Personal development is always a struggle and, at times, can seem downright painful. That shouldn’t be surprising, because almost anything of importance that we undertake can entail the same kinds of challenges.
It can be seen in our daily lives, as simply as by trying to have the discipline to get up early and go to the gym, or to learn an instrument or a new language, or to become proficient at any task we currently aren’t familiar with. We always have to overcome our fears, doubts, and weaknesses to arrive at our stated goals. As they say, nothing comes for free.
So it is with personal development. For clarity sake, I define personal development to be the journey toward acting and living in greater accord with our human design. In other words, personal development is a growth toward becoming more human.
But much of the pain and struggle of personal development is about unlearning what has been trained in us since birth, and untangling ourselves from the trappings of our environment and culture. That means the patterns, habits, and psychologies we have accrued by our very act of living. And, of course, these will be individual to each of us.
That’s why personal development (or spiritual development, or religious quest – I use these interchangeably because they all point to the same end, if understood correctly), can only be undertaken by each of us, in our own way. No one can do it for us, and no religious, spiritual, or mentor figure can bestow it upon us. We earn it for our selves, or not at all.
And as we all know, unlearning something can be extremely difficult. Why? Because our physical systems (the human brain and body) are designed to take up processes that we do repetitively. That’s how painters become great artists. They repetitively practice the basic skills of drawing until their hands and eyes know the shapes of things. Once the body has learned those patterns and skills, then the creative aspect of the artist can be freed up to provide the individual insights and feelings that seek portrayal.
It’s the same with a great dancer or musician, or stock trader or carpenter. Once the fundamentals are learned, the creativity is all the artist or craftsman needs to think about to execute their work. So it’s a fantastic system – it has enabled all of the achievements we have made as a species. In fact, we wouldn’t get far in our lives if our systems didn’t take up these processes for us. If we had to think about all the motions that go into driving a stick shift every time we got in the car, we’d all still be stuck in our driveways.
So that way of learning is basic to the human design. Unfortunately it works the same for bad habits and patterns as it does for good ones. We only need to learn how to ride a bike once, and it’s very hard to quit smoking. We’ll never forget how to tie our shoelaces, and it’s very difficult to stop being judgmental toward others (if that’s a pattern we have written to ourselves, thinking, at some point, that it was normal, or okay, to do so).
But our development requires that we become aware of the patterns we have written to ourselves. The human story is a quest for continual refinement. When we become aware of patterns in ourselves, we then have two choices: we can decide they are useful for our journey, and keep them, or we can decide they are detrimental to our journey (excess baggage) and they need to be let go of, or rewritten in us.
Rewriting patterns requires that we establish new patterns in place of the old ones that we no longer want. That’s where the struggle comes in. Because we have to gain awareness of them – we have to face them – before we can change them.
That’s not always easy, because it means we have to admit to ourselves that we’re not perfect just the way we are and, as importantly, we have to admit that those patterns are not necessarily “us.” If we don’t break these patterns, we condemn ourselves to endlessly going around in circles.