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 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.

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.