Self-development is never safe, but it shouldn’t harm either. Yes, it’s a painful process full of hurt, anxiety, and uncertainty, but it is also full of connection, warmth, and joy. Our attention seems drawn to the pain.

Why is it so painful?

Our habitual patterns of being, thinking, and acting are there to protect us from pain. They serve to guard who we “think” we are. Self-development is the inquiry into who we really are, which means we have to look past the protective walls of our defenses. It is also difficult to do this work alone: we need partners to help us see our blind spots and patterns. These relationships set us up for more pain.

Ken Mcleod has defined a few terms in a way I find helpful:

  • Pain: A sensation. It can be a physical or emotional sensation, perhaps even a cognitive sensation. For example, holding your hand in a flame will cause a sensation.
  • Suffering: A reaction to experience — to a sensation. For example, trying to get away from the sensation.
  • Hurt: When someone fails to live up to the expectations of another. Hurt is often unavoidable in a relationship.
  • Harm: When damage is done to another, often increasing their reactivity to pain.

If self-development is working toward freedom from suffering — to no longer be driven by our reactivity, then the path is through the pain and hurt. Damage, on the other hand isn’t useful for self-development: while it might hurt, it doesn’t have to harm. It just shouldn’t be part of the picture.

Safety is a problem too.

Safety means to be protected from danger, risk, or injury, but we think we need more of it than we do. Can we be safe from hurt, harm, or life’s inherent risk? No, not really. Safety from hurt stalls self-development which ultimately leads to more problems. Safety from life’s inherent uncertainty and risk is just impossible. That’s leaves safety from harm, which can’t be guaranteed, but we can try. The zone between safety and damage is the zone where we commit to working through the pain while not harming each other.

We can choose to live in that zone, to consciously commit to facing reality. We can also commit to practicing in a way that doesn’t harm. That doesn’t mean that we won’t. The line between hurt and harm can be tricky and, by definition, subjective. But that does not absolve us of the responsibility of not harming.

The zone between safety and damage is where life happens. It’s where challenge and support meet to reconcile in new ways of being, thinking, and doing. Pain is there to, but it doesn’t matter because we begin to be who we really are. Our unique essence begins to pull us to greater levels of wisdom, freedom, and autonomy. It’s a messy process, a continual journey of confident and faltering steps sometimes moving confidently forward and other times wandering behind. Times of purpose and goal mixed with times of healing, rest, and integration.

I want to live in that zone. I want to cultivate organizations that sponsor that zone for everyone they touch. I don’t want to settle for safety, effectiveness, performance, innovation, or saving the world. The true freedom is becoming ourselves (which just might save the world).