Tears were rolling down Terry’s cheeks at the end of her story, a story that conveys the essence of personal development. Terry’s tears were tears of joy, tears of a discovery of something within her that she didn’t know existed, didn’t think was possible, and will never forget.
Terry (not her real name), like so many of us, had been trying to approach personal development with her rational mind. She has a quick and agile mind, bristling with new ideas to chase and explore. She’s a classic Enneagram Seven — the Enthusiastic Visionary. In this story, she did something she’d never done. For just a moment, she set her thinking aside. She busted a move — she summoned her courage, silenced (ignored) the inner chatter, and used her heart.
That moment and movement made all the difference. That was the source of these tears Terry was sharing along with her story with the eight other people in her peer development group. Terry was showing us all a way. A real way. And I’m going to tell the story to you.
Someone Failing to Deliver
A co-worker owed Terry a presentation for a critical project and had missed the due date. This missed deliverable put Terry in a tough position, placing a project at risk. Terry’s security felt at risk. She was emotionally triggered. Terry is the type of person who delivers.
Terry’s typical style would be the hit the issue head-on with the other person while trying to act “nice” but feeling anything but “nice” inside. (She knows now the only person this fools is herself. It comes off to the other as harsh, or at least inauthentic.)
She decided to use the conversation she needed to have with this person as a “test.” In our personal development parlance, a “test” is an intentionally chosen opportunity to do a different (anxiety-provoking) behavior — which “disrupts” the underlying instincts, emotions, and thoughts — and then see if we can learn something about ourselves. And, of course, we hope the new behavior makes the situation go better than the old behavior.
Terry set her intent and summoned her attention. To prepare for the conversation, she tuned in to her feelings, noting her agitation. She inventoried her thoughts and assumptions, such as “this person is just trying to be difficult, and they don’t care and take their commitments and work seriously.”
All the needed grist for the mill was there for a test. She thought to herself, “Well, what could I test?” What might I try to do differently than my old, habitual way?
The answer that popped up was psychological safety. “That’s what I want to try,” she said to herself. “I don’t know how, exactly, but I want to extend psychological safety to this person.”
She did. But it didn’t start out that way.
The conversation started in a typical way for her. Terry was direct, the other person defensive. By some minor or major miracle, Terry kept trying to open her heart towards the other person even though her ego and just about every fiber of her being was saying slam the darn gates SHUT! Now!
Yet sometimes, when we set a positive intention like this, the invisible forces of life conspire to help us. Whether that happened here, I don’t know. But I do know this: Terry managed to hold the gates of her heart open enough. How do I know? Because this happened…
At some point in the middle of all this, her co-worker paused. She looked at Terry and said, “Terry, I don’t know how to say this, but the issue is this. I’m scared. I don’t know this subject well enough. I’m struggling with the presentation, and I’m terrified to give it. So I’m procrastinating and not getting it done.”
This response was outside anything that Terry had ever experienced or expected. She couldn’t believe her ears. Her heart broke open towards her co-worker. Terry and her co-worker were now on the same side. They hatched a plan together. All of Terry’s assumptions were wrong. This person wasn’t trying to be difficult and actively working to put Terry’s project at risk. This person was scared, and they needed a helping hand.
As she concluded her story, Terry herself appeared to be struggling a bit to process her own experience. She didn’t know what happened, how it happened, whether it was a fluke, or whether it would ever happen again. Yet, on the other hand, the experience was profound — for her and the other person. This she knew.
Making Sense of It
Her small peer development group had lots of input and support for Terry’s breakthrough. Yet Terry appeared to me to be struggling with making sense of it all.
“Terry,” I said. “Maybe I could share two things with you and the group.” I went on to share this.
1. A Heart at Peace
In situations like these — in cases where the stakes are high — we often are triggered, afraid, in the ego, and therefore quite defensive. When we are defensive, we beget defensiveness from the other. Therefore, our inner state and outer actions bring out the worst in the other person when we most need the opposite. Think about that. We bring out the worst in others.
We can take any action from one of two places: a heart at peace, or a heart at war. The very same action taken from these two places has two very different outcomes. When our heart is at war, we beget war. We bring out the worst in the other. When our heart is at peace, we create (albeit it is not guaranteed) an opportunity for vulnerability, cooperation, creativity, and the like.
“Terry, this is what you discovered, I think.” She smiled.
(For more on this concept, check out the book The Anatomy of Peace, one of my favs.)
2. Life Is a Feeling
The second thing I shared was that Terry might be discovering that personal development doesn’t happen through the rational mind. So many of us want to study personal development, learn the process, know the concepts, etc. It’s like if we understand it, we can keep it safe. Keep us safe. But that is not the way it works.
The rational mind alone cannot solve the problems it has a hand in creating.
You can read how to sail a boat, but you can’t learn to sail with the boat tethered to the dock. At some point, the dock lines must be loosed from the cleats. We take a deep breath, leave the slip, move out of the marina, and we round the breakwater. The wind, waves, and tide picks up. There, we learn to sail. It is exhilarating, and it is scary.
Book knowledge and videos and all that can prime our brain. That’s good and all. But at some point, we summon our courage, step over our fears, and we do. Even (and especially) when we are scared and don’t feel like it.
Terry “got” this, that she managed — by hook or by crook — to summon something other than her rational mind. Does she know what, exactly? No. But she now has a feeling for this in her bones.
That feeling will guide her forward in her personal development efforts. She’s discovering life itself — and therefore personal development — is not a stream of thinking and thought objects. Life is a feeling. A flow. A current. And Terry slipped into it, was carried, sustained, and nurtured by it.
And from that stream, Terry accessed something she did not know she had and with that served another human being. That touched Terry to her depths. Terry learned she can enter a state from which she can help others, even in situations where she had in the past wanted to dress the person down.
As We Go
I smiled. I love moments like these. What can I say but what I said to Terry.
“Terry, I couldn’t be happier for you. You’ve found it.” It is something that no one can give to you, something you cannot buy, something no one can ever take away. You have found — have a feeling for — how you move forward in life. How to grow. How to evolve. And you have a feeling for how you serve yourself, others, and life when you do. How can you put a price on that?”
Others in Terry’s cohort were crying, too. Tears of joy for her. In finding her way, our hero pointed out a way to all of us. I hope that Terry’s story is in some way helpful to you, too. So much is available to us all, and a heart held humble levels and lights the way.
Cast the lines. Summon courage. Keep the heart open when it wants to close — leap (slide, fall, or stumble) into the current, the flow, the feeling. There will be a hand to catch you there, though you can’t know that for sure until you do, and it does. But it will be there for you. It is faith that cups that hand. But faith alone is not enough. That’s where courage comes in, too. You may need every bit of it you can summon. But the effects are incomprehensible.
Terry would tell you that, I’m pretty sure. And if she can do, so can you and I. It’s remarkable what she did. And what is more remarkable is that it is available to anyone, anywhere, anytime. No credit card needed. In fact, none are accepted. This is the realm of a different currency. But you have it. In abundance.