I used to think that personal development was a process that was linear, a to-do list to be ticked off and never to be looked at again. My misconception couldn’t have been further from the truth.
It is actually a process of deconstructing old core beliefs and automatic responses while, at the same time, trying to identify and understand aspects of yourself that you haven’t properly looked at in order to recreate the image you have of yourself. Needless to say, it is painful, it is confusing, and it is frustrating. But it is also the most rewarding thing one can choose to do.
An interesting aspect of personal development is the awareness of one’s body. Our bodies are constantly communicating with us, but we often dismiss it. Take food as an example. When you feel heavy or sick after eating something that your body doesn’t agree with, it is often our bodies’ way of letting us know: whatever you ate, can you please not eat it again?
The same happens when it comes to expansion of consciousness. Our body speaks. In my case, I get physical sensations when I come across things that trigger my core beliefs, or when I feel I am letting go of an old piece of myself which I have been holding on to for too long. It is as if the more I understand myself, my past, and what is holding me back, the more I expand and open up.
It’s a lovely sensation: my mind expands and thoughts move in and out of it more freely and clearly. My heart seems to be able to handle stronger emotions and that gives me a sense of capability, as if I can hold more in it without getting overwhelmed. But when I come across something that touches tender nerves or shoves me back to my past, to how I used to feel, or come across things that push me to question what I’m still tightly holding onto, I feel as if I am shrinking. I shrink back into myself, become smaller, panicky, fragile, and utterly incapable of facing even the simplest task at hand. Everything suddenly becomes a huge effort.
I see this whole process as a battle inside of one’s mind, a battle between what was laid as a strong, and supposedly permanent, foundation and what is new. A new way of looking at the same scenario. Not by painting it with brighter colours and dismissing the importance or seriousness of it, but instead, looking at it more impartially. A new approach where, instead of violent self-criticism, you can choose to look at it differently, more kindly. Slowly taking a step back from the assumptions we so quickly turn into facts. It doesn’t have to be like that. There is another way of looking at any given situation; we are just not used to it.
I see this process as if I have opened a door to a very messy room in a big house, and I am looking in and wondering: “hm, where should I start?”. I look at the mess and move around it, assessing the “damage”. I slowly begin to look at the big pieces, finding out what is broken and what is not, piling things up in a corner before I can clean the room and, only then, beginning to rearrange things. It is a slow and tiresome process. But there is no way around it except through it.
It is important to realise that the messages you have internalised as a child taint and shape your perception as an adult, even the most subtle ones. It is shocking just how many of those messages have turned into beliefs which I now perceive as absolute facts. A close friend recently said to me that:
“You don’t need to stop thinking. You need to give up investing in the meaning you give to those thoughts. Thoughts and emotions themselves are not the issue; the belief and attachment to them is.”
This really goes hand in hand with what I have been learning in my journey through Overcoming Low Self-Esteem by Melanie Fennell, a book that I am working on with my therapist. It seems to come down to how real those thoughts are to you and how much meaning you give to them. Even writing these words makes it sound so simple and straightforward. If it is just my choice, why can’t I just close my eyes, choose for it to be different, and voila?! All done!
I believe that, the same way it took years to acquire and strengthen the negative beliefs we have of ourselves and of the world, it will take time to deconstruct those beliefs and to construct newer, healthier ones. It is a habit. And it is not an overnight process. It is definitely not a quick-fix. It is gradual.
From my own personal experience, it requires constant and diligent work. It also requires kindness and patience with oneself. Never before have I consciously and frequently taken the time to stop and remind myself to take a deep breath while reassuring myself that: “it is okay. Just slow down. You are only human. You are doing well. You are safe. You can choose to see things differently when you are ready. Just breathe. Just breathe”.
This is one of my mantras. I find it very helpful and reassuring, but it doesn’t always resolve itself as easily as this. At the peak of an anxiety attack, managing to remind ourselves to “just breathe” is already an achievement. Am I able to calm myself down straight away every single time? No, of course not. I’m only human. But it does help to slow me down.
What I have noticed recently is that, as time goes by and the more I practice what I am learning, the longer the sensation of having an expanded mind lasts, and the less often the shrinking moments happen. It is a work in progress. I guess the goal is to keep going, but not with the illusion of walking in a straight line, like I used to think; instead it is to accept the ups and downs, and to treat ourselves with a bit of more kindness, understanding and patience. We can all benefit from that.
“We struggle not because we’re bad humans, but simply because we ARE humans.” – A message from a dear friend.