Recontextualizing Struggle as a Creative Necessity
by Jennifer Harvey Sallin
Many of us conceptualize “struggle” as “bad.” In our limited view, we consider that to struggle means to be in pain, and that to be in pain is bad. But it is exactly this reasoning that has caused so many of us to fall repeatedly into cycles of struggle recreation (often called self-defeating behavior patterns): to avoid struggle is to short-circuit a natural and necessary growth process, keeping us in a “Groundhog Day” pattern of personal and relational problems. How can we resolve this dilemma?
As we easily observe in nature, struggle is necessary for growth. Children struggle, get hurt, get frustrated, cry, and so on, all in the process of developing. Animals and plants, and even consciousness itself, go through cycles of struggle in order to grow. Growth is not a smooth process. As a favorite author of mine, Nicholas Nassim Taleb describes it, “nature jumps, not crawls.”
We seem to accept with relative ease that physical growth requires periods of physical struggle (How many of us willingly struggle to remain in shape? How many mothers happily submit their bodies to the process of childbirth? And how many children proudly accept the arrival of the often painful physical evidence that they are growing into adults?). We seem less at ease, however, accepting the periods of inner struggle that accompany inner growth. If inner growth isn’t always a smooth process, why do we sometimes expect it to be? And what makes us at times go so far as to reject the struggle of inner growth in favor of staying in the dilemma?
The problem is, we have conflicting goals: desire for growth and avoidance of struggle. Somewhere along the way, many of us were taught to try to avoid inner struggle (inner pain in the form of embarrassment, shame, fear, indecision, discomfort, and so on) because it was labeled by our surrounding culture – explicitly or implicitly – as “bad.” This struggle-avoidance is an innocently acquired habit, but it becomes maladaptive and destructive in the long term since not many of us are not satisfied with a static, painless life; we want to be dynamic and creative, and we want to grow. But if we are still letting someone else’s definition of “acceptable inner pain” determine our level of courage and faith in moments of struggle, we are missing out on our own vast potential.
The good news is that we can overcome this obstacle by working to redefine what “struggle” and “inner pain” mean to us. We can drop the labels we were taught and see our moments of struggle for what they really are: normal and necessary steps in the human process of creativity and growth. The work of researchers Ernest Lawrence Rossi and Kathlyn Lane Rossi have helped me concretely conceptualize this link. They define our human creative process as having four stages. It is this creative process which we can thank for any lasting change in our lives:
1) We get an idea and start to work on a problem
2) We sometimes face difficult moments of struggle and conflict while trying to solve the problem
3) We get a creative flash of insight
4) We get to happily verify the solution
People often give up right at the moment when inner long-term change is actually happening. The inner work that is occurring during the struggle stage isn’t always visible. Many people who are trying to change, find a solution or create something beautiful often get frustrated when they don’t see physical proof of progress. They prematurely conclude that “it’s not working” and that “my efforts are useless.” They didn’t know that their brain was working intensely during the “nothing’s happening” phase.
Our brain actually spends much of our “offline” moments (sleep, dreams, meditation, etc) processing and integrating information. Our hippocampus, the part of our brain that stores short-term memory, uses these calm moments to relay new information to our cortex, the part of the brain which is able to integrate and resolve conflicting information. The cortex has been said to be the “slow learner” of the brain since it needs time and lots of repetition in order to fully integrate changes in information. “I’m going to stop drinking” or “I’m going to meditate every day” is a nice resolution, but in order for your brain chemistry to support this new commitment and find a realistic solution to keeping it, it needs time to integrate and develop a comprehensive awareness of another way of being.
In the meditative traditions, this process is often called non-resistance. When we decide to stop drinking, pain comes up, we see no conscious solution, we panic, and we pick up another drink. We have lost faith in our own organism to resolve its problems. We didn’t have enough patience – non-resistance to the pain – to allow our hippocampus and cortex the time it needed to integrate our new commitment and find a realistic way of honoring it.
If you are ready to give up on positive change, I encourage you to just wait a little longer. Instead, take a step back and think about your definition of inner pain and struggle. Is it your definition or someone else’s? Ask yourself: What amount of inner struggle is really that scary that it’s worth foregoing what I care about most? Then, think about your brain, doing its very best now to integrate your desire for change. Try to find respect for and faith in your organism’s capacity for growth and organic restructuring. Find a way to trust your body and its internal wisdom.
Work to encourage the change within: give yourself some “offline time” – sleep, meditate, watch the sunset, take a walk. Give your brain the space and faith it needs to realize your intentions for change. Find encouragement with friends, through coaching, or other inspiring and grounding connections. Inner struggle involves inner recontextualization, and it takes time. When it looks like “nothing is happening,” in fact, within our brains, that is the crucial moment where long-lasting change is installing itself.