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We can learn from the past, but we don’t want to dwell on it at the expense of the present and future.Dr Christopher Willard
For many of us, the experience of growing older is a journey of survival. As social creatures, there is no rest from the ideas that compel us towards the pursuit of self-betterment, or the anxious search for relevance and security. No matter what we do, we are constantly dogged with the increasing suspicion that we have failed in some way. “Beauty advertisements imply that women need makeup, diet programs target our body image insecurities. All these things imply we are broken and need fixing,” observes Dr Willard.
In our efforts to communicate a greater sense of self-command, we often devote a large portion of our days towards the pursuit of routines and programs that optimise our vision of personal achievement It seems hardly surprising that the trend of self-care has seen an exponential rise in the past few years. “The world we are in today is actually pretty good and safe, certainly compared to our ancestors. Yet we still react and act as if there’s danger lurking everywhere, says the psychologist. “Our cultures tells us over and over to get the right job, partner, family and house that will make us happy- in fact, the economy depends on it.”
One of the most notable things about growing older, is our stalwart dedication to the linearity of routine and the increasing crystallisation of our beliefs. Often this is a response to the intense arena of peer-to-peer competition that only seems to accelerate this belief. “Our natural curiosity, trust and creativity at our natural and relational world often gets acculturated out of us,” says Dr Willard. “It gets de-emphasised, depending on the kind of family we have, and we can end up losing all the sparks of those things that are really natural”.
When recalling his childhood, the psychologist notes feeling a greater sense of connection to his environment. The psychologist reminisces about being in a constant state of profound wonder and his openness to the possibility of diverse experience. However, he acknowledges that this was gradually de-programmed from his psyche, and the gift of youthful curiosity faded with the passing of time. “The inner critic,” remarks Dr Willard, “instilled by less than skilful teachers, parents and other caregivers, keeps us safe, but also has diminishing returns”.
“We forget to let go and let ourselves be curious,” says Dr Willard. “I think it’s good to aim for perfection. But we should hold it loosely.” The double-edged sword of our ego steps in to shield us from the smarting risk of potential disappointment, failure or ridicule. Yet, in the face of positive risk and new challenges, it presents a legitimate stumbling block. To address this, the specialist in mindfulness and stress therapy shares a simple strategy to breakdown our internal resistance to change and possibility.
“It’s harder when we are older, but think of how often you may have surprised yourself at being pretty good at something new,” remarks Dr Willard. For many of us, the comfort of well-worn thought patterns make the risk of failing a difficult prospect to bear. Bestselling author and journalist Michael Pollan observed, “ you have these mental algorithms that you use to get through the day and organise your experience. And while they may be very effective and efficient, you also realise that they’re very routine and they’re not allowing you to experience the surprise of novelty because you have this set way to get through any situation.”
In 2016, American science author and pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth underscored this concept by advocating the importance of adopting a “growth mindset”. In her bestselling book Grit, the author details the value of effort and the life-enhancing advantages of shifting from an attitude of “I can’t” to “I can’t yet”. Speaking to the science of perseverance and determination, the author determined that small steps of reward-based thinking can in turn lead to significant changes in the way we consider our potential.
“The key as an adult is to take risks and try new things,” explains Dr Willard. “We can learn from the past,” he continues, “but we don’t want to dwell on it at the expense of the present and future.” When attempting something new, the psychologist suggests adopting an attitude of exploration and curiosity. “By making it a deliberate habit at first, we can start to look for the good in things, and unconsciously correct our negative bias.” By practicing this exercise in self-reinforcement, this wakes us up to the idea of potential, possibility and wonder.
Over the years, the psychotherapist has observed that the voice of his inner critic has subsided through his consistent practice of self-observation. In the face of internal criticism, he advises mindful observation of the strands of narratives that take hold of our inner monologue. “Thank the critic for keeping you safe, but also listen for that more compassionate voice. Gradually practice listening to that and turn up the volume until you hear it more clearly and regularly.”
“We ultimately may not need much fixing if we really appreciate our inner critic for what it is, and lean in to our strengths,” remarks Dr Willard. As we get older, and leave behind our years of careless childhood naivety, it is important to remind ourselves of the infinite possibilities still available to us if we simply encourage ourselves to try. In the words of the fictional character Lester Burnham, “when you have the ability to surprise yourself, it makes you wonder what else you can do that you’ve forgotten about”.
Dr. Christopher Willard (PsyD) is a psychologist and educational consultant based in Boston specialising in mindfulness. He currently serves on the board of directors at the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy, and is the president of the Mindfulness in Education Network. He has presented at TEDx conferences and his thoughts have appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, mindful.org, and elsewhere. He is the author of Child’s Mind: Growing Up Mindful Raising Resilience and eight other books for parents, professionals and children, along with six sets of cards and therapeutic games, available in more than ten languages. He currently teaches at Harvard Medical School. Visit his site for here more information.
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