I have written a lot about my personal journey to become a better person. Most often I talk about pivotal moments where I met the natural consequences of bad behavior or had major realizations that allowed me to grow. But the work that happens between realizations is where the real growth process happens.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, to have agency in your personal growth you must first learn to accept yourself for who you are, warts and all. If you aren’t willing to do that your mind will work hard to avoid seeing the problems in your behavior. And when you do manage to observe your own bad behavior you run the risk of second order anxiety. Sheryl Sandberg taught me that term and it changed my life. Feeling angry isn’t that bad. But when you start to feel angry at yourself for feeling angry, that starts an infinite spiral and your anger quotient goes to infinity. The same is true for any emotion you are hoping to manage. The only solution is to accept your emotions when you notice them, rather than judging them. That is half the battle.
Once you learn to accept your emotions without judgement you must achieve a similar awareness of your behavior. When we are engaged in conversation our mind often races ahead and makes assumptions about motives, imagined futures, and connections to the past. Those are invisible to the people we are engaged with and can cause us to respond in unexpected ways. We need to see ourselves how others see us. We must become consciously aware of our internal dialogue. Above all we have to try to remain present in the current moment.
This was hard for me. It isn’t just that I naturally go deep in conversation but that I genuinely enjoy getting carried away. It took me a long time to realize that those fanciful internal explorations were creating a disconnect between me and those around me. I found it useful to find a short phrase which represented all of my goals and keep that phrase top of mind. For me it was “I am the decisive element,” a snippet of a powerful quote from educator Haim G Ginott (often misattributed, including by me, to Goethe). I wrote this on post it notes I put in my car and on my laptop. I even named my conference room that. I would pause before every meeting and say that phrase to myself. These little neuro-linguistic programming tricks seem cheesy but they served to keep me primed to achieve my goals.
Write Your Way Out
Start a journal and take notes whenever you get a chance. How did your last interaction go? How are you feeling about the next one coming up? Do you notice any physiological changes such as tension in your neck or sweat in your palms? What was your posture like? Are you hungry or tired? Record your emotions without judging them. Over time you will start to notice correlations. For me I noticed that before I was engaged in conflict there was tension in my neck. I started to use more curse words. I made less eye contact. I even noticed patterns connected to where I was sitting in the room.
Find a Coach
It doesn’t matter if this person is your manager or a professional coach; you need to enlist someone whose success is tied to your personal growth. I personally found it useful to hire a professional coach because I felt more comfortable being brutally honest about myself and my shortcomings with them. Outline where you are and where you want to get to and ask them to meet with you every week to track your progress. Your coach doesn’t have to be better than you at anything, just as professional sports coaches aren’t generally better than the players they coach. The point is that they exist outside of your body and can thus give you an independent perspective on your actions that you can’t get any other way. They are also more likely to get honest feedback from the people you interact with.
Celebrate small wins
Learning to remain mindful and aware of my impact on others was a slow process that took years. In the beginning I wouldn’t even know I had been engaged in an unhealthy interaction until the person told me much later. So it was a win when I started to be aware on my own even if it was a few weeks after the fact.
Then I set to work on shortening the amount of time it took me to become aware until eventually I would be aware immediately after the interaction ended – another win. The biggest leap forward was being able to identify marginal behavior when it was happening so I could course correct in real time. And ultimately I learned to identify the conditions and emotions that lead to bad behavior before it happened at all. I would have been devastated at the pace of progress had I not allowed myself to celebrate the wins that made these negative interactions less long lived and ultimately less frequent along the way.
One of the biggest breakthroughs I made was going to a therapist. Like many others the stigma of mental health issues prevented me from even considering a therapist. It was not until a colleague recommended it to me in a very nonchalant manner that I decided to give it a shot. My therapist was able to take all the observations I made about myself and coax me into a deeper discussion about my mental state.
The single word that described my emotional state when these events happened: righteous. If I allow myself to feel aggrieved then I can set aside the humanity of those right in front of me. The righteous person cannot hold a discussion. They are unreachable, unreasonable, and uninterested in your humanity. I know because that used to be me all the time. Objectively, I’m among least aggrieved people in history so this realization was painful. Today I have attempted to replace righteousness with humility. I don’t always succeed — people who cut in line still bring out my more wrathful side – but nearly the moment I became aware of this connection I was a changed person.
Our Work is Never Over
Evolutionary biology has taught us that species don’t all co-evolve at a constant rate. When there is a major change in the environment or some population hits a tipping the flora and fauna undergo really rapid evolution. Between those periods the pace of change is much slower. This is called punctuated evolution and it has been my experience of personal growth as well. I often have to hold my intention to improve in my head for a long time before I finally remap my behavior at which point it becomes second nature. The process feels far too gradual and then shockingly sudden.
Early on when I would hit a plateau in personal development I would wrongly think I was “done.” That mentality meant when the next period of evolution came it was extra painful. Today I recognize the work is never done. That allows me to enjoy the periods of relative stability while also knowing I will be called to grow and change again. It might be going too far to say I’m looking forward to it, but I no longer fear it which is real progress.