Dr Christpher Willard
Growing up is all about change, and change is tough on us humans.
As children, we are born into the world with a natural sense of wonder, unburdened by past experience and guided by natural curiosity. Children weave their way through life’s playground living in the present, arms outstretched to possibility and perceiving the world with unfettered wonder and play. However, as we grow older, it seems some things are lost along the way. Where as children, we might have relied on the gentle guiding hand of our parents to navigate us through life’s disappointments, it seems growing up is a far lonelier business. ‘Adulting’ is a trying place where the pursuit of lifelong fulfilment seem to co-exist with the undoing effects of disappointment, frustration and failure. It is a precarious state of being where every decision we make seems not only to threaten any sense of future happiness, but also present the destructive potential to undo our sense of self-command and self-belief.
When considering the inevitability of growing up, how can we draw upon forgotten childhood lessons to teach us a thing or two about being free? Speaking to Dr Christopher Willard, psychologist and author of Growing Up Mindful, we explore how we can lighten the burden of maturity, to ignite a renewed sense of childlike curiosity and wonder.
THE DOWNSIDE TO GROWING UP
Dr Christopher Willard
The stakes to try and fail are so much lower when we are younger.
“The key as an adult is to take risks and try new things,” explains Dr Willard. However, it is a reality that the majority of us find increasingly difficult to practice as we get older. As children, we seem presented with infinite possibilities to live our wildest dreams and fulfill our greatest ambitions. In our formative years, we never had to question anything outside of our encouragement to “dream big”. Then the years pass and we slowly begin to shelve alway our “big dreams” for manageable aspirations and overfamiliar routine. Our lives start to fall into well-worn patterns that seem almost too comfortable. Many of us will reminisce about our spontaneous enthusiasm to embark on new opportunities as children but feel less permission to do so as adults. This encourages us to question – Why?
THE INNER CRITIC
“The Inner Critic”, remarks Dr Willard, is “instilled by less than skilful teachers, parents and other caregivers. It keeps us safe, but also has diminishing returns”. Our ego shields us from the smarting pain of potential disappointment, failure or ridicule when a risk we have taken doesn’t pay off. However, it also presents a problem when we feel the urge to embark on new challenges or strike out to test the unknown limits of our abilities. It is a quirk of the mind that our ambition often fights a constant battle with the self-preserving nature of our ego.
A STATE OF PLAY
Dr Christopher Willard
By learning to accept that failure is not permanent condition, we can move past life’s roadblocks and learn to persevere and grow.
“There is this natural curiosity, trust and creativity that have us in wonder and awe at our natural and relational world, that I think that often gets acculturated out of us,” remarks Dr Willard. “ It gets de-emphasised, depending on the kind of family we have, and we can end up losing all the sparks of those things that are really natural”. He continues to observe, “our culture tells us over and over to get the right job, partner, family, house, things that will make us happy”. In a never-ending laundry list of things to accomplish, the psychologist acknowledges that the pursuit of perfection is a lifelong addiction. Our days and tasks progress in a fairly predictable and linear fashion to create the illusion of progress and forward momentum. However, despite our activity, this does little to silence the voice of our inner critic.
According to the psychologist, “being inquisitive can feel like a very vulnerable state, and it often is, depending on the context”. Asking questions in various professional scenarios can often single out one’s lack of information or ignorance. In our efforts to communicate a greater sense of self-command, “we forget to let go and let ourselves be curious. It really is ok to be full of wonder and curiosity”.
As an antidote to this tendency, Dr Willard suggests approaching any opportunity with a notion of curiosity rather than a fixed goal or idea of how things will play out. Inspired by a sense of exploration, the psychologist suggests, “by making it a deliberate habit at first, we can start to look for the good in things, and unconsciously correct our negative bias.”
THE GROWTH MINDSET
Don’t believe everything you think.
Speaking to our ability to change our mindsets as adults, Dr Willard comments ,“It’s harder when we are older, but think of how often you may have surprised yourself at being pretty good at something new.” Enter Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, whose studies have explored the idea that that our ability to learn is not fixed. Instead, it is mutable and can change with applied effort towards what she calls the “growth mindset”. Put simply, individuals who believe their talents can be developed and improved through learning and strategy, can progress and acquire better skills.
BIG SHIFTS START SMALL
“Through shifting to a growth mindset- the simplest intervention being shifting form an attitude of ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can’t yet’”, says Dr Willard. “We can learn from the past,” he continues, “but we don’t want to dwell on it at the expense of the present and future. By practicing this exercise in self-reinforcement, this state of mind wakes us up to the idea that we are more than our limiting beliefs. The brain is constantly creating and destroying neural pathways, forming thought and behaviour patterns that we use to make decisions and choose actions. Just like a newly forged path in a woodland, the more we tread down the same paths, the stronger they become.
Dr Christopher Willard
We can correct the negativity bias through gratitude and appreciation.
In the adult world where it seems you can put a price on self-esteem, we can often feel obliged to constantly pursue a sense of self-betterment. “All these things imply we are broken and need fixing,” observes the psychologist. “Beauty advertisements imply that women need makeup, diet programs target our body image insecurities, and whilst we can benefit from these changes, most of them don’t lead to real happiness.”
At some point in our early lives, most of us would have indulged in some project of self improvement. However what begins as teenage vanity, often evolves into something more as we get older. Raised stakes and fierce competition in the career pool can result in a more fervent pursuit of perfectionism and success. Naturally, problems arise when we are not instructed how foster healthy relationships with the concept of perfectionism.
“We ultimately may not need much fixing if we really appreciate it for what it is, and lean in to our strengths,” remarks Dr Willard. Perfectionism can be a double edged sword that can put us at the mercy of our ego, or, can be used as a tool for setting and achieving high standards. Putting the latter theory to practice, Dr Willard proposes, “I think it’s good to have perfection in mind as a goal that we hold loosely. We navigate by the North Star but we’re not trying to get to the North Star.” To this end, we are able to remain true to our pursuit by setting incremental goals along the way. And, most importantly, take pride in the progress that we have made.
As we get older, and leave behind our years of careless childhood naivety, it is important to remind ourselves that who we think we are is always changing. Limiting habits and thought patterns that we acquire on the way to maturity, are often far removed from our true selves that constantly seek to be redefined. In the words of the average joe Lester Burnham, “when you have the ability to surprise yourself, it makes you wonder what else you can do that you’ve forgotten about”.
Dr. Christopher Willard (PsyD) is a psychologist and educational consultant based in Boston specializing in mindfulness. He has been practicing meditation for 20 years, and leads workshops nationally and internationally. He currently serves on the board of directors at the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy, and is the president of the Mindfulness in Education Network. He has presented at TEDx conferences and his thoughts have appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, mindful.org, and elsewhere. He is the author ofChild’s Mind (2010) Growing Up Mindful (2016) Raising Resilience (2017) and three other books. He has three children’s books forthcoming, and teaches at Harvard Medical School.