The Decision To Grow Is Also The Decision To Die

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Why is it that so many people, maybe most people, remain stuck in undesirable environmental conditions and dysfunctional patterns of behavior even when they’re aware that change is possible and that this change would benefit them greatly? Why do people choose stagnation over growth?

The answer lies in the ever-present specter of existential anxiety, that unseen menace lurking at the edge of conscious awareness. From the shadows it’s free to operate the levers of human life with impunity. The decision to stagnate is rationalized on various plausible grounds but the real reason is existential anxiety, the real reason is the threat of symbolic death that rears its ugly head any time the old and familiar might be traded for the new and unknown.

What we have to understand if we want to gain empathy for those struggling to make important changes in their lives is that the decision to grow is also the decision to die. We’re not talking about the physical death of the biological system, but rather the symbolic death of the psychic system. For us humans the threat of physical death and the threat of symbolic death cue off the exact same painful existential anxiety. This anxiety stops us in our tracks without us necessarily knowing how or why.

Longstanding unwanted environmental conditions and dysfunctional patterns of behavior might be highly objectionable but they are familiar, their parameters are known, and this familiarity keeps existential anxiety at bay. It’s like an unconscious tradeoff, where you have an undesirable state of affairs with little felt existential anxiety on one side and a possibly more desirable state of afairs but lots of felt existential anxiety on the other side. At the theoretical level most of us will agree the second side is better but at the practical level most of us choose the comfort of familiarity.

The way to get the ball rolling on our growth and self-actualization is to first bring that hidden existential anxiety into conscious awareness and then look deeply into how the looming prospect of symbolic death has interfered with our quality of life over the years. The existential reality is that every moment of human life is a moment of birth and a moment of death. This is unavoidable even when we do everything we can to try to make our lives stay the same.

It’s not our truest, deepest Selves telling us to stagnate but rather our false egos telling us to stagnate in a desperate effort to survive, to remain intact, just a little bit longer. Human growth means allowing our true Selves to be born, but like we said this also means allowing our false selves to die off. Birth and death are inextricably bound. Whether we’re talking about the physical realm or the symbolic realm you can’t have one without the other, they’re like two sides of the same coin. This insight can help us summon up the courage to make those important changes, changes that mean confronting and accepting death but also mean saying yes to life in a deeper, more meaningful way than we ever have before.