Have you ever been told to follow your heart, or use your feelings as a guide?

Countless Instagram posts tell us that if it’s the right job for us, it will feel good. 

Or if it’s the right relationship, it will feel easy.

But here’s the problem with this advice: Emotional growth often feels TERRIBLE. It feels like dying. When you are growing, you are stretching yourself. You are being vulnerable. You are looking at yourself from different angles and being honest with yourself in new ways.

You are literally creating new neural pathways. You remember being a kid, and feeling your bones literally ache because they were growing? Well, emotional growth can feel painful as well.

If you have self-esteem issues, getting a promotion at work may not feel as great as you had hoped. In fact, it will likely feel awful because you will have lots of opportunities to doubt yourself, to criticize yourself, to challenge what you think is possible for you. 

If you have attachment issues, new romantic intimacy you may have desperately wanted will feel difficult because you will confront all your baggage and show up in ways that feel exactly counter to what you learned as a child.

If you were to follow the advice that “what’s right will feel good” about, say, a job opportunity, you would likely never stretch yourself to go beyond what you’ve been socialized to believe about yourself, your abilities, your capacity to lead.

If you were to follow the advice that “a good relationship will feel easy,” then you are likely to chase relationship dynamics that feel familiar over ones that may actually invite you to grow.

The important distinction is to learn to tell the difference between:

(1) things that feel difficult because they require you to learn about yourself and love yourself at a deeper level, and 

(2) things that are hard without any redemptive purpose. 

Coaching yourself to stay in an abusive relationship or a job that you find at odds with your ethics will feel very difficult, and that difficulty doesn’t in and of itself mean it’s worthwhile to do so.

To get at what is a growth-promoting challenge and what isn’t, you can always ask yourself: 

Why do I want to do this work? 

Why is it (or is it not!) worth going through the discomfort of whatever this person/situation/job/etc are bringing up for me? 

What values would doing this work invite me to express?”

And then, when you’ve explored that, you can weigh your answers against the bigger-picture vision you have for yourself and your life.

You may choose to stay in a job with a challenging boss because doing so is an invitation for you to decouple your self-worth and belief in your abilities from an authority figure’s feedback.

You may choose to stay in a relationship with someone whose communication style brings up all your abandonment issues, because you are compatible in other ways and because doing so is an invitation for you to strengthen your ability to create your own sense of security within your relationship to yourself.

Or you may choose to leave a relationship or job, because doing so aligns with your values and is an invitation for you to grow in a different way. For instance, are you staying because you think you don’t deserve better? Are you staying because you don’t think you can find love elsewhere, or because you think you can’t succeed on your own?

If so, leaving certainly won’t feel easy or comfortable – but it still may be the best decision for you.

Not because it feels good, but because it aligns with your values and how you want to grow in the world.

Rather than using your feelings to guide you, I invite you to use your feelings as information to learn more about yourself. If something feels terrible, explore why it feels terrible. If something seems hard, explore what it’s bringing up for you that makes it feel so difficult. And then, with that information, you can explore the values you want to use to guide your life. The goals that you want to create.

Within this framework, you can ask yourself: Am I learning and growing in a way that expands me? Or am I trying to feel better about a challenge or difficulty that’s keeping me small? Does the growth I will experience align with who I want to be in the world and what I want to learn?

If you use these questions as your north star, you will make decisions that grow you and your life, even when it feels difficult or painful to do so.