Why Personal Growth Work Feels So Scary

A portal with a grey rim, out in a sparse snowy forest.
Personal growth can feel intimidating and frightening, and it can be hard to tell why that is. Here are some of my thoughts on it.

Am I doing it right???

The college I attended, St. John’s College in Santa Fe, NM, conducted every single class, in every single subject, in a Socratic Seminar style, which is a very different type of discussion than what most of us are used to. It’s a small group (12-18) sitting around a single table (so we can all see each other, no hiding in the back), discussing a single topic in a (somewhat) free-form, generative style discussion, with the goal to understand the material better, not to come to a particular, predetermined conclusion, or even to agree. It definitely takes some getting used to, but after a (rough) learning curve, I thrived there.

One of my cousins attended a different liberal arts college which offered a few of these kinds of classes. She complained and hated them with a passion. She wanted to learn codified information and regurgitate that in tests and get good grades. That’s what she had been taught to do for 12 years. It’s what she knew how to do, it’s how she knew she could be successful. But in an open discussion, she didn’t know what the rules were, didn’t know how to react, didn’t know whether she was going to be successful at it and didn’t have a marker for what success looked like, or felt like, so she had no idea if she was doing it right.

she didn’t know what the rules were… didn’t have a marker for what success looked like, or felt like, so she had no idea if she was doing it right.

I think that’s how a lot of personal growth work feels. Like you’re stepping onto an unknown playing field and you don’t know what the rules are, how to succeed, or how to win, and you’re not even sure what winning looks like or feels like. So how do you know when you’ve gotten there, or are on the right path?

A portal to the unknown

It’s like stepping through a portal in a sci-fi movie when you have no idea where it leads. You could be stepping through to outer space and die or you could land on a planet with oxygen, where things will look very different but you’ll survive. You don’t know where you’ll end up until you step through the portal, so you don’t know if you’re stepping into your death or into life.

 You don’t know if you’re stepping into your death or into life.

I think dealing with old hurts from the past, or trying a new strategy for something, or even considering the idea that things could get better feels like that sometimes. It feels so much like stepping into the unknown that you don’t know whether you’re going to get through it or not. And if you don’t go, at least you feel safe on solid ground. In a class where you understand the rules, where the bad is at least familiar. 

Like my cousin, I also floundered and was overwhelmed at the beginning of those Socratic Seminars, and it generated plenty of anxiety and questions as to whether I was doing things right, or picking up on cues and all of that (I often wasn’t). But while I managed to find enough footholds to bear with it, and eventually thrive, it pissed her off.

What is personal growth, anyway?

Looking back, there were plenty of comments about how I wasn’t engaging in those classes in what I would now frame as the neurotypical way, but I found my own ways to be in those conversations that genuinely contributed meaningfully to the discussions, and didn’t overwhelm my current abilities. And that led to personal growth.

When we find that balance of being ourselves, and growing just enough that we’re not overwhelmed, but are constructively challenged, we can make a lot of progress.

When you feel more free, you’re doing it right.

And I want to be very clear here, that when I use the term progress I do not mean becoming more neurotypical. Conforming better to the perceived majority is not progress, it’s more masking. Progress and personal growth are becoming more authentically yourself, while allowing that for others. 

And becoming yourself means letting go of so much that we’ve been taught by a deeply unhealthy society. But even when you’re giving up deeply unhealthy patterns, giving up what you know can be freaky scary.

Success looks like this

Which brings me to how to tell whether your personal growth journey is on the right path. When you feel more free, you’re doing it right. When you make a decision and your body feels lighter, or your shoulders relax, or your mind engages, or you feel a welling up of joy, or any other positive freedom-like experience, that is your marker that you’re heading in the right direction.

I hope this helps you to feel a little less lost than I did at the beginning of that college.

Also, that college was one of the best educational experiences I’ve ever had. What personal growth experiences have you gone through that felt uncomfortable at the beginning, but ended up being deeply meaningful?

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Picture of Heather Cook

Heather Cook

Hi, I’m Heather. I’m an Autistic writer, advocate, and life coach, and I'm building a life I love. I help other Autistics to build their own autism-positive life. I love reading, jigsaw puzzles, just about every -ology, and Star Trek!

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