How Are You Growing?

Changing our catch-up conversations can help us feel more connected

Posted Jul 09, 2018

Pedro Ribeiro Simoes/flkr
Source: Pedro Ribeiro Simoes/flkr

I recently bumped into an old friend who had been struggling emotionally. As I opened my mouth to ask for an update, I stopped. In a flash, I recalled times of turmoil when that simple, well-intended question had stung, forcing me to choose between a perfunctory response or vulnerability and shame. So instead of “how are you?” or “what have you been up to?”, I asked a different question – “how are you growing?”

She smiled and replied, “That’s a great question,” and proceeded to tell me, over an impromptu frozen yogurt, about all she had been learning lately about life and herself.           

As a psychotherapist, teacher, and author of book about reframing your story, I’ve thought long and hard about the ways in which we routinely communicate, and whether they serve or stifle us. As a society, we often check in with each other about what we are doing or accomplishing, but rarely with how we are being or evolving. When was the last time you bumped into a friend who announced, “Great news! Yesterday, I conquered my need for my boss’s approval, and today I didn’t scream at my son when he accidentally spilled milk all over the floor!”

Consequently, the subtle, often unrecognized personal victories that build character — such as facing a fear, changing an attitude, or kicking a bad habit – end up being buried under narratives of weddings, promotions, vacations, and other more traditional ways of measuring success.

Especially as a therapist, I’ve find these seemingly inconsequential conversations, and the values they implicitly prize, often have a more insidious impact on my people’s self esteem.  My clients often weigh in with feelings of inadequacy, as they measure themselves purely by their outward achievements and compare themselves to others. Some are quick to dismiss my praises for facing their fears or overcoming anger because they believe such accomplishments are not tangible, and therefore less valid.

The trouble is that growth not shared, is also not seen, and what’s not seen is often undervalued. This can lead to feelings of alienation and invisibility, interfering with feeling connected to others. Changing the conversation from greatness to growth demands that we challenge taboos against revealing vulnerability, and abide by research which shows that vulnerability is the key to intimacy and belonging.

The Inner and Outer Story

It’s not that external accomplishments aren’t worth sharing. It’s that they are only half the story. Literature, in fact, distinguishes between the outer story and the inner story. The outer story is essentially the factual, play-by-play account of what happens to someone. It’s the objective, Nightly News rendition, the Playbill synopsis, or how you might explain to friends what the story is about — a woman falls in love with a mysterious stranger she meets a party.

Consider the Wizard of Oz. In the outer story, Dorothy runs away from home, gets swept up in a tornado, lands on a witch, steals her shoes, gets threatened by the witch’s homicidal sister, follows the Yellow Brick Road, makes new friends, finds the Emerald City, is charged with a difficult assignment, gets captured, melts the homicidal witch, unmasks a kindly but fraudulent wizard, and misses her ride home, only to find her way back through magic.

The inner story is the commentary – it’s the main character’s subjective emotional experience of the story and the interpretation he or she makes of these events. It’s how the woman who meets a mysterious stranger at a party would tell her therapist — how she learns to trust again after having her heart broken.

 Inner stories are usually focused around character development — for example, the protagonist learns to believe in himself, handle new responsibilities, or let go of who he was and what he thought he wanted or needed. The inner story of the Wizard of Oz is that a runaway Kansas farm girl learns the value of family and friendship while discovering inner wellsprings of power, love, and courage.

Valuing Internal Victories

 For psychotherapists and authors, these type of changes mark meaningful progress in someone’s lifelong development, whether that person is a client or an imagined character. 

Unfortunately, while these hard-won internal victories are usually the precursors for external success, they often go outwardly unrecognized and undervalued. No one gets a trophy for overcoming anger or shame.

 But that doesn’t mean such victories aren’t meaningful and worth celebrating. Imagine a world where we boast about surmounting our own criticisms and judgments; where we trumpet the triumphs of heart openings, or share with an old friend the liberating humility of overcoming perfectionism.

 At the very least, we’d all feel a bit more OK about being human.