Personal growth for broke people

The article advised me to take a cold shower every morning as a way of increasing my willpower. And maybe helping me wake up.

There were steps:

  • Take your shower as normal.
  • Then slowly turn the temperature of the water down until it’s full-on cold.
  • Then stand there in the cold spray for 10 seconds.

Boom! Personal growth unlocked, plus (I hear) it’s good for your hair.

This cold shower advice is fine. It’s solid: expose yourself to some degree of discomfort, purposefully, and you develop more tolerance for discomfort.

I’ve seen it in a lot of self-discipline lists and good habit roundups.

It’s also funny.

It was to me, anyway, when I came across it. Funny because we’d moved across town, to a smaller, more affordable place, a couple of months previously. Funny because the new place didn’t have a water heater. Funny because we couldn’t afford to buy a water heater.

Funny because we’d all—me, my husband, our four kids—been taking cold showers daily, for weeks. Not as a personal growth effort, but as a necessary part of life on a barely-there budget.

Did we feel stronger, more powerful, more disciplined? Maybe a little. Mostly we just felt cold.

Personal growth is a weird topic.

I don’t like telling people I write about personal growth, because all-too-often “personal growth” writing is a swamp of wanna-be success advice, admonitions to hustle more, and trash listicles.

In there, though, you find real gems: people who are thinking, researching, trying, experimenting, looking deep, doing stuff, learning from what works and what doesn’t, and sharing their insights.

You also find lots of ways to spend money: courses, books, memberships, subscriptions, software, tools, premium apps, gear, retreats, and so on. That’s cool, too: many of those purchasable items are well worth the money.

But what if you don’t have any money?

What if your budget looks like pay the rent and buy the groceries and… that’s it?

When you are broke,❋ personal growth advice that assumes a certain amount of disposable income isn’t helpful. It can be harmful, in fact, leading you to believe that consciously developing yourself, your person, is a privilege reserved for the affluent.

It isn’t.

Personal growth, at its cold-water core, is nothing more than this:

  • Becoming aware of your self: your mindset, your thoughts, your mental and behavioral habits, your identity, your strengths and weaknesses, your fears and desires.
  • Seeking valid ways to change and improve various parts of your self: retraining behaviors, letting of limiting beliefs, adjusting habits, focusing on strengths, etc.
  • Consciously applying your awareness and your efforts to develop your current self into a different (better?) version of you, and doing that until the ‘improved version’ becomes the unconscious/baseline self, and then you get to start over again. This is the actual growth part of personal growth.

(And then there’s the built-in irony, when you learn that complete and radical self-acceptance is the best place to start for any sort of lasting internal growth, but that’s another story for another day.)

The purchasable tools and resources and whatnots available to help you in your pursuit of personal development are, for the most part, just that: helpful.

But they’re not necessary.

This is a reminder that a serious, focused, and effective pursuit of personal growth does not require money.

We don’t have to stick strictly to Maslow’s hierarchy. We don’t have to nail survival and comfort before we move on to self-actualization. In fact, the key to our continued evolution and collective growth may be to flip the pyramid.

What would happen if we saw self-actualization as the foundation for life at all economic levels?

Would chaos erupt? Would everything fall apart?

Or would we discover, perhaps, that survival is a shitty and unnecessary goal?

If we can choose awareness over fear, even when being broke has us by the throat, we might find the key to something bigger than personal growth.

We might also find the resources and ideas we need to get out of the scarcity cycles we got stuck in. I can give you no guarantees, but I can tell you this: it’s working for me.

And hey, if you’re already broke, what have you got to lose?

Part 1: becoming aware of your self

Creating awareness of your mindset, your thoughts, your mental and behavioral habits, your identity, your strengths and weaknesses, your fears and desires.

Awareness is the first step toward personal growth. And awareness of self is done by paying attention to what’s going on inside of your own head.

You don’t need money to do this. You need time, and you don’t need a lot of time. 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there. That’s enough.

When you’re walking, commuting, waiting for the bus, staying at home because you don’t have money to go out… These are the moments you can use.

Use them to pay attention to your own thoughts and feelings. That’s it. There are a few easy strategies you can use:

  • Meditation. Literally all you have to do to meditate is sit still and breathe. That’s it. That’s the whole thing. You don’t need an app, a coach, a special timer, a mat, music, anything. You don’t even have to sit. Walk. Stand. Lay down. Whatever. Try breathing deeper. Closing your eyes is helpful because it shuts out distractions, but if you need to stay aware of your external environment, no problem. Just pick a spot and focus your gaze on it. You’ll still have awareness of peripheral movements, but you can lock your gaze in on a single spot and focus inwardly instead of outwardly.
  • Journaling. Get a $1 notebook and whatever pen or pencil you can find. Journaling, like meditating, does not require any fancy tools or supplies. I have scribbled in the unused pages in the back of my kids’ school notebooks, on envelopes, on napkins, on any scrap paper I could find.
  • Speaking aloud. If you have the solitude, start saying out loud what’s going on in your heart and with your emotions. It will feel stupid at first, but it’s a great way to start noticing what those voices in your head say. They’re often saying ridiculous things, but we believe them without question until we notice. Say them out loud and notice them, then decide if that’s the internal monologue you want to keep or not. If you have a smartphone, record yourself talking and listen to it. Hear—really hear—what you’re saying, what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling, what you’re believing as true. Notice.

Part 2: Seeking valid ways to change and improve your self

Retraining behaviors, letting of limiting beliefs, setting your values, adjusting habits, finding and focusing on your strengths.

It won’t take much time before you notice some things you want to change. Great!

Here’s the key: focus on changing the internal things, not the external things.

Let’s say you have a really negative body image, and a lot of unhealthy habits, and you want to change how your body looks and feels. Excellent. Start with how you think about your body. Start working on the internal changes.

This is a shortcut to effective external change.

Most people focus on changing the externals. They may dump a lot of effort, time, and money into external changes. But without internal changes, the external changes won’t stick.

You are going to take the smart path: first, because you’re smart, and second, because you don’t have the money to dump into external changes. In this case, you are saving yourself some frustration.

So back to our unhealthy/negative body image challenge. Maybe you don’t have access to a gym. Maybe you can’t afford workout clothes. Maybe you have three jobs and don’t have time or energy to exercise. Maybe you can only afford cheap food, so improving your diet seems impossible.

That’s okay. Don’t worry about any external changes. All that matters is what you change on the inside. Here are some ideas:

  • Focus on your thoughts and feelings. In your meditation, journaling, and talking, spend a few minutes focused on what you think and how you feel about what you want to change. Notice what you say about your body, your health, your food (or whatever it is you want to change).
  • Rewrite what you tell yourself. Once you’ve noticed patterns in your thoughts and feelings, you can change them. You own your internal monologue. Change it. Choose what you want to feel and think about yourself, and write a script, and repeat it over and over and over. So, “I’m fat and I can’t work out and I’m so unattractive uuuuuugh,” becomes, “I’m strong, and I find ways to exercise every day, and I feel beautiful.” Write your own version. Then read it over and over, memorize it, repeat it, record it, listen to it and speak it anyway you can until you reprogram the way you think about yourself.
  • When you can take action, take action. As you reprogram the way you think, something will happen: you’ll see opportunities. You’ll notice that set of stairs around the corner. Now you can go run up and down them: Congratulations, now you’re a person who exercises. You’ll find a pair of tennis shoes at the thrift store. A friend will give you some workout clothes. You’ll notice that a bag of apples is about the same price as a bag of chips. When you see action you can take, take it. Notice yourself taking it. Notice the changes in how you act: they are a  reflection of the changes in how you think. Want more changes in action? Make more changes in your thinking.
  • Ask yourself questions. This is more noticing, more conscious thinking. Start asking yourself things like,
    • Why am I doing this?
    • Do I really enjoy this activity?
    • How do I really feel about this friend? Is this person a good influence or a bad influence?
    • What do I want out of this experience?
    • What makes me feel good? What makes me feel bad?
    • What do I believe about — ?
    • How do I feel about — ?
  • Conscious questions and thoughtful answers. That’s it. It’s free. No cost. You don’t even have to write this shit down. Just think. Thinking is the most difficult thing and most people will do whatever they can to avoid it. You, though? You are becoming a master of it. As you ask and answer your own questions, you’ll slowly formulate a set of values. You’ll start making distinctions. You’ll notice what serves you and what enslaves you. And you’ll develop a clear idea of the person you want to become. You’re ready for the next step.

Part 3: Consciously applying your awareness and your efforts

Developing your current self into a different, better version of you, until the ‘improved version’ becomes your new baseline self, and then you get to do it again.

The more you know who you are, right now, the more you can direct who you are becoming.

What you understand, you can control.

So, if you want to control yourself, understand yourself.

It’s tough work. It can be scary work. But it’s the most important work, and it’s the core of personal growth.

If you don’t do the work of knowing yourself, you’re not doing “personal growth” — you’re just mimicking someone else’s idea of personal growth.

Own your shit.

This is your life. Why follow anyone else’s agenda? What is meaningful for someone else may be meaningless to you. How do you know, until you know who you are and what you want?

As you know yourself more and more, you’ll be able to focus on specific changes you want to make. You’ll be able to direct your attention to a few important things. You’ll be able to let go of distractions, drama, and things that do not serve you.

And your energy, time, and effort will compound to get you faster results, better results, and a lot more fun.

Here are some ideas:

  • Give yourself challenges. Feeling ready to level up in a particular area? You don’t have to join a group or a class or take a course. Challenge yourself:  x days of doing x activity. Or whatever. There’s no set formula. Maybe it’s X days of eliminating something (like junk food or negative thinking or hanging out with a certain friend who always drags you down).
  • Level up your thinking. Find and read material that gives you a different perspective, shows you more options, speaks truth and positivity rather than status quo skepticism. Go to your local library. Get online and find the free books from Project Gutenberg. When something really speaks to you, memorize it: write out the passage, then read it over and over again, day after day, until it’s part of you. You are literally remaking your brain.
  • Get expertise. As you focus on an area of your life you want to improve, look for experts. You can find plenty of expertise online, but there’s so much power in finding real-life experts. Ask for advice but do so with this qualification: only with people who are already doing what you want to do. How do you find those people? You start talking about your own efforts, and you start noticing. You’ll find the experts. They’re around you, but usually they’re so busy working on getting better that they go unnoticed. Start noticing. Start asking. Then you can learn from their expertise, make a positive connection, and get more results out of the same efforts.
  • Track your successes. Any effort is success, because you put in the effort. It’s okay if you don’t hit your personal goal for whatever-it-is you’re doing. The success is in the effort, so notice your efforts. Track the internal and external things you’re doing (and not doing). Notice your progress, because it adds to the energy and builds momentum. It also helps validate the new and better way you’re thinking about yourself, which helps you do even better, which becomes a virtuous cycle of increasing growth. It’s a wild, fulfilling ride!

Radical responsibility is the only path to growth.

Do not excuse yourself from making the most of your self and life because you have to start from financial zero.

We all start from some sort of zero. The key is to start. If you don’t start, you stay at zero.

Find a way to start changing yourself.

Start now.

Change yourself and you change your life. Quit making excuses.

Go take that cold shower, because you have to, and realize that every deprivation is a chance to overcome fear and discomfort and become a stronger person.

Broke vs Poor. The two are different, I agree. And both exist on a scale, or spectrum. I deliberately used the term “broke” rather than “poor” because, in my experience, an excellent first step in personal growth is to stop thinking of yourself as poor.

Maybe you don’t have any money right now. Maybe you’ve never had enough money. That’s okay. That’s your past and present, but it doesn’t have to be your future. You can acknowledge the truth of your experience without repeating it:

“I was poor. I am broke. But I am changing. I am learning how to manage money. I am learning how to earn more. I am creating value. I am building wealth. Being broke is a temporary step in my journey toward an abundant life. I am learning what I need to learn to live in abundance.”

Why not try it? Write it out, your own version. Read it every morning and night. Give it 30 days and see what happens. Unless you’re really attached to identifying yourself as a poor person, you have absolutely nothing to lose with this little experiment.

Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash