If I’ve learned anything in the past year, it’s that personal growth is hard. Very hard. Painful, even. Emotionally, mentally, and sometimes physically painful.
If I had to describe what I’d previously imagined the concept of personal growth to look like, I’d describe it as a movie montage where someone slowly transforms from a disgruntled, overweight, late-morning-riser into a fit, happy, motivated person who wakes up with a smile before their alarm clock goes off. And the whole deal would be set to some upbeat pop song.
The reality of making real change in your life and truly growing as a person, however, is often far, far from that.
I’ve been thinking a lot about growth and personal change lately, and I wanted to share a few signs of personal growth I’ve experienced that, while they haven’t felt good in the moment, have, to me, been signs that I’m making progress in my self-improvement journey.
Let’s jump into them.
7 Surprising signs of personal growth that are better for you than they feel
1. You feel uncomfortable, stressed, or anxious
This, for me, is the biggest sign of personal growth. It’s also the least pleasant for me to deal with.
Confronting things in your life that are holding you back is often very uncomfortable. The habits, relationships, and coping methods we often need to change are also what is normal to us. They’re why we are the way we are.
So, it’s no surprise that when we start to examine these norms and realize, “Hey, this actually isn’t so good for me. I need to do something different,” it can cause stress and anxiety to come up.
Altering what’s normal for you will probably never be easy, but it will be worth it. I’ve never later regretted pushing through things that have been emotionally or mentally uncomfortable for me in the name of self-improvement. I’ve only ever regretted that I didn’t face them sooner.
As someone who has anxiety to begin with, the sharp, emotional discomfort that can come from confronting my existing norms can be deeply painful to deal with.
It’s uncomfortable, uncertain, and your defense mechanisms may very well tell you to just keep avoiding whatever issue you’re dealing with because doing so will be easier for you, and feel better in the short term.
But, if you really want to change something about your life — how you feel, how you look, how you behave, etc. — you need to remember that the discomfort and anxiety is only temporary, and that you will eventually feel better. And you’ll be so glad that you kept moving forward.
However, because of the maliciously convincing nature of stress and anxiety, I strongly encourage anyone confronting serious mental, emotional, and even physical personal growth issues to talk to a therapist. Having that professional support system there when you really need it can sometimes quite literally be a lifesaver.
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2. You feel a little lost
As you start making changes in your life, you’ll probably start to notice your mental and physical landscape change, too. Your morning routine may be different, you may hang out with different people, feel different emotions, think different thoughts, and all of that can be a bit disorienting. It can also be a positive sign of personal growth.
It’s okay to feel a little lost as you start making improvements in your life. I think we often grow so accustomed to the normal progression of things, even bad things, that we find comfort in the knowledge of what will come next.
Similar to how you know there will be a right turn, then a left turn on your normal route home from work, your old habits are well-traveled to you. However, when you find yourself on a different road, it’ll likely take a little bit for you to get your bearings. That’s all that feeling a little lost means in terms of self-growth, too.
Just remember that, like your old routines and mentality became normal for you, so too will your new ones.
3. Your head hurts
Did you know that when you put effortful, intentional focus into learning something, your brain can physically hurt? To quote a 2018 article published in Fast Company by members of the NeuroLeadership Institute:
“The same way you feel a muscle ‘burn’ when it’s being strengthened, the brain needs to feel some discomfort when it’s learning. Your mind might hurt for a while–but that’s a good thing.”
While, of course, excessive and severe headaches should be a problem you take to your doctor right away, an occasional headache that occurs as you work towards your personal goals can actually be a sign that your brain is absorbing and adapting to new information.
For example, when I sit down and think about what I want to write for this website, or what I want to bring up in my next therapy session, I often get a small headache. I believe this is the result of me pushing my brain to focus on new things that I haven’t been so attentive to in the past. Focusing on different goals forces blood to flow to different areas of my brain, thus occasionally resulting in a slight headache.
In the short term, this may be uncomfortable, but in the long term it likely means good things for you.
4. Your friend group is changing
Another sign of personal growth that may not feel positive at first is the emotional distance that can come up between friends. As you start to prioritize different aspects of your life, it’s only natural that the friends you used to have so much in common with may no longer be able to relate to you as well.
This can be upsetting and hard to deal with, but it’s often also necessary when seeking self-improvement.
The good news is that it’s likely you’ll also meet new people as you acquire new interests and habits, and will form new friendships with others who have similar personal growth goals as you.
So, while growing distant from some of your old friends may be hard, just remember that there doesn’t have to be any bad feelings there. It’s okay to grow apart from friends and make new ones. Just make sure you’re keeping your overall health and happiness in perspective.
5. You’re doing more things alone
Personal growth can be a somewhat lonely journey at times. Whether it’s waking up ahead of your partner to exercise before work, or saying no to grabbing drinks with coworkers so you can study for grad school, personal growth will often lead to you spending more time alone.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. To focus on self-improvement you need to make time for… yourself! One of the best ways to do this is to be alone for a little bit each day and focus on what you’re trying to accomplish.
Don’t feel bad about saying no to things that involve other people now and then to work toward what’s important to you. However, if you do start to feel too lonely and isolated, or find yourself putting barriers between you and others, I highly encourage you to talk to a mental health professional.
6. You’re not sleeping well
While personal growth can sometimes make us feel stress and anxiety, it can also be powerful and exciting. In both cases, you may notice that your sleep schedule is distrubed when you start working toward self-growth goals.
Of course, sleep is important for your overall health and prolonged progress in moving forward toward whatever your personal goals are. So, naturally, it’s important to do what you can to get a good night’s rest. Try meditating before bed, read a book to “make your eyes tired” as my mom used to say, or try having a calming cup of herbal tea to help you settle in for the night.
If you notice that your sleep isn’t so great for a week or so, especially towards the beginning of your self-improvement journey, don’t be too alarmed. This could be due to excitement or the general emotional and mental discomfort that comes from changing your routines. As you settle into your new habit and daily rituals, your sleep patterns will likely adjust back to normal.
Of course, though, if you find your sleep issues are not resolving themselves, please do consult your doctor to make sure no health issues are causing your episodes of insomnia.
7. You feel defensive
Another sign of personal growth that I notice in myself is that I become more defensive of my mood, personality, habits, and choices when I’m trying to make a change in my life.
For me, I think this is related to the especially raw and vulnerable feelings that can come with making steps toward personal growth. Because I’m already feeling vulnerable in trying to address issues within myself, small alterations in others’ attitudes or interactions with me can seem more destabilizing than they really are.
If you can pick up on the fact that you’re being overly defensive, the best thing you can do is just address the cause of that feeling (in this case, that maybe you’re feeling more vulnerable than usual) and remind yourself that you don’t need to feel that way.
Simply try to focus on your self-improvement goals and be mindful of how you react to other people.
What causes personal growth?
In general, I would argue personal growth is achieved by challenging yourself in one of two ways: intentionally, and unintentionally. That is, you can either grow as a person because you make changes to your lifestyle and habits, or you can grow as a person by enduring and overcoming events that are beyond your control.
In both cases, I think personal growth comes from being challenged. Any kind of self-improvement worth achieving generally comes from striving for something better than what you currently have. And gaining a happier life in this world is rarely given away for free. We have to work for it, struggle through it, and try our best to remain positive throughout the process.
If you’ve experienced one or more of these signs of personal growth, you likely haven’t enjoyed them. However, the discomfort that often comes with a self-improvement journey will eventually pass, and you’ll be standing on the other side, better than you’ve ever been. That is my hope for you.
What else about your self-improvement journey has surprised you? What was a sign of personal growth you didn’t expect to encounter? Tell me in the comments section below.