Too Far

A common obstacle in personal growth work is the fear of going too far.

For example, I recently attended a retreat to learn how to be more open to connection with other human beings. I had an impulse to hold back. I thought, what if I’m 100% open to everybody? I live in a crowded city full of human suffering. My life would become unlivable if I stopped to take in the humanity of each person that I passed. I would have to become like Jesus or something.

I see the same type of worry about “going all the way” among the participants in a workshop I teach based on the book Radical Honesty. Wouldn’t it be hard to live 100% honest all the time?

As we stretch into new ways of being, the fear of going too far is mostly unfounded. Naturally, I’m about 5% open. Most people are probably ~10% honest (I’m just a little bit more, and I practice it). The chances are tiny that any person will achieve 100% openness or honesty even for a second.

The purpose of personal growth activities is to give ourselves more options for how we relate to the world — more tools in the tool kit. It takes purposeful effort to hold ourselves in the new practice for the hours or days that a workshop lasts. At the end, we naturally return to our old ways of being. Our default patterns of behavior have momentum.

If all goes well, your growth process will look something like this:

So don’t sabotage your learning by holding back. Commit to the practice for a set period of time and play hard. Commitment is an important meta-skill in personal growth.

At the retreat I attended, commitment worked well for me. I went into it knowing that I had some philosophical differences with the leader. But rather than spend the week in philosophical debate I made a commitment to fully engage with the teachings. I’d try it on and see what was good about it.

I caught myself in a cynical mindset holding back from the practice about once every two days. But my commitment to fully engage helped me become mindful of my internal state and dive back into the practice.

The result was that I achieved a new state of openness and empathy that feels good to inhabit. I’m a low-empathy, “tough”, independent male who has been shaped that way by circumstances. Practicing empathy is good for me — it corrects my natural imbalances. Having the memory of this new empathic state, I have the option of choosing more empathy in other parts of my life. And I’m still comfortably far from Jesus levels of empathy.

Crossposted at my blog here