Or outgrowing Your Old Life: the Discomfort of Shedding the Skin vs the Discomfort of Staying in it.
One of my most important jobs as a coach is to support people through transitional times. This is a privilege for me, as it’s a unique and special journey. But it may feel very not-special while you’re going through it! More painful and confusing, perhaps.
Just like a snake grows and has to shed its skin, it is in our human nature to evolve. What was comfortable becomes restrictive, and we naturally set our sights on the next step up.
But fear and comfort can stop us taking it. All that energy we’ve stored up, which was getting ready to help push us forward, adapt and grow, is now just pent up inside us. It has to come out somehow, so it may become an unhealthy habit, or a negative attitude such as jealousy of someone who has been successfully growing, or resentment towards someone we are blaming for our lack of growth.
But either way, that energy for change will come out somehow. You can wait your impulse to grow out over time, as it can diminish with age as your energy levels diminish also. But it’s not ideal because deep down you always know the truth, that you let fear stop you from becoming more of who you are.
Reading this, someone could definitely take it as a sign they should finally give up their job and go travelling round the world, end that relationship or start their own business. If that’s genuine then it could be your next step, but it’s often something smaller and deeper.
Having a difficult conversation you’ve been putting off, setting up a healthy boundary, believing in yourself enough to learn a skill you’ve been wanting to for ages, loving someone more deeply, taking a chance on intimacy, being honest with people about who you are.
A lot of self-development work is about leverage: a small but deep change is worth a million huge outer changes.
And although many of us can get restless and feel pulled to grow, it can be hard to know in what direction. Many of us assume it should be more of the thing we’ve been doing, especially if it has paid off so far. More travel, more success, more money, more influence, more socialising.
It’s a challenge to pause long enough to listen to what our deepest self wants, especially when we don’t want the answer (because the answer is often the thing we’ve been subconsciously avoiding for a long time). It’s the thing that is really going to make us leave our comfort zone. Not just of external things like how we dress or where we go, but in our experience of who we are to ourselves. What we know about ourselves.
There’s a risk of shattering ideas we’ve held about ourselves that have helped us feel safe in the world. I could write a book, if I ever just sat down and wrote it – could you actually? I am a good person, even though I lose my temper – are you being a good person in that moment? I’d be a great husband/ wife, I just never felt like settling down – or are you scared of not being enough when you’re truly seen? (These are just examples, of course, and they don’t have black and white answers most of the time).
Our ideas about who we are keep us feeling safe in the world. What if we try to step beyond them and there is nothing there to catch us?
What if we try and we’re not enough? What if we succeed and then we actually have to like and believe in ourselves more as a result? What if we try to find love and get rejected? Or worse, are truly seen and loved, subverting our beliefs? What if the thing we’ve always been blaming (ie; I’d be happy if I got a raise), turns out not to be the thing (I got the raise, but I’m not happy) and we realise it’s been us all along?
The good news is that when we grow for genuine reasons, the path appears. But that’s not to say there won’t be hard and dark times. And it’s not to say the difficulties won’t last for longer than you want them to. For that reason, growing isn’t always the right thing to do. You have to be ready, with enough of the things you need to succeed and stay healthy. It could be money, health, emotional support or something else.
Here are some tips based on what I’ve learned after years of supporting people through transitional phases. I hope they help.
- You won’t be able to see the end. You’ll definitely know you’re going through something, but the outcome will not reveal itself to you until you’re very close to it. I don’t know why, but I think it’s an important part of the process, because self-development dynamics don’t tend to be a certain way just to mess with you. It can feel disorienting though.
- Regarding the point above, since you may find it hard to know exactly where you’re going, it helps to try orient yourself according to your deepest self. Your needs, wants and instinctual knowing. Your deepest self will lead you in the right direction, you just have to try and make sure it isn’t your old habits and fears masquerading as your self in an effort to stop you changing and protect themselves.
- It may take a week, it may take years. Probably not what you want to hear, but change has its own speed and process. It’s much healthier to help it along rather than cut it off before it’s done (unless you are overwhelmed and need time off), or to hurry it up (and cause overwhelm).
- It may be a multi-stage process, especially if it happens over years. So you may be growing for a time, then resting and integrating for a time, and so on. For some of us this process is our whole lives, but I don’t think that’s the case for everyone.
- You have to have faith in yourself and your capacity to adapt. But you should also be smart and balance your material needs with your need for change. Other resources such as emotional support, nutrition, advice, practical help and more, may also become important at various points.
- Growing is hard work. Rest when you need to.
- A lot of emotion from the past may come up, so you may need therapy to help you process it. Growing doesn’t only open us up to new opportunities, it can also open up old wounds. Perhaps the scar tissue is too restrictive for who we need to become to fully be ourselves.
- We can get energised then a bit crazy. Sometimes throwing off a restraint that’s been holding us back (that we’ve been allowing to hold us back), for a long time gives us a huge burst of energy. Suddenly anything is possible and we feel young and vibrant. That is an amazing feeling, but I do recommend not indulging in a series of external changes, where you just go from one thing to the next and never settle. It can become addictive and a way of avoiding the deeper meaning of why you were growing in the first place.
- The above can also become a version of “my ex-wife never let me wear shirts like this”, while everyone thinks perhaps his ex-wife had a point. But actually there is a lot of value in trying different things to find out more about who you are and what you like. But you don’t want to orient yourself too much around the past, ie. what you were not allowed to do, how you were failed etc. New bursts of energy need somewhere to go and if you’re not certain of who you are, it can be easier to look to the past and to other people. So, I recommend trying different things, having fun, but also getting massages and meditating. It’s about getting a balance between using the energy to push outwards into new life, while also bringing it back to who you are deep down and staying grounded (and working through any emotions that come up).
- I also highly recommend journaling. It will help you to process what you’re going through and stay connected to yourself, even when it feels like nothing is certain.
- I know I said it before, but it is the open-ended blank space you’re heading towards that is a vital part of the process. I think it makes you have faith in yourself, get closer to your instincts and hold a beginner’s mindset. It opens you up again, where comfort may have made you a little closed. I know it can be unnerving, but it’s really good for you.
- One last piece of advice: if you’ve been through a transformative time before, you may assume this one will be similar in shape, length or outcome. But it may be completely different this time, so keep an open mind.
Although the specifics of a a transformational time look different for each of us, the general dynamics are the same. We go from a stable period in our comfort zone, to a feeling of restlessness and an urge to grow. From there we either don’t take action and the energy comes out in less productive ways, or we start to grow. As we evolve into more of who we are we also have to confront unhelpful beliefs, work through emotions, and then also re-evaluate priorities and make life adjustments to reflect our new, greater level of personal truth. We then either progress to another level of growth or we’re done for a while and we get to just integrate what we’ve learned by living and enjoying ourselves (hopefully).
If you are currently in the restless feeling or the process of change, I can empathise. I’ve been around the transformation block a few times and experienced the unease (as well as moments of unexpected joy) that comes with it.
Make sure you’re taking care of yourself and finding the support you need. It’s not meant to be a battle, but a natural process of growth. The difficulty is part of the process, but you don’t need to make it any harder on yourself than it is.
Maybe the point of growing is not to become something, perhaps it is just to keep us open and supple in our spirits. If that’s the case, I think it’s worthwhile. I hate to see people sad and stuck, calcified in their ways of being, and so sure that nothing can ever change or improve. If pushing through the fear and uncertainty is the price we pay to stay open, creative alive and loving, I think it’s worth it.
And, as always, take care!