You Can’t Climb Your Mountain of Personal Growth — Without Pulling Up the Stakes Holding You Down

That fool stake

There was a person who lived on a mountain. He wasn’t a mountain climber per se. Yet he lived on the mountain and it seemed that it would be somehow better if he could get even a little higher up the mountain. It would seem like progress, like he was getting somewhere, and — he thought — the view would surely be better. He began every morning with the intent to make it higher up the mountain. Every morning he would look around, think about how great it would be to have a better view.

He put a good bit of effort into the project. He would push and pull on the tent to get it to move and sure enough he could get it moving and with enough effort keep it moving. There was one problem. Without realizing it, he was only pushing his tent around and around in a circle. He could not really understand why he wasn’t getting to a better place. People would walk by and sometimes he would ask them, why do you think I can’t seem to get higher up the mountain? “That’s easy,” they would say because the answer was so obvious to them. “You still have a stake in the ground. Your tent can’t move because you need to pull up that stake,” and they would walk on. “What are they talking about?” the mountain guy would ask himself. Finally, one of the passers-by walked over to the stake in the ground and pointed directly at it, “There. That stake. You cannot move your tent higher up the mountain until you pull up that stake. Otherwise, you will just spin and spin around that fool stake.” Do you know what the mountain person said? He said, “No fucking way. That’s my stake in the ground. No way am I pulling up that stake.”

“You cannot move your tent higher up the mountain until you pull up that stake. Otherwise, you will just spin and spin around that fool stake.”

Everyone has a mountain they are climbing, even if it is not very steep, we are all on our journey up our mountain. Everyone brings along his or her tent; we love our tent because it’s our comfort zone. When we want to rest, we pitch our tent.

To get anywhere, we have to be willing to pick up the tent and move on up the mountain. That sounds pretty easy. Just pack up and go. Unfortunately, picking up the tent is much harder than we realize.

Picture this: here’s a person at base camp and for whatever reason, maybe she’s been fired, or maybe she just had a baby, but the whole mountain seems to have changed around her and she has to move her tent. She picks up the stakes and gets moving. But guess what? There was that one stake in the ground that she refused to pull up, that one ‘has to be’ that she won’t move. She really won’t move up the mountain, she won’t grow, because she has that one core belief, that one value or standard that she believes is crucial to who she is. So she never really grows; she never really gets anywhere. In fact, she believes that she is doing all the right things to move forward and yet she is not growing up the mountain; her tent appears to be moving yet all it is doing is spinning around that one stake in the ground. In this case, her stake, her core belief, is that since she went to law school she has to be a lawyer. Perhaps she is not suited to be an attorney; perhaps she doesn’t even like the work or the working environment. She might grow more if she were willing to consider pulling up that stake.

What’s at Stake?

From where I sit on my mountain, it’s so easy for me to watch my fellow climbers and see when they are not making progress on their journey. I can see so clearly — they have that one stake in the ground that they refuse to give on. They are clinging to the one belief, the one truth they are not willing to give up. And as I talk with them about their frustration at not being able to on and move up, I think to myself, well she is stuck because she refuses to let go of anger at her mom. If she would just forgive her mom, she could move on to a new place. But that anger at her mom roots her; it’s a core belief: “My anger at my mother is justified and righteous and I should not have to let it go. So I am not going to. Ever.”

“Our beliefs and values are our stakes in the ground. Our perceptions are also our stakes, as are our grievances and resentments.”

Our beliefs and values are our stakes in the ground. Our perceptions are also our stakes, as are our grievances and resentments. The stories we tell ourselves about what happened in our lives and why those things happened, those are also our stakes. These stakes help us be stable and safe. They can pin us to our comfort zone bulletin board, or they can keep us pinned, like a wrestler, unable to escape; flailing ineffectually, wasting effort and going nowhere.

It not that easy for me to observe myself and see where I am pinned. I started asking people who knew me well: what is it that you see me doing that is obviously holding me back? “If the Orange Doorhinge could only see ____. If she would only _____.” How do you finish those sentences when you are talking behind my back? What do you think is holding me back from being happy, I asked, from growing, from being the most mature, mentally healthy person I could be? What is my stake in the ground, my blind spot holding me back, that I cannot see?   The stakes of the Comfort Zone tent must be in the ground pretty good, I thought.

While I knew exactly what I would tell them (maybe what they say behind my back is that I am always telling them about their blind spots?), they had nothing for me. Well. That either meant that I was perfect or that they were way too scared to tell me (maybe my blind spot is that other people are afraid to give me feedback).

The “But I have to’s”

The things we don’t want to change in our life become our tent stakes. My values, my standards, my vision of how my life should be are all the tent stakes anchoring me where I am. These core beliefs are my “have to’s” or my “should.” What are your ‘have to’s” or “shoulds?” Do any of these resonate with you?

“I have to live close to my family”

“I have to work for a corporation”

“I have to work for myself”

“I have to have children”

“I have to live in a certain neighborhood”

“I have to go to college”

Some of these ‘have to’s’ are important. They represent values and your goals. Sometimes I can look at other people and it’s so obvious that their ‘have to’s’ are making them miserable or holding them back from growth because they refuse to see that pulling up that stake will help them move their tent.

Someone close to me had this core belief: if I don’t have a love interest in my life, life is not worth living. I can see how strongly he believes that and I can see how deeply important that could be to someone’s feelings of self-worth. Yet, for him, it’s a debilitating core belief. I have watched as he has invested time into toxic relationships, time that he could have spent learning or giving.

Unthinkable, Unbearable, Unacceptable

I had just wrapped up some marketing contract work that had not gone so well. It was a troubling experience. The CEO was a good friend, but, somehow, I was not a fit and the Exec team was not interested in extending my contract. What did I do wrong, I wondered? More broadly, I wondered: Am I doing the right things, in general, in my life? To get to the next level in my life, what could I be doing differently? How could I be thinking differently? What, if anything, is holding me back?

“I really questioned every aspect of my life. Especially the things I took for granted, like my marriage and my kids going to college.”

I asked myself the Tent Stakes question. What are the things in my life that, to me, it would be unthinkable, unbearable or unacceptable to give up? I began my list on a scrap of paper.


“I have to ignore my health..”

“I have to lose weight.”

“I have to please my bosses.”

“I have to give up on my dream of a second home.”

“I have to put up with this health issue.”

“I have to keep all my stuff.”

“I have to be a prisoner of my habits.”

“I have to feel bad about my career.”

“I have to be afraid I don’t really add value or know what I am doing.”

“I have to be marginalized.”

“My kids have to stay at their private schools.”

“My kids have to go to college.”

“I have to be married.”

“We have to stay in this house.”

“We have to live in Atlanta.”

“We have to have cars.”

“We have to have a certain amount of money for retirement.”

“We have to own a house.”

I really questioned every aspect of my life. Especially the things I took for granted, like my marriage and my kids going to college. I questioned aspects of my life I had never questioned before to discover what might be keeping me stuck. I stowed the list in the top drawer of my vanity so that I could look at it frequently. My vanity drawer, ha ha ha.

As time went on, I would pull out my list of Tent Stakes and contemplate it. Was there anything I needed to add? I added:

“I have to make as much money as I make right now.”

“I have to work.”

“I have to work in my current field.”

Which of the items I listed were holding me back? Which items on the list were inviolate to me? In other words, no way, no how, would I let go.

As I looked at the list, I would imagine letting go of each item. What if we needed to leave Atlanta? Was I willing to pull up that Tent Stake? Yes, I told myself. I pictured myself pulling up that stake and flinging it aside. Okay, what if my son didn’t go to college? What then? This one was harder. I really wanted my son to go to college. I pulled that one up and laid it down gently in case I felt I needed it back.

I went through the list. There was one that I said to myself, no how, no way, absolutely not giving it up — my marriage. That is my one “must have.” All my values, all my sense of character and integrity, dictated that my marriage was the one thing I would never toss aside. It was the one certainty in my life, worthy of my giving up any opportunity or managing through any calamity. My marriage, I felt, was my opportunity for self fulfilment and growth. It was my treasure and where I needed to invest.

This list helped me put my life in perspective and freed me from silly notions. I freed myself of core beliefs that were not necessary. I made different decisions free from unnecessary constraints.

Some of these changed my perspective:

I have to lose weight – Nope. Fuck it. My body would never be perfect anyway. Let go. I put that burden down and stayed about the same weight.

I have to be a prisoner of my bad habits – This one got my attention immediately after I wrote it. I definitely wanted to get rid of this Tent Stake. Thinking about myself as a prisoner of my habits made me want to escape versus willingly dragging this nasty Tent Stake along behind me day after day.

Some of the Tent Stakes made me think, re-evaluate. Some made me act: Picked up the dang phone and made an appointment with a dermatologist; accepted a new job; bought a bike and started cycling to work.

Then What Happened

I don’t know how much you know about String Theory. My understanding is that if String Theory is true, there is not a Universe, “uni” meaning single. There are parallel multi-verses, each Verse a version resulting from every possible permeation of every last thing.

If String Theory is true, maybe there is a Verse out there where my husband loves and cherishes me. Maybe one where he never fell in love with someone else. Maybe one where he kicked her to the curb instead of me.

Without my permission, life yanked up all the stakes. My Tent, the stakes, even the extra weight – all gone now.

I took out my list from my vanity drawer and added:

“I have to be alone.”

“I have to be financially insecure.”

“I have to feel rejected.”

“I have to settle.”

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