Turning Personal Growth on Its Head..

From Iceberg to Mountain Range

When Brene Brown launched her newest book, Atlas of the Heart, she offered this beautiful, profound insight:

For me, this quote captures exactly what my personal growth and self discovery journey feels like. I had no idea where I was going when I started. Seven years ago, I was leaning pretty hard on the quote “all who wander are not lost” which makes me laugh out loud…because I was indeed “lost”. I used a lot of maps to find my way – and I still do. Some of those maps are weathered and worn, some are pristine and folded neatly into a well scored rectangle, some are digital and some have ink so fresh it washes over the paper like a watercolor.

Initially I wanted the “how to” maps. I scoured the self help sections of libraries, bookstores and the internet. Over time I came to realize the most transformational way to go about self discovery and personal growth is to approach it more like looking for clues on a hidden treasure map and being open to discovery.

If I were to break out a gigantic three-feet long piece of butcher block paper, I could whimsically draw with chunky crayons what that treasure map looked and felt like for me. There would be volcanos, broken bridges, tornados and swampland…and a few fairies, leprechauns, trampolines and bungee cords, rays of warm yellow sunshine and a deep reflecting pool. I’d add in some glittery neon-bright fireworks to spotlight my “aha” moments.

It is only with the clarity of my “hindsight googles” that I can now truly appreciate all the trash and treasures I discovered on my ongoing personal growth adventure. My experiences are much like the one my grandkids have with one of those “shine a light” flashlight books where the hidden pictures are revealed when a focused beam of illumination hits them.

It occurs to me that so often when we talk about personal growth and self-discovery, the emphasis is on how hard it is. The images of peeling off the layers of our emotional onion, dumpster diving into the baggage we’ve accumulated and breaking old habits seem more like punishment than an appealing invitation to become a better version of ourselves.

Rarely do we hear the upside of embarking on the personal growth journey, at least not in tangible, realistic ways. We hear all those fluffy, gauzy accolades about finding our “authentic” self but it all seems as fleeting and surreal as dressing up in a costume and pretending to be Cinderella or Spiderman. Looks good…but what does it really “feel” like?

The greatest gift of personal growth work is how freeing and empowering it feels — once you get to one of the pinnacles in the process. That becomes the motivation to reach the next pinnacle. Each one creates more space for what we really want in our lives. We often are completely unaware of just how much we get in our way, until we start looking at our patterns and blind spots. As we lighten the load, the journey becomes a lot more engaging in a very positive way.

One of the most insightful moments in any self-discovery journey is when we realize just how far we’ve come. This is a big boost to our motivation to keep going — when we look back and recognize that we have actually made a lot of forward progress; that we are showing up in improved ways in old familiar circumstances.

Recently I was re-taking a self-assessment test with a friend of mine and expressed to her that I would have answered the questions much differently a few years ago than I do today. The same was true for my friend and she expressed her gratitude that over the past several years, I have often reminded her of all her forward progress. Both of us were well aware that we now move through our daily lives with greater ease, having discarded old patterns for better skills.

From my personal perspective, personal growth doesn’t have to be the “hard work” of a paleontologist digging through stratifications and fossilizations we’ve amassed for decades. We can turn this concept on its head and treat it as the fascinating adventure it truly is. What if we had a whole new, enlightened approach to how we enter and maintain personal growth and self-discovery?

Picture this: — we often use the image of an iceberg to help us understand all the baggage, beliefs, narratives and personal history we are dragging under the surface.

If we flip this image, we now have an impactful — and inviting — new way to look at personal growth, self-discovery and self-improvement.

This is a powerful transformational image….

We will get stronger physically, mentally and emotionally as we scale and explore; we will need a backpack full of supplies, resources, tools (and maps), it’s a great idea to have a buddy system for a host of awesome reasons (safety, shared experiences, a boost or tether, meaning and memory making). We will get fresh air, fresh perspectives and see the bigger picture.

We can re-write the guidebook for living our best lives. What if personal growth became a “call to adventure”. What if we “preloaded” all the resources and practices we really need to meet life in a skillful way?

The truth is that we are now spending an incredible amount of our time and energy undoing all the damage caused by old paradigms, old parenting models, old stereotypes, outdated methodologies and therapies – not to mention a complete lack of understanding about the value of emotions, empathy, and meaningful connection with others.

We have a growing mental health crisis, too many distractions for our attention, and a deficit of awareness (our own as well as “other” awareness). We keep throwing ideas and challenges at the problems. The big PIVOT is to look at the root causes.

All throughout my exploration of a wide variety of resources and modalities for my own personal growth, there was one common thread.

Regardless of the resource, the compass always pointed back to childhood: childhood narratives about who we are, behavioral patterns and protective armor we developed in childhood, our childhood attachment styles, our beliefs and how we make meaning from our emotions and experiences. There is a lot to unpack from our childhood BEFORE we can even begin a successful and meaningful adult life journey.

Once I discovered this overarching theme, it dawned on me that we can do better. Our children are sponges for learning — and we can equip them for life in transformational ways by “resourcing” them in powerful new, healthier ways.

Neuroscience, psychology, neurobiology and epigenetics are all converging in astonishing ways to shine a light on so much of what we did not understand, or got wrong, and can do better.

In upcoming blog posts, I will be unpacking what we are learning about the old childhood framework that did not provide healthy scaffolding for life. Together we can learn about the importance of secure attachment styles, how a child’s brain develops and how adult brains can be rewired, teaching emotional literacy and healthy coping skills, how we can keep our brains “updated and upgraded” thanks to neuroplasticity, and the importance of integrating our nervous system with our executive functions.

In just one generation, we can break cycles of dysfunction, addiction, insecurity and inauthenticity. At this very moment in time, we have more substantive research, more accurate knowledge, and unbelievable access to meaningful resources than ever before. Significant changes in what were ground-breaking, Nobel prize-winning discoveries 15 or 30 years ago are happening at a very rapid pace. Children are learning faster and differently than they did when we were kids. Even us adults are learning faster and differently in some arenas than we ever have before.

When I began my personal growth journey in my early 60’s, I did not realize that it would lead me to children – and I am ecstatic that it did. So many of us enter parenthood with hopes and dreams of giving our kids a good life, possibly a better one that we had. With all the new research, enriched skill sets and tools we now have, we can equip our children for life as smartly as we equip them for their favorite hobbies and sports; have you noticed that we now put helmets on those little developing brains for good reason?

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

BEING WELL PODCAST: Listen to this relatable AND mind-expanding conversation with Dr. Rick Hanson and his son, Forrest, on the Keys to a Great Relationship. Rick has a brand new book out as well that offers fresh perspectives on his many decades of counseling and his own personal growth work.

https://www.rickhanson.net/being-well-podcast-the-keys-to-a-great-relationship/

Learn 50 simple practices for solving conflict, building connection and fostering love.. Read Dr. Rick Hanson’s newest book – Making Great Relationships.

The Missing Piece of the Personal Growth Puzzle

There are more than a few entry points for personal growth and just as many reasons why we get motivated to make some changes. Often the motivation comes from a painful experience or major adversity. But what if we could take an entirely different approach to personal growth? What if we reframed it as a part of the natural maturing process as we move through life?

Many of us begin our personal growth journey exploring the self-help section of the bookstore or library, discovering a podcast, participating in a support group, or seeking professional counseling. There is a tendency to keep our efforts under wraps even when we learn that many people struggle with the same issues we do.

In many instances, our personal growth work is cobbled together in a haphazard way. We migrate to teachings or tools that resonate with us. We are drawn to those whose stories are relatable and we strive to overcome our adversities just as they did. Our progress is often slow and some days it is hard to tell if we are actually making headway.

We hear that personal growth work is hard. It is.

We hear that personal growth work is worth it. It is.

Perhaps what has been missing in the personal growth field is a piece of the puzzle that would shift both the process and our motivation in a transformational way. The fundamental missing piece is neuroscience — discovering how our brains are working from childhood into adulthood.

Understanding the role our brains are playing as we navigate adulthood can become the catalyst for proactive personal growth work, enriching our wellbeing and improving the quality of our relationships. It would no longer be necessary to hide the fact that we need a little help to support our natural evolution. In fact, if we reframed personal growth as a foundational building block like exercise and nutrition, we would have a brand-new approachable and desirable entry point for investing in ourselves.

Think about this: Our brain is one of the most phenomenal devices we possess. Yet we know very little about all its capabilities and even less about how to care for and support its optimization. We take it for granted – yet it faithfully serves us through every single experience we have every day for our entire lifetime.

What if we changed our perspective about caring for and utilizing our brain’s full potential? What if we recognized the value of “upgrading” our internal operating systems as we go through life, building on what we have learned from our past experiences and proactively engaging in creating new neural pathways to meet our ever-changing goals.

Let’s see how that might be an optimum pathway for personal growth work by taking a closer look at a subject often discussed when we embark on self-help: how our childhood behavioral patterns and attachment styles often do not serve us well in adulthood.

In a February 2022 episode of the Huberman Lab Podcast, neurobiologist Andrew Huberman explained in great detail how our childhood attachment styles influence our adult attachment styles.

“How we attached, or did not attach, to our primary caregivers in our childhood has much to do with how we attach or fail to attach to romantic partners as adults because the same neural circuits (the neurons and their connections in the brain and body) that underlie attachment between infant and caregiver, between toddler and parent or other caregiver entering adolescence and in our teenager years are repurposed for adult romantic attachments. I know that might be a little eery to think about but indeed that is true.” Andrew Huberman, The Huberman Lab Podcast (2/14/2022)

Dr. Huberman’s insights here are astounding. Our brains “repurpose” attachment styles we developed as kids to help us create our attachment styles with our life partners. It doesn’t take a big stretch of one’s imagination to see how our repurposed adult attachment styles would also impact our friendships, relationships with co-workers and parenting.

The fortunate thing is that regardless of our childhood attachment styles and experiences, the neural circuits for desire, love and attachment are quite plastic — they are amenable to change in response to both what we think and what we feel, as well as what we do. However, all three aspects being discussed today desire, love and attachment — are also strongly biologically driven. (hormones, neurochemicals like dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin) and neural circuits (brain areas and areas of the body that interact with the brain). Andrew Huberman, The Huberman Lab Podcast (2/14/2022)

Dr. Huberman then delivers the “good news” about this phenomenon of “repurposing”. The neuroplasticity of our incredible brains opens up the vast potential to support this “repurposing” in a healthy, proactive, beneficial way. We can engage in this process in a very meaningful – and game-changing way.

We would be able to circumvent some of those awkward, cumbersome forays into adult relationships because we would have greater awareness and access to better tools. Regardless of the stability or chaotic nature of our childhoods, we need to be involved in this repurposing process. It is where we tap into our true nature and free ourselves from old narratives and limiting beliefs.

Imagine entering adulthood without constrictive adaptive childhood behavioral patterns. We all have them, regardless of our childhood experiences (even really good childhoods). Adaptive childhood behavioral patterns are how we made sense of our world as kids. Baked into those behavioral patterns are the armor we used to feel safe, the behaviors we relied on to get attention and feel loved, valued. These childhood behavioral patterns are inextricably linked to our childhood attachment styles.

I’ve written several posts on parenting and on the benefits of breaking generational chains of dysfunctional family patterns. Even when we are well intentioned about wanting to “do better” as parents for our own children, it is only natural that unconscious, residual adaptive patterns will seep into our own parenting. Our default childhood brain and body settings will make our best efforts more challenging than need be.

Dr. Dan Siegel, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, is a renowned resource for parents who desire to create and maintain secure attachments with their children. He emphasizes how important it is for parents to identify their own childhood attachment style first and foremost. He encourages parents to do their own healing and personal growth work as a fundamental part of parenting their own children with healthy, secure attachment styles.

Neuroscience has been exploding with game-changing breakthroughs for mental health, for personal growth, for the brain challenges that come with aging such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. Brain imaging is helping all of us see more clearly all the changes that our brains are subjected to — and are capable of. We have both an invested interest and a dynamic opportunity to actively participate in helping our brains stay healthy, stay upgraded and function with greater ease.

Maybe personal growth will become the new brain health. The more we know, the more we can participate in our healthy growth and evolution.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

Dr. Dan Siegel YouTube Discussion:

The 4 S’s of Attachment-Based Parenting

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zV2nLEeh0c&t=2780s

The Science of Love, Desire and Attachment
February 14, 2022
https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/huberman-lab/id1545953110