Who says personal growth is transformation?
If you’re at all interested in personal development, it’s quite hard to avoid the self-help gurus and inspirational memes all over the internet urging us to become who we want to be, or who we’re meant to be.
The obvious implication? There’s something wrong with who we are: we need to be someone different - to transform ourselves.
As a coach, I have often found myself being actively encouraged (by various business coaches and marketing specialists) to sell a transformation – to contrast the awfulness of someone’s current state with how unrecognisably better it would be after my coaching.
You may well have seen the kind of offers I’m talking about – “Tired of being a miserable waste of oxygen? I get it! In my “Stop Being A Sad Sack Of Shit” programme, I share my 7 steps to Becoming Impossibly Perfect. Only for those who are ready to change their lives forever!”
What do I mean by “transformation”? For me, it’s the whole caterpillar-to-butterfly thing. A one-time only, irrevocable change. Emerge from chrysalis, flutter off, look lovely, gorge on nectar. That's it - job done.
But don’t we all want transformation?
For a long time, I certainly very much wanted it for myself. As a quiet, sensitive introvert, I learned early in life what it is to feel excluded and “other”, so I spent many years trying to become who I wanted to be – which was basically someone who everyone liked, who could easily socialise, be accepted, and fit in. I did my best to fake it, but never seemed to get any closer to making it (see here for more on this).
And when I first ventured into the realms of self-help in my 40s, after the devastating rejection of my son choosing to live with his father rather than me (a choice that seemed to validate every low opinion I had of myself), I thought – hoped – that it was all about transformation.
I was a bundle of hurt, anger and self-loathing, and I was looking for the magic wand that would change all that.
So yes, I think many of us do want transformation, don’t we? To stop feeling what we feel, stop being who we are. We want insecurities to transmute into natural confidence; we want the hard slog of fitting in to morph into a sense of easy belonging; we want that harsh inner critic to be stunned into permanent silence.
We’re metaphorical caterpillars, wanting to emerge from our chrysalises of hurt and rejection unrecognisable in our newfound butterfly perfection.
Why doesn't the caterpillar-to-butterfly metaphor work?
Personal growth is not becoming someone or something different. It’s about knowing and being who you are.
It’s recognising all that’s good about us; adapting our ways of thinking and behaving to best serve us; making the most of who we are. It may sound a tad - ok, a fucking lot! - trite, but it’s about working out how to be our best selves.
At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious (see this for cultural reference!), humans are not caterpillars. We are not genetically pre-programmed for an inevitable transformation. We are born who we are and we die who we are. We can spend the intervening time trying to be someone else, or making the most of who we are. The choice is ours.
Caterpillars don’t have that choice. Maybe there are caterpillars out there who envy our lack of transformation. Some caterpillars could be thinking “I bloody love cabbage, me. Best. Thing. Ever. Nectar? Nah, mate, you can keep that – far too sickly. And I get dreadful hayfever. Not too good with heights either, truth be told. Don’t think I’ll bother with the whole butterfly shizzle…Hang on, nodded off for a bit there. What’s this?? Wings…?....Oh fuck…”
Of course, there are plenty of times when personal growth can seem transformative. Those glorious moments of insight and understanding when it feels that nothing will ever be the same again…
I still remember the feeling I had when I heard “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”. It was as if the world had tilted on its axis and I was seeing everything in a different way: nothing would ever be the same again!
And maybe there’s a sense in which that’s true, but I was not transformed. I did not immediately let go of all my anger, or even know how to. I did not there and then become someone who stopped holding onto anger and would never hold onto anger again – in fact, in a nicely ironic twist, I got angry with myself every time I realised I was still holding onto anger when I should know better!!!
Several years later, I am still not transformed…But my grip on anger has loosened enormously and continues to weaken, and I’m much more likely to have a bit of a laugh with myself than beat myself up when I catch myself out - and that feels good.
Falling off cliffs, David Attenborough, Dolly Parton, and you...
Rather than emerging as a butterfly, I’m more like one of those baby birds that hatches on a stupidly high cliff and, in order not to starve, has to get to the bottom before it can actually fly (nature does occasionally seem to have a slightly twisted sense of humour, doesn’t it?!).
Like the stumpily winged baby bird, I stood on the edge of a new approach to dealing with life’s shit and took the plunge. Afterwards I was still a stumpily winged (and somewhat bruised) baby bird…but now I had far more chance of those wings growing into something that would allow me to fly.
(Jury’s out on whether that stumpily-winged metaphor survived its leap from the cliff!! I may be watching too much David Attenborough…if such a thing is even possible.)
Finding out who you are and doing it on purpose (to quote guru extraordinaire Dolly Parton*) is a lifelong adventure.
There is always more to discover about who we are and how we can show up in and engage with the world. There is always something new to know, to learn, to understand, to do, to think, to feel, to experience…how cool is that?!
Oh, and by the way: the person you think you want to or are meant to be? That’s just code for who you’ve learned to think you should be. You’re trying to conform, as much as transform. STOP IT.
You’re fucking awesome as utterly unique, irreplaceable, weird and wonderful YOU.
*Click here for more great Dolly quotes!
It can be scary to shed the layers of defence and pretence you've built up in response to rejection, hurt and other people's expectations, can't it?
If you'd benefit from a safe space to explore all this, then let's have a tea and biscuits chat - no charge, no pressure, no obligation.
Just potential ✨