“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl
It can be frustrating when we find ourselves stuck in painful habits – where we cognitively know better, and yet find it impossible to actually do better. How do we change? How do we get unstuck?
In 2012, I wrote an essay on growth for a yoga studio – a time when I was grieving many losses, recovering from a painful move, and feeling stuck in painful habits with sugar, sleep, and in my relationships.
I was exploring – or living – this question of how we can nourish and facilitate growth in the midst of the tender messiness of human life.
Here’s what I learned.
Asking ourselves to grow
The desire for growth, in essence, is a kind of prayer: “Breathe new life in me.”
That’s because all change originates first in the heart, in our willingness to be changed.
Something happens when we open ourselves up to this space of growth – something beyond our own ideas of what and how we’ll change. Something much, much bigger than our own selves.
It’s like we unlock a door that had once been locked to the Mystery itself:
Breathe new life in me so that my heart – and my habits – may be transformed .
That’s the kicker. By its very nature, every time we open ourselves to growth, we’re saying: May I leave differently than how I arrived. May I have the courage to let go. May I be changed.
It’s not easy. To grow the heart is to feel the accompanying growing pains. It entails dropping our armor, the tight constrictions.
To grow out of old habits means to feel the loss of something that had, at one time, served us. Even if it’s something that no longer serves us, and even if it’s something that causes us pain, there’s still a loss in letting go, an empty ache, and a void to traverse. This can hurt.
Shedding what is not ours
I think of growth as a shedding, a releasing of outdated mindsets that are not true – for many of us, mindsets that we’ve unconsciously carried since we were very young. These old ways of being have reinforced themselves in our daily habits, and as Annie Dillard once wrote, “how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.”
I certainly don’t want to spend my life contracted in fear, judgment and control. And yet despite how painful it feels to be caught in these forces, it’s a source of humility and amusement how much my mind likes to go there: to judge, contract, control and fear . How much it slides downstream and does what it has always done.
Jung said we all walk around in “shoes that are too small for us.” So voluntarily putting ourselves in the hot seat of transformation means being willing to grow up; to step into bigger shoes; to change our habits, and therefore, to change our very definitions of ourselves.
Growing into bigger shoes
The too small shoes that I’ve worn throughout my life have said this: You can’t handle this. You’re not capable. You’re too sensitive. You’re too fragile. You’re too much.
(Just who do you think you are?) You’re not enough.
And worse: you’re unworthy.
I suspect that the ‘too small shoes’ we wear are the shoes of trauma – both the big traumas and the little traumas that accrue in the act of living.
When we wear those small shoes – when we believe that we’re too much and that we’re not enough and that we’re broken and flawed – we react as a young being. We freeze, fight, flee, feed.
I flee: I soothe with food. I overconsume.
I freeze: I collapse. I become paralyzed.
I fight: I attack myself with blame, criticism and judgment.
When you’re wearing your too small shoes, how do you react?
What nourishes growth
Once we’re aware of our too small shoes, the next step is to grow into bigger shoes. This brings us to the crux of transformation: what feeds our growth?
Last summer, I wondered if my habit of telling myself, “You can’t handle this” when life got painful (and then eating or avoiding or attacking myself) was just that: habits. And if they were habits, could I outgrow them?
I decided to find out.
A pivotal moment came when I was walking with a friend. As we talked about our struggles, we spoke about the practices that nourish us.
And I got it: my practices are what feed my growth. They’re no different than the water and air and roots that feed a tree. If I’m not nourishing myself, it’s really, really hard to feel fed, to grow, to wear those bigger shoes.
Perhaps habit change is the fruit – the outcome – of growth, and not its focus. It’s not something we can force, in the same way we can’t force a tree to grow. We can only support its unfolding. And to grow, you, me, plants, animals – anything that lives and breathes – we need two things: nourishment, and roots.
How I nourished myself
So here’s how I did it: I recommitted to a daily meditation and yoga practice, two practices that help me feel held by my own heart, as well as connect me to something greater than myself.
I also started a ritual of lighting three candles and handing over my three greatest worries to the Divine, something that feeds my sense of belonging and connection.
I also reached out for help. When the pain was too much to bear on my own, I let someone support me. I let people be with me when I was hurting and when I would typically eat, numb or lash out.
I found a great therapist and got a listening partner for emotional support.
This is and was crucial. I think a lot of us tend to try and grow on our own, because it’s so vulnerable to admit our powerlessness in the face of compulsion.
We think that we just need to learn how to self soothe or meditate more, or to try harder.
But it’s a bit more nuanced than that. Yes, we want to grow – and sometimes this means holding our hearts when they’re hurting.
And, because we’re tender human beings, we will bump up against pain that feels too much to bear. We need the village, the connection of others, alongside our own caring.
Keep showing up
I committed even when the day went all sideways – maybe that day my meditation was only a 20 second pause, and my yoga consisted of 2 poses at home. Maybe the candles got lit at the end of the day before bed.
Maybe I forgot everything I was learning and ended up doing the very things I was trying to change. This was my opportunity to practice mercy and patience when I couldn’t meet my own expectations; to soften my heart and to keep showing up.
And I showed up. And I showed up.
And in my showing up, I watered this seed, this kernel of hope – can I really change? – and it grew. I admit to feeling a bit astonished – probably no different than the wonder my 5 year old felt when the seeds he’d planted in the garden sprouted into full grown carrots several months later.
Slowly I grew new shoes. My new refrain is, “You can handle this” – what I whisper in my own ear when I’m holding warrior two for what seems like forever and my thighs are aching, or when I want to inhale a plate of food rather than feel what is coming up for me, or when my children are shouting and pushing all my buttons and I want to shout back.
When I feel alone and separate, like my heart’s been hollowed out with a spoon, the voice that rises up is, “I am with you always. You are never alone.” When panic pushes my anxiety buttons, I whisper Rick Hanson’s phrase, “I’m alright right now.”
I breathe and I breathe and I come home. This makes me feel hopeful for me, for you, for all of us – for all growth.
Showing up as an act of faith
The hardest part of this journey for me was a bit of paradox: that while I had a clear intention of what I wanted to change I also had to let go of my attachment to how that change occurred – or even what it looked like.
As someone who’s had a long, long love affair with control – and a fixation on results – softening my desire for control was (is?) a wrestling match. My mind would say, “I want it to look like this,” and my heart would reply with, “Sh, sh, be gentle with yourself.”
My journey through habit change, growth and transformation has taught me this: that my job is to show up. To come willing to grow and change. To come with a soft heart and an open mind. That’s my part.
And the part that I let go – the transformation process itself – is what I hand over to the Mystery, to life and nature and Love.
Can I just show up with a willing heart – not because it will guarantee a certain result (like a body, mind and life that does and looks exactly like I want!) but because it’s a kind, kind thing to do for myself?
Can I show up just because – even on the days when it feels like nothing’s working; especially on the days when it feels like nothing’s working? Can I just show up, period?
I come to growth as an act of faith. If I keep showing up – doing my part – then life will meet me there. Rilke once wrote that “in the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us.” I believe the hands that work on us are kind.
That is my faith. And that is what feeds my commitment to growth.
May I rest in those hands. May we all.