the paradox of progress: why growth often feels wrong

The concept of personal growth often involves actions and practices that feel counterintuitive. When striving to improve ourselves – whether it’s becoming more patient, developing better listening skills, or reducing anxiety – the necessary steps usually don’t feel particularly good. Instead, they can feel scary or awkward, like wearing an ill-fitting shirt or writing with your non-dominant hand.

It’s no surprise that change often feels uncomfortable. After all, you’re attempting to be different from who you are at present, while your entire personality has been shaped by being who you currently are. Feeling awkward and self-conscious when trying to change is natural. If learning a new skill or habit feels disagreeable, it’s often an indication that you should pursue it.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, many of us grow up with deep-seated beliefs that certain feelings are off-limits, due to the normal imperfections of our upbringing. Perhaps you were taught not to depend too much on others, to avoid standing out, or to always have a clear plan for the future. As an adult, the prospect of easing up on these patterns can feel terrifying, as if inviting disaster.

However, if a new habit or practice excites you, it might be the opposite of what you need. It could be reinforcing your defenses rather than challenging them. For instance, the excitement you feel when discovering a new productivity system might be a warning sign, while a productivity technique that makes you feel uncomfortable – such as setting lower daily goals but working more consistently – could be more beneficial.

It’s essential to distinguish between acting against your instincts and ignoring your intuitions. If you sense danger in a situation or feel uneasy about someone, you’re experiencing an intuition – a subconscious alert built within you, which is worth heeding.

The revelation is that pushing through your resistance and experiencing the emotions you’ve been avoiding rarely feels as frightening as you imagine. It usually just feels mildly uncomfortable. You may have been putting off a project, avoiding commitment, or holding back from expressing yourself to avoid a feeling you thought would be unbearable – but it turns out to be roughly equivalent to sitting on a poorly designed chair, forgetting your umbrella in a rainstorm, or eating an overripe banana. In other words, it’s a little unpleasant but manageable.

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