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For years, I’ve been on a path of personal growth. I can’t help it. I love to try new things. You might say I’m a personal growth junkie, although I really don’t like that latter word. We lovingly call it “#goalofgrowth.” I love to pursue things that grow me for multiple reasons. But I know now that certain levels of personal growth only work when there’s a strong foundation in place.

First off, there’s something just plain adventurous about trying something new, especially when it’s a little scary or intimidating. Adventure is an experience or activity that isn’t necessarily common for the person embarking upon the experience. This means that anything I’ve not tried or don’t do regularly counts as an adventure. I have a need for adventure, and it’s this need that draws me into ever new personal growth areas. 

I also love to learn about myself. I’m a deeply curious person, and I regularly want to answer the question, “If I did XYZ, then what would happen?” I wonder about so many things! Would it feel good or bad? Would it improve my life or detract from it? How would my body, thoughts, emotions, heart, and soul respond? Would it grow me as a person? Would it offer new insights and inspirations and direction? Could this be something I incorporate into my life more regularly? Would I completely throw it out forever? How would it change my relationship with ABC? The curiosities are nearly endless.

And what of the challenge? There’s a lot to be said for how a little (or a lot of) challenge, when applied appropriately, can exponentially grow you. And it’s this love of appropriately applied challenge that comes with working towards a goal that I really enjoy. I can feel it growing and stretching me in new ways, and this feels good. Like scratching an itch or stretching for the first time in the morning after waking.

Most often, though, my biggest motivator is health and wellness. A lot of my personal growth comes in the form of healthy eating or exercise or spiritual or mental/emotional challenges. Things that I believe will help me to be healthy in body, mind, heart, and spirit/soul and that help me to feel strong and capable. This also includes healthy transgressions and divergences from what the mainstream considers “healthy,” which may ultimately be healthy and healing for my soul (full-spectrum living).

While the transgressions are easier to do, in general, because of their expansive, relaxed nature, it’s the restrictive, disciplined practices that require a strong and sturdy foundation in order to be successful. When the going gets rough – as it often does – it’s our foundational habits of self-care and self-soothing that will either come to the rescue or completely derail us.

Habits are these ruts we get in that are often unconscious until we sit down and have a hard look at them. Maybe we’ve never questioned or challenged most of our habits. And if we haven’t, how are we to know if they’re positively or negatively impacting our lives? Although, you’re just about guaranteed to uncover these habits when the going gets tough, especially if you’re in the middle of an already stressful personal growth experiment. 

Habit is a general term that can include healthy habits but it can also be a cover for unhealthy habits, or, in other words, addictions. Nikki Heyder (@state.of.soul_) explains addiction to be, “when a person experiences short term relief, control, or euphoria when engaging with an activity, person or substance, but which in the long term is harmful emotionally and/or physically to the person and/or people around them.” An addiction often forms as a response to stress. In other words, as a coping mechanism. 

When we don’t have healthy coping mechanisms (i.e. foundational habits) squarely in place then unhealthy coping mechanisms kick in. Unhealthy because, as Nikki says, they may be helpful at the moment but have negative long-term consequences. A lot of coping mechanisms can fly under the radar such as watching TV, eating, shopping, exercise, love and relationships, work, and even personal growth. You might not notice any of these as addictions or unhealthy habits, especially if your use of these tools doesn’t veer from normal culture. 

When life gets stressful we need to have a foundation of healthy coping mechanisms in place otherwise we’ll default to habits that don’t serve us in the long term. Stress is a tricky beast. And at the moment, when things are hard, it’s those die-hard habits of eating candy, lounging on the couch, or pining for a loved one that arrives first at my door to soothe me. It’s these unhealthy coping mechanisms that will undoubtedly knock me off any honest attempt at whatever current growth practice I’m in the middle of. 

For example, I’ve recently been preparing my body for a three-day fast. Part of that prep is practicing fasting and reducing unhealthy foods like excessive sugar or processed foods. But I had a horrible shift at work the other day which sent my nervous system into overdrive. I felt so overwhelmed that my practices didn’t stand a chance. I went straight for whatever I could to help me feel better in the moment (sugary foods and TV) without much conscious thought.

But, I wonder, what would it look like if it were reflex to turn to something healthy like taking a bath, meditating, drinking tea, phoning a friend, getting a massage, taking a hike, watching something funny, or playing with my dog? How do I create this healthy reflex and nurture these foundational habits instead? 

First things first, being aware that intense stress conjures any clinging, unhealthy habits to rear their head is key. If in the moment of crazy stress I can remember this, then I’m more than halfway to making a wiser decision about which coping mechanism to use. Awareness goes a long way. 

The next step is to call out the ugly habit. Once I’m aware that stress has me in its grips then I can honestly point to it and say, “At this moment, I really just want to eat a sugary bowl of cereal and watch hours of TV.” Clearly naming and identifying the beast helps it lose power. Power that gets put back in my pocket for use. 

[Let’s be honest, maybe sometimes all you do really need is a sugary bowl of cereal and TV (conscious transgression), but what we’re speaking about here are those moments when you’re going for a goal and these habits undermine your initial intentions.]

Now that I’ve got some power back I need to ask the question, “What could I do to help relieve this stress in a more positive manner?” If I had a list on my phone, then I could open the list and find the thing that would feel most soothing at the moment. Then, I’d set about immediately doing it.

Transforming coping mechanisms is a huge challenge. And for anyone’s response to stress to be a healthy reflex or simply a conscious choice, it takes considerable time and effort to rewire habits. But it’s worth the journey to ultimately arrive at the place where instead of being at the whim of well-worn neural pathways one can make a conscious choice at the moment: do I eat the bowl of cereal and watch TV or do I honor my initial intent and choose a bath and a bowl of fruit instead?

Exploring this particular aspect of the growth journey feels important. It’s quite simply foundational for anyone who actively pursues growth. No matter what you do in life, stress is bound to strike. Being awake and aware to respond consciously makes all the difference. Being well-equipped is the name of the game.

Having healthy coping mechanisms is a foundational necessity prior to committing to larger growth experiments. If this element of self-care isn’t solid, then cracks in the foundation will cause other endeavors to be unstable as the layers of stress pile on. One’s base must be fortified and strong for other practices to be successful.

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[I fully acknowledge that some individuals may struggle with the notion of personal growth and carry trauma around health and wellness. For these individuals, transgressions as a form of healing may be the path forward. If this is the case for you, then please listen to your own wisdom and proceed accordingly.]

 

Photo by Hamzah Hanafi on Unsplash