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How "Inner Gardening" Can Help You Reach Your Goals

Five common unconscious obstacles to growth.

Key points

  • Just like growing plants requires thoughtful gardening, positive growth often requires "inner gardening."
  • Most habits fail because we neglect to do the inner work needed to change.
  • "Weeds" disrupting growth include: self-criticism, competing desires, walking someone else's path, and aversion to happiness.
  • Sometimes the answers lie within, and sometimes you'll need outside help.
Veronica Reverse/Unsplash
It's time to cultivate my garden
Source: Veronica Reverse/Unsplash

Why most habits fail

From my perspective most habits don’t fail due to lack of a “smart” goal, lack of capability, nor lack of wanting it enough. Although many habits fail due to focusing on the outcome rather than refining the system, there’s a deeper layer to consider first. Many potentially life changing habits fail due to neglecting the inner work that precedes sustainable growth.

James Clear writes in his bestselling book Atomic Habits:

“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”

Clear's approach to building good habits, with a focus on process over outcomes, identity as the deeper layer beneath process, and making it easy over ruthless self-discipline, is spot on.

Yet, you may find that getting to a place where that approach can work requires some preparatory "Work."

Inner gardening–The work beneath the growth

I often refer to to this work as "Inner Gardening." When you walk through a thriving garden, what you see is vibrant growth and aliveness. What you don't see is the many hours a gardener spent tilling the soil, considering sunlight, finding weeds, adding nutrients, and tweaking the water with the changing seasons. This takes so much work that many won't want to do it. But the cost of having a "blah" garden pales in comparison to the cost of not having a thriving mind – or a mind and body that is healthy enough for positive change to actualize.

5 common weeds preventing your success

Common gaps to forming healthy habits and letting go of harmful ones that I see again and again in my work with humans include:

  1. Not knowing what kind of habits might actually move the needle: Not knowing what kinds of habits or goals actually cultivate wellbeing can keep us chasing goals like "beauty," weight loss, "style," and others that don't actually contribute to our wellbeing. There's nothing wrong with, as an example, trying to lose weight (yay health goals!) or elevating our personal style (woo hoo self-care!). The problem is that often beneath such goals lies an earnest desire for happiness. Elevating your personal style can feel good, but it's not the primary way to move from say, languishing to flourishing.
  2. Being out of touch with core aspects of identity: Not knowing who we are, what we stand for, and what we hold most dear generally leaves us chasing goals revered by others, or trying to walk down a path that was never meant for us. The simple act of identifying and keeping core values top of mind can be a game changer for carving out the path the fits your unique being, not someone else's.
  3. Self-criticism: Well-grooved patterns of self-criticism, become so refined, that even self-improvement goals are self-punishment in disguise. I call these goals "unkind goals" versus "kind goals." Kind goals are ones that align with intrinsic motivation, are realistic, and fit with your values.
  4. Aversion to happiness: It may sound counterintuitive but many carry an intolerance or aversion to happiness, such that joy itself can trigger avoidance or self-sabotage. This can arise in many ways, including the thought, "Oh no, this is good, when is someone going to to take this from me?" When this is true, success is met with the desire to take oneself down a notch.
  5. Competing desires: An example of a competing desire is clinging to the safety of the familiar, while simultaneously craving the courage to end a toxic relationship. Often one has to acknowledge and begin grieving the loss before moving on.

If you’re struggling to make a change in your life, despite many earnest attempts, press pause on any self-criticism, and consider that this may be an opportunity for "inner gardening." Get curious. What’s going on in your inner landscape? Is your inner soil ready to cultivate the changes you’d like to see.

If the answer is no, ask yourself what is needed. Often the answers are within. Sometimes a simple reminder of the obstacles can set forth your insight, and action.

But also, sometimes the answers aren’t within! Don’t hesitate to get help to uncover the obstacles beneath the surface.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.