I’ve been thinking a bit about what enables growth. Obviously a lot of people feel stuck and unable to change their situation. It’s confronting to admit that we have responsibility over our environment, whether physical or mental. It can be scary to leave our comfort zones. It is very hard to break out of old habits and thought patterns and accept uncertainty instead of blaming external factors.
Within self-help communities, it seems that one of the most popular attributions of success is to nurturing self-discipline. A few months ago I concluded it was one of those big fat lies that mainly people who had no real problems with discipline would tell people who did. The reason I settled on that conclusion was because I had tried the path of self-discipline for two months and even though it became a habit, it slipped away easily simply because I didn’t care enough about the benefits. I didn’t care enough about myself. Naturally, I jumped on the idea that the real answer must be motivation, which is what most of the self-discipline supporters slate as being unreliable. Without motivation you can’t maintain discipline, and therefore motivation is the foundation of self-improvement.
I hit a temporary rock bottom after that, which I welcomed helplessly in some sense as I knew I could not grow without shedding away parts of myself that were unsustainable. I knew I needed help and so I’ve been seeing a therapist for two months as well as a personal trainer for almost a month. I guess I knew it would come to this eventually but had been delaying it until a clearer time of need. The past while has been really good. I’ve been really productive in facing the challenges of daily life that I had all but given up with. I’m communicating and negotiating with myself again and kicking into action with far less thought or struggle about it just because it feels right even if it feels uncomfortable or unfamiliar or troublesome. I think I also realized that motivation isn’t the foundation of self-improvement because I didn’t really seem to have much of it at all despite my improved behavior and consciousness.
The third and by far least popular basis of self-actualization is willpower. Its practitioners state that willpower is like a muscle that you can strengthen through exercise, by consistently forcing yourself to do what you need to do regardless of the circumstances. Eventually you can become an unstoppable force of productivity. I really don’t like this theory even if it does work for a few people. Just because it’s not wrong doesn’t mean it’s right. But I do have an alternative theory of willpower to explain my sudden productivity and how people who are really struggling at the base level can empower themselves. Between the weekly therapy sessions, there really was one specific day when I basically flipped a switch. I realized the only real thing holding me back from trying to do something I wanted to was me. Life is hard, improvement is hard, but getting out of the house to start doing something, isn’t that achievable? The reason I thought it was hard was because I thought it was hard. I also thought everything was hard because I had long since stopped convincing myself to do anything or making promises to myself. I could never give certain answers to anyone because I didn’t have the agency to hold myself accountable because I was afraid of facing the disappointment of failing myself. Because things were hard to achieve (without real commitment), I saw myself as incompetent or incapable of creating action or change.
While this perspective appears to be an unfortunate cycle of feedback, there is no such cycle in reality. If you really want to do something, nothing short of exceptional circumstances or a tornado will prevent you from trying to do it. If you aren’t doing something, it’s because you don’t want it enough. When someone says they want to become more active but are not doing any exercise, then clearly they don’t want it enough to give it priority and take action. If you want something enough you will try to do it, through sunshine and rain, or during the season of your choosing. If you aren’t doing something you thought you wanted, either admit that you didn’t want it enough (in which case you’re not really missing out according to your own judgment) or realize that you have to want it more in order to achieve it.
The complete absence of action or effort cannot be attributed to lack of discipline. I would even go as far as to say that people who struggle with depression, loneliness, and insecurity—people who do nothing about it for years despite any encouragement and support they might have received—in some sense they do not really want to resolve their issues or live a better life. Don’t get me wrong: I know what it’s like to be in the abyss, to be a Google search away from finding a path to recovery and healing while being totally unaware of what terms to search for, that anything is even wrong to begin with, or the possibility that we can even be allowed to live a better life. I know that the shell is hard to crack and that there are numerous reasons why people wouldn’t want to. But we cannot just sympathize or relate to those people because that alone is futile. We have to tell them that they do have a choice and they are making the wrong choice and that there is another way.
Each of us is capable of choosing our own paths. Even when our choices seem limited, the weather is against us or culture is against us or our genes are against us, in fact we still have the freedom to decide how we behave in those circumstances. No one is truly forced to do anything; we simply choice one set of outcomes over other possible sets of outcomes that we value less. Accepting responsibility over our own lives is what grants us freedom.
Returning to the topic of escaping the abyss, the solution is just to make life easier. If everything in life were easier, we would want more from it because we know we could have it. The people who struggle with accepting themselves and improving their own lives, especially when all their material needs are met, often feel helpless for the same reasons I described. But a lot of the time it’s mainly our perception that shapes our experiences and struggles. Most people cannot magically build self-discipline or motivation or willpower, as I myself could not either. The only difference between me now and two months ago was the realization that I could do anything I really wanted to. As it turns out, what I can do may not sound like a lot: going to work, being mindful of cooking/eating, attending the therapy and fitness sessions I pay for, and putting a few hours into something of my own interest in the weekend. Actually this is a lot for me given that I haven’t really had to focus on more than one thing at a time (study) throughout my life and even balancing one thing alone has been a struggle. Since realizing that I can actually do things that I want to, this has meant that my desire has increased slightly and that I can achieve things even with the same limited amount of willpower because I know I’m committing to things that are possible even though I once thought them out of reach. In terms of debilitating issues of self such as loneliness, insecurity, and low self-worth, I do think often the missing link is that people don’t realize there is a way out, and the way out is not actually that long and difficult even though it is painful. You’d be surprised how quickly your mind can adapt and break from a toxic thought pattern that you’ve lived with your whole life. We should share our stories of change and simple empowerment, because those experiences help us dispel our false perceptions of helplessness, impossibility, and being undeserving of love. So I guess in effect I’m saying that neither discipline nor motivation nor willpower are really the first plan of attack. Rather, the way to build ourselves from rock bottom is with reality checking and the right attitude of responsibility and freedom and empowerment.
I don’t tend to believe in absolutes when it comes to different ways to life. And perhaps one reason I’m opposed to the absolute willpower theory is because I’ve come to appreciate how much of a difference the right environment can make. If willpower really was like a muscle, then it would make sense to do intense training and test ourselves near our limits, but I don’t think that’s true at all. It’s not a good idea to knowingly put ourselves in situations where we may succumb to distraction or temptation or resignation. If we can set ourselves up in an environment where success is easy, why shouldn’t we do that? Every choice has a downside, since an easy success requires less commitment and effort and builds less resilience or willpower, but surely success obtained at any level of exertion is better than the most common alternative which is the failure to try at all.
My next upcoming theory is that the best environment for growth is when you have enough space to grow as well as fail safely. My mind is starting to challenge the notion that growth as an adult even has to be a challenging process that requires a lot of effort. I don’t have much of a grasp on the overall idea though yet.