A Complete Self-Mastery Guide to Breaking Through Resistance to Realize Your True Potential

by Scott Jeffrey

OVERVIEW: This guide provides a psychological foundation, tips, and resources for walking the path toward self mastery.

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Self mastery is often defined as self-control, the ability to exert a strong will against our impulses to steer our future to one of our choosing. But this is only one aspect of the term.

Self mastery requires having a vision for your future self. And harnessing the will to realize that vision.

We learn to master ourselves by getting out of our own way. We strip away what we are not to realize who and what we really are, actualizing our potential in the process.

This guide is designed to assist you on your path. It will point out the pitfalls and offer suggestions to support your efforts in personal development.

What is Self Mastery?

Self mastery is a path, an orientation one chooses to hold toward oneself and the world.

It’s a commitment to never-ending improvement; it’s a process of becoming.

It’s based on the realization that there are parts of us that will always try to hold us back.

Our biggest naysayers aren’t “out there.” They are within us.

Someone committed to this path of self-mastery is willing to find ways to transcend their fear and break through their resistance.

Personal mastery implies that one possesses the self-awareness necessary to identify the source of one’s resistance and the creativity to find ways beyond it.

A common belief about self mastery is that it’s about controlling your basic impulses. This, I believe, leads many people astray.

Self mastery isn’t about controlling yourself or dominating those fearful, aggressive, and nasty parts within us.

It’s about getting to know these parts, but then transcending them.

Resolving these inner tensions, you can find wholeness and allow the natural process of development to take hold.

In Tales of Power, Carlos Castenanda’s teacher Don Juan explains self mastery through the path of the warrior:

A warrior must cultivate the feeling that he has everything needed for the extravagant journey that is his life. What counts for a warrior is being alive. Life in itself is sufficient, self-explanatory and complete. Therefore, one may say without being presumptuous that the
experience of experiences is being alive.

Self Mastery is Our Destiny

As Maslow told his group of doctoral students:

You must want to be a first-class psychologist, meaning the best, the very best you are capable of becoming. If you deliberately plan to be less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you’ll be deeply unhappy for the rest of your life. You will be evading your own capacities, your own possibilities.

Although many of us refuse the call to adventure, developing our innate capacities is our destiny.

Fighting this destiny brings depression and anxiety. Embracing this destiny leads to freedom and fulfillment.

We all have an intrinsic 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, we find curious individuals who remain committed to developing their brains and bodies, forging new 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.
  • I’m too tired.
  • 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

In Toward a Psychology of Being, Abraham Maslow explains 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 uniqueness (what Carl Jung called the individuation process).

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.

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 the 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.

In Toward a Psychology of Being, he writes:

We grow forward when the delights of growth and anxieties of safety are greater than the anxieties of growth and the delights of safety.

The Dangers of Growth

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 mean 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?

When Safety Trumps Growth

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.

Indications Along 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.

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 self-mastery, we can realize our true potential and live a uniquely meaningful life.

How Homeostasis Influences Our Growth and Development

We know that most people have a fear of failure. Those who do have a fixed mindset.

In a fixed mindset, failure can evoke emotions of shame, embarrassment, humiliation, frustration, worthlessness, and defeat. It damages an already fragile self-esteem.

But did you know that many of us fear success, too?

The reasons for this one isn’t as obvious. Success can bring a sense of achievement, internal and external rewards, and greater confidence.

It can also bring us a better quality of life and new opportunities.

So why fear success? And why do we often subconsciously self-sabotage our development?

In Mastery, aikido master George Leonard offers a powerful reason: homeostasis.

What is Homeostasis?

We fear success for the same fundamental reason we fear failure.

Movement in either direction—up or down—means moving out of the known and into the unknown.

Our internal systems are designed to maintain homeostasis. We are biologically wired to stay in balance, to stay within what is known and comfortable.

Our bodies, brains, and behavior have built-in mechanisms to stay within a narrow range and return to equilibrium when they move outside these narrow limits.

Homeostasis refers to the body’s automatic efforts to maintain a constant, “normal” state.

In our blood stream alone, homeostasis regulates the content of water, salt, sugar, fat, protein, calcium, and oxygen.

What would happen if your blood-sugar level dropped by 10 percent? Big trouble!

All self-regulating systems have ways of maintaining homeostasis and keeping us in familiar and safe territory.

Keeping human beings in a state of homeostasis takes billions of interconnecting electrochemical signals coursing through our brains, nerve fibers, and bloodstream.

Homeostasis: An Illustration

To better understand homeostasis, consider your home’s heating system. You set the temperature at, for example, 65 degrees.

When the temperature drops below 65, a signal is sent through the system to kick the heat on until the environment returns to the set temperature.

Homeostasis is a vital function in all self-regulating systems.

Keeping human beings in a state of homeostasis takes billions of interconnecting electrochemical signals coursing through our brains, nerve fibers, and bloodstream.

The Biology of Homeostasis

The challenge is that homeostasis doesn’t distinguish between “change for the better” and “change for the worse.”

Homeostasis resists all change. In a way, we each have a pre-installed biological mechanism designed to hinder our growth.

For example, let’s say a 40-year-old man named Peter has lived a sedentary lifestyle without any exercise, stretching, or movement for many years.

He knows this isn’t good for his long-term health, and he’s beginning to feel its effects.

Peter decides to go for a light jog in his neighborhood.

He’s proud of himself for taking action, but around the third block, something happens: Peter starts feeling sick and a little dizzy, with a slight sense of panic.

He feels like he’s going to die. Peter stops running and slowly walks home.

“I tried,” he tells himself. “Perhaps I’ll join the gym one day.”

The sensations Peter experienced were homeostatic alarm signals detecting measurable changes in respiration, heart rate, and metabolism. His internal systems were telling him to stop what he is doing immediately.

Remember, homeostasis is designed to maintain your current state. After years of sedentary living, a light jog throws Peter’s internal systems into high alert.

Because Peter didn’t know about homeostasis, he interpreted those signals as a threat.

And unfortunately, he opted out of installing good routines and making beneficial life changes.

If Peter understood the principles of homeostasis, he could have persisted through the discomfort, slowly shifting his “normal state” to a stronger, healthier set point.

Homeostasis in Social Environments

Homeostasis isn’t just biological; it operates in social and cultural spheres as well.

Let’s say Peter’s peer group tends to be sedentary. They all avoid physical exercise at all cost.

When he decides to engage in physical activity, his friends will likely exert a social pressure to stop his efforts.

Not only does Peter have to contend with his biological resistance, but he must also overcome the gravity of his social group.

Whenever you adopt a new, empowering behavior, you can experience this downward pressure.

Although you might expect your family or friends to support your new changes, group homeostasis often exerts pressure to maintain old patterns.

This process operates unconsciously, that is, they may not even be aware of their unsupportive behavior.

Despite the best intentions of your loved ones’, those closest to you may try to keep you where you are.

When you grow, you’re different. The homeostasis of your environment, including friends, family, and co-workers, is affected.

Growth can cause pressure and discomfort for others (since they have an unconscious desire for growth, too).

People in your environment may look at you differently. They may admire your changes; your efforts may inspire them.

But a part of them also may envy you and secretly despise you. Your friends and family may prefer the “old” you.

By being aware of these tendencies, you can allow yourself to feel these social pressures without enabling them to influence your behavior.

It can also help you become more compassionate toward yourself and others.

The Psychological Fear of Growth

The path of self-mastery, of evolution, creation, and growth, can be a lonely one.

Discovering a great talent within yourself that demands nurturance can be exhilarating, but it can also bring feelings of danger and responsibility.

It may require you to stand alone, cultivating inner strength instead of seeking support from your environment. (Although you can find those that will support your efforts, too, especially if they are on their path to self-mastery.)

Standing strong can feel like a heavy burden, a thankless endeavor we might consider avoiding at all costs.

The path to growth and self-mastery is invariably difficult at times. It’s uncomfortable moving out of the known into the unknown.

Even if the known is not ideal or even desirable, it’s familiar to us. And since all humans have a need for safety, there will always be an attraction to staying within the familiar.

Make peace with homeostasis, but continually challenge yourself to establish higher homeostatic set points.

Honoring your need for safety, courageously guide yourself into the great unknown. Come to enjoy practice for practice’s sake. Transform yourself slowly, steadily, and daily.

Self Mastery 101

Abraham Maslow highlights thirteen characteristics of self-actualization he observed in individuals with positive mental health. They are the markers of those walking the path to self-mastery.

Familiarize yourself with these characteristics so you can self-assess of you’re on the right track today.

See13 Characteristics of Self-Actualizing Individuals

No matter what you’re going to learn, you will go through four stages in your development.

When you don’t know what these stages are, at least two of them hijack your development.

If you know what to expect, however, you will reach the final stage of personal mastery.

SeeThe Four Stages of Learning Anything

Ten Self Mastery Secrets for Achieving Peak Performance

Once you understand the psychological drivers that block our growth, we can turn our attention to ways of overcoming them.

Here are ten self-mastery secrets for breaking through resistance and building momentum on your path to higher self-actualization.

1) Accept Your Resistance

Accept the fact that you have a resistance to positive change. It’s easy to beat ourselves up when we see that we’re standing in our way.

Feelings of shame and guilt, however, only delay our progress because when we feel bad, we tend to reinforce bad habits.

In contrast, self-acceptance and self-compassion allow us to take note of our resistance without judging or criticizing ourselves.

You’re going to need to find ways to negotiate with your resistance to change if you want to stay on the path to self-mastery.

Kelly McGonical’s The Willpower Instinct (audiobook) provides an excellent course guide for navigating through your resistance.

2) Create a Compelling Vision

A clear vision will serve you in whatever areas you’re seeking growth and improvement.

Without vision, your efforts will be aimless and tend to meander.

Compelling is the operative word; make the vision something you want to move toward, something that inspires you (and not something you just think you should move toward).

3) Commit to Long-Term Practice

Understand that lasting transformation doesn’t happen in a moment; it requires consistent practice.

No matter whether you’re learning a new instrument, practicing communication skills, or meditating, every new skill requires your brain to make new connections and enforce those connections through repeated practice.

Our brains are like a muscle, but as we age, it takes longer and longer to make lasting changes. Repetition through daily practice yields results.

4) Expect Backsliding

Even when you know about the process of homeostasis, it will still influence you.

Backsliding is inevitable on the path to growth and self-mastery. If you know this, you’ll be less discouraged when you observe it in yourself.

Here again, self-kindness, self-acceptance, and self-compassion will serve your efforts; getting down on yourself will halt your progress.

5) Live by the Principle of Moderation

We often demonstrate lots of enthusiasm and excitement when we begin on our growth path. We see a world of possibilities and positive change at our doorstep.

In these moments of excitement, we often push things too hard, triggering a homeostatic response on a high alert.

Self-mastery is not a sprint; it’s a long-distance run. In Qigong, they teach you to practice with 70% of your capacity. When you push or strain yourself, you induce involuntary tension in your nervous system.

Operating at 70% helps you stay relaxed and engaged while avoiding injury. This same principle will serve you in most areas of your development.

6) Lighten Up

If you take yourself (or the process of growth) too seriously, you’ll invariably derail your efforts.

Your inner animal, or the primitive parts of your brain, will eventually revolt against you, sabotaging your efforts.

So take a light-hearted approach. Be willing to laugh at yourself. Be playful and find ways to make your practice something you enjoy doing (while still accepting the fact that it will bring discomfort at times).

7) Set Mini Goals

In any path to mastery, you learn to practice for practice’s sake, not to achieve any particular objective.

But while a compelling vision keeps you focused and inspired, mini goals can help you measure your progress.

Your attention shouldn’t be on just achieving these aims; setting mini goals can help you stay engaged in your practice.

8) Cultivate Physical Energy

No matter what road to mastery you walk, you need a healthy reserve of physical energy to help manage stress, overcome resistance, and follow through.

Our willpower has a kind of fuel tank. It gets depleted when our energy supply runs low.

If you commit to daily practice in the morning, you’ll be more likely to follow through because you have more energy after a good night’s rest.

After a long day of work, our egos get depleted of their mental energy. Practice becomes more difficult.

Conscious effort in cultivating physical energy through proper diet, sleep, exercise, posture, breathing, and stretching will greatly serve you on your path to self-mastery.

9) Be Honest

Self-assessment is essential for anyone pursuing self-mastery. We invest a tremendous amount of energy lying to others and ourselves.

It’s easy to fall prey to ego inflation (seeing ourselves as bigger than we are) and ego deflations (seeing ourselves as less than we are).

Self-honesty and integrity free up all the energy our egos expend keeping up our house of lies. Start by honing in on your true feelings.

Try keeping a private journal where you can express your hopes, dreams, fears, and other emotions you may not feel comfortable sharing.

10) Establish Empowering Rituals

All great athletes have rituals for getting into a peak state to perform at their best.

Establishing rituals that you perform at the beginning of your practice sessions can be helpful.

Developing a daily practice is perhaps the most powerful ritual in itself.

Resistance to Self Mastery

The path toward self mastery would be straight and narrow if it wasn’t for resistance. Resistance takes various forms.

When you understand the source of your resistance, you can navigate around and through it.

Seeking Passion and Excitement

Those who achieve personal mastery learn how to avoid extremes.

They don’t seek passion and excitement regarding their development, living in moderation and making steady progress each day.

SeeWhy You Should Let Your Passion Die

The Rigidity of a Fixed Mindset

Only with a love of learning and a resilience through innumerable plateaus can we actualize our potential.

We truly must believe—with a deep conviction—that we can achieve greatness.

We must know in our heart that we have potential to actualize and the will and grace to make it so.

To have this resolve, we must first change your fixed mindset.

SeeHow to Change Your Fixed Mindset

“I Know How To Do That”

Another thing that blocks the process of learning and development is the mind’s belief, “I know.”

This single belief stops learning, destroys creativity, and inhibits personal mastery.

SeeHow to Adopt a Beginner’s Mind to Improve Learning and Creativity

“I’m Just A Lazy Person”

Laziness is something every person wrestles with to varying degrees. When you understand the “voices” behind laziness, you’re more able to navigate through it.

However, if you repress your laziness by trying to deny it and push through it, in the end, your laziness will hijack your personal development and peak performance.

See: An Achiever’s Guide to Overcoming Laziness

The Power of Sleep

Peak performers in virtually any field sleep more, not less, than the rest of us.

It’s virtually impossible to walk the path of self mastery when you’re worn down, drained, and disinterested. Fatigue creates its own form of resistance.

Getting quality sleep is a MUST for those interested in accessing their potential.

SeePowerful Secrets to Transform Your Sleep So You Can Actualize Your Potential

Obstacles to Self Mastery

Our natural state is one of mastery. However, many things pull us out of this state.

After a while, we lose access to the state of mastery. Some people even start to believe it’s impossible to access. Of course, this isn’t true.

Use The Mastery Method to activate your higher potential at will …

personal mastery

Craft Your Plan for Personal Mastery

What then can we do to promote our continued growth and development?

One reason many of us fail to actualize more of our potential is that we lack a personal development plan.

This plan can be simple. It can fit on a single page. But it must be created with an understanding of human potential so you aware of what’s available to you.

SeeHow to Create a Personal Development Plan

A Final Word for Self Actualizers

Discovering a great talent, capacity, or strength within yourself that demands nurturance can be exhilarating, but it can also bring feelings of danger and responsibility.

It may demand that you stand alone, cultivating inner strength instead of seeking support from your environment. (Although you can find those that will support your efforts, too, especially if they are on their own path to self mastery.)

The path to growth and self-mastery is invariably difficult at times. It’s uncomfortable moving out of the known into the unknown.

Even if the known is not ideal or even desirable, it’s familiar to us.

And since all humans have a need for safety, there will always be an attraction to staying within the familiar.

Make peace with homeostasis, but continually challenge yourself to establish higher homeostatic set points.

Honoring your need for safety, courageously guide yourself into the great unknown. Enjoy practice for practice’s sake.

Transform yourself slowly, steadily, and daily.

Book Recommendations for Mastery

Here are recommended books to support your path toward self mastery:

Mastery by George Leonard


The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle


The Little Book of Talent by Daniel Coyle


The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal


Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck


Peak by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

See also: 10 Best Personal Development Books

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