinating or avoiding necessary tasks because we feel overwhelmed or don’t know how to do them or don’t know whether we are able to do them; homing in on very minute details of a situation to “prove” we are right; resisting change or a new experience; longing for life and the world to go back the way it was “before” when we felt we understood it; wanting to control everything because that is the only way to feel safe.

Reactions like these are a cry from our inner child for help and support from our adult parts, and we ignore them or suppress them at our own risk. If we don’t meet those needs…eventually they will erupt into the extremes. Ignoring the needs of our inner child is a form of self-neglect, self-abandonment, or even self-abuse.

Proactively meeting the needs of our inner child allows our adult parts to focus on goals and showing up at our true level of development rather than having to focus on controlling the inner child or putting out fires it started from its place of howling demand. It is true self-care – showing up to nourish and protect the vulnerable parts of our self without requiring them to fall into deprivation and pain to “earn” our attention. Caring for our inner child’s needs as we would a physical child allows us to feel integrated and whole, secure and confident in our capacity to meet life and change and challenges. It tells the small part of us that it is wanted and valued, that it does not have to fight to be heard or to have its needs met. It proves that our adult self can be relied upon to value and honor the needs of our full self, not just the parts which serve our “goals.” Put simply, creating a safe space for our inner child and making it feel loved and secure helps the entire system of our “self” to be balanced, aligned, and ready for whatever life brings.

Inner parenting opens a dialogue with the inner child, so it can tell us of its needs without having to try to grab control of our life. It teaches us to speak to ourself with compassion, acceptance, empathy, and wisdom. If we self-criticize and self-shame, we undermine our own confidence, whereas if we speak to ourself with love and understanding, we foster a sense of possibility and hope.

Inner parenting, then, is a process for relating to ourself in way that promotes our growth and well-being instead of encouraging us to cling to the past and limit our future.

I’ll get into some examples of how inner parenting looks in action in a future post, so stay tuned for that!

What Is a Parent’s Role?

Before I can unpack either inner parenting or the impacts of parental wounding, I want to offer my perspective on the role of the parent in a child’s life and development. I believe in respectful parenting, attachment parenting, free-range parenting, and trauma-informed parenting. I am a mother, so these ideas are not merely theory to me but guidelines I have put into practice with my son – and they work.

Being a parent is to be the guide and facilitator for a new sovereign being.

Children don’t need to be controlled or disciplined; children simply need to be taught and guided. There is a time in a child’s life when the parents have to provide certain containers in order to safely facilitate the learning they need to develop properly. Obviously a toddler does not have the cognitive understanding to be left alone completely in their exploration of the world. But neither do they need to be controlled in the sense of being told what to engage with, what to learn about, or shamed for making mistakes of learning and experience (spilling milk, trying to stick something into an electrical socket because they saw an adult stick something in and want to try it).

The role of the parent is to create a safe container for the child’s developmental stage.

That role remains the same for every developmental stage until the child has attained adulthood. The FORM of the role shifts, as the child’s age and needs shift, but the essential POINT remains the same. Creating a safe container includes physical needs (changing diapers until the child is old enough to control emissions and use a potty; dressing them until they are old enough to take over that task for themself; feeding them, and monitoring their eating to be sure that they eat enough and enough variety…my son for example will forget to eat because he gets so focused in what he is thinking about. Part of my job as his mother is to remind him to take care of his body, to check in with it and treat it well vs neglectfully). But the safe container also includes emotional, relational, social needs. One of the big ones is helping with nervous system and emotional regulation. Self-regulation is borne from the experience of co-regulation – having a safe adult anchor you while big emotional storms roll through so that you can experience overwhelming emotions as safe instead of as an existential threat.

Much of Western parenting is based in conformity to roles, parental expectations, and emotional suppression. It is based on the idea that the parents are authorities and the children owe respect to that authority (regardless of if the authority respects them back). It is based on the idea that children are innately wild and ungovernable and must be shamed, punished, and coerced into behaving in a “civilized” way. Emotions are unwanted, inconvenient, and optional in that paradigm; children use emotions to manipulate and get their way and the adults must stand strong against such attempts lest they create a spoiled, entitled, egotistical little monster.

Western parenting…could not more effectively pass down intergenerational trauma if it had set out to do so.

Children have needs. Children need their needs met. Children cannot always explain their needs (seriously, most adults can’t when they first start introspective work!). Even if they could define the needs, children are unlikely to have enough emotional control to say them with words once they are in the space of need. Humans develop our capacity to regulate our emotions over time, by experiencing emotional attunement and safe containers. Children don’t throw tantrums to manipulate in a conscious way. Children throw tantrums to express an unmet need the only way they know how, in an attempt to get their caretaker to help. Technically it’s manipulation in that it is an attempt to influence or force the parent to meet their needs, but fundamentally it is a bid for help. If a child’s needs go unmet for too long, they will escalate into aggression and demand; if those efforts are rejected or punished too harshly, the child’s last recourse will be to withdraw and wall off from expectation or even hope of support. Those latter stages (aggression and withdrawal) set the stage for depression, disconnection, loneliness, anxiety, self-rejection, and more that can stretch into adulthood. The effects can last an entire life if left unhealed.

Controlling children’s behaviors without attuning to their underlying needs creates trauma.

You can teach children to express their needs in ways that are less disruptive and less likely to cause conflicts or ruptures in their relationships, but what reinforces the guidance is the child’s certainty that their needs will be met if they ask in a gentler way. The parent is there to spot the underlying need, meet it, and teach developmentally appropriate ways for the child to express it. Part of the parental job is to keep updating the child’s relational skills as they grow and develop.

I have consciously parented from this perspective (the meeting needs and creating safe containers for developmental stages vs. the authority/need to civilize style), and my son never has tantrums. He sometimes has emotional meltdowns, clearly linked to overwhelm or exhaustion or having had enough. All that was needed when he was a very young child was for me to pick him up and hold him, offer comfort, let him cry it out, and then he was right as rain again. We’re navigating that emotional space in different ways now that he’s a little older – healthy ways he can express his anger or frustration or sense of unfairness – but the dynamic remains that when his needs get met he goes right back to being loving, thoughtful, cheerful, and curious. I don’t have to force him or manipulate him to express those positive behaviors; they are a natural emergent of his lived experience of being loved, having his needs met, and being accepted unconditionally.

Being a good parent isn’t hard for the reasons we think. Children don’t need us to be perfect or to be able to discipline them into conformity. They need us to love them as they are, meet them where they are, and meet their needs so that they are free to express their joy and love and joie de vivre instead of having to fight for their needs to be met, or fall into dissociation to survive a life where their needs are not met.

Being a good parent is hard because it requires us to drive with empathy and attunement to the needs of another.

Being a good parent is hard because it requires us to set aside the behaviors we witnessed and absorbed from our own parents (and often other adults). We must heal our own developmental arrests and triggers in order to be able to parent mostly from a space of wisdom and emotional centeredness.

Being a good parent is hard because it requires us to set aside our own egos and lead by example with admitting and owning mistakes, apologizing when wrong, offering grace and compassion instead of holding grudges, separating accountability from judgment, and valuing the connection and the relationship more than being right or having everything our own way.

Parenting is definitely a crucible for personal development, but the hardest step is to recognize that and look for the opportunity in it. Rather than going in expecting yourself to be able to magically do it right the first time every time, plan to learn from the inevitable mistakes in order to become the kind of parent you want to be. We all need a bit of trial and error to get there; the question is if you are willing to recognize that and keep trying, or double-down on your own infallibility and ego.

For more resources on respectful parenting, look at the work of Laura Grace Weldon and Free Range Learning, Janet Lansbury, Magda Gerber, Trauma-proofing Your Kids (Peter Levine), Non-Violent Communication (Marshall Rosenburg), The 5 Love Languages of Children (Gary Chapman), and for exploring the impacts of unattuned parenting see Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents (Lindsey Gibson), Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving (Pete Walker), The Body Keeps the Score (Bessel van der Kolk), and Gabor Mate on trauma (he has both books and innumerable interviews available).

What IS Personal Development?

My definition of personal development (which I tend to use interchangeably with personal growth) is taking conscious responsibility for the changes we inevitably undergo by being alive.

Do you want to grow or do you want to contract? Do you want to grow in a deliberate way or a haphazard one? The worth of personal development to you as an individual depends on your answers to those questions.

You can change in the negative (not in the sense of good and bad but rather positive space/negative space) by contracting or by becoming ever more entrenched in the things you have been and done and nothing more. If you see your potential as ever-expanding based on age, staying the same leaves you smaller in comparison to your potential, thus the ratio of actualized potential to possible potential is going smaller. AKA negative growth.

Or you can grow just however you grow. Most people (barring developmental arrests or trauma or very limiting cultural pressures) continue to expand; they just don’t think about it or try to expand in any particular way.

Or, you can choose to direct your growth and attempt to optimize it (in whatever direction makes sense to you, whether that is specializing and become absolutely masterful in one direction or pushing to expand in several strategic dimensions).

The last is what I would call personal growth or personal development. And you can do it in so many ways. Personality and psychology frameworks are one. Art and aesthetics and philosophy are another. Skills. Experiences. Relationships of various types. There is an infinity of ways to intentionally change and grow.

Whether directing your own growth has value to you isn’t up to me. Only you can decide if the reward is worth the effort.

Is Healing Ever Finished?

When I started my healing and personal development journey, I observed that most people who got very far along that path ended up being pulled into it as a career or lifestyle. Personal development seemed like an eternal hamster wheel, and it sounded exhausting. And in the healing world, there seems a subtle but pervasive belief that healing is never really “finished”; like AA you are perpetually in recovery from trauma or woundings.

Personally, I like projects that have finite boundaries, so I chose a goal that I could put a metric to: Fix my broken shit, make my life something I want to live and stay present to, and then go live it. And that’s what I did and am now doing.

(Obviously I still lived up to my own observation and ended up working in the field, but it really is a good fit for my actual gifts and preoccupations!)

From my perspective, healing and growth or development are separate processes, and the question as to whether each process has an end point is different.

Does healing work ever finish?

Yes. Healing work is undertaken to correct developmental arrests and/or internal fractures.

You can be cut off from your body, your emotions, your passions, your past, or part(s) of your psyche. For example you might be cut off from your Fight response and unable to stand up for yourself against aggression or even assert what you want, or you might be cut off from your own vulnerability and unable to offer empathy to someone else. Perhaps you are suppressing your creative self, or denying the part of you that is screaming for a bit of order in a chaotic lifestyle. When you can access all parts of yourself freely and at will, and choose to honor all your various sides and aspects instead of indulging some at the expense of others, this sense of fragmentation and fighting against yourself dissipates. You feel whole and centered and at home within yourself. You become integrated into a complete person instead of like a collection of ill-fitting parts.

If your full physical, emotional, psychological, and relational needs were not met in childhood, you learned a coping mechanism or a compensating strategy to survive that situation. A plurality if not an out-and-out majority of adults in modern Western cultures are still living out some kind of survival strategy or another. Setting down the coping mechanisms and maturing out of any arrested developmental stages or processes are tasks with end points. Becoming the age you are and living from a deliberate, considered perspective is a goal that reaches completion.

Healing these internal schisms and developmental arrests can take years and require a number of passes around the spiral path of introspection. Often people who are far enough along to feel like they have wisdom to share will write guidebooks and how-to’s for the process they used. The fact that they are only 90% healed creates in the literature of healing a bias toward the narrative that healing is ongoing and process-oriented rather than finite. For some people, perhaps, full healing cannot be achieved with the time and psychological capacity they have left to them, but that is certainly not the case for everyone.

Healing has an end point.

Does personal growth or personal development have an end point?

No…because we are constantly changing in response to our experiences, and our developmental potential is constantly growing as we continue to age and experience more of life, whether that is truly seeing different parts of it or simply seeing more of it. There is no end point to our growth and development, because our state of being is not static. Even if we can achieve a state of having maximized our potential or tapped all possibilities for growth it will be for that moment, in that context, and it will not last.

Life is change.

Every experience we have is the death of the self who had not experienced it and the birth of the self who has.

So no, there is no end point to personal growth. You can get bored with the process of directing it, and you can definitely stop pushing yourself to try to expand beyond the normal rate of change that is a byproduct of fully living your life, but you won’t ever actually stop changing. Thus you won’t ever actually stop growing and developing.

What Does Mentoring Look Like in Practice?

Mentoring is highly tailored to each client’s specific needs and goals. There are also usually many different entryways into unraveling the web of limiting habits and beliefs that are keeping you stuck where you are.

Mentoring is done via in person meetings or direct calls (video or audio as you prefer). The process relies on deep one-to-one dialogue. My job is to make you feel safe enough to disclose vulnerable truths and to confront feelings or beliefs you have been avoiding. I am there to be a resource for support, encouragement, and non-judgmental witnessing. I listen and ask questions before I offer information or advice. Part of my job, though, is also to connect you with information that might help which you did not have or perhaps had but did not connect to your current challenge.

Generally, our work will follow a path of me getting to know you, your past, your current circumstances, and the specific challenges you are hoping to resolve. We will clarify what resolution looks like for you, and I will offer some initial tools and perspective shifts to help move you in that direction. After implementing those, you will likely find deeper layers of blocks or discover that a seemingly unconnected issue is, in fact, the same issue (or a result of the same underlying issue). We’ll work to find the right tools/skills/belief shifts to help you with that challenge, and repeat as necessary until we get you to your goal or on a clear and sustainable course toward it.

There may be tools that don’t work; there may be times when you slip back into old habits and have to start over again. Creating sustainable change is about making a series of small shifts over time that can be maintained (too big a change at once can be too overwhelming to be sustained). Throughout our work together, I will keep an eye on your ultimate goal and keep steering toward it.

Below is a brief and definitely not comprehensive list of the sorts of information and applied skills I might teach you to help you move past your challenges:

personality mapping to help you understand your gifts and energy flow channels (it’s amazing how many of us try to live counter to both of those due to cultural expectations!)

boundaries work to make sure you know how to say no, how to hear no, and how to ask for and receive what you need

relational skills such as conflict navigation/resolution, communication issues, controlled vulnerability, etc.

inner parenting to give you the inner leadership you need to face the world with authenticity and confidence in yourself

identifying and replacing beliefs or habits that are keeping you stuck where you are

integrating your past experiences into a new narrative to change the “story” you are living out (for example, from having a hard-luck life to having a life rich with lessons that built the inner strength and resilience to conquer anything)

developing a deeper and more mindful relationship with your body (this is near and dear to my heart because I spent DECADES living in a low-level dissociation from my body that was completely normalized by modern American culture—but life is not supposed to hurt! We are NOT supposed to be chronically overextended, exhausted, and on the edge of burnout! Treating our bodies with respect is hugely restorative to our hope and sense of control. When we can feel safe inside our body and safe from the world stealing all our time and energy, then we can really begin to dream and then take actions to make those dreams our reality).

creating a specific plan to actualize your dream, because that quantification is what turns it from a dream into a goal, with a series of action steps that you have control over!

Aside from being able to teach any/all of the above because I had to learn about them and implement them in my own life, I am naturally gifted at seeing the world—or an individual—as an interconnected whole. I recognize subtle patterns and underlying connections that are not obvious to most people; I see deeply. I can keep one eye on the big picture while I put the other on the fine details of a process or specific piece of the whole. My mind easily slips beyond its own point of view and into multiple others, which allows me to be deeply empathetic to your experience AND to see solutions or possibilities that only appear when the situation is seen from a different angle.

As a mentor, these gifts help me to trace patterns and beliefs to their underlying cause. Resolve the root of the problem, resolve the symptoms for good, whereas dealing with only the symptoms leaves you vulnerable to new symptoms arising because the underlying issue still remains.

What IS Resilience?

Resilience has become enough of a buzzword that I’m starting to see pushback against it, things like “Why do we need to be resilient? Why can’t we just be enough as we are?” and “Why is personal growth framed as problems to solve instead of self-acceptance?”

I feel like these questions arise from misunderstanding the term or perhaps the underlying paradigm.

Also maybe from cynicism around the whole personal development industrial complex, which often does seem more intent on selling the next new technique and mindset than it does on actually helping people. After all, if people actually heal all their suboptimal ways of being, then they don’t need to buy anything from anyone. That’s an unsustainable business model!

Personally, I would love to put myself out of business because no one else in the world needs the sort of help I offer. Like…that’s the dream. What can we as the human collective build and achieve if we are free from the bounds of trauma and the wounds of disconnection? If we have all paid the debts of pain that we inherited from prior generations and no longer live in service to the past, what can we buy with the coin of our time, energy, and emotional labor? I mean, I don’t know, but I sure want to find out! What other gifts of mine could I then put to use? What new frontier of understanding or vitality could I explore? Again, I don’t know, but I would love to find out!

I think a lot of people who work in personal growth and development have, or at least go into their career with, a similar ethos. But the Western world’s cultural habit of goal-focused thinking can easily transform healing work into a hamster wheel. We get addicted to “fixing” ourselves; if we think any flaws or mistakes are just improvements waiting to be made, we can find an endless to-do list. We chase perfection and lose sight of the real goal, which is creating a life we actually want to live. The pursuit of perfection, with its ever-changing goal post – it’s always going to be on the other side of this next improvement – becomes a different form of the same self-rejecting, self-critical mindset that we went into personal growth to try to break out of. And if the people who are trying to teach a better way get caught in that trap, how can they avoid teaching it?

I can easily see why the criticisms get leveled. Why do we need more resilience? Why can’t our non-resilient way of being be enough? Why can’t we be enough?

But…resilience is the primary quality which allows us to be enough as and where we are.

Resilience is fundamentally about being able to embrace change and carry hope even in hard times. (And if you want to tell me there is no such thing as hard times, I am just going to laugh. There are objectively difficult experiences that even someone who doesn’t reflexively see the negatives or the lacks can live through and find painful and hard to cope with.) From my experience and perspective, lack of resilience manifests as fear of not being able to adapt to change or survive a change. These fears, whether conscious or unconscious, keep people clinging to patterns, beliefs, ways of being, etc., that have outlived their purpose. Obviously the psyche has a purpose for them – “These habits or coping mechanisms make me feel safe” – but what I mean here is when that orientation is causing a different part of the self to be abandoned, suppressed, or atrophied. The wholeness or integrity of a person is compromised for the singular goal.

Resilience is what allows us to take a hit, absorb the blow, and rise above the pain of it to act from a considered, deliberate place instead of reacting from our emotions, defenses, or instincts. Resilience is built on trust in ourselves to adapt to changes and to come back into alignment with our highest good.

I know the push to view all experiences as “teachable moments” or growth opportunities can become constricting. That philosophy reframes everything into positive terms, and it can also begin to feel like blaming or shaming. If you’re having a bad experience, you are the problem, because you can’t accept it or reframe it into some beautiful lesson. Frankly, that’s bullshit. Sometimes life is hard. Sometimes bad things happen that are not our fault and that no amount of mindset work can turn into something positive. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from those experiences or find a way to come out from them better; but the inner strength that allows us to do that? To walk through hell and come out with hope? That’s resilience.

Allowing yourself to experience only positive emotions leads to living with blinders or with a non-acceptance of discomfort. For me, inner resilience is what allows me to find value in the painful things, or the boring experiences, the uncomfortable growing along with the fun expansive parts. Resilience is what allows me to be fully human and fully present to the life I have, the life I am living, not chasing perfection or waiting until I and my life are both perfect before I can really live.

So when I say we need more resilience, what I mean is that we need more acceptance and more willingness both to be where we are and to acknowledge that where we are will change – and we can help change it.

Toughness Is Not Resilience

Culturally we’re in a transition away from toughness, and it’s being met with resistance from the people who still use tough as armor because they don’t see any other way to be strong. They perceive their psychological defense against feeling things – feeling hurt when someone is mean to them, feeling afraid when faced with an overwhelming situation or a dangerous one, feeling sad for someone else’s pain – as being calibrated to “how the world works.”

I used to be tough.

I used to turn away from pain and fear, to force myself to do things anyway, to wall off the part of my psyche that told me of pain, mine or someone else’s, unless the pain conformed to a set of narrow acceptable circumstances (someone died, a relationship ended, I or someone I cared about got laid off, etc.).

I used to feel like I could not trust people to really be there for me, so I would just…not need them. I’d do it all myself, handle it all by myself, have no one to blame but myself. It gave me comfort to not need others, and it made me feel strong to think I did not need anyone. I was tough. I could handle it.

Being tough got me through a lot of hard times. I am sure I could have kept on using it, but I finally realized that I was being cruel to myself to be tough. And being cruel violates one of my two or three most deeply held values. The moment I recognized the cruelty in toughness, I knew I could never be tough again.

If I wasn’t tough, though, how could I face the world? How could I deal with pain, risk, disappointment, rejection, loss, and change? Going through without getting lost in the emotions takes a lot of strength. Did being not-tough mean I was going to be victimized by life now? Was being a victim worse than being cruel? Did I have to live in fear, or choose which value to compromise?

I decided there had to be some way to be strong and not-tough. So I set out to find out what that might be.

What is tough, in a physical sense? Hard to pierce, like leather, calloused and hardened; hard to chew, if you mean meat; hard to cut or carve if you mean wood. “Thick” can sometimes be an equivalent, as can “dense.” Tough is a barrier. But what happens if that barrier of toughness is pierced? What happens to what is beneath it?

Absolute agony. Because there is nothing beyond the toughness to protect or help cope with the pain. Tough is a barrier that fails utterly if it is breached. If tough meets something strong enough to break through, it breaks. It does not bend; it does not absorb the blow.

This truth – tough can’t help anymore if it gets broken open – is why tough people can’t imagine being not-tough. When you recognize that your only defense against the pain you cannot bear to feel is toughness, you cherish your toughness. You increase it. You pity the people who are not-tough because they seem not very strong, not really able to cope with life too well.

And the world provides plenty of examples of people who are neither tough nor coping with the challenges of life. Tough might not have been wrong to look at some of the other responses to pain/challenge/overwhelm (such as collapse, breakdown, paralysis, avoidance, drugs, neurosis, etc.) and think itself a better choice.

But better is not best.

Especially because, at its heart, toughness is about fear. The fear that something will hurt too much to bear – avoiding that pain is why it’s better to be tough.

But when you say it like that…tough doesn’t really sound so strong anymore, does it? Tough doesn’t really sound so capable, or so confident. Tough can’t actually handle all situations, because if anything ever happens that breaks the barrier of toughness, no other tools or strategies exist.

When I considered what might take the place of toughness, what came to mind was an image: thick, rigid walls that could withstand a lot but also be broken, vs. a flexible surface that might bend under a blow but then spring back. Taking a hit and spreading the impact over a wider surface, like turning so a punch makes a bruised back instead of a broken rib. The flexing shield might hurt a little more on the smaller things, because it allows more hits, but it does not break no matter how big the blow. And that’s the difference.

That sort of organic elasticity is my inner image of resilience. Resilience is the quality of being able to return to the original form or position after being bent, stretched, compressed, or distorted. In people it refers to the ability to recover from loss, illness, setback, or change and move forward with hope. To experience tragedy and yet find happiness again, not allowing one’s life to become defined by the hard or painful experiences.

For me personally, resilience is born from the belief that I can handle anything, survive anything, and that I can trust myself to respond the best I can to any situation. Self-trust created the transformative shift. When I was tough, I did not trust myself to be able to handle pain; I did not trust myself to heal; I did not trust myself to try again. But I learned that I can feel my own pain, and hold it gently, and let it go in peace. I learned that I can trust myself to move out of the shadow and into the light. I learned that failure is just a setback, and that I can and will find other ways to a goal.

I don’t have to be tough anymore, because I have become resilient.

If I can cope with pain and grieve it out, I do not have to fear it becoming all I ever know. If I can trust myself to make a good decision every time, I do not have to fear what might happen. If I can find a way to tap into courage in the face of fear, I do not have to avoid what makes me afraid. I am free to simply live, and accept the things that happened outside my control, and stack the odds in my favor with the things I can control.

What about you? Do you feel resilient, or do you feel fearful or hopeless? Have you been tough, or have you been non-resilient in other ways that have kept you stuck where you are? What are your fears?

Resilience, Not Vulnerability, Is the Goal

“Vulnerability” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in the personal growth world as an aspirational state. To be vulnerable is to be genuine, authentic, real. To be vulnerable is to be empowered—another way to say, I am strong enough and brave enough and self-confident enough to do anything!, which sounds an awful lot like having “arrived,” if there is a singular point of arrival in the process of self-expansion. Being willing (or able) to be vulnerable becomes a goal.

Yet treating vulnerability as an aspiration or a status symbol bypasses a deeper consideration of what that state of being actually means.

By definition, to be vulnerable is…to be vulnerable. Open to attack. Able to be hurt. Not protected. At risk. Potentially unsafe.

To leave yourself open to those risks can be viscerally frightening. It can be asking yourself to face your worst nightmare. When you have the expectation that others will see your unarmored body—your exposed Self—and thrust in blades, vulnerability feels like suicide. From that stance, you have to be willing to die to allow yourself to be vulnerable; life behind your armor has to be worse than death in order for you to set aside those defenses.

And that is the state that is touted as aspirational? As having “made it”? Without a clear discussion of the state of being that underlies willing vulnerability, the state itself sounds more like something to run from than aspire to by those who are most in need of the benefits vulnerability allows us to receive, namely: intimacy. Trust. The experience of being held by another human being in our fullness and our truth instead of our façade.

To feel able to lay aside our defenses with someone else is a source of comfort and safety like no other. It is ironic that our greatest sense of safety is accessed via our greatest sense of unsafety.

If we wait until our pain is greater than our fear to be vulnerable, we risk that we never cross into vulnerability at all—what if the pain is never bigger?

If we wait until our pain is greater than our fear, we also risk experiencing a traumatizing degree of loneliness and disconnection from others and from our very self. We risk that the anxiety from feeling unresilient and incapable in relationships might spill out into other parts of our lives. We jeopardize opportunities to engage with others for creative collaboration, professional networking and mentorship, learning lessons that would improve our daily experience of life, chances to share our own hard-won wisdom and skills, and the simple happiness of feeling accepted by others in the human tribe.

If we wait until our pain is greater than our fear to risk vulnerability, we also risk setting a pattern of needing extremis to push us into connection. We might withdraw from vulnerability as soon as we are no longer in that state of pain/terror/overwhelm, only to have the pain of loneliness build back up inside us and cause another desperate risk. Then as soon as the extreme recedes, the experience of vulnerability becomes too unsettling to hold, so we withdraw again. And the cycle repeats. That shifting through extremes does not create a stable life, nor a pleasant one.

What, then, needs to be our inner experience for us to be willing to be vulnerable without that dire nihilism?

Inner safety. Resilience. Trust in our own capacity to survive.

You have to know that you will be able to calm yourself, support yourself, and heal yourself even in the face of the most brutal rejection or attack on your vulnerable state. You have to trust that you will be able to carry on. That you can bear the pain and keep going past it all the way back into inner peace and contentment.

That sense—that we can and will survive the exchange, that we will be whole again no matter what—is the sustainable path into vulnerability with others. It is what allows us to take the risk of opening up, because the risk becomes calculated rather than desperate, and the consequences manageable instead of devastating.

Vulnerability creates closeness, intimacy, and long-term relationships with others. It is a high-reward state, but the risks must nonetheless feel bearable in order for the reward to seem worthwhile.

Developing a sense of vulnerability as a choice and a range of degrees rather than something that happens to us, or an all-or-nothing switch, empowers us to choose when and how we open to others. Controlled vulnerability allows us to offer small extensions of trust and choose based on how the other responds whether to offer more…whether to deepen our connection or to withdraw.

If we are starting from a place of unsafety with others and/or within ourselves, how do we begin to move toward controlled vulnerability? What can we do inside ourselves to feel safe enough to risk letting someone inside our defensive walls?

The first step is to allow the possibility of living in security rather than fear. If we do not even consider something possible, we will never make any attempt to experience it.

Then we must open ourselves to learning, about ourselves and about the world. Feeling secure in ourselves stems from knowing ourselves, knowing our values, knowing the conditions that make us feel safe or unsafe, knowing our capacities and our skills and our gifts (and the corresponding deficits in our natural tool set). Knowing ourselves—and accepting ourselves.

When we are willing to accept ourselves as we are, and as we may become as our experiences expand and change us, we can work on specific skills to make vulnerability a controlled choice. Those include (but are certainly not limited to!)

  • Boundaries work
  • Self-parenting or self-coaching (choosing self-compassion and curiosity over self-judgment and fear)
  • Being willing to be a beginner—to embrace learning as a messy, non-linear process lined with false starts and failures
  • Seeing mistakes not as failures but as information that teaches us what not to do, what we really want, what we can accomplish, and how able we are to stand back up and try again
  • Reframing our past so that we can learn from it without being defined by it
  • Learning to recognize supportive behaviors vs. neglecting or abusive behaviors

Having experiences with others who do not betray our trust when we expose our true selves to them is a powerful rehabilitative experience. We cannot fully heal relational wounds (such as a fear of vulnerability) on our own. But we can work to foster trust in our own capacity for resilience as the first step toward willingly opening up to others. We can choose deliberate action vs. fear-driven reaction purely within ourselves—and that is the inner landscape which allows us to accept vulnerability as proof of our growth rather than the goal of our growth.

What Is Mentoring?

Mentoring is a form of coaching, built on the ethos that the best way to learn is by finding someone who has already achieved what you want to achieve, and learning directly from them.

You can think of your mentor as an older, wiser, sibling, or maybe a village Elder—someone who has a rich and deeply nuanced perspective on a certain topic. Your mentor will walk beside you on your growth or healing journey, sharing the skills that helped them and pointing out the potential pitfalls they may have found the hard way. You do not have to figure everything out on your own!