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The Subtractive Path to Growth: The minus 1% rule

Path to Growth

On any path of personal growth we need to account for what we add – new habits, new mindsets, new goals, new experiences – and also what we subtract – shadow work, re-organization, re-framing, re-focusing, de-sensitization, among other unlearning processes.

Integers are powerful as instruments for transformation. As we have seen with technology, you can build whole worlds from just 1’s and 0’s because of the clarity of their meaning and definition. There is no ambiguity in a light switch.  It is either on or off. That is simplicity at its best. Simple is a good mantra for continuity along the personal growth path given how many twists and turns life reveals.

In Atomic Habits, James Clear makes a strong case for habits built on 1% building blocks; small, incremental changes adding up to scaled human growth; 1+1=2 in the world of human development. He argues that it is easier in our everyday experience to adopt incremental change rather than over-reaching and falling short. This makes good sense and resonates with a lot of people. It is consistent with what has been deemed effective in theories of motivation and behavior change.  It is also very suitable as an antidote the games the mind plays with us when trying to affect changes in our lives. The “let’s take this one moment at a time” approach is helpful when facing the imaginative powers of the unwieldy mind. The mind has a strong tendency to thrust us into the whirlwind of what ifs, overwhelming us with what feels too big and too daunting. Your mind can build complex and constricting walls faster than you can get started into the wilderness of the new.

What we create and un-create

Integers exist on two sides of a spectrum. Like our experience of moving through life, they can have one of two values: positive or negative. Positive integers have values greater than zero. Negative integers have values less than zero.

As we explore the terrain of human development, we are called on to surrender that which is no longer serving us. Letting go is one of the fundamental tenets of growth. Nothing grows in a vacuum. Everything has a shedding cycle which primes a change in state.

In the authentic experience of growth, this cannot be substitutive, meaning we cannot suppress and then layer a superficial veneer on a broken foundation – we cannot keep adding +1’s to compensate for the layers of accumulated -1’s. Our stream of consciousness is too complex and too continuous to treat it like a simple ledger of credits and debits.  The darkness eventually peers through the cracks that form, causing the house to weaken and eventually fall. Suppression (or repression) exacerbates the fractured mind and ultimately inhibits wholeness, leaving us to abide in a tenuous reality. We cannot leave parts of our selves scattered in the stream of consciousness if we intend to become more wholly ourselves. 

What lies beneath shapes our self-narrative

Loss and crisis are common trigger points for meaningful growth experiences. One benefit of substantial loss is that it often brings us into close contact with the dark places that percolate in our consciousness.

Often, these places are littered with unexplored tunnels that run deep. These dark tunnels have accumulated energy and force with years of being buried, like a dormant, but simmering volcano. Even more challenging is that the unattended to feelings manifest in a cluster of thoughts. We build entire worlds of thought around unprocessed emotions. This unattended to energy can also manifest in the body and express itself in the form of chronic pain. In the world of consciousness, the mind and body are both suitable outlets for that which lies beneath. A universal rule of thumb is: What is suppressed must be expressed.

Consider what happens to you when you are emotionally triggered. Have you noticed that the pattern of your thoughts take on a consistent shape and form – the narrative that unfolds has a familiar storyboard. Or similarly when you are having an emotional reaction and your body starts to express pain through bodily sensations, often in the same physical locations, with similar intensity and symptoms. These are common indicators of what lies beneath that desperately seeks an outlet of expression. The common thread; the originating feeling.

Many people believe that by attending to unpleasant thoughts that they can unwrite these stories that shape their self-narrative. I would contend that unpacking the conceptual stories that dominate our self-narrative begins with becoming more fully aware of the originating emotion.

The originating emotion is the first mover in the spiraling of thoughts. For example, anger triggers a flip card of ideas about injustice which snowballs into a portrait of ourselves in a hostile world. The next time you have an emotional experience, simply journal the ideas that expand out of that emotion. You will see recurrent thought patterns that grow from the feeling. This will help nurture more clarity about how your conceptual self is being shaped by an underlying emotion.

New ways of being unformed through a minus 1% approach

When we are faced with a difficult experience, we may become quickly overwhelmed by the feelings and the subsequent network of daunting thoughts and mental projections that accompany the difficult transition or change.  

Consider the loss of a job. The feeling of sadness spirals into scenarios about a devastating future, social embarrassment, self-deprecating ideas about ourselves, disappointment of all the little things that are lost; connections with co-workers, physical work spaces that created feelings of self-worth, health benefits that created feelings of safety, and many more other losses. The amount of thought stuff that accompanies the loss quickly overwhelms us and we feel puddled in a pool of devastation.

Part of the challenge is the sheer scale of the loss. Add together all its tentacles and you start to feel swallowed up by the gangly-ness of it all.   

When facing difficult life moments and working on the experience of letting go to support our moving forward, we can apply the subtractive rule of minus 1%. How?

The first step is to recognize the originating feeling. We observe and acknowledge what is the core feeling driving the thought narrative. Then we decide to take one thought experience at a time and release the psychic energy it is holding. Let’s take the example of a loss of job.

Start by acknowledging that you are feeling afraid. No judgment. Just observing the feeling and getting into a neutral relationship with it. Then take one of the losses and address it curiously and intentionally. This is where we apply the subtractive minus 1% approach in order to let go and harness the experience for growth.

I will miss my co-workers. Yes, you will. But they are not lost to you. You can still make a point of migrating your relationship with them and preserving that intimacy in other social contexts. We are starting the process of releasing this unit of energy that this thought is holding over us. 

I will lose my health benefits. Yes, you will. But you can use this time to re-orient to all of the healthy habits you may have foregone during periods of intense work. This re-dedication to a healthy lifestyle will promote resilience of body and mind. Again, one unit of thought energy attended to and released. We are simply re-applying the minus 1% rule in each thought instance, slowly undoing the pattern of thoughts that are overwhelming us.

The ability to 1-attend to the originating feeling and then 2-take one loss at a time and come to terms with it, allows you to take an incremental approach to something that would otherwise feel like too much all at once. This helps to slowly release the energy that the thoughts and feelings have over us.  

We can apply the 1% rule when creating new experience in our lives and similarly the minus 1% rule when un-creating experiences in our lives. Letting go can be paced in the same way we build new habits. When it comes to integers, they have the power to heal in the experience of becoming and unbecoming.   


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Written by
Mark Stolow