The Secret Key to Personal Growth
No matter what you do, change is impossible without this one factor.
Posted March 7, 2018
My husband tells me that when he was a young man, whenever he was in a terrible mood he thought his feelings were real. He felt awful, he thought, because things were awful.
He was like a fish, unaware of any boundary between itself and the ocean in which it swims.
Nowadays, Mike easily identifies a bad mood as just that. He doesn’t mistake the way he feels for the way things are. He can be in a foul mood and know at the same time that nothing “out there” in his life is really wrong.
The fancy term for what he’s done is “disembedded from his own subjectivity.” It's the one thing everyone needs to be able to do if they want to grow.
Lifelong Personal Growth
As newborns, we’re unaware that the warmth of the blanket, that smiling face, and all those interesting sounds exist outside of us. Our point of view is all we know. The whole universe seems to exist within ourselves.
Soon enough we begin to separate “me” from “not me.” This is my hand (me), and that’s your hand (not me). Understanding that other people and objects are physically separate from us is the first step we take in disembedding (separating) from our own subjectivity (point of view).
That’s arguably our first act of personal growth. It makes us more effective to recognize that other people are not us. It’s a helpful distinction which, if all goes well, we never lose.
We build on that step throughout life, which is good because there’s much more separating to do if we’re to keep growing.
For example, later in childhood we come to understand that what other people see from their point of view may be different than what we see from ours. Until then, we believe we can hide by sitting in the middle of the room with a blanket over our heads. If we can’t see others, we think they can’t see us.
All psychological growth involves progressively more sophisticated separations from our previous point of view. What used to be an invisible part of ourselves becomes a potential object of study. We see it clearly for the first time, and that means we can change it.
How can you use this concept to address areas where you feel stuck?
Let’s take the example of addiction. If I reach unthinkingly for a drink every time I feel anxious or upset, drinking is just a part of my state of being. In a practical sense, it’s invisible to me.
Only once I’m able to see drinking as something I’m doing to calm down, can I begin to think about whether I want to use alcohol in that way. As long as drinking is “just who I am,” I’m powerless to change.
Objectifying drinking is one step. I may also need to become aware of my anxiety and/or other triggers. My need for soothing might be hidden in the background – something that’s so much a part of me I don’t even realize it’s there.
Take another problem: Low self-esteem. Early on in my development, other people’s cruelty toward me probably feels like a direct reflection of my worthlessness. Once I understand others' cruelty as an aspect of them instead of me, I’ve achieved a level of objectivity that contributes substantially to my personal growth.
The best thing about objectivity is, once I see something in a new way, I can't un-see it. The change is permanent.
Therapy can help with this wondrous process. In fact, helping you separate from your current subjectivity is arguably the most important benefit that therapy can provide.
One thing is certain: Turning subjective states (who I am) into objects of study (what I see) brings our own processes – including problematic ones – within reach. And that's what makes change possible.
Kegan, R. (1982) The evolving self. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.