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Complacency: An obstacle to personal growth

By Norman Araiza

A client said when leaving after our session, “I’m feeling complacent.” He seemed pleased with the changes he had made through our work together, yet he lacked the usual smugness associated with the word. Complacency is a sense of being pleased with the self in such a manner that one may disregard the impending doom that may be circling one’s life or the need for improvement. It’s like the man said as he lowered his head on to the chopping block, “So far, so good.”

Satisfaction or contentedness is not a bad thing. Congratulating one’s self for a job well done is, in fact, an important step in reinforcing the continuation of the winning process. Past success, however, can be a trap that may keep us from setting new goals, aspirations, and desired experiences. There is a certain momentum – an energy – that is gained after completing any goal, whether it’s from following through with something we’ve been talking or thinking about for a while, or running with a new plan or idea. When all is functioning well, that energy spurs us to the next process. When we fail to find the next process, the momentum is lost and stagnation is just around the corner.

Ignoring one’s need for growth is another thing altogether. It’s more comfortable to bask in the glow of some personal achievement, congratulating one’s self for a personal insight or improvement rather than taking a courageous “moral inventory” of one’s flaws or bad habits. The smugness that often comes with self-satisfaction can lull us into that comfort zone above the perceived need for self-improvement. When that happens, I believe we extinguish the flame of youth that has nothing to do with age, but of which learning, growing, and striving is such a large part.

The biggest problem with complacency is that it impedes further growth and experimentation. One might say, “I’m retired, enjoying the fruits of my earlier hard work. Why should I have to set goals?” The answer: because without them, we merely exist, tilling fertile soil for the biggest challenge in later life to take root…boredom. Boredom is not going further, it’s inaction, stagnation. It’s living by habit, not living by design. Deciding to lower our golf handicap by two strokes or picking up a paint brush to see the other side of art or trying our hand in stage acting or maybe even just exercising our social skills by talking to a stranger a couple of times a week, all call for getting out of our comfort zone. Our comfort zone is everything else we do when we are not following through with our goals. Goals don’t have to be dramatic or lofty. They can be private and small but they are all significant. Sharing them with another seems to give them emphasis and make them real. Writing them down helps us bring our goals into focus. Our personal growth is a work in progress that we should never complete.

Those of us fortunate enough to be parents have a never-ending potential for growth, with the constant challenge of trying to be a better parent regardless of the age of our children. Those of us who aren’t parents may still have the constant challenge of being a better partner. And those of us who have neither always have the perpetual challenge of being a better friend, if only to ourselves, by recommitting to goals and finding new ways to challenge ourselves.

True self-esteem comes from setting goals and reaching them, expressing feelings authentically, being able to create intimacy with valued people, and having others express our value to them.

Norman Araiza M.A. is an American trained psychotherapist enjoying a limited practice in San Miguel de Allende. He is available for consultation at 152 7842; email:


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