The world breaks everyone, wrote Ernest Hemingway,
and afterwards, some are stronger at the broken places.
And isn’t that the truth?
Even in the gym, we break down our muscles and endure the soreness, just so the next week we can come back a little stronger. And the week after that, stronger still.
But that process of changing ourselves for the better, of breaking ourselves down so we can break through to the next level, isn’t always easy. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, there’s a gap between what we want and what we get. Sometimes, instead of truly experiencing transformation, what we get looks more like translation: same old wine in new bottles. And that can get pretty frustrating over time.
So, anytime we’re trying to transform some important part of our lives, whether it’s our health, our career or our relationships at home, it’s critical to know three of the top ways the world can break us. If we know what they are ahead of time, and we take the necessary steps, we can use them to our advantage and forge the life we’ve always wanted.
Trigger #1: Fixin’ to Get Ready
This one’s kind of obvious, but it trips up a lot of people before they even get to the starting line. And that’s the simple question: How ready are you to change, really?
Most of us just assume that change is a “one and done” operation — either we’re the way we were (the infamous “before” photo — all pale and hairy with our bellies sticking out), or we’re fully changed (the awesome “after” photo — tanned, waxed and impossibly buff).
But researchers have gone beyond the infomercial promises and looked at how people actually transform. Turns out, change is a cycle and we’re never truly done. Before we’re actually ready to do anything differently, we spend time in pre-contemplation — where I might happily knock back beer and Buffalo wings all football season, to contemplation — where I start wondering a few weeks before summer, “Hmm…do these jeans make me look fat?” to actually being ready to make a decision — “Enough’s enough — I’m signing up for Training Club 24,” to the actual change — “TC24 is my new religion!” to…well, we’re done, right?
Not. So. Fast.
The final two stages in this cycle of transformation are everyone’s least favorite, but crucial to remember. Maintenance — “You mean those piña coladas on the vacation went straight to where?” all the way to good old-fashioned relapse — “I am so over that stupid group class thing! When’s the NFL draft on TV?”
So if you’re wondering why you’re not changing the way the commercial promised when you bought that absersizer, or why your friend has been nailing those New Year’s resolutions while you barely got started, check to see where you really are in the change cycle.
And rather than magically hoping to teleport to the tan and buff changed stage in one giant leap, just try and take the next small step forward on your journey. You’ll get there faster by starting slower.
Trigger #2: Climb High/Sleep Low
When mountaineers climb Mount Everest, they follow the adage “climb high, sleep low.” What that means is that in order to acclimatize, or get used to the lack of oxygen above 20,000 feet, they spend their days lugging gear up to higher camps, and then come back down lower on the mountain to sleep. That lets their bodies adjust to the thin air, so when they get a break in the weather, they can push hard for the summit, feeling as strong as possible.
When we’re changing, when we’re in the process of transforming ourselves, we can follow that advice too. Often, after a great workout, for example, we feel like a million bucks. We’re pumped full of feel-good neurochemicals, we’ve ramped up our metabolism, and we’re standing above the clouds. When we go back to work or family, we’ve got more energy, and more perspective on challenges that might have stopped us in our tracks the day before.
So, just like those mountaineers who bust a hump to get to the higher camps and then come back down with new inspiration and views, we can make the most of the high points on our journey. Over time, our stretch goals become our new baseline — the place we’d only been able to reach with huge exertion before, is now the place we sleep and rest up for the next push.
If we skip that back and forth — if we get “summit fever” and try and rush to our goal too quickly — we can end up sick or injured. Instead, by “climbing high and sleeping low,” we tackle our big goals one step at a time. We give ourselves time to stretch and also time to integrate. So when that perfect day comes, we’re primed and ready to claim that peak.
Trigger #3: Jonah and the Whale
So, if we figure out where we are in the change cycle, and we manage to take step after step towards our own transformation, we’ll eventually find ourselves standing on the summit of our dreams.
But what then?
As strange as it may sound, we might not let ourselves stay there. We might end up scared of our own success, and sabotage the very thing we’ve worked so hard to achieve. If I’m newly fit and hitting my workouts three times a week, I may just indulge myself with some donuts on the way home from the gym — “just this once,” or “because I can.” Before we know it, the pounds slip back on, our energy lags, and we give up much of the high ground we worked so hard to achieve.
And here’s why: when we change, we change our relationship to ourselves and to everyone else around us. And most of the people in our lives, especially the ones closest to us, don’t always welcome that change, even when both they and we think they should.
It’s why when one partner drops 20 or 30 pounds, it almost always creates shockwaves in the partnership — it rarely leaves things exactly the same. So you have a choice: either steer things back closer to the way things were, or force those around you to change as well.
Famed psychologist Abraham Maslow had a term for that fear of our own greatness — he called it the Jonah Complex — named after the Old Testament character, Jonah, who split town when God called him to his bigger mission. Maslow said we step back from our success for two key reasons.
First, our own fear of “if I am all that, how can I keep it up?” If we’re suddenly fitter, funnier, happier, wealthier, then all of our “someday/maybe” fantasies are right there, within reach. That can be terrifying — we’ve always had that stuff in the comfortable soft focus of a vague future. But now we’ve leveled up, it’s on us, and quite often, we’d rather punt than risk taking a swing and miss.
Second, our own self-consciousness of “what would the neighbors think?” And not just neighbors, but friends and family. It’s why college freshmen hate coming home for that first Thanksgiving. They’ve been living on their own, devouring philosophy and psychology, making new friends, and they come home feeling completely new and different. But then Aunt Sally pats them on the head, Uncle Billy punches them in the arm, and they get crammed onto the piano stool with their weird cousin, just like old times.
The technical term for this is homeostasis — which is just a fancy way of saying, we like things the way they are — more than the way they could be. Know that in transforming yourself, you’re also transforming every other relationship in your life. You’ll need support, and you’ll need to risk upsetting old balances to create a new, better balance.
These are the three most common triggers that thwart or support transformation. Know where you are in the change cycle, balance your peak experiences with your day-to-day realities and level up slowly, and lean into your own best self without apology for how big you can be!