We all have an innate motivation toward growth.
This drive toward growth is easily observable in an infant’s will to master walking, basic motor skills, and language.
But what do we observe in most adults? In some adults, this drive for growth is still observable: we find curious individuals who remain committed to improvement of their brains and bodies, developing skills for both work and play. We find self-actualizing people in virtually every field of interest, including business professionals, artists, musicians, philosophers, painters, doctors, psychologists, athletes, and martial artists.
Many adults aren’t committed to continuous growth and development, but many of us are. We simply become consumed by life’s countless demands.
Sometimes, we give ourselves excuses to forego our developmental path. We say things like I don’t have time or I’m too tired or I’m just not sure what I want. But is there something else driving us away from growth, blocking our personal evolution?
Two Powerful Forces: Growth and Safety
There are two powerful sets of forces within the human condition: a drive for growth and its opposing force, a drive for safety.
Growth propels us forward toward wholeness of Self to discover our own uniqueness (what Carl Jung called the process of individuation).
An opposing force leads us to defend our current self, clinging to safety out of fear of the unknown. The force of safety keeps us where we are now, clinging to the past and afraid to take chances in order to improve our current conditions (internally and externally).
This safety seeking side is afraid of independence, freedom, and separateness—the very things our growth side is demanding.
If nothing else, you might find it helpful to consciously observe both of these opposing forces within yourself, especially when the call for higher growth is felt within you.
The Delight of Growth and the Anxiety of Safety
What we focus on tends to guide the direction of our lives. If we focus on the dangers of growth, our need for safety wins the day. But if we minimize the dangers of our emerging uniqueness and fuller expression of Self while enhancing our attractions toward growth, a world of new possibilities presents itself.
Maslow points out that we are confronted with an ongoing series of choices throughout life between safety and growth, dependence and independence, regression and progression, immaturity and maturity.
We grow when the delights of growth (and anxieties of safety) are greater than the anxieties of growth (and the delights of safety).
There is a valid reason to fear growth. In addition to the rewards and gratifications, growth also brings pain. Each step forward brings us into the unfamiliar, into possible danger. Each step forward requires us to give up something familiar and satisfying. Growth can imply a separation, a death and rebirth as well as the grief and mourning that comes with loss of the old.
We grow toward greater complexity. This means when we grow, we might have to give up something easier and simpler. The path of growth often means taking on more demands and responsibility; it can mean a more difficult life.
Is there any wonder anyone would avoid such a path?
Safety Is Important Too
Does this mean we must throw aside our concern for safety in the service of our development? Absolutely not. Safety is a more basic human need than growth. In the absence of a feeling of safety, the will to grow is not generally present.
Consider, for example, a young child clinging to her mother’s leg while she attempts to walk for the first time. If the mother abruptly exits the room to answer the phone, the child would likely terminate her herculean effort.
Sometimes, choosing safety is wise and appropriate when it helps us to avoid more pain than we can bear in that moment. But ultimately, we know that if we consistently choose safety over growth, in the long run, we find ourselves in a state of disappointment.
If we cling to safety for too long, we wake up one day and look back on a life that never was—an unconscious life filled with regrets and missed opportunities. Moving in the direction of safety, we deny our unique destinies.
Checkpoints on the Road to Growth (and Safety)
How do you know when you’re on the road to growth?
There are numerous subjective indicators: you’re more likely to experience feelings of happiness or euphoria, of a zest in living, serenity, joy, and calmness. You feel confidence in your ability to handle the inevitable problems along the way and the stresses and anxieties that accompany them.
When the force of safety dominates us, we show signs of self-betrayal and regression and we become fixed and rigid out of fear. Here, we are consumed by a different set of emotions: anxiety, boredom, despair, inability to enjoy, aimlessness, emptiness, a lack of identity, intrinsic guilt, and intrinsic shame.
Crafting Your Plan for Self Mastery
What then can we do to promote our continual growth and development?
Start by becoming acquainted with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs. All of our lower needs—biological, safety, love/belonging, and self esteem—must be gratified before growth can become a central focus. If you’re mainly wrestling with what other people think of you, for example, it’s difficult to channel energy into self-growth.
Next, become conscious of the areas you would like to grow in. If you don’t know where to start, try the Wheel of Life exercise. Categories may include: physical health and wellbeing, mental health, emotional mastery, professional development, conscious relationships, compassion (open heart), contemplative development, skill building, artistic self-expression, and cognitive growth.
Then, envision a compelling future for yourself. (Even if your life is great right now, challenge yourself to see a more integrated, more developed Self.) Imagine what your life could be like if you commit to growth in specific areas. Make it compelling. Give the vision color, movement, and sound; bring it to life in your mind.
Consider the following questions:
- What will this new future self mean to you?
- How will realizing it bring you greater purpose and richness to your being?
- How might growing in this area enrich other parts of your life?
Right down your answers in a journal. Make it real for you. Get inspired to pursue growth for growth’s sake.
Fear and the need for safety won’t go away, nor should they. The drive for safety helps support our survival. But courage and the need for growth are also part of what it means to be human. In courageously walking the path of growth, we can realize our true potential and live a uniquely meaningful life.