THE PARADOX OF SELF-DEVELOPMENT
We are individuals, and need to respect ourselves as individuals. In this sense, we are all perfect already.
However, we are all born into a culture which regards us as raw material. In this sense, we need to try to make ‘finished goods’ of ourselves.
This is a paradox. We are perfect and imperfect, complete and raw material, all at the same time.
What does this mean for self-development? It means that:
- half of our attention needs to be on the preservation of our own souls in the face of an assault by the forces of cultural education, prejudice and prior assumption
- the other half of our attention needs to be on the education of our own souls in the face of personal tendencies toward laziness, ill-discipline and anxiety
Think of a counselling client. The client is in a sense perfect – they are themselves, in all their glory. With unconditional positive regard, the person-centred counsellor holds them up to be worthy of infinite esteem, just as they are.
But the client is also in a sense not perfect. They have come with a view to self-improvement. They have problems which they want to solve, and the solution, says counselling, is in the development of the self.
In this way, we can be mindful of the paradox of self-development… that we are part of the perfect club already… and yet we need to perfect ourselves through continuous exposure to life.
THE ROLE OF PLAY IN SELF-DEVELOPMENT
In keeping with the above paradox, there are two differing roles of play in self-development.
On the one hand, play helps us to defend our perfect selves from unnecessary adulteration by existing cultures, prejudices and prior assumptions. Play, in this sense, is a celebration of the self in the face of the pressure to conform. We should allow ourselves to challenge and escape existing rules… to challenge and escape common prejudices… and to wipe society’s prior assumptions.
On the other hand, play helps us to cajole ourselves out of laziness, to find ways to tease ourselves into new disciplines, and to humour ourselves out of anxious culs-de-sac.
So we can expect the ideal sense of play to work both ways. The person who plays well challenges others, but also themselves.
AWE AND REFLECTION
Awe helps you to find what enlivens your mind; reflection helps you to find what tames your mind.
If you like, awe is the spirit which tells us what to hunt; reflection is the spirit with which we learn to hunt better.
Without awe, our self-development will be stale, and will have no sense of freedom and inspiration. Unless we are allowed to follow what inspires us, we will be left feeling uninspired and trapped.
Without reflection, our self-development will be slow, and will have no sense of discipline and control. Unless we are able to tame what inspires us, we will be left feeling hyper-alert and out of control.
Awe and reflection are similar to compassion and wisdom – twin wings which, together, help us fly.
When we are simply told what to do, we are given no scope for either awe or reflection… we do not have time to love what we do, nor to enrich our relationship with what we do. Life will seem thin and boring.
Self-development is all about developing our story. To be good, a story has to have something mesmerising about it. But to be very good, a story also has to incorporate a sense of reflective integrity.
When we develop ourselves, in counselling or education, we are engaged in story development.
When counselling clients come to me, the first thing I invite them to do is to tell me about themselves. I notice each client’s story, and how they tell it. What names to they give themselves? What roles do they assign to self or others? Does the story limit them, give them problems? Where does their story place problems? How does their story help or inhibit relations with life, and with others? Is it a rich, helpful story? Is it the story of someone uninspired and trapped? Is it the story of someone hyper-alert and out of control?
As sessions go on, I notice how a client’s story develops. I notice how the conceptualisation of a person’s own character changes, frees up, loosens, reforms, reshapes. Often, I notice blockages and inhibitions gently releasing themselves. I notice life becoming richer, more humorous, more helpful to the client. I notice inspiration and freedom awakening. I notice a greater ability to self-calm and self-discipline.
The paradox of self-development is that we are wonderful and perfect – and raw and imperfect – at the same time.
We can make use of play, both to protect our wonderful, perfect selves against outside forces… and to discipline and control ourselves.
Awe is the drive that pushes our perfect self to be expressed – by following our sense of awe, we realise that we know what is good.
Reflection is the skill that perfects our evolving self – by reflecting, we recognise that we are able to spin good into better.
Our narrative, our story, is a key expression of our self-development. If our story is thin, negative, limiting, then we are likely to need or seek help. As our story becomes freer, richer, more humorous, more helpful, then we are likely to experience fulfilment of the self.
To develop, we are wise to think of ourselves as perfect, and imperfect, at the same time. Then we will respect ourselves enough to trust our own preferences… but we will also seek reflectively to discipline ourselves, and change ourselves for the better.