Growth is not a perfect process
Plant metaphors and the cyclical nature of growth.
Each year, thousands upon thousands of plants grown for sale are sent to landfill or mulched before they even make it to the shelves, not to mention the many that don’t survive beneath the artificial lights of their temporary shop homes.
Often, there’s nothing wrong with these plants. They are perfectly healthy, perhaps even thriving, but they all have one thing in common - they are imperfect. A tear in a leaf, a wonky stem, a brown and crispy leaf tip from just a flash of too much sun or a little too much time unwatered in the back of a lorry. If taken home and given the right conditions, these plants would need no extra care. They are not infested with pests or rotting from the roots, they are simply a little bit damaged.
You know where this is going, don’t you? We, as humans, are all a little bit damaged, but you knew that already. However, you might not have known about the hundreds of thousands of house plants discarded before they’re even put up for sale. Some of them won’t be viable, of course - life finds a way most of the time, but not always - but it has some invisible hand plucking at my heartstrings nonetheless. It’s the thought of all that life going to waste, particularly at a time when all that we waste does so much harm to our planet.
As humans, and particularly as Western humans, we crave perfection in some form. It’s fair that when you pop along to the plant shop, you’ll pick up the plant with the most leaves or flowers, or the one that’s just a little bit taller, a little bit bushier. But now you know they’re fate, now you know they might not be as damaged as they look, are you still going to leave them there and pick the perfect looking one?
Maybe. Our desire for order and beauty is all-encompassing. We apply it to so much of our lives - we want our home decor or our makeup or our hair or our skin to look just so; we want our life, our day, to follow a particular set path; we want to never hit a bum note when we sing; we want our painting to be perfect without the need for sketch lines.
Life is easier when we have order. Life is easier when everything is perfect.
But life isn’t easy, and life is also inherently chaotic. Yet that doesn’t seem to stop us from giving up at the first sign of imperfection, from believing everything is terrible and wrong when things aren’t like how we expected them to be. Like those houseplants, at the first sign of damage, we throw the whole thing away.
Amidst the rush of my life right now - the full-time job, the therapist training, the birthday celebrations, the chores, the volunteering - I’ve been feeling relief. I would not have been able to manage all of this two years ago. I am not perfectly managing things now - I slip up, fall behind - but I also now have the compassion to accept that.
I’ve done a lot of growing in the last few years, if I do say so myself - and I am really trying not to cringe away from the word ‘growth’ here. I suppose you could say expansion instead - discovery. I am just unravelling some things that were always inside me but were tightly knotted up amongst the darkness. I don’t like to think that we are born without things like courage and resilience and joy - I think we all have the capacity for this, we just have to nurture it. And so we come back full circle to growth.
However, this growth hasn’t been linear. Sometimes I take two steps forward and then tumble back down the entire staircase. I find myself thinking: “Yes, I am over my perfectionism!” and then berate myself for making a decision at work that wasn’t the ‘right’ one.
Growth isn’t linear in nature either. Take my monstera which, despite thriving, also occasionally puts out a totally dud leaf that browns and shrivels. That’s what some of my epiphanies feel like - a new shoot, a new leaf, that I nurture, convinced I’ve now discovered the cognitive pattern that will fix my faulty thinking, only to find that leaf curling and crisping as I repeat old patterns.
It can be devastating to feel as though you’re making progress before regressing. And I use the word ‘regressing’ as that’s exactly how I described it to the other trainees in therapist training last week. I sat in that chair when it was my turn to be the client, ready to discuss my perfectionism and my desire to work on my confidence. But it wasn’t two voices involved in this discussion, it was suddenly three. Unprompted, uninvited, that inner voice came back, the one that tells me I’m worth nothing. They were the one answering the questions, giving voice to my fears. All that work I’d done to build up my self-worth seemed to unravel in 15 minutes. And that was what it genuinely felt like - an unravelling. I didn’t feel upset or angry so much as deflated.
But, to stretch this plant metaphor to its limits, to encourage new growth in a plant, you must trim it. I hate trimming my plants. I hate cutting off their progress, never sure if I’m doing the right thing. Yet with the right care it always grows anew.
I went home feeling drained and small. The next morning, the voice was gone. For the first time, I had given this inner voice an external voice in a safe setting. I had accepted its arrival and let it speak to someone whose soon-to-be-job it is to understand and not judge. Oddly, all it made me think of was the reason behind why we say ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes. People used to fear a bit of your soul came out when you sneezed, leaving it in the air and vulnerable for the devil to claim. The devil can have my inner critic.
I feel relief now knowing that I will grow, that I can grow, even when I put out a rubbish little leaf or two, or when an old leaf wilts. Growth is slow and winding and at times it often feels like nothing is happening. I would listen to people speak about the changes they had made, the ways they had overcome depression or anxiety, worked through their problems, and would think: “I can’t do it. I will never be able to do it.”
But I did it anyway, somewhat consciously, somewhat unconsciously. Baby steps, all of it, years of on-and-off work and setbacks and tiny invisible changes, but it happened. Moulding yourself is a slow process. I can’t remember what psychologist it was (either Dr Emma Hepburn or Dr Sophie Mort - either way, they’re both great) who said that making a change to our thought processes takes extra work. The metaphor they used is this: think of laying down a habit or way of thinking as building a single-lane road. Then think of laying down a contradictory way of thinking, a better replacement thought process, as laying down a brand-new shiny motorway. You can’t just leave the old road though, you need to rip it up. So whilst you’re making a change, you’re also actively tearing down the old way. It’s double the work.
Don’t let that put you off though. Instead, let yourself drop dying branches and put out new leaves when the time is right, but don’t admonish yourself for the periods of dormancy. Spring is always in your future.