The Gratitude Challenge’s sixteenth topic is “Growth”.
What is growth?
Does growth always mean “go up”, or can it equally be “give up”? Can we go in circles and still feel that we grow? The saying goes that we learn from mistakes, but how many mistakes do we need to make, and which ones could be avoided? Or are we even trying so hard to grow in a difficult situation and think that leaving would mean giving up, when in fact it would be healthier to do so?
I think growth can also mean to give up something or someone, to avow oneself a futile endeavour and to invest the time into something better. When determination to grow turns into desperation, the result might in fact be the opposite: Pain and sacrifice for everyone involved.
It took me a long time to start this post, because on the one hand I feel as if I’m in the middle of a fundamental transformation and I perceive myself as quite a different person compared to a year ago. On the other hand, it all seems to be still so much in a state of flux that it is difficult to put the finger on specific “achievements”.
In some aspects, growth seems to be a circle where at the end we reach the place from which we started, but as a different, more experienced, and more conscious person. At the age of 33 I would not dare to make a statement such as “this part of me will never change again”. As kind of an interim conclusion however I can say that for example when it comes to committing to a relationship I seem to have made a circle: Starting fully committed, but without overthinking it and just doing what I thought would be “right” and “expected of me” to be approved. Then over to not committing at all out of fear to get hurt. Moving on to gradually committing again like at the beginning of the journey. The difference is that I’m doing so with more consciousness about why and how, and that I know a bit more about where are my boundaries.
Speaking of boundaries: For me it is difficult to know my boundaries, to show them and to keep them up. I’m quite ambitious, so when I set a goal, I will do everything to reach it. This can result in me trying really hard to show my partner that I’m in fact “good” and worth to be loved, especially after I disappointed my partner. My ambition and my people pleaser mindset in combination sometimes lead to situations where I neglect my own needs and boundaries, just to prove myself and everyone else that I do not give up and that I’m “the good guy” who doesn’t fuck up. Moreover, with giving up comes the scary risk that it might be a wrong and irreversible decision, so I’m horrified to do it.
I can see that my behaviour to a large part is fear-based. If I give up it might be a lost opportunity. If I’m focusing on one thing, I might lose another ability: If I focus solely on my Mandarin studies, I’m afraid I’ll lose all my Japanese language skills. If I stop being flirty for fun and completely commit to my relationship, I’m afraid that I’ll lose my apparently well-developed ability to say nice things in the right moment. Recognizing fears as such is certainly an important first step, but it does not automatically make it go away.
Hence, it’s hard to commit to one thing, and I end up doing everything at once to keep all possibilities open. At such times I seem to get my gratification solely from how much effort and “suffering” I put into something, disregarding how effective it is and if I get the desired results.
This “putting effort until it hurts” – at work, in relationships, while doing sports – reflects quite well my conviction according to Nietzsche that “what does not destroy me, makes me stronger”. I took pride in my alleged ability to take more than others, always going the extra mile, never complaining, just being fine with everything and doing more than anyone could expect. I thought I was a responsible colleague and partner; a person other people could rely on. Obviously, I completely disregarded that I was not responsible with my own health, needs and boundaries.
I would say that what I realized most clearly during the last year was that I’m not only neglecting my own needs, but that I was not even aware of them: It’s very convenient to just do what others expect from you, so you do not need to take responsibility and you won’t disappoint anyone. This realization is especially interesting when considering that many people who know me described me as “the one who’s doing his own thing without caring about what others think”. It’s true that I have quite a different lifestyle from my colleagues and from many of my friends. I live on another continent, I dedicate(d) a lot of my time to learning Japanese, a language that I might never use in daily life and that many people consider “impossible” to master. But apart from this, at work, in relationships, I did not have a plan based on any personal vision and desires, but I was simply responding to other people’s expectations.
I’m now getting more aware of this dynamic and I start to understand my feelings better, to say “no” when I feel it is against what I actually want: I practice to speak up at work, to not force myself to go to events I do not really feel like attending, to end friendships that suck my energy and that I only keep up due to a misguided sense of loyalty, etc. I also created a “Future Me” program for myself to continuously work on the things that hold me back from becoming the person that I want to be.
My goal for 2022 is “Breath, feel, empathize, be present”.
“Empathize” refers to the idea of being more understanding and compassionate, of communicating from a position of love instead of ego. I want to see my counterpart – especially my partner – as part of the team. A “win” is not achieved by overtrumping the other, but to reach consensus without betraying our own values.
One idea of Non-Violent Communication (NVC) is to “defuse stress by empathizing with others”. Once you understand the other’s standpoint and motivation and put yourself into their shoes, it’s getting difficult to be really angry, because most of the time their behaviour is quite understandable. Maybe not aligned with our own values and maybe even something they themselves would describe as “a regrettable mistake”, but as humans try and fail, we can still be understanding. Hence, we start to feel compassion for the other person and a deeper sense of connection, instead of feeling the need to punish, to chastise and to push our own agenda.
But of course, as a fearful person, self-doubt also comes to play here. I’m afraid that with more compassion and understanding I would allow people to cross my boundaries and to be ok with it. For many people this might seem illogical or at least easy to avoid, but for someone like me who struggles with having and maintaining boundaries, this is a real fear. I can see how in some fights I completely shut down my feelings and irrationally attack in order to “protect” myself, instead of trying to empathize. The reason is then simply this fear that by being “too understanding” with something that hurt me, I might allow others to just repeatedly step over me.
There is this fear-driven idea that I need to “teach them a lesson” to make a point. I also thought that I’m usually a calm person that’s resting in himself, but in fact I realized that I have a lot of unexpressed anger. It’s true that most of the time I do not allow myself to shout or swear, but I say very mean and hurtful things in a calm way. While I know that compassion and understanding should not affect our ability to have healthy boundaries, it is still an open topic for me where I need to learn a lot. I am reading more about how to find and keep boundaries. If someone crosses a hard boundary, how do I react? Do I end a connection with someone, even though I do not want it? Or is this then too much of a “contractual” thinking: “You breached the agreement, so I’m out”.
Probably I should feel more what is “right”, instead of trying to logically figure it out. This is another realization that I had: I struggle to make a decision and instead try to keep all options open, because I do not feel what’s right. I’m trying to rationally reach the “right” conclusion, which I will never be able to do if I don’t start to connect more with my feelings and take them into account. Being connected with my feelings will also help me to spot fearful behaviour better. For example, why do I feel like keeping a connection with someone who repeatedly hurts me by disrespecting my expressed boundaries. Is it maybe not really that I “want” it, but just fear? Of being alone? Of being incapable of achieving certain things myself? Or are my boundaries overly strict, again formed by fear? Or are there even much better alternatives that I did not even see yet?
I think over the last 12 months I grew in terms of being more honest with myself and my shortcomings, being more honest and open with other people and my needs, acknowledging mistakes and my difficulty to commit out of fear to do the wrong thing, to lose alternatives, and to get hurt. I would say that the last year was a year of – many times painful – realizations. In some aspects, I also changed and probably became better in saying “no”, to not lead people on and to be committed.
I started again – after a hiatus of many years – to meditate, to the play the drums, to journal. I got instruments that give me immense joy, I started to learn the piano to have another creative outlet for my feelings and emotions. I scrutinized many “friendships” and their real dynamic and terminated such that I identified as unhealthy. I began therapy and continue to analyse my childhood. I’m actively trying to validate other people’s feelings and to be more connected with my heart.
I learnt that awareness does not come automatically, but that I need to actively make time for self-reflection. I need to stop running away by filling my calendar to bursting just to distract myself from feelings of sadness and loneliness. With my reduction to part time (which interestingly was an independent decision but turned out to be an important enabler) I now have more time to work on myself, to read books about philosophy, self-growth and anything else far away from my usual technical and head-based topics. I talked a lot with friends about my mistakes and shortcomings and to my surprise they did not turn away, but my vulnerability and imperfections actually made them open up too. It really took our friendship to another level.
I tried couple therapy and worked on facing and overcoming my fears. To be able to accompany my partner during her diving trips (she’s a rescue diver), I tried out snorkelling and surfing, despite my fear to swim in the open sea. My fear of not being good enough or to disappoint made me use lies or at least to “leave out some details” to present myself more favourably. I am actively trying to not do this, to overcome my fear of not being everyone’s darling and to remind myself that I’m not honest to please someone, but simply because I want to be a decent human being and to live up to my own values. I started to acknowledge that I do not always need to “know”, but that I can simply discuss with and ask my partner. I can be vulnerable and still be loved and I do not always need to make up my mind first and then confront my partner with a decision just so that I can control the outcome.
On the other hand, I still have many question marks related to what I really want, what are my real fears and how to tackle them, what are my boundaries and how to keep them without being overly unforgiving. I also want to understand better dynamics of codependency and how to break them. This is something I’m only starting to tap into, but after reading a bit about it, I can very much relate:
Codependency often involves placing a lower priority on one’s own needs, while being excessively preoccupied with the needs of others. Codependency can occur in any type of relationship, including family, work, friendship, and also romantic, peer or community relationships.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_boundaries#Dysfunctional_families
While a healthy relationship depends on the emotional space provided by personal boundaries, codependent personalities have difficulties in setting such limits, so that defining and protecting boundaries efficiently may be for them a vital part of regaining mental health.
In a codependent relationship, the codependent’s sense of purpose is based on making extreme sacrifices to satisfy their partner’s needs. Codependent relationships signify a degree of unhealthy clinginess, where one person doesn’t have self-sufficiency or autonomy. One or both parties depend on the other for fulfilment. There is usually an unconscious reason for continuing to put another person’s life first — often the mistaken notion that self-worth comes from other people.
I can see that it is a deeply rooted conviction that I need to work hard to earn approval and affection. It feels selfish to express my own needs and desires and instead I focus on what the other person might want and then do this. Instead of feeling what is right and then autonomously executing, I look at the other person and try to guess what I need to do to meet their expectations, to please them and to get approval. It is an immature and dependent behaviour where due to an apparently low self-esteem I cannot give myself approval and affection.
Maybe these characteristics make me feel so comfortable in Asia where a collectivist mindset is praised and where individual desires are set aside in the favour of other people’s needs or expectations. Of course, I do not want to say that individuals who live in collectivist societies automatically have the same people-pleasing, self-neglecting personality as I do, but my weaknesses certainly work well in such environments.
But now that I have this realization, how do I solve it? How much compromise is good and required, at what point does it turn into self-abandonment and codependency? How much compassion and understanding is good and humane, at what point does it turn into an inability to establish and maintain boundaries? How much discussion in a relationship is healthy to foster growth, at what point does it indicate incompatibility?
A few days ago, I found my laundry basket half-emptied, with moist clothes still inside. Apparently in the middle of hanging them something distracted me and I completely forgot about it for days. There is so much on my mind that sometimes it feels very difficult to just be present and mindful. But I’m confident that all this is actually a sign that I’m on the right way. On a way of continuous growth.