Growing through challenge

“Challenges are gifts that force us to search for a new center of gravity. Don’t fight them. Just find a new way to stand.”

Oprah Winfrey

Are you currently confronted with a challenge that you are struggling to overcome? Is life changing in a way that you do not desire? Are you avoiding a difficult decision that deep inside you know you need to make?

If so, you are in good company. In today’s hyper-volatile world, the frequency at which we experience challenges that catch us off guard is increasing. And when we do encounter something that we feel we are not equipped to deal with, we often feel distressed, anxious, or even paralyzed – we wish the challenge would not happen, and we want it to go away as quickly as possible.

What if instead of trying to avoid such challenges, we could learn to embrace them as a necessary means of growth? As Buddha once said, “Pain is a gift. Instead of avoiding it, learn to embrace it”.

Life is best conceptualized as a continuous growth journey. Many philosophies emphasize that the purpose of life itself is to present us with a never-ending stream of challenges, and it is only by accepting, enduring and embracing these challenges that we grow. This is inherent in Buddhist philosophy, the hero journey by Joe Campbell, Erikson’s work, and others. What this also implies is that growth cannot be “borrowed” by listening to wise people, following someone else’s path, or feeling someone else’s pain. There is no shortcut; life needs to be lived, and the challenges given to us are life’s means to get us to stop running, reflect, and grow.

The challenges we face can be difficult and overwhelming, and it’s natural to want to avoid them. After all, our brain is programmed to keep us safe. It does so by scanning for threat continuously. Our brain constantly worries, anticipates, and plans. It tries to predict and control the future. However, if we let our “control brain” run our lives, we end up running through life without a break in a neverending attempt to be safe, to be respected, and to be successful. Challenges that block our “control brain” are actually an opportunity to “come to our senses”, pause and reflect.

When we face challenges we do not feel prepared for, we usually experience anxiety and pain, emotional and/or physical. This pain can become the midwife for growth. Without pain, we would just continue running. The pain can make us stop, pause and reflect. It can help us become more self-aware. It can lower our ego defenses. The moment of surrender, when we admit to ourselves that we are stuck and do not know the path forward, can become an opportunity to face ourselves and recognize our habitual patterns. Such a deeper awareness, when our ego quiets down and enables us to see clearly what we are striving for, what we are trying to avoid, how we act, and the prize we and others pay when we “double down” on our actions, can become an opportunity to gain new perspectives, inner freedom and choice.

The reason why challenges often create intense fear within us is that the ego, the part in ourselves that tries to maintain control, recognizes that it is unable to do so. Losing control necessarily entails feeling fear and anxiety. By facing our fears, we can step out of the imperatives of the ego. We can recognize the limiting beliefs that are driving our actions. Often, these limiting beliefs are phrased in “I must …” terms – they leave us no choice but to act in a particular way. Once we recognize this and confront the fear of letting go, we can step out of our usual ways of doing things. Stepping into the unknown enables us to develop new parts in ourselves, and experience what we’re truly capable of.

In the hero journey, the metaphor for facing our fears is the dragon or monster that seems overwhelming, but needs to be confronted and overcome to achieve the prize. This monster is our own fear, created by the part in ourselves that wants to hold on to the old and resist change. But by confronting this fear, we can open up new opportunities for growth.

And in doing so, we might realize that the things we are striving for and the things we desperately want to avoid are just that – things – they do not define us.

Self-awareness opens up the freedom to choose. Instead of replicating old patterns, we can choose to respond in a new way. We can choose to abandon goals that we thought we must accomplish no matter what. We can choose to endure a hardship that we desperately wanted to avoid. We can accept and own a failure. By refusing to “double down” on our defenses, we free up mental and emotional energy and create a softness within ourselves that enables us to perceive with fresh eyes and listen without judgment. We can connect more deeply with ourselves and with those around us, and often a new path will naturally emerge.

The journey of inner growth is not easy, and we tend to look at setbacks and obstacles along the way as something bad that we want to avoid. What if these setbacks and obstacles are actually a gift of the universe, which – if we welcome it and experience it willingly – can enable us to grow?

So let’s remember that pain is a gift, and rather than avoiding it, embrace it as an opportunity for growth. The very things we want to avoid might just be the things that enable us to grow the most.