A lot of personal development facilitators like to talk about the idea that there is no “there” there – that we’re on a lifelong journey, that no sooner than the moment we reach what we believe is our destination then another destination appears on the horizon, that the idea of a final place where we’re “done” doesn’t exist.
They’re not wrong, exactly. But I’d like to push back against this idea, because it comes from a vantage point of a great degree of privilege.
There’s a big difference between struggling in survival mode and living sustainably. A huge difference. And if you’re in survival mode, feeling like you’re living paycheck to paycheck (whether that’s literally in the form of your income or figuratively in the form of getting the rest you need for your wellness, the support you need from your friendships, or the bandwidth you need to make headway on your goals), then hearing that there’s no “there” to get to is going to feel disheartening at best.
You might remember in last week’s post I talked about looking at our personal wellness through the lens of sustainability, and seeing our patterns as either open or closed loop systems – that is, some of the internal algorithms we unconsciously live by will drain our energy in an ongoing manner until our it leads our system to collapse and dysregulation (e.g., “if I am pleasing to others, then they will treat me well” will have us draining our personal giving to others who will happily take it from us into infinity without reciprocating), and we can repattern these generator functions into sustainable ways of being that ensure that we are investing our energy into people and places that return it to us and possibly even amplify it (e.g., “if I nurture friendships and relationships with people who value me and treat me well, then I will be valued and treated well”).
Because trauma-imprinted behaviors tend to beget more trauma, we can continue acquiring these experiential lessons that teach us on an unconscious level to split off and repress more and more aspects of our full expression until we are operating from a very narrow range of behaviors that we have learned are acceptable. And unfortunately, when we behave as though we have no needs or boundaries, we tend to attract people who agree with us, and who often even train us into further repression, because on some level they sense that we’re already running patterns that encourage it. Certainly this was the case in my own experience.
These patterns contribute to a diminishing of our personal energy, because we are running that energy toward ends where it is either accumulating within recipients who aren’t returning it to us or simply leaking out into nothing. As an example, I spent over a year in my twenties financially supporting a partner who was abusive toward me. That energy, in the form of rent money, was going toward the maintenance of a relationship that was not only not reciprocating that energy, but was actively draining it from me in another form – the creation of more trauma through abuse, which created further stress responses in my body that redirected my bandwidth away from my well-being and instead used it on threat assessment and stress management. This dynamic meant that my candle was burning at both ends – because of a faulty internal algorithm that was dictating my behavior toward being pleasing, I spent a great deal of my energy supporting my partner and his doomed business, despite the fact that that energy wasn’t being returned to me and was actually enabling my partner in harming me.
If you picture this pattern in your mind’s eye, you might see it as an open loop – the beginning of that loop being the resources of my own money and emotional wellness, and the ultimate end of it being my selfish partner and his business, and an obvious gap where none of that energy was being returned to me. As time went on, I lost more and more money, accumulated more and more trauma, and felt worse and worse about life.
The process of repatterning and creating the internal algorithms that support sustainable systems within ourselves means that we begin to close those open loops within our lives and to direct our energy toward the places where it is returned to us in a form that feels equally as valuable or even more so.
Since money is a very concrete way of defining energy, an easy way to think of it is this example: If we are working a job that doesn’t pay us enough to cover our monthly expenses and take care of ourselves enough to maintain our basic health, then that is not a sustainable way of being. If we continue in that pattern, our money will run out, we will not be able to afford our cost of living, and our system will collapse. (Given the current macroeconomics in America and many other places around the globe, I want to be clear that this is not a moral failing, but a lack of systemic opportunity and a steady devaluation of middle-class workers.)
If on the other hand we manage to switch to a job that pays us not only enough to maintain our cost of living but also enough to spend on leisure or put towards savings, then we will not only be able to maintain our baseline, but we’ll also be able to save for a rainy day or for a vacation or for a longer-term goal. We can even invest that money into a side hustle to make more of it if we so choose. This pattern – in the form of the new job, so long as it also supports our overall health and well-being – therefore forms a closed loop, returning at least as much energy to us as we are directing into it.
(I want to be clear that what I’m discussing here is a model for understanding our reality and not something we can sufficiently quantify in most cases. It’s easy to quantify monetary investments because our finances are measured in very specific units – hence the example above – but for our personal wellness, our states of rest, our bandwidth, and the benefits of our friendships and relationships, this is not something we can measure other than by how we notice the effects our bodies feel from these dynamics. At the very least, I’ll leave it to Dr. Joe Dispenza and his EEG machines to figure that part out – for most of us, we’ll simply notice what aspects of our lives are draining or nourishing us by noticing how we feel about them. Which is also why cultivating right relationship with our bodies in order to be in tune with our felt sense is such an important key to repatterning – but that’s a topic for another day.)
The moment we cross the line from survival mode, an open loop system, into the closed loop system of sustainability… well, that is a very significant “there” there. That is perhaps the “there” that many of us are looking to get to. Sustainability means basic nervous system regulation and the knowledge that if all continues on in the same manner, our basic safety is generally assured, and that even in the event of an emergency, we have community support we can rely on.
This is true of our overall systems as much as it is for our individual patterns – is our overall system taking in as much or more energy than it is expending? There will quite likely be a tipping point where we’ve called back enough energy from the first few patterns we tackled that we can then more easily direct that new bandwidth toward working on subsequent patterns. And then the more energy we call back and redirect sustainably, the more our energy continues increasing. It’s likely that we will have a moment when we feel this shift in the sense of our comfort levels and nervous system regulation.
From that moment, of course we can continue growing and expanding. We can continue saving our money, we can acquire more free time, we can devote more energy to our side hustles or passion projects or communities, we can give back to other places in the collective that need repair, such as acts of charity or supporting our friends’ GoFundMes. Of course there’s always more growth and learning and expansion we can do. For me personally, a significant “there” for my own sustainable career energy was that I wanted to be able to afford to produce music even faster than I could write it. And now that I’ve accomplished that, now that I have enough sustainable income to afford studio time faster than I can write songs, I do feel a new destination on the horizon – now I want my own home studio, the ability to engineer my own vocals, and maybe even two or three different microphones so I can play around with different sounds in my free time and really explore the edges of my potential as a vocalist. So sure, I have a new goal on the horizon. But I also know that this is a stretch goal, and that it comes from a place where I’ve acquired enough privilege to be able to focus on stretch goals because I’m already square with my baseline sustainability, and that there’s a big difference between this goal and my original goal of being able to sustainably afford to have a music career at all. (And let’s face it, having a music career at all is a privilege, and is also very different from the goal of being able to sustainably support oneself.)
The switch from the loss or stagnation of energy we experience in survival mode to the slow but steady accumulation of energy we acquire when we learn how to direct it into the patterns that amplify it back to us is an extraordinarily significant milestone. And to pretend that it doesn’t exist, that there’s no “there” there, is to essentially say that all our clients are privileged enough not to have to have dealt with the need to exit a survival mode pattern, such that we can’t even recognize the difference.
It takes energy to create more energy, which is why the oppressive systems that create survival mode conditions for so many people feel (and are) so especially unfair. Those who inherit generational wealth will obviously be able to create more wealth from investing the wealth they inherited. Those who are born into generational trauma patterns will have to do work undoing conditions they didn’t even create for themselves. (Sometimes both these things will be true for a person, and sometimes their opposites will be true for others.) Unfortunately, other than fostering a collective environment of omniconsideration in which everyone is invested in everyone else’s well-being, which requires the cooperation of the majority, I haven’t found a solution for this, except to do my best to teach people how to work with what they’ve got and, through the power of their own understandings, turn their circumstances into something better.
My point is, if we don’t understand the difference in this key shift, then how limited is our understanding of what are we helping people move away from? What is the result that we’re promising in our work? How do we measure where we’re actually doing okay?
Yes, repatterning is a lifelong journey, and life itself is emergent, so a healthy element in the system will continue learning, growing, and adapting as it unfolds.
But there is a big destination along the way – the moment that we start receiving as much or more energy as we are expending – and to fail to understand that means to fail to understand the stressors of the very folks we say we’re helping.
System-wide sustainability is a very big “there.”