There are some inherent challenges with the process of personal transformation. To put it into geek terms, you are hacking your own programming. And it’s going to impact your life. In other words, there are sometimes unintended consequences.
I think that facing the shadow tends to have repercussions–we’re hacking our self identity. We’re saying, “Yes, I identify that thing as bad, and yes, I do that thing, and I now have to accept that as part of my identity.”
Our ego doesn’t cope so well with that.
So very often the work I do comes down to recommending that people explore themselves, helping them to know themselves and do deeper personal work. And yet, I have to be crystal clear that there are consequences to this work. That when we change ourselves…things are going to change. It sounds obvious, but I know that for my own process it was a shock when things didn’t work the way they used to.
Things Will Get Worse Before They Get Better
In fact, there was a part of my personal growth work where I’m pretty sure that the work I was doing actually deepened my depression. I’ve written in the past about how, through my process, I cut myself off from a huge taproot of my own power and drive–my anger. At the Diana’s Grove retreat center, there was the subtle implication that anger like that was “bad.” Nothing anyone ever told me directly, but it was implied.
Before I intentionally worked to work “anger” out of my life, I used to get a lot of my “let’s plan an event guys” energy from my self-identity as an event planner. Specifically, I carried an old wound of rejection from my peers. And how it manifested was, “If I plan a really awesome event, then I’ll be giving the finger to all the people who told me I couldn’t, plus, all the kids that abused me in school.”
Of course that makes no rational sense, but the rage/showing off energy I pulled from that was pretty intense. When I cut that off, I lost a lot of my energy for doing things like that. I had to basically regrow a taproot.
And in the years following that shift, as well as some others, I went deeper and deeper into a depression. And I managed to do a pretty good cover up of the severity of my depression, because it was embarrassing as hell. Or at least, I thought I was covering it well. There were a few folks that noticed how bad I was feeling, but I didn’t know that until later.
When my depression got bad enough that I was reaching for help, my (now) ex partner berated me for it. I felt pretty lost and alone and stuck.
It’s not to say that all personal growth work like this has such a wretched process. Sometimes things just work really well. But I think that any of us doing work, especially work that shifts our identity, and work that shifts how we relate to others, we have to realize that there will be some growing pains. We can’t pretend like doing this life-changing work isn’t going to change our lives.
And sometimes it’s going to cost us friends, relationships, jobs, and other pieces of our lives.
Boundaries are another core area where deep personal transformation work can lead to big changes in our lives that we aren’t expecting. A lot of boundaries work begins as just self awareness. We become aware of who we are, and who the other people are around us, and how we are not each other. My desire for you to join my event planning team does not mean that you will automatically do what I want, because we aren’t the same person. Similarly, a friend’s desire for me to be more extroverted and want to go to more social events with them doesn’t obligate me to do that, because we aren’t the same person.
Here are some of my previous posts on boundaries in case you want to learn more:
But, boundaries becomes an interpersonal train wreck when we start saying “no.” When I say no to my friend or boyfriend or mom who want me to come out to an event that I don’t want to attend because I’m working on writing my book…they get hurt feelings.
No: The Great Rejection
Just because I’ve worked on my boundaries, doesn’t mean you’ve worked on yours. And in our culture, “No” is a great offense. No means I reject you, that I don’t even like you. I’ve worked for years to get better at hearing “No.” It’s still not easy, but I can at least process it.
Boundaries work is crucial; we transform when we realize how much we are pressuring others. Or, how much we let ourselves get pressured. You can’t negotiate until you realize how much pressuring is happening. But, my awareness of my own boundaries doesn’t suddenly make everyone else’s boundaries better. Your family, spouse, boss, kids, teachers, friends…just because you have boundaries doesn’t mean anyone else will respect those boundaries.
So the rub is, you do all this personal growth work, often with the intention of reducing conflict and stress in your life–and then you’re suddenly causing more stress. When you start saying “No” to people, particularly to people who are used to saying yes, watch their stress and anger start to pop up. They’ll get agitated. They’ll bargain with you and bully you. They’ll rail at you for changing.
You did all this personal growth work to have better relationships, and then people start walking out of your life because you’re not their “yes man” any longer.
When we learn how to say no, we get treated like a jerk, and if we have always identified as the nice, helpful person, we have to rectify that with the new identity. We have to identify how much other people’s opinions of us matter, and decide how much of that we want to remain in our identity programming.
But when we remove that, there’s a backlash.
Boundaries and Betrayal
Sometimes it goes south really fast. “You betrayed me and did not live up to my expectations of you” can swiftly become, “You have always been evil and I hate you and will tear you down.” And all because we said “No” to someone who was used to us saying “Yes.”
Partly this is because most people are not very self reflective. And partly this is because people polarize really fast. While “splitting” is a term for people with Borderline personality’s tendency to see everyone around them as Good or Evil with no gray area, I personally experience that most people have difficulty holding a gray area, or holding paradox.
I can hold the paradox that you did this thing that really pisses me off…but, that doesn’t mean you are “bad” just because of that. I can hold both–that you pissed me off but you are still a basically good person. You pissing me off doesn’t require me to identify you as bad, forever and ever henceforth.
But gray areas are hard to maintain. People want boxes, a clear and final solution. Yes, no. Good, bad. We want to know what the right answer is, even if it’s an answer we don’t like. There’s also the challenge of cognitive dissonance–when we have an established belief, our brain literally fights us in challenging that belief.
So while we can work to shift our identity, and we can talk to our friends and family and other folks we know about how we are shifting our identity, that doesn’t mean that they will understand it or be able to support it.
In the end, we can only continue to do our work, to become the best we can be. Sometimes the shifts we make will have an impact. And sometimes it might cost us in ways we aren’t expecting. I find that it’s better to be a little bit prepared for the reactions we might get from people. It gives me a little more patience with them–of course they are going to feel betrayed because I’m not doing what they want any more, or because my identity is shifting and I’m acting differently. And sometimes, if I can keep more calm while talking through things, it’s easier to find a solution.
But there also comes a point where I realize, even though I wanted a relationship to stay where it was at, if someone can’t respect who I am becoming, then I may indeed need to cut ties.
For anyone doing intensive transformation work–whether you call it personal work or spiritual work–I recommend having someone you can talk to, especially a trained counselor or therapist. I wish that I’d had that when I was doing some of the most grueling transformative work of my process, when I was stuck in that pit of depression. Having at least one person you can deeply trust to check in with about your process can really help.
This work is challenging, but that’s not going to stop me. This work is too important. I think about the world we could have together if we all worked to be more self reflective. If we worked to transform ourselves into our best selves…not denying our shadows but instead integrating them.
But that is the alchemical work of a lifetime.