Since I was a kid, I've been fascinated by what it means to live one's full potential as a human being. I didn’t, of course, put it that was when I was younger, but I can see from here that, for instance, my early resistance to rules I didn't understand or that didn’t make sense to me came from a fierce wish to expand, to explore, to test myself, and not from obstructionism. While as adults we sometimes misunderstand this impulse in small people, I think it's true for most children: as kids, we're still guided closely, organically, by the pulse of our full potential. Our energies are naturally, often urgently expansive: curiosity, wonder, play, open-heartedness, and connection are often still the driving forces in our lives, even, often, when living in and through trauma.
Over time, though, the curiosity that once propelled us effortlessly outward (into conversation with strangers, contact with insects and animals, imaginary worlds, woods and streams, tidal pools and marshes, empty lots, dumps, alleys, abandoned buildings, and forts erected from the refuse of neighborhood curbs) becomes inverted and internalized: primary questions that once led us into exploration and wonder are often replaced by questions about our own belonging, our worthiness, and our competence. What will I discover here? becomes Who am I to want more? How can I figure this out? gives way to What’s wrong with me?
By mid-life we often feel pulled apart by these seemingly antagonist energies: the quest to learn and grow, on the one hand, and the fear of doing so, on the other.
If you feel stuck, or trapped, you might ask yourself if you’re in fact wrestling with this tension between growth and security. Do you feel inordinately lethargic, anxious, or numb at times? Visited often by worry, rumination, and shades of depression? Restless for change but confused and unfocused? If so, odds are you’re approaching the precipice of deep change. Of transformation. The change to come might be subtle, interior. Or dramatic and visible.
Either way, I can tell you that, if recognized and harnessed, this tension (often felt in our bodies as acute discomfort) can be a very good thing: it's the symptom of untapped potential. Of your aliveness. It's your gateway to growth, to healing, to intimacy, to innovation, and purposeful service to others.
The problem isn't the tension itself between curiosity and self-criticism, but the way we perpetuate competition between them by inhabiting one at the cost of the other.
We might, for example, feel happy and productive, and then something triggers us and we start doubting and second-guessing ourselves (or slipping into resentment and blame, the other side of the self-doubt coin). But because we've learned to believe that these emotional states (such as happiness and despair) are at odds, we no longer feel integrated, but split down the middle. We sometimes experience this as feeling like a fraud, or living a double life. We might feel it in our bodies as disconnect (from our emotions, our feelings, or from our sexual energy), or as restlessness and agitation. We might feel it in our minds as lack of focus, chronic distractedness, and a difficulty being still or present.
Whatever our experience, though, the shared sensation is one of feeling at odds with ourselves. Hence the popular aphorism, “I just need to get out of my own way.”
Consider, however, that as humans we’re in the midst of a pivotal evolutionary moment: we are still, as a species, neurologically wired to seek safety when faced with discomfort—that is, to survive. And yet, what has enabled us to survive—namely, the drive to avoid pain, seek pleasure, and conserve energy (the “motivational triad”)— increasingly inhibits our capacity to thrive.
Some humans, of course, still contend with chronic material threats to mere survival. For those of you reading this blogpost, however, survival is easier than it’s ever been, something you likely rarely think about. And yet, our brains have not yet caught up with this phenomenon: there’s very often a sizable schism between the actual “dangers” our brains perceive as threats (fear of failure, fear of success, fear of disappointing loved ones, fear of rejection, fear of humiliation, etc.) and the primitive brain’s perception of these emotions as life-threatening. In other words, what for so long allowed us to survive more often than not increasingly thwarts our ability to thrive.
When we experience fear, which is triggered whenever we step beyond our comfort zones (that is, whenever we pursue growth on purpose), our primitive brains trigger the release of epinephrine and cortisol, which in turn sets off the fight or flight mechanism. If left unchecked, this primal fear response will shut down the left prefrontal cortex, the newest part of our brain, the part that solves problems, innovates, and enables us to place-take (and to therefore feel empathy and compassion).
When triggered, this primal fear mechanism causes us to lose motivation and stay stuck via habits of buffering, distraction, and avoidance. Hence the epidemic in the US—the wealthiest country in the world—of myriad forms of over-consumption, most clearly evident in rising rates of obesity and addiction, as well as pronounced environmental devastation.
Most of us, however have no idea how to intervene in our own fear response, and therefore remain confused and increasingly disheartened by our lack of progress as we set ambitious goals and pursue intentional growth, only to fall back again and again after brief stints of promising success.
Most of us, that is, arrive repeatedly at the place with which this essay began: feeling split down the middle, at once our own best friend and our own worst enemy, wondering what the hell is wrong with us.
What I've found, through my own journey and in coaching and witnessing others through theirs, is that one primary practice turns all of this around. This one practice is, moreover, the single most important key to living your full potential. Without it, we stay stuck in old patterns no matter how hard we try to understand and outrun them.
And while with the best of intentions we tell ourselves, with exasperated conviction, to “get out of our own way,” this practice teaches us that it’s actually the opposite tack that we need to take if what we want is sustainable change and the remarkable freedom one feels when truly engaging one’s full potential.
This practice is self-love.
It took me years to understand what this really means.
I both thought I had it licked (of course I love myself!) and was suspicious of it (isn’t all this talk of self-love self-indulgent? Myopic? Selfish?)
Still, I read every book I could find about it. I went to lots of therapy. I learned how to meditate, and developed a habit of doing so. I immersed myself in the study of poetry. I attended dozens and dozens of retreats. I hired a life coach. I became a podcast junkie. A teacher. A coach. An entrepreneur. All in an effort to engage my full potential and understand how it works and what it means—
And one day, it clicked. Not that I’ve got it down pat, but I can now feel when I’m in the self-loving groove, and that feeling—memory guides me back there more and more often.
Self-love isn’t, I realized, so much about getting out of my own way as it is about welcoming every part of myself to the table.
Self-love is not something we earn. It's not, for example, something we give ourselves after we’ve lost the weight we keep trying to lose. It's not the reward we get for overcoming or stuffing or even healing our anger. It's not the gold star we give ourselves once we've routed out that deep-down thing we hate about who we are or what we've done.
Nor is self-love about letting ourselves off the hook. It's not an abdication of responsibility.
Rather, self-love is genuine self-acceptance. As we are, now. Imperfections, flaws, addictions, shame, regrets, rages and all.
For many, such self-acceptance feels completely counter-intuitive, to say the least. It feels like condoning that which we don’t like or approve of. It might feel like indulging in negativity.
But until we actually learn how to accept ourselves fully, we stay stuck in the battle between curiosity and self-criticism. Our creativity will languish, or at the very least, be stunted. Our relationships may survive, but they certainly won't thrive. We might experience professional success, but deep fulfillment will always elude us.
Why? Because until we learn to love ourselves, we’ll abandon ourselves when the going gets tough.
That is, we’ll capitulate to the fear mechanism—the motivational triad of avoiding pleasure, seeking pain, and expending the least amount of energy, habitually and non-consciously, when faced with the discomfort of difficult emotions. Fear of failure, fear of disappointing others, fear of rejection, fear of humiliation—emotions that inevitably attend intentional growth—will feel, to our brains, like danger. Fight, flight, or freeze will kick in. Prefrontal functions will seize. We’ll avoid our pain by seeking quick-fix pleasure—another glass of wine, a bowl of ice cream, numbing out with Netflix, relational drama, overwork, etc.
If, however, we can stay present to our emotions, be willing to feel our feelings no matter how much we dislike them (and ourselves for having them), we can short-circuit the fear response. Our feelings become to us nothing more or less than what they are—feelings, vibrations that ask for our attention and, having garnered it, pass through us, having left us more aware, more awake.
When we can truly feel our feelings, any of them and all of them, we don’t abandon ourselves. This is the meaning of self-love, and it is the ticket—the only ticket—to genuine freedom.
If you’d like to hear about my own recent experience of shifting from self-blame to self-love, click here to watch my video on self-acceptance. In this video (11 minutes long) I walk you, step-by-step, through the process of self-acceptance, the core practice of self-love.
And as always, if this post speaks to you, please share it with others! And I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions in the comments below.
P.S. If you struggle with self-acceptance, and would like to learn how to break out of old patterns that keep you locked in self-criticism and resentment, I’d love to talk with you. Click here to schedule a free, no-strings-attached Breakthrough Session with me. Living a fully-expanded life of full potential can’t happen until we learn to invite all of our selves to the table. And this is easier, honestly, than you might think.