By Mary Friedel-Hunt
Do you make New Year's resolutions? Do you admire compassionate and honest people? Does your neighbor's commitment to her daily walk motivate you to do the same?
If you answered "yes" to any of these questions you probably belong to an increasingly large group of people focused on self-improvement and personal transformation. "It's in each of us," says Dr. Marti Eicholz, founder and director of the Institute for Transformation in Kirkland, Washington. "Once our basic needs like food, shelter, sleep and safety are met most of us naturally begin to focus on personal growth and development." Dr. Eicholz believes this focus is increasing because more and more people in our society have their basic needs satisfied, thus releasing the energy and desire necessary for personal transformation and for becoming better people.
This belief is not new to psychology. Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) described it in his theory of personality. Maslow believed that growth and self-actualization along with a yearning for excellence is perhaps a universal human tendency. He described a hierarchy stating that once our fundamental needs are met, we naturally begin to focus on our higher needs moving us toward self-actualization.
"Self-improvement is unique to each of us. Becoming a better person means actualizing the potential within. There is no formula. It means becoming the best person we can become," says Rita Robinson, M.A. a psychotherapist at the Rocky Mountain Holistic Health Center in Ridgway, Colorado. "Most personal growth is about being and not about doing," she adds. "Our culture focuses so much on action that we often forget to be still and listen to that small voice within us. This voice leads us in the direction of self-actualization. Frequently it means removing the obstacles to growth."
Some of those obstacles to growth include a fear of change, a poor sense of self-esteem and a lack of awareness. "For some, an inertia or laziness can become an obstacle to growth. Sometimes it is just easier to keep doing what we have been doing even if it does not work. In order to overcome that resistance, there must be a willingness and a desire," says Robinson. "That willingness and desire to grow, to become more, is often triggered by discomfort or pain."
Dr. Eicholz agrees but adds, "It is too bad that pain is a motivator. We need to be educating children about who they are and about growth so that they do not wait for pain to become the motivator for their development. It is a healthy sense of self-esteem and self-awareness that should be the foundation for transformation. Think about a rocket," she says, "getting ready to blast off. Think of the energy needed to create that lift and consider how strong the launch pad must be beneath it. You would not build a launch pad on sand or on a shaky sill. Instead you put it on a rock solid structure in order to maximize your liftoff. You will never get anywhere if you start from a foundation of self-doubt. A healthy sense of self-esteem is essential for growth. Once that is in place, self-awareness ignites the process for change."
If we are aware of how poorly we feel, how unhappy we are, or how our behavior is negatively impacting those around us as well as ourselves, we will naturally begin to look more carefully at the possibility for change. It is at this point that we must go inside to determine our own desires, needs and potential because the goodness within us is unique to each of us. For some it means becoming more honest or compassionate. For others it means developing certain skills. "It is a matter of each of us actualizing our own potential, finding our own fulfillment and believing that goodness resides within us," says Robinson.
"Too often we grow up trying to please those around us. If this is our primary motivator we lose or never develop a sense of self. I work with parents to assist them in defining their own desires for growth, their ideal self," says Betty Van Aman, a BBW from Ontario, Wisconsin. "Once parents see how important their own personal growth is and how unique they are, they can pass this down to their own children." Van Aman has developed a program she calls "Peaceful Parenting and Peaceful Relationships". In it she meets with small groups of parents assisting them in their own growth process.
When we are happy and satisfied, our goodness surfaces. Like the caterpillar, we are destined to become butterflies. In many of our lives however, that foundation of self-esteem is poorly developed or contaminated by a lack of good parenting, negative messages about who we are, abuse, and ultimately a hopelessness to become all we can become. As a result some people settle for a mediocre life that is lacking fulfillment. They stagnate instead of grow. The metamorphosis into their higher self never takes place.
How then do we motivate ourselves if we lack the self-esteem and self-awareness necessary to growth? How do we get off dead center and move forward if so many messages within us tell us that we are less than our ideal?
"It is pleasure that motivates us for the long term," reports Kelly Bliss, M.Ed., a BBW in Philadelphia who works with women every day. "Pain," she says, "is short lived as a motivator. Pleasure, on the other hand, is a long lasting motivator. All of us seek pleasure." Bliss is a psychotherapist and a fitness professional working with clients on the phone, in person and on line. "Consider the message we give ourselves when we hang clothes in our closets that are too small for us. Every time we open the closet, we see clothes that say, 'Your body is not the right size or shape. You are not OK.' These messages eat away at our self-esteem and reduce our motivation for self-care. Get rid of self-critical clothes and get clothes that fit," says Bliss. "I have art work in my home that reminds me of the beauty and goodness of full-figured people. I surround myself with reminders that people are supposed to come in all sizes." she adds. "Why would I want to have magazines around that criticize large bodies? Instead I have BBW on my coffee table because it is good for me and for my clients."
Becoming a better person by actualizing our potential starts at home. We must begin by giving ourselves messages about who we really are. Too often we are repeating the same negative messages we gave ourselves yesterday. Soon we begin to believe them. Affirming the beauty and goodness within us is a starting point. Identifying our strengths soon follows. The development of this type of awareness demands that we live in the present moment. It demands that we know how we feel, what we believe and what we value. We learn this each day as we move through our lives. To become aware that a remark we made hurt someone or that a remark someone else made hurt us leads us to examine ourselves and ultimately to change.
Elizabeth Skogland, M.A., author and psychotherapist from Burbank, California describes the need for a point of reference in our lives. "I was hanging a towel rack last summer. I had removed all the pictures above the towel rack and did not have anything on the wall except the nails where those pictures had hung. The rack looked utterly straight to me, but when I began to replace the pictures they were all crooked. My point of reference was off. If you don't have a reference point everything begins to look like it is straight and it is not." Each of us needs a reference point, a framework out of which we view life and participate in life. For some it might be a mentor who lives the values that person wishes to emulate. For Skogland it is her faith in Jesus Christ. For others it might be a purpose such as helping the needy. When that purpose is our passion, we begin to see life through that lens, enabling the actualization of our own potential to be that helper.
One key to realizing one's potential and thereby becoming a better person is self-awareness. Journaling is an effective tool. Just going into a space each day and writing down what we feel without judging what we feel leads us to a deeper knowledge of ourselves. This knowledge becomes the catalyst for change. Studying what we have written over a period of months allows us to see our predominant pains and weaknesses as well as our desires and strengths.
"If we are never still and we never slow down, we can not pay attention to what is going on under the surface." says Robinson. "It is like being on a choppy ocean. Our lives are filled with this and that and the little details that take our time and attention. We do not drop down often enough, just a couple of feet into the water, to find the quiet and see what is there. Meditation, gardening, walking, journaling and quieting down allow the thoughts, feelings, ideas and impulses below the surface to emerge." It is this awareness that ultimately leads to personal growth and transformation.
Robinson assists clients by telling them to take the first step. She tells them that if they look at the entire journey it can be overwhelming. "Consider a lantern," she says, "that scatters a pool of light about ten feet around you. Your goal is two miles down the road but all you can see is the ten feet in front of you. You can not imagine how you are going to get there with this little lantern. You take one step forward, and guess what, the pool of light goes with you. The thing you need to do next is revealed to you and the light continues to move with you." You reach your destination!
As we consider the changes we wish to make and the improvements we seek, we begin to see that this demands taking time and seeking out quiet moments. Once we see what it is we wish to change, we must identify the first step. Taking that first step increases our sense of self-esteem and enhances the confidence we need to continue. Obstacles become opportunities that inform us about what we need to conquer in order to actualize ourselves.
"Giving up 'shoulds' and becoming real is how I view the path to becoming a better person. I help others focus on letting go of pleasing people and listening instead to their own voices." says Jody Lowry, a Registered Nurse and a personal improvement coach in Bradenton, Florida. "I spent my whole life trying to please everyone else and in letting them determine who I would be. Now I strive to be true to myself." Mary Tsukamoto said it well: "I'm suddenly realizing that I have wasted a lot of time just being afraid, and just being polite, and just holding back, and just letting people do just what they want with me."
The butterfly never doubts her ability to transform, to become a beautiful creature who flies freely through space and time. Each of us has that same ability to transform, the ability to actualize a myriad of gifts, skills and passions; thus transforming not only ourselves but the world around us. We too can transform ourselves if we are dedicated to becoming the person we were meant to be.
Techniques and Tips
Journal: It is amazing what will surface just by writing freely each day for a few minutes.
Meditate: Quiet time in the garden, on a walk, or even in the car allows the voice from within to surface and be heard. This voice tells us who we are, what we need, and what we may aspire to become.
Get feedback: Ask friends who can be trusted to tell you what they see in you that needs changing or what gifts they see that deserve to be cultivated.
Be aware: Living in the moment in order to determine what we feel, who we are and what we value leads us to personal transformation.
Know your mentors: The gifts we admire in others are also within us. Who are the mentors we have chosen? What qualities do they exhibit? Those gifts are within us waiting to become more visible.