What personal growth actually feels like

What does personal growth feel like? If you're interested in motivation tips, self-help, or personal development, click through for some great insights.

When I was 27, I navigated from Santorini, Greece to San Remo, Italy by myself, without speaking Italian or Greek.

My trip included sleeping on the floor of an overcrowded boat, two trains, a bus, a flight, another train, falling asleep on said train and missing my stop and then taking a very expensive taxi ride at 1 am to get to my hotel.

As I type this from our snug little apartment in Minnesota, this sounds like a grand adventure and a badge of scrappiness.  At the time, it was so, so, so stressful.

When I was in Nepal, I spent two weeks in a refugee camp.  I slept on a bed made of sticks, showered out of a bucket, walked a quarter mile to use an outhouse, and regularly rode on the back of a motorcycle, without a helmet, on dirt roads, through jungles known to contain elephants. Sounds so like the adventure of a lifetime!
And it was.
It was also hot and dirty and I was frequently tired and socially exhausted.
Experiences that are challenging feel challenging when we’re in the midst of them.

It’s hard to sell all your worldly belongings and relocate to a new country. It’s frustrating to navigate buses in a country where you don’t speak the language.

It’s not easy to start your life over after a breakup, furnishing a new life from scratch on one income.

But, at the risk of sounding like your mom, that feeling of frustration?  That’s what personal growth feels like.

Those challenges? Once you make it through alive (which, if you’re reading this, you have) that’s what adventure feels like. This is where you become a smarter, stronger, kinder person. Those experiences are what “Tell me again!” stories are made of.  These are the spaces where we grow. 

Growth doesn't usually happen during the sweetest, rosiest times in our lives. Click To Tweet It’s when things get hard that we’re forced to look at things with new eyes, to try new approaches, to dig a little bit deeper into what we’re capable of and think about what we really want.

So that break up you’re going through,
that lay-off from the job you weren’t that into,
this time in your life when you’re eating ramen or beans and rice,
let’s choose to believe that these experiences really are making us better, more interesting people.As cheesy as it sounds, some day you'll view this as the moment you really figured out who you were, when you finally learned that lesson, when you embraced the adventure. Click To TweetIf nothing else, all this will make for a great story.

What are some of the struggles you faced that made you who you are today? What did you learn from them?

I grew up in rural Minnesota, in a town of 2,000 people which means I a) can entertain myself and b) am not snotty at all.  I also sold my worldly belongings and moved countries five (!) times, which has made me a great packer and very, very unattached to my belongings.

P.S. Life has big plans for you.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

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  1. Pieliekamais

    …speaking of those belongings, it would be so awesome to hear your thoughts on "stuff", like how you manage to get the "where is all your stuff" look you mentioned the other day.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Hmmmm, well I'm not sure I ever made a super active decision not to have tons of stuff. From 22 onward I spent months and years living out of a backpack – after you've lived in the same seven outfits for months at a time, filling a whole closet seems crazy!

      So, I guess my deeply unhelpful advice is to go traveling and it'll force you out of any packrat tendencies? 😉

  2. Sally

    In my mid-twenties, I was living in an apartment I couldn't afford in DC, working two jobs, being a miserable jerk and making everyone else miserable around me. I decided the only possible solution was to move to Brazil. BECA– USE BRAZIL. Surely, that would solve all my problems. Whelp, I signed up for some dodgy teaching program that sent me to a city in the Amazon to live with a host family and teach English at a private school. I couldn't speak Portuguese. My host family was kind of crazy. And hardly anyone at the school would talk to me — besides the Spanish teacher who didn't speak any English (and my Spanish was limited to the few phrases I could remember from high school). I cried almost every night for six months until I managed to move out of the host family and learn enough Portuguese to make friends. But, man, if those first six months didn't make me a much happier, less self-obsessed, miserable jerky person.

  3. Ashley

    I'm all nodding and 'SING IT' over here.

    • Emily Skeels

      Exactly my response!!

      This is a great post! I'm studying abroad in Ireland right now, and this first month has seen its highs and lows. What's life without some bumps, right? Makes the smooth roads feel like a breeze 🙂

  4. Kaisa M.

    All so true. Even though during the stressful challenging (and times miserable) times it is so hard to be like: hey, it's gonna make me a bigger better person. But it does and in retrospect it's all cool. And I feel content. I guess it's those times in between.

  5. Manisha

    I left a seemingly great job in 2007 because although the job was great, the boss was a big jerk. I was sad, depressed, and couldn't figure out what to do next. Years later I realize it was a great decision even though money was super tight. Now I volunteer a lot and am very active in my local co-op and I have a daughter. That experienced forced me to "grow up" and helped me move into my 40s as a better person. Not as exciting as moving to another country (which I did several times as a kid) but definitely a period of personal growth. I live in Minnesota and that experience helped me see that I needed to appreciate where I lived, not only the state but also my neighborhood.

  6. Kels

    I would definitely call last year's experiences a lesson in personal growth for me. And, man, it was a struggle. Last year I was an AmeriCorps VISTA, and I was assigned to develop and after-school theater learning program for kids in Title-A schools. Going into it I thought: Yes! I get to help underprivileged kiddos learn about theater and the importance of the arts and everything was going to be a-maz-ing. Welp, it turns out the non-profit I was assigned to was wading in the red zone financially and was being stalked by the IRS. I basically walked onto a sinking ship (and all of this started happening before I signed onto the program, but, no one told me anything about the problems the non-profit was having…). To top it all off, my supervisor was almost always MIA and either I was expected to save their sinking non-profit or they ignored me completely. Oh, and the town I lived in got smashed by a terrible storm and my whole apartment flooded. I seriously contemplated giving up and quitting AmeriCorps more than once. But I didn't. I ended up moving to a different host site, and spent the rest of my service developing an art program for the homeless, at-risk and mentally ill individuals of a community drop-in center. I finally got to help people through art and create a kick ass program that was the first of it's kind in the whole state! I went from drowning to standing on dry land. All those experiences taught me the true power of perseverance and how difficult life experiences make me stronger in the face of adversity. I can definitely say I have more compassion and grit after last year!

    • Kate K

      Kels, you are amazing!

  7. Kate K

    I am nodding so much that I think my head is going to fall off.

    About two and a half years ago, I quit my awesome job and moved to a new unknown town for a new job. I didn't have a plan–I just thought it would be a fun change! And, of course, the job and the town were the worst. It was awful and within the second day of my new job, I realized that I had, to quote Gob Bluth, made a huge mistake. Like constant-panic-attacks-at-3am level huge mistake. I was, according to my boss, the biggest hiring mistake they'd ever made, and I spent a year and a half waiting to get fired.

    But, amid the panic attacks and the constant fear of having to move into my parents basement, I also had a lot of time to figure out what I really wanted for my life. I knew I had to get out of there but I also had to figure out what to do next and what wasn't going to land me in the same situation. And I did. I found a great job located in a town filled with my friends and close to my family. As much as it's tempting to want to wipe away that awful, scary year and a half of my life, I am so much more complete as a person because of that experience. I do not take my happiness for granted any more.

  8. Amber-Rose

    My mum has always said, when things are tough ask yourself: "What can I learn from this?" I always thought of this as a coping mechanism, but never that character building IS tough. We learn nothing when life is easy apart from how wonderful it is. 🙂

  9. Anonymous

    I love this so much! I totally agree– the most precious stories in life, are the most frustrating ones to live through while they are happening.

    I'm a new reader to your blog (just found you last week through a Google search) and I have been checking back daily. Love your writing and I love the diversity of topics you cover.



  10. Ashley

    What a helpful post! It definitely gives me something positive to hold on to when things seem tough.

    My childhood consisted of moving from place to place – it seemed I was attending a different school each year, trying to make new friends and trying not to let my social anxiety take over. Looking back, I realize that this experience made me extremely independent.

    • Jennifer Scott

      YES. I moved a lot growing up as well (Navy brat), and whenever people find this out, they always seem to ask me if it was difficult. I never know how to answer this, because while I was kind of a shy, bookish kid, meaning reaching out was a little tough at first, the necessity of having to start from scratch every two-to-four years made reaching out a habitual process and a thing I just had to learn if I wanted to have ANY friends. Learning early how to talk to new people has been invaluable to me as a grown-up. 🙂 It was hard, but I just can't picture it any other way, haha.

  11. sogugu

    Your posts always leave me both tickled and inspired!

    It's funny how I now think it silly to use a basin or bucket in a bathroom, yet I have done it all my life. And I grew up in the capital city of Kenya.
    In April of 2013, I quit a job I hated for various reasons – my bosses often made me feel bad about myself and I was so unhappy I got zits on my face and stomach pains and several bouts of the flu. I had been there almost one year, had saved up some cash for school and did not have a solid plan B.

    Two months into my resignation, while on vacation at the coast, I got called back to my former place of work to train my replacement's replacement. It felt good to be treated so well by people I had come to think of as evil, but I left again. A few weeks before that, I had received a rejection letter from a campus I had applied to in Europe where my boyfriend of five years studies.

    I'm now getting into six months at a new company where I like to work. It's a new venture dealing with furnished office space, and business has been slow for too long, but I have grown a great deal. My familial and friendship ties have improved, I enjoy my own company, I live alone now (it has been three great months), my savings are getting back on track, I'm writing again, my networks have grown exponentially, I am rearing rabbits and I am pursuing a side job in public speaking (which I love) and I am reapplying for a Masters program in Germany again (if it doesn't work again, I'll just go on holiday).

  12. Tracy

    I am a serious believer that getting out my comfort zone on a regular basis gets me closer to the person I want to be. Thanks for the awesome reminder, Sarah.

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