You may have heard this quote from German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer:
All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.
Here’s a variation on this idea that we can use for personal growth transitions:
All growth passes through three stages. First, you’ll be ridiculed. Second, your efforts will meet with serious opposition. Third, you’ll be accepted as the new person you’ve become.
Have you seen this pattern show up in your life? I’ve run through it many times. Lots of readers have run this pattern. It happens with career transitions, relationships transitions, lifestyle changes, health improvements, and more.
Schopenhauer was a pessimist. In fact, his worldview is called philosophical pessimism.
If we apply Schopenhauer’s model to personal growth, aren’t we being a little pessimistic then? Pessimism isn’t truth. Pessimism is just one of many lenses we can use, and if we go into a growth experience with a pessimistic lens, aren’t we more likely to create a journey that looks like Schopenhauer’s stages?
Are these three stages really necessary? Is the ridicule necessary? Is the violent opposition necessary? Do we really have to go through those first two stages to get to the third stage? Can’t we just skip to the end?
Seduced by Schopenhauer’s Script
Blogging about my personal growth journey since 2004 has given me a lot of feedback. For many years I basically ran Schopenhauer’s script. It was there from day one. What! You’re quitting the computer gaming industry? What the heck is blogging? You’ll never make any money doing that!
After many years of such transitions, the script became all too predictable, and because of its predictability, I got faster at running it. Instead of taking weeks or months to play out, I’d be at stage three within days. Eventually I’d get there within 1-2 days. The criticism and resistance would blow up and then burn out within 24-48 hours. It was Schopenhauer’s script running on Internet time.
Exploring subjective reality gave me a different perspective on this model as well. Were my own expectations creating these stages? If I changed my thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, would it be possible to skip ahead to stage three?
I had to admit that I was indeed expecting opposition when I embarked upon some transitions. I’d prepare myself by raising my psychological shields. I’d pre-load my personal Schopenhauer script. And my expectations would largely come true.
For many years I thought I benefitted from strong personal shielding. I made decisions carefully, weathered the criticism, and plowed ahead. The stormy parts didn’t phase me. I was comfortable with ridicule and opposition.
I even gave myself extra practice by deliberately inviting critical feedback, such as when I made this April Fool’s post inviting people to apply to become my slaves, or this one announcing a fake D/s workshop. The criticism came flying in as expected. Some people even launched new websites specifically devoted to criticizing me, such as StevePavlinaIsTheDevil.com (that one eventually went offline).
To me this was just a form of resistance training. The more criticism came through, the easier it was to handle it. It wasn’t going to phase me.
Did I really want to keep running this pattern for the rest of my life though? Was there any more growth to be squeezed out from stronger shielding?
For many years I figured it was indeed necessary and that I should just accept it as normal… at least normal for me. I’m a public figure. I write about many controversial topics on the Internet. I have some pretty strong opinions. Of course the criticism will keep happening. There’s no way around that.
As the pattern sped up, however, this mindset began looking increasingly ridiculous to me. I wondered to what extent I was creating it through my own expectations. These rapid burns poked holes in my beliefs. I didn’t understand why the criticism would surge and then die so quickly.
Challenging the Script
In 2011 I did a 30-day trial of learning music composition. No one criticized me for that, and that probably doesn’t surprise you. It didn’t surprise me either. But I wondered… Was there a lack of criticism because learning music wasn’t objectionable to my readers? Or was there a lack of criticism because I didn’t expect any criticism for such a trial?
That led to me to ask:
What if I stopped expecting resistance in areas where I’d previously expected it? Would the criticism still happen?
And that spawned more questions:
Were people criticizing me because they objectively didn’t like my ideas? Or were they criticizing me because I was broadcasting incongruence, defensiveness, or the expectation of criticism?
So I began to experiment.
I started paying attention to my attitude, energy, and expectations as I made new decisions. If I felt defensive in advance, I began working through those feelings privately. I imagined the public criticism that would come, but instead of inviting it, I pre-processed it within myself. I worked on getting to a place of peace with my decisions first.
I didn’t do this with every decision, but when I did apply this, it worked. I could write congruently about topics that previously would have invited plenty of critical feedback, and I wouldn’t receive a single negative piece of feedback. I want to say that this surprised me, but oddly it didn’t surprise me. Somehow it made perfect sense to me.
When I was able to fully accept my decisions, I stopped broadcasting defensiveness, which stopped attracting criticism. Perhaps no one wants to bother criticizing someone whose mind is already at peace, at least not to that person directly.
I realized that people can smell incongruence a mile away, and it’s that incongruence that riles them up and makes them want to set me straight. Otherwise they don’t bother. They might still criticize an idea on their own for whatever reason, but they wouldn’t send such feedback to me directly.
The very presence of armor and shielding makes people want to hack at it with a sword. They really can’t resist. But when there’s no armor and shielding, people don’t even think to grab a sword and take a swing at you. There’s no reason to do so.
An Environment of Acceptance
As I thought about how to bypass the resistance stages, I recalled an effect I’ve seen many times at our workshops. When people spend days surrounded by other growth-oriented people, the deep and immediate acceptance really sinks in. In an environment of such acceptance and encouragement, people realize that it isn’t necessary to explain and defend their decisions. So the shields go down. The defensiveness vanishes. And the mind reaches a new level of congruence and peace.
These kinds of experiences were an important part of my journey as well. When I began leaning into the idea of open relationships, I had doubts about the path and wasn’t congruent with it. When I first started writing about it several years ago, boy was there a lot criticism! But when I would hang out in person with people who’d been living that lifestyle for years, I couldn’t help but notice that they had zero defensiveness about it. For them it was a perfectly normal and sensible way to live. I couldn’t find their shields, even when I tried to play Devil’s advocate with them.
This became a powerful tool for me, one that I like much better than polishing my armor. When I’m considering making a change, I find it really helpful to hang out with people who are on the other side. For me it’s a change. But for them, it’s just their normal everyday lives. When I see how normal it is for them, it helps me imagine the shift as being totally normal for me as well. It gives me a vision of what I’ll be like on the other side.
Starting in the late 90s, I used this approach to transform my once failing computer games business into a successful one. I began hanging out with successful independent software developers, both online and in person. It sounds a little dumb in retrospect to say this, but I was struck by just how comfortable they were with their success. To me at the time, it was a really big deal to earn six or seven figures a year from selling one’s own software. But I couldn’t detect any of this amazement in the people I met. They didn’t feel special to have done it. It was just a normal thing to be doing.
I realized that seeing a transition as special is a form of incongruence. When we project extraordinary qualities onto a change, we push it away. We invite ridicule. We invite opposition. We slow ourselves down. We remain stuck.
It took many more years before I connected the dots between these two ideas and saw how sensible it would be to use an environment of acceptance to bypass resistance.
This is how I skip the first two stages in Schopenhauer’s worldview. But really I still go through three stages. They’re just different stages. The model I use now looks like this:
All growth passes through three stages. First, envision the change as possible. Second, invite support for your change by meeting people who are already living as you desire. Third, realize you’re already one of those people — and that you love it!
Suppose you want to transition from a scarcity mindset to an abundant lifestyle using Schopenhauer’s original model. You’ll start by getting ridiculed by other scarcity minded people. Then you’ll deal with lots of obstacles and setbacks. And finally — hopefully — you’ll be spit out the other side. Does that work for personal growth? Not really. You could just as easily stay stuck indefinitely with this approach… unless you build some really strong psychological weaponry and fight your way through.
Or you could take a gentler, more optimistic approach. Realize that other people are already living on the other side of the change you want to make. For those people your desired change is a perfectly normal and natural way to live. There’s nothing to debate. The benefits are self-evident. You can simply go and join them. They’re happy to welcome you. Leave your shields and armor behind.
You can also create this environment of acceptance in your own mind by imagining it as real. Some people are really good at that. I usually get better results by talking to real people though, at least initially. Visualization is helpful after I’ve met people who are already on the other side, so I can better understand the subtleties of the vibe they have.
You can still use Schopenhauer’s approach if you like armor and shields. It’s a little clumsy at times, but it does work. It can even be fun, especially when people go out of their way to swing their swords at you. That’s where the pessimistic model leads. You’ll eventually become a champion pessimist.
But also recognize that there are alternative approaches that can bypass the resistance altogether. Connecting with people on the other side of your desired transition is one of the most effective. Other approaches are possible too, as long as you begin with the idea that you have the power to go straight to the acceptance phase.
We don’t have to follow Schopenhauer’s model of truth either. We can encounter a new truth, welcome it, and accept it smoothly and easily. The challenge is to love the truth more than the untruth.
Which do you love more? The place where you are, or the place where you want to be? If it’s the latter, then stop defending the former.