Existential Psychology

Take Credit For Growth

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Sometimes people believe they are responsible for things they had little to do with yet believe they had little to do with things they really are responsible for. We can probably thank the psychoanalytic mechanisms of repression and externalization for this phenomenon.

It occurs all the time in the therapeutic setting, where credit for growth and change is shifted to the therapist or some other external source. I have noticed this with clients, and also in email correspondences where people write to thank me, attributing their change to something I have written.

It’s important to realize if you are in the process of change that this change starts and ends with you. You deserve to feel proud of your growth and to attribute it to yourself. One hour of work together every week, or a few thousand words, cannot possibly compare to all of the laborious work that goes in to effecting change, where you take the things you are learning and apply them to your concrete situation, dealing with all the accompanying anxiety. It takes commitment and discipline to break out of familiar and comfortable patterns of behavior.

The most that a piece of writing or a conversation can ever offer is a spark. You are the one who fulfills all the requisite tasks to turn that spark into a bonfire. It’s really tempting for us as helpers to take credit for the growth of others because it makes us feel really good and powerful, but this attitude would simultaneously demean the steps you are taking in your life journey.

If a teacher, or a therapist, or a piece of writing, or anything else has exerted a profound positive influence on your life, be grateful but don’t let your gratitude get in the way of realizing that you were the one who ran with what you learned, doing all the legwork. Change is not possible unless you willingly decide that you want to change. It always comes back to you.

Neuroscience is proving this idea to be true at the cellular level. Your prefontal cortex is kind of like the president of a company, if you think of the company as your brain. The prefontal cortex is your brain’s brain. It decides what stimuli from your environment are important enough to get through and which are not. You have to willingly pay attention to something and focus on it for change to even be possible. But that’s not enough for neuroplasticity to occur. It is focused effort that allows new neural connections to form, in effect taking this new information and making it stick instead of going in one ear and out the other. No one can force this process upon you, it has to be your own willing choice.

This is why not just theoretically but also concretely you are the one who is responsible for your change. You are the one who activates your prefrontal cortex, deeming new information important enough to be considered worthy of contemplation, and you are the one who expends your own energy over days, weeks, or months to make this information a part of your life and brain, encoded in new neural connections. Be proud of yourself and take credit for your growth. Even though the initial stimuli came from your environment, all stimuli come from our environment. It’s up to us to decide which are valuable and which are garbage, which lead to our growth and happiness and which to our stagnation.