5 Lessons Learned: Reflections From a Year of Growth
This article was written by Jennifer Johnson, Middle School Teacher and Counselling Intern at Mindquest Group.
For years I have honed the craft of teaching. I know the classroom. I know middle schoolers. I understand schools, and know my students’ strengths and “areas for growth”. And although I really love what I do, I felt the need to go deeper into understanding how to truly support the whole person not just academically, but from a social-emotional and therapeutic perspective.
But change is hard. It’s one thing to want to do something, and entirely another to commit and actually take your first steps. My first step was acknowledging that quiet yearning, and honoring its voice. My second step: gathering the courage to take the plunge and jump head first into a Masters program in Counselling and an internship with Mindquest Group, while managing my full-time workload as a middle school teacher. This part was the scariest as it involved stepping out of the cocoon I had made for myself professionally and into my personal arena of self-doubt, fear of the unknown, and fear of failure.
And then, before I could move on to the next steps – the doing – life proved once again it has its own plan. I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, and found myself coping with serious family health issues from halfway across the world while having to implement a necessary and drastic diet change.
The next steps felt more like stumbles as I treaded the rising waters of demands, hard work, expectations, and mistakes. Finally, I was able to backstroke through the calm waters of growing competence, confidence, and gratitude. But that didn’t come until much, much later.
I am a big believer in reflection, and boy did this year give me great material. We all live differently, but I believe we all undoubtedly find ourselves standing on the cliff’s edge of life’s challenges at some stage or another. If and when you get there, here is my two cents worth of wisdom gained from my most recent transformational leap.
1. You are capable of so much more than you think
When it rains, it pours. When we face something challenging, we seem to become a magnet for all other hard “life” things to fall in our lap. Well, I believe it’s the universe’s way of forcing us to become resilient. This year was one of the hardest I’ve ever experienced both personally and professionally, but through these challenges it has also been a period of profound resiliency. Thank you, universe. Regardless of how big your hurdles may be, you can handle them. There lies a secret weapon of strength within each of us that we only see when it becomes absolutely necessary.
2. If you let your mind’s negative messages take over, you will never reach your full potential
Am I making the right choice? How am I going to manage everything? Can I really do this? These thoughts, along with a hundred others, floated through my head throughout the last year. Our minds have an annoying way of scaring us and making us doubt ourselves and our capability.
Truthfully, if you had given me a little preview of all the challenges I faced over this past year, I probably wouldn’t have signed up for the masters program. Instead, I would have believed my mind when it told me, “Everything will be too much to handle and you can’t do it”. And, I would have been so wrong. When you find yourself buying into the recording of self-doubt playing in your head, remember that thoughts of “I can’t” aren’t based on fact, and believing them WILL prevent you from realising your true potential. You owe it to yourself to say, “Thanks for sharing, mind. Although I understand your concerns, I’m going to go ahead and continue working to become the person I know I can be.”
3. Self-compassion is the greatest gift you can give yourself
Why is it that we are often so much nicer to others than we are to ourselves? Loving yourself, and extending compassion to yourself in the same way you do to others, is the first step to self-growth. This is especially true when things get tough during a period of change. I stumbled upon Dr. Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion while preparing for a client session. Dr. Neff breaks self-compassion into three elements: self-kindness (being warm and understanding to ourselves when life inevitably falls short of our ideals), common humanity (recognising that suffering is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone), and mindfulness (keeping our experience in perspective and approaching our negative emotions in a balanced way so that our feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated).
Although I had found Dr. Neff’s work to help a client, it became a life-changing concept for me. When things became really tough, learning to stop and non-judgmentally reflect on my self-compassion under these three lenses was extremely powerful. Next time you are at a low, I encourage you to do the same. You might find it makes a world of difference in your internal dialogue.
Kristin Neff and Brené Brown have recently launched an online workshop on Self-Compassion that would be a good starting point on this journey.
“When you give ourselves compassion,
we are opening our hearts in a way that can transform our lives.”
– Kristin Neff
4. You need the support of others. No, really, you do
Doing everything on your own is totally overrated. As a recovering perfectionist and “master” of doing everything myself so that I do not burden others, I have realised with glaring clarity the importance of relying on your people when you are vulnerable. And ‘your’ people doesn’t include the woman in front of you in the coffee line; I can count on one hand the people who I can be totally myself with, and that number is just fine with me. The important thing isn’t how many people you have; instead, what matters is your willingness to let yourself be truly seen and vulnerable with the people that really matter when life hits you in the face.
Sharing my fears, my stresses, my failures, and my triumphs with my handful of people is what helped me keep my sanity and perspective. It was also a great reminder of the common humanity we all share. Embracing the love and grace our community can offer is a crucial part of our well-being, and this is especially true when we are in a period of growth and change.
5. Embrace the mess
Times of great struggle often lead to our greatest growth. Key word: struggle. In case I haven’t emphasised it enough, my journey was tough, and it most definitely wasn’t filled with nonstop, cinema-worthy moments of self actualisation. There were plenty of tears, pep talks in the mirror, and days lagging with exhaustion from the grind. It wasn’t pretty. And it wasn’t pretty a good portion of the time. But that’s part of change and growth. It’s rarely (if ever?) like we imagine it to be in our heads.
When I found myself feeling particularly defeated by a setback, I brought myself back to what I work so hard to cultivate within my students and clients: a growth mindset, which is the belief that through hard work and determination, we are able to change in ways that far surpass our preconceived limitations. Putting conscious effort into developing and maintaining my own growth mindset helped the journey to be a lot more bearable. The best part? Ticking boxes on accomplishments I never thought I’d achieve.
This year has been hard, and this year has been intense. But most importantly, this year has been filled with beautiful moments of deep resiliency, connecting with what truly makes my heart sing, and some serious soul searching. I have nearly reached my goal, and by directly facing some of my deepest fears – and sometimes just trudging through when nothing else works – I have changed in ways I never could have predicted. What a wonderful gift this year has been.
So, what have you been too scared to do? What changes are you hoping to make? Go ahead and take the leap. I don’t know what your journey will look like, but I do know that you might just become the person you’ve always dreamed you could be.
Neff, K. (2016). Self-Compassion. Retrieved from http://self-compassion.org/
Self-Compassion Workshop with Kristin Neff & Brené Brown: http://www.courageworks.com/shop/classes/self-compassion-with-kristin-neff-brene-brown