The Lightning Bolt Symbol: Journey Toward Growth

By Andrew Bland, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist

In the U.S., most people tend to think of growth and progress as a straight line. One begins with a goal, sets and implements some objectives to attain it, and then reaches it. This perspective has its roots in American values of pragmatism and efficiency; what is the shortest distance between two points? While there is nothing inherently incorrect about this view, it also can be both disappointing and disheartening when one inevitably hits a setback—leading to helplessness, hopelessness, and unrealistic perfectionism. With only one place to go (back to the beginning), during such moments, giving up can be a tempting option.

An alternative vision of and symbol for growth and progress is shaped like a lightning bolt. In pursuing a goal, especially one that involves a challenge that necessitates changing one’s usual view of the world and/or way of doing things, one takes two steps forward. Along the way, new perspectives and skills are cultivated. Then, when one encounters a barrier (be it external, internal, or usually a little of both), one slips back into the familiar, no matter how limited or disappointing or precarious the outcome. Such a model may seem counterintuitive on the surface. After all, Americans are taught to fear regression. On the other hand, from a big picture angle, this perspective has a safety net, and a substantial degree of hope, built into it. Yes, there is a step taken backward, but not nearly as far and, typically, there is healthy tension. One has learned too much and come too far to fall all the way back to square one. Thus, with new outlook and capabilities under one’s belt and recent successes as motivation to propel oneself forward again, one has a better chance of acting on the courage to pick up the pieces and take on the demands of the current situation. Accordingly, one takes another two steps forward in a more sustainable direction.

This point of view also is conducive to a greater degree of compassion for both oneself and others. Applied to the former, accepting that more setbacks are going to occur at some point can help one to more gracefully roll with the punches. Rather than dread and avoid those steps backward, one comes to appreciate them as learning opportunities and healthy challenges to keep moving forward. When the process goes well, the journey toward growth therefore becomes not only more hopeful but also more fulfilling. And when interacting with others, the more one can validate the other’s inclination to cling to the familiar (it is only human to do so) at the same time as cautioning the other against getting stuck there, the more the other may feel empowered to begin creating new adaptive strategies.

In my view, the lightning bolt symbol applies not only to individuals but also at the interpersonal, community, national, and international levels. How have you seen it in action? How might you apply it to seeing the growth potential in and making meaning from situations that bring you despair?

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