The opening sentence in M. Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled, is this: “Life is difficult.” It’s a line that is famous for its honesty and brevity. Life is, in fact, difficult if one is paying attention. That doesn’t mean that it is joyless or that it is too hard. The statement is simply a recognition that to become our best selves it is necessary to accept that the journey isn’t always smooth. Indeed, it shouldn’t be. Growth comes from facing obstacles and solving problems.
It’s only human to back away from what is difficult or painful. But doing so can result in a kind of spinning of our psychological wheels. Getting out of the muck means recognizing the muck we’ve sunk into and finding a new way out so we can grow.
Here are some very common and uncomfortable ways that people get stuck:
1. Sticking with what’s comfortable: Doing only what is easy or expedient may be comfortable but it doesn’t build our competence or our self-esteem.
Whenever I challenged one of my clients to try something that would push her out of her comfort zone, she would protest. “I like my rut! I know what to expect, even if I don’t like it.” Well, yes. But then why was she coming to see me once a week? To torture the driving metaphor further, she was looking to me to push her out of her personal mud as comfortably as possible. Nope. I could give a “push” but she had to be willing to maneuver her life differently. After months of preparation, she gave it a try and was pleased to find that life outside of her “rut” felt much better.
2. Believing that once made, choices are set in concrete.
One of my teachers went so far as to say that there are only two things that we can’t undo or walk away from: Ending a life by killing (oneself or another) or beginning a life by becoming a parent. It’s an odd idea at first. But the truth is we can never bring someone back to life and we can never deny the reality that a child of ours is somewhere in the world. Both events impact a person’s sense of who they are internally and in society. Short of those two very primal events, though, mistakes can be undone and change is always possible if we’re willing to push through our fears and go for it.
We all know stories of people who decided to make a change rather than live with regret. Facebook and newspapers often post stories about those who went to medical school at age 50, left unhappy marriages after 20 years or more, or abandoned a well-paying job to join a band or go backpacking in distant lands. Others might consider them crazy for doing so. But they each had a moment when they recognized that we probably only get one shot at life. They decided to make new choices to send their life in a direction they thought would make them happier.
Change doesn’t have to be that drastic to up our happiness. Sometimes we can do something to change where we already are. What’s important is to give ourselves the freedom to think creatively and to choose.
3. Expecting different results from the same methods.
You see people do it all the time: The woman who repeatedly gets involved with the same kind of inappropriate partner; The guy who always volunteers too much, gets overwhelmed, and drops out; The friend who keeps spending more than she makes; The relative who keeps getting fired but always says that it is someone else’s fault.
There is positive interpretation for such a series of reruns. Sometimes each repeat of the same “mistake” is a person’s attempt to do it differently. Real trouble happens when a person just does the same thing “harder.” It’s a kind of misplaced optimism to think, “This time it will be different.” Change in results will only happen if we’re willing to see our part in the problem and to come up with a different solution.
Are you stuck in a “same problem, different day scenario”? It’s time for a new perspective. If you can’t figure it out on your own, it may be helpful to see a mental health professional. Counseling often offers another way to think about a problem so we can find an effective way to solve it.
4. Refusing to try.
No one likes failure. A common face-saving strategy is to not give a challenge our best or even to try. We can protect ourselves by claiming we didn’t have the time, the materials, the opportunity, or the support to do it right. We can preserve our self-esteem by focusing on what we could have done if, if, if.
There are students and employees who always leave an important report to the last minute. If they get less than stellar feedback, they can say to themselves, “well, I would have done better if I’d had more time,” conveniently forgetting that they created the time crunch. Yes, such thinking avoids failure, but it also avoids the potential for getting the feedback that supports growth.
5. Avoiding rejection.
A cartoon I once saw: A salesman who holds up a widget he is selling to a potential customer and says, “You wouldn’t want to buy one of these, would you?” He avoids feeling rejected by rejecting himself first. People whose fear of rejection overwhelms their courage and optimism often don’t try out for a new job or a promotion. They don’t ask someone out or invite friends over for an evening of fun. They don’t try out for the team or the band. They are sure the answer to getting out there will be a resounding “no.” By avoiding rejection, they also avoid the possibility of acceptance.
Growth often comes when we dig deep and find the courage to take a risk, even though we may not be successful. Sometimes we win. Even if we lose, we may learn how to do it better the next time we find — or make — the opportunity.
Yes, life is difficult. But using one or more of these strategies guarantees the very disappointment and emotional pain that we may be trying to avoid. Growth comes from facing difficulty and finding the courage, strength, resources, and support we need to deal with it as best we can.