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  • Writer's pictureJason R. Waller

Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself, Personal Growth is Tough

The neurological process of learning is like carving a new path in our brains. Actually, it’s almost literally like carving a new path in our brains. Neural pathways in the brain become more efficient and “worn in” with more use, making them easier to access.

When we think about habits and beliefs, this is an important concept. The easier paths to take are the paths that we’re most used to taking. For me, having a beer at the end of the day was a very well-worn path. It was a natural and easy decision. Doing 25 pushups instead — not at all a well-worn path.

This article isn’t about how or why to create these new neural pathways. No, the message here is more about compassion and patience. Making big changes is hard. Too often we go into personal growth hopeful for a quick result, but that’s just not the case.

One study suggests that it takes an average of 66 days to make a new habit automatic, with some habits taking more than 250 days. So stop being so hard on yourself, already.

It’s Like a Trail in the Woods

When I was in high school, I spent a summer working for the US Forest Service. It was awesome, but it was also hard work. One of my main jobs was building out hiking trails in the forest. There are essentially four stages of putting in a trail:

  1. Planning, deciding where and how to put the trail

  2. Cutting, digging out the trail and clearing the path

  3. Operating, opening it up and letting wear and tear take over

  4. Maintaining, repairing damage and removing new obstacles

If your mind were the forest, this is exactly how your neural pathways would be made, too. Let’s take this analogy to explore the four stages of personal growth, with a healthy dose of realism, practicality, and patience in each.

1. Planning for the Trail You Want

The first step in personal growth is deciding on what we actually want to change. Sounds simple enough, but what often gets in my way are the “shoulds” and “ought-tos” I’ve been socialized into believing. I see someone learning French and think, “Oh! I should do that.” But it’s not what I actually want, which means it would never stick as a goal.

Don’t “should” on yourself.

Another component is being economical about what we actually decide to do. I started off at the beginning of the year with a big list of bold, audacious goals for my own personal growth. I think I had 14 things to do each day. It was way, way too much.

Not only was it hard to keep track of, but it wasn’t fun. It felt like a series of chores that I had to get through, and all it did was inject opportunities for failure and disappointment each day. In the end, I settled on six daily rituals that worked for me, and that I enjoyed or felt committed to doing.

Don’t burn yourself out before you even get started.

2. Cutting the Trail

After focusing on what matters, the task at hand is building a new neural pathway for change. This is the really hard work of personal growth. It’s where I see most of my clients struggle and falter. Self-sabotaging stories and productivity shame can quickly take over. “I’m not doing enough.” “I feel like I’m just climbing uphill and getting nowhere.”

Be compassionate towards yourself. When you fail to make a change or stick to a habit, really look for the learning inside of that experience. Celebrate that you tried and got a little farther than last time.

When I was trying to change my mindset around perfection, nothing seemed to work. It was like quicksand. I was so hard on myself, and the more I struggled, the deeper I sank. It wasn’t until I accepted where I was and met my journey with compassion that things actually began to move.

This is the paradox of change, a big component of Gestalt therapy. What we push against only stands that thing up taller, and we must begin with acceptance of where we are and the failure that comes in the process. Even celebrating the failure as learning.

Personal growth is hard and slow, and that’s not just okay — that’s how it’s supposed to be.

3. Breaking It In

Once we’ve built out this new neural pathway in our brains, the only thing that strengthens this pathway is practice. Back to the research that suggests it takes months to make a new habit automatic, this is a labor of love and time.

Imagine this in the trail metaphor for a minute. We have one well-worn path, a path built in adolescence that’s been trampled down and cleared out from years of use. And we have another path, the one that we’ve built for ourselves. It’s there, but it’s new and it’s rough. It’s much easier to take the old path, the comfortable path.

Our hard work at this stage is to stay the course and continue to be compassionate when we find ourselves reverting back to the old trail. More than that, the hard work here is to get non-judgmentally curious about how we ended up on the old path again. What let us slip into an old habit? Why did we fall into an old mindset? What value is this path offering us and why?

4. Maintaining This New Pathway

It goes without saying that, even when the new trail becomes the old trail, it still requires upkeep. Every so often, we need to take time to check in on how our trail still serves us and what needs to be tweaked. A simple question for reflection could be “What have I learned about myself in this growth?”

This isn’t to say that we should always be looking for problems. In fact, a positive outlook will go farther in maintaining this pathway than anything.

A habit has become automatic? Amazing, celebrate that! Does a novel mindset become a daily mindset? Awesome, job well done! Celebrate the patterns that have been rebuilt and the stories that have been rewritten.

The Journey

I love the analogy of building new neural pathways as building trails in the woods. Let’s take a look at the four stages again:

  1. Planning, deciding where and how to put the trail

  2. Cutting, digging out the trail and clearing the path

  3. Operating, opening it up and letting wear and tear take over

  4. Maintaining, repairing damage and removing new obstacles

These stages have one thing in common: each takes hard, sometimes tiring, often fulfilling work. It should be slow, it should be deliberate, but it should also be rewarding. If it’s back-breaking and exhausting, take a step back and dial it down. If it’s easy and boring, lean in and dial it up.

And don’t be so hard on yourself. Personal growth is tough.

Originally published in Mind Cafe


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