Discover more from An Ordinary Disaster
Acquiring the skills of growth
Change can seem entirely impossible—and, it can be normal, and easy.
Inspired by recent conversations about growth, an upcoming exchange with and one of her posts, I felt to explore the subject of change and growth a bit further. This initial piece is too long for a single post, so there will be a second part coming soon, which I’ll link to here once it’s published.
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“Change is hard,” is what I always remember hearing, along with “relationships are work”—but, you know what, both of those set phrases are at least as much total bullshit as they can be true in other ways. Change can seem entirely impossible—a roadblock, a fantasy—and, it can be normal, and easy: a constant process of evolution, development and ongoing, fluid flourishing. I’ve been in both places, and many in between. There’s no single answer as to what works for any of us, but I think it’s fair to say that growth is good—and that the skill of change is worth acquiring.
Afraid to change anything
For much of my life, I knew I wasn’t as happy, or let’s say as stable or as satisfied, not just as I wanted to be, but as I needed to be to survive and thrive. Before I would have ever called it “depressed”—and I still have my issues with that word—the best way to put it in simple terms was that I felt stuck. I’d always heard that I was supposed to be able to do ’anything,’ but in my interior, personal life, not all that much felt actually possible at all. I was good at doing things, but not very good at doing my self.
I gotta say, I know a lot more about this now than I did back then. I was in such a negative place, and like so many other parts of being human, it was a feedback loop that reinforced fed on itself. Feeling stuck is being stuck, and it’s hard to see out from the inside of stuck-ness. What’s more, I identified with being stuck. I rejected lots of things simply because they were what other people did—which is, of course, just about everything—and I took pleasure in the fact that “fuck that” was a big part of who I felt myself to be.
In my early years, I defined myself more by what I was not than whatever I was or did. There were exceptions, but those things that I did do that felt like part of me were mostly external activities, or even objects. I loved skateboarding that my skateboard felt like part of my body—but it wasn’t. I loved how owning and riding a motorcycle made me feel like someone—even if it was just someone who rode a motorcycle. I loved getting on airplanes because I felt like traveling gave me a story, but it turns out that those were mostly stories about leaving.
It’s not really for me to say whether there’s anything wrong with identifying with my work, where I’ve lived, my hobbies, or even the things I own, but it seems to me that these things are not as deeply held, felt or experienced, and therefore not as real in terms of their impact on my psyche, as direct actions, thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. For me, these external markers of identity eventually wore thin, leaving me searching again for something that felt meaningful in terms of defining what was me. I mean, even as much as I love the sport of kitesurfing, for example, and what it did for me in terms of enjoyment, adventure, and personal growth, it wasn’t until about the time I stopped doing it regularly that I got to the point where I no longer cringed at being called “a kitesurfer.” Perhaps we’re all starting to get the sense that being identified as “an” just about anything is intrinsically limiting.
Especially as compared to how I feel now, what I was was mostly negative. I didn’t want to be a jock in high school. I didn’t want to want to be a yuppie. I didn’t want to be a techie. I didn’t want to be a burner. I didn’t want to have anything to do with advertising. I didn’t want to be a kitesurfer. I didn’t want to be that conference guy. I didn’t really know what I did want to be, but I didn’t want to be any of those things—and, at the same time, I didn’t want to be like anyone else. I saw others making changes in their lives and building their own unique selves, and I wrote that off just like I had everything else, as yet another way that I didn’t want to be like other people. The reality is that it’s hard to be anything at all when you’re stuck in the doom loop of an internal depressive cycle.
Eventually, things did get bad enough that I reached a limit. It’s not so much that I found ground beneath my feet, it’s just that I reached a point that was low enough that I was shocked into some sort of realization—and into action. I was used to being exhausted and demoralized, but I could compensate for those feelings with the usual addictive remedies: alcohol, sex, travel, shopping, etc., and so it went, for a long long time. The turning point was when my mental state actually began to break down. I’ve written about this elsewhere—there were times when I really began to feel that I was losing my shit. I was suffering from moment to moment, unable to calm myself or focus on anything but the anxiety, discontent, dis-ease, and disregulation that I was feeling right then and there. I knew that I was too close to the edge, that my sanity beginning to unravel and spin into a devilish whirlwind of self-destructive confusion—and that put enough fear into me that it was finally enough to spur me to action. Perhaps that was my own version of what some addicts report as their ‘rock bottom.’
Not going it alone
Over time, I went from someone who had been afraid to change anything to feeling that I had to change everything—and, more recently, that while I no longer feel the need to change so much, that I’m open and ready to change, all the time. The first part of the process, for me, was realizing that, of course, even though I was the only one that could change me, I didn’t actually have to do it all alone.
The first thing that really made a major difference for me was what’s now sort of old-fashioned talk therapy… and I have done a lot of it, which also serves to show that while therapy was effective, it was also very, very slow, very expensive, and very frustrating, and I might well have been better served by more specific methods than what I ended up with. I was so desperate when I finally got around to actually finding a therapist that I didn’t have the energy to do much investigation into different styles and methodologies. I just found someone I felt like I could sit with—and, to be honest, that didn’t seem like they’d be too challenging—and went with that.
It’s difficult to admit that I kept seeing that same person for something like ten years (!) and that it took that long for me to feel like I was ready to move on. It’s also true that at no point during that time did my therapist inquire pointedly about other aspects of my wellness, most notably omitting any real attention to how much, how often, and with who (i.e. myself) I was drinking alcohol. That’s a whole topic of its own, but it also further illustrates what I’d sum up as: therapy can be really helpful—if you really need it, if you can afford it, if you have the time, and if you take the time up front to determine what kind of therapy might serve or interest you the most, and to find someone who actually offers that.
I spent a lot of years with a very intelligent, very caring female therapist who I eventually discovered was a Freudian psychoanalyst. In retrospect, I might have made more progress, more quickly, by a man with a Jungian background and a more action-oriented, challenging—and wholistic, somatic approach. Still, I credit talk therapy with much of my emergence from my inward-turned, silently self-defeatist shell, the beginning of finding my voice, and the ability to start telling the truth of my own experience, regardless of the at times slightly-shocking facts.
Community, embodied, outdoors
I’ve been doing things outdoors from the first time my parents laid me out in Tuolumne Meadows when I was just a babe grasping at pinecones, but I didn’t really discover the massively more interesting combination of sports and community until I started climbing indoors, and then kitesurfing. I’m sure it had a lot to do with how I approached things, but even when I was growing up with a skateboard permanently attached to my right hand—when it wasn’t under my feet—I never felt the sense of togetherness and being part of a group that I did when I started going to the climbing gym, and then, a couple of years later, joined the kiting scene at Crissy Field here in San Francisco. As soon as I pulled up at the beach there and introduced myself (six-pack in hand!), I felt like one of a group that I actually liked, while at the same time knowing that I was doing something pretty damn unique, in some very challenging conditions.
While kitesurfing in particular is well-known for being friendly, welcoming and supportive, I’m sure this is the case with a hundred other sports as well, so, credit goes at least in part, again, to my own state of mind (which had already begun to change), but really it was the combination of that loosening of my inner grip with the beauty and power of outdoor sports and the community of super-stoked fellow enthusiasts that accelerated my own further development from frequent-flying, semi-high-living and kinda fat, often drunk business guy to someone who started to feel like part of a crew of fellow expert athletes, good-natured peanut gallery hecklers and real-deal, salty-for-the-right-reasons watermen.
Real practice relating
We all know the old saying about not being willing to join any group that would have you as a member, but most of us don’t get invited to the hall of fame straight away—or even to the yacht club—and so getting to the point where I felt like joining a group whose purpose was essentially change itself—or really, growth, was something of a milestone. What I discovered when I did was that beyond being part of a community of like-minded people and just seeing what happens along the way, some groups are actually organized around using the context of the group to actively practice and develop communication skills. This is a big part of what mens groups and women’s circles do, what groups like EO and YPO do in what they call forum, and also a big part of what twelve-step groups do—that is, give you a place not just to be in a group, but a group whose purpose is specifically to practice getting better at being in groups.
When I think about what led up to what became a second real turning point for me—past the bottom and towards a door opening—another part of this group experience stands out. Being in a close group where the main practice is sharing from personal experience in full honesty gave me a lot more practice in telling the truth, not just behind closed doors to a single, mostly-silent therapist, but amongst a group of real peers. This context of speaking openly with people that I might run into out in the light of day was a powerful next step in getting comfortable with speaking the truth of my own experience—something that eventually emerged as core to my identity and purpose.
While intentional groups like mens circles and EO do seem like an artifact of modern, western society, I think that’s because relating is so core to our human experience and because our culture has gotten so bad at offering opportunities to learn how to relate to one another. Between therapy and groups, I basically went back to school to learn how to relate to people, to make up for the lack of learning and direction that I had with those skills earlier in life. I’m still by no means an expert at either, but I’m way better at it than I was, and I’d still be isolated and depressed without these key experiences.
I’ve also worked with a quite a number of coaches in the context of various sports, leadership, and also for personal development—another example of a way in which I used to refuse just about any sort of guidance, and have come to appreciate the value of entirely the opposite approach. While it’s become far too common to call oneself a coach these days, and there are a lot of hopeful idiots wishing to be helpful coaches, there are also a ton of people with deep experience and wisdom to share that have chosen to work within that paradigm. I know quite a few psychologists and therapists with decades of clinical experience who are able to integrate more of their own experience into their practice—and also to make a better living—calling themselves “coach” as opposed to “therapist.” The world of coaching is broad and deep; I’ve done deep Jungian work, trained with world-class paraglider pilots, and worked with master coaches to study the practice of coaching itself. My advice on that score, as with just about anything else, is to trust your intuition about people and the integrity of their motives, and to take what resonates with you from each teacher to gradually form your own assemblage of life skills, philosophy, and practices.
In the next part of the exploration of growth, I’ll go further into what happened once I was able to get my feet under me, and some of the ways that I worked to change myself more and more deeply, including how I became a runner in my forties, unearthed my intuition, stopped a lifetime habit of nail biting, began to move intentionally towards fear, changed my relationships with alcohol, caffeine and several other addictive behaviors—and even learned to love doing things for the last time. In the end, I changed just about… everything.
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Questions for you
How does change feel to you—impossible? easy? somewhere in between?
How has your relationship with change and growth changed over time?
What major changes have you made in the way that you live, and why?
What’s your favorite song about “change”?
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