The Construction Zone of Personal Development

Breaking ground, rebuilding structure, and navigating warning signs

Aug 08, 2022

Personal Development Growth Life Lessons
Construction zone with workers in safety gear

Photo by Nicolas J Leclercq

Everything deteriorates, eventually. This is what crosses my mind as I’m sitting at a lovely coffee shop/chocolate shop trying to get some writing done. The aroma of chocolate in the air as you walk in is divine. It’s one of those rustic downtown buildings, faded brick on the inside, ceiling pipes and beams exposed, piles of burlap coffee sacks in the corner. A two-sided fireplace, built with white ceramic wall tiles around it, sits in the center of the shop. Right outside, construction is making a ruckus, blocking streets. Something having to do with a downtown development project. Even downtowns need developing, much like us.

The thing about construction that makes it operative are the cones, the barricades, the road signs. Warning traffic of an impending danger zone and rerouting it to a safer place. The workers are able to do their work without interruption. For a period of time, they excavate, break down, dig up, and rebuild with the tools needed for the job, and protective gear, taking breaks as necessary. They can leave the job site for the day, knowing it will be waiting for them just as they left it the next day.

If only personal development was like this. If only we could be left alone to do the hard work of stretching more and more into our highest self, putting up warning signs for others not to come near until we were done. Sending loved ones on detours for a while to keep them from getting hurt. What if we had hard hats we could put on to keep toxic thoughts from taking over our peace of mind? Safety vests we could wear to keep our hearts from breaking. And a truck full of tools, one for every personal growth job — reflection, acceptance, forgiveness, surrender, extending grace, understanding.

What if we could take our time excavating our soul to find the trigger points, the things that no longer serve us, and rebuild a saner, more joy-filled life for ourselves? A precious room of our own.

I guess we could lock ourselves away in some faraway place — a convent maybe, the woods — like Henry David Thoreau, and do all of our growing there, in the safety of isolation. But for how many of us is that a practical option? Most of us are engrossed in the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, surrounded by other humans, many of them demanding our attention, our best selves. There is no room for a construction site. Nowhere to dump the colossal pile of stones we’ve dug up, made up of resentment, frustration, anxiety, and whatever else comes up in a span of a day interacting with others. Nowhere but on each other.

I think the closest we can come to barricading ourselves in order to do the work is setting boundaries, combined with self-care. Our boundaries serve as warning signs, informing others of what will and will not be tolerated when entering our circle. And if those boundaries are crossed? Well, then they risk tripping over our piles and getting injured, falling into the cracks we’re still working to fill.

This work is messy, it’s chaotic, as any construction site would be. The difference between construction work and our personal development work, however, is that ours bleeds into everyday life, into our morning prayer time, an afternoon walk, a conversation with a cashier, driving down the road. It shows up in our marriage and in our work place, in our friendships and parenting, and everything in-between. We have good days and bad days. Two-steps-forward days and three-steps-back days. The breaking of ground and the rebuilding of structure. And the best we can do is pick up tools along the way and implement them the best we know how. Tools like honesty, kindness, integrity, vulnerability, assertiveness, and courage. These, it turns out, are actually more mighty than an army of heavy machinery, more forceful than a truckload of power tools.

Noon. The construction crew is heading off to lunch. The bulldozer is shut off, resting for a while under the brutal heat of the 90° sun. The site doesn’t look any different than it did yesterday. But progress is being made, however gradual.

And isn’t that often how our personal growth seems to go? Agonizingly slow, imperceptible. Just a pile of stones and hollowed-out pavement. Until one day, we notice a change. In the way we feel less threatened during an altercation, sensing our ego has reduced in size from a small planet. The way we step into the day a little more confident, more content even. We notice the resistance to “it” — whatever that may have been in the past — has lessened, the things that used to trigger us have lost some of their potency. We are able to engage with others, and with life, less reactively and more kindly.

Defense is no longer our first response, compassion is… for ourselves and our fellow sojourners.

This is the new foundation we have built, brick by brick, to stand on. Suddenly, we don’t need as many warning signs anymore. We fold up the barricades one by one and put them away, for now. We take down the detour signs and cones and let others in, let others pass through. It is safe for them to do so now.