In higher education where I have spent 20+ years of my career, there is a theory by which we work with students that is affectionately known as “challenge and support.” Developed in the 1960s by Nevitt Sanford, this theory postulates that too much challenge will lead to frustration and too much support will prevent growth and development. He suggested that there is a sweet spot in the middle that provides the maximum potential for learning. I wrote about this theory in my blog and book in describing First Descent’s programs. I believe they have the sweet spot down cold.
I once told a friend of mine that she was one of my most “challenging” friends. She got upset. At first, I was surprised because I meant it as a compliment, but when I tried to see it from her perspective, I can understand why she didn’t take it that way. We don’t necessarily want to be thought of as challenging. Viewed in a certain way, that seems like an insult or a problem. In my experience it’s the opposite. Let me explain.
Mrs. Bushart (pronounced Bus-Hart) was my seventh grade English teacher. I was always good at English, and made really good grades in that subject (unlike math). It wasn’t until her class that I began to be really challenged in this subject that had always come easily to me and in which I excelled. Mrs. Bushart was no pushover. She had high standards. Not just for performance, but also for behavior in the classroom. One day I rolled my eyes and made a comment under my breath about something she said (I was definitely trying to be cool.)
She called me out on the spot and challenged me, and I have never forgotten it. She got my attention that day about how to stand up for yourself and demand more of your students. She instantly earned my respect, and she never lost it. She was an excellent teacher who demanded more of me, and the fact that I am a good writer and a published author today might have some seeds in her high standards. Just because I was a good reader and writer already didn’t mean I could coast in her class.
This is why I see being challenged as a good thing! We tend to expect our friends, family and those around us to prove their loyalty by being on our side, agreeing with our opinions and bolstering our self-esteem by believing we are right. Now, don’t get my wrong, I love when people agree with me, see eye to eye on something or let me know they think I’m right. Who doesn’t? This feels good. It validates us, and our point of view. It is great. But it doesn’t promote growth. There is an entire section in my book dedicated to the idea that our challenges are what make us great, and this quote from Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel, The Signature of All Things highlights the growth potential from challenge as well:
“The greater the crisis it seems, the swifter the evolution. All transformation appears to be motivated by desperation and emergency.”
This is also why I say that cancer was like rocket fuel for my spiritual development. It provided the impetus for me to take better care of myself physically, mentally and emotionally. It helped me see the ways in which my own perceptions about myself, the world, and other people were actually doing ME harm. I can’t change the way the world is, but I can change my perception of it. I can’t change other people, but again, I can change the way I see them and relate to them. Wow! What a difference that simple concept has made. It is indeed simple, but it’s not easy.
One of my dear friends, Mike Dilbeck, is always straight with me. I know that no matter what, he will share his true thoughts, opinions and feelings with me, and that is often very challenging. It is not easy to hear what others think of us, or that something we said was hurtful to someone else, but hearing it is the only way to address what is underneath it (and there is always something underneath to be healed). When Mike calls me out on something, he does it in the most loving way he can, and then we get to have a conversation about it, which always ends in a deeper understanding and appreciation of something the other one is going through. Mike’s work is about standing up, stepping in and speaking out about the things in the world that bother us, so, of course, he is not going to be silent when something bothers him.
I am so grateful for all of the challenging people, circumstances and situations in my life. How else would I ever learn and grow? When I can be present to the love that is always underlying any difficult situation or challenging relationship, I know that the support is always there to back up whatever challenge happens to be front and center at any given moment.
Recently, one of the participants in my 5-week tele-course on Being Enough thanked me for "calling her out on her BS." Funny, I didn't realize I was. Challenge and support becomes totally natural after you practice it enough. At some point when we stop worrying about whether or not other people will like us, it is super easy just be authentic in every moment. I like to remind my clients (and myself) that what other people think of you is none of your business.
Be more challenging (always with love). People will respect you for it, and you will be contributing to their highest growth. Thank the people in your life who are “challenging” to you, and look for the seeds of growth and development in any challenging situation. Never let a good crisis go to waste.