Unlocking Clarity and Direction: A Guide to Structural Alignment for Personal Development

Unlocking Clarity and Direction: A Guide to Structural Alignment for Personal Development
Photo by Vlad Bagacian / Unsplash

Can I share a quick personal story with you — at least how I remember it (?)

It was the early eighties in Abingdon, England. A small market town on the outskirts of Oxford. We lived on an old water mill site — my mother and I — in a rented flat above a converted pig-feed storehouse.

With little warning, we were due to be kicked out.

In her pain, anger and understandable suffering, my mother told me to gather our belongings and burn them—clothes, records, toys … upon all I could lay my hands.

Eager to please, I amassed our possessions, grabbing what I could before stumbling down the cold, stone stairs leading outside to the cemetery next to the mill.

After fumbling with matches, a dance of flames and crackles rose high above my head (at least, it seemed this way). A small and vocal group gathered on the other side of the cemetery, beckoning me to get away and protesting, 'Where is your mother?'

Not long after, I recall walking into the dark front room of the flat. I saw my mother from behind. She had shaved her head and was kneeling with her face to the floor.

As a child might — I was six years old at the time, I remember finding this a poignant (if confusing) scene.

I share this memory with you because stark emotional experiences can disorientate much of our following lives — perceptions of safety and security, personal identity, and the habits and expectations that guide and influence our subsequent sense of direction.

It was only in my twenties (and beyond) I realised the extent to which I'd internalised uncertainty and a precarious sense of safety. Self-doubt, criticism, worry, and fear — voices born and embedded in my formative years — were never far off. Inner whispers beckoned and guided the person I believed myself to be.

Emotionally, I resembled a leaf in the wind. Blown around, I rarely felt enough — inadequate for the trials of life and lining up to be exposed in some shameful and unforgiving way.

For many, around our mid-thirties (at least, that's how long it took for me), we've often experienced enough of life to recognise how our cumulative habits and decisions merge to position our self-identity.

It's also around this time when various milestones of conventional success in life — career, family, well-being, relationships, etc. — press us to review our actions and values and the extent to which they align or otherwise.

Delving deeper, reflecting upon our behaviour and the changes we want to create can elicit vague inclinations clouded by confusion. Despite our best efforts to define a direction, life may seem to happen to us rather than for us.

So, how precisely might you start to bring about a shift in perspective towards a clear and defined path forward? Where might you begin to pin down and interpret aspirational yearnings into some measure of tangible and practical force within your life, i.e. where's the meat? Well, I'm glad you asked!

As a coach and psychotherapist, I've often used a Structural Alignment framework to help my clients look beyond their immediate stories.

Using this approach, we can recognise the internal patterns that inform and drive our beliefs, habits and behaviour (some years ago, I came across a formulation of this idea by coach Tony Kirkland).

The basic tenets of Structural Alignment encourage you to first view your actions, choices and reality as a function of where you are.

The concept outlines a pyramid containing four separate layers — Truth (the foundation), then Vision. Above this is your Purpose, and finally, residing on top, is your Higher-Self.

The Structural Alignment concept implies there is no room for conflict when these four dimensions are aligned. Emotions, thoughts and actions flow seamlessly forward. Conversely, conflict or struggle emerges when any of these elements are misaligned.

Let's take a brief look at these layers:

The underlying layer of Truth represents the foundation necessary for your vision to be possible. As your reality — physical and emotional — this layer represents your governing anchor.

Next, Vision refers to your future orientation. This direction serves as the basis for you to reach decisions and take action. While your vision evolves, its presence keeps you conscious of your desired destination.

Resting upon Vision, your Purpose pertains to your reason for being and doing. Your sense of purpose compels you to live meaningfully and to remain resilient in the face of life's suffering.

Finally, Higher-Self constitutes a place of internal harmony and inner peace. With all preceding levels within one's life aligned, it's here you experience a sense of completion guided by — and connected to — something greater than yourself.

Truth (The Foundation)

As your foundation, truth is the most complex to pin down. Sometimes, you have goals, yet this is not what you really intend. 

The relationship between tangible goals and your deeper, less-obvious truth can be fraught with fear, doubts, misconceptions and underlying beliefs to keep you from achieving what you want.

Photo by magnezis magnestic on Unsplash

I met a man who told me he was desperate for a romantic relationship yet couldn't find a suitable partner. During our conversation, I queried what experiences may have informed his expectations of love.

It became apparent that he had a pretty negative view of relationships. Recalling childhood, he described observing his father protesting a lack of time and space alone.

His father would often complain about feeling hen-pecked and pressurised (by his wife) before retiring to his study for isolation. Perhaps understandably, my client's perception of love and relationships was somewhat compromised.

Consequently, whenever a potential partner became a realistic prospect, he found himself sabotaging the opportunity. He would find reasons to justify being incompatible and use this explanation to avoid further commitment or repeat encounters.

So while the goal was to find a relationship, this man's (current) truth (his underlying fears and beliefs about relationships) hindered his ability to foster a meaningful romantic connection.

It was this viewpoint that needed to shift for the goal to become meaningful.

Pause for reflection: When seeking to elicit your truth, it helps to clarify an essential component — the desired experience — rather than how you imagine it to manifest. For instance, reviewing your living arrangements, you might think, 'I want to move to the countryside.'

Of course, that's fine. Yet to examine the truth of that statement, you might ask, 'What is it I'm hoping to experience by moving to the countryside?i.e. What is the emotional motivation fuelling this pursuit?

One might find it's to alleviate pressure at work or to quieten feeling inadequate, perhaps. Equally, this get-up-and-leave may be driven by a desire for some form of decisive action to redress a passive stance in some other domain of life.

If something similar were true, rural life — as an escape, would unlikely fulfil the underlying desire to feel competent and capable. As a result, it's doubtful whether this change would provide the outcome it appeared to represent.

In seeking to clarify and distinguish truth from less complex goals, it's vital to identify and address the underlying beliefs and motivations that fuel your desires.

In doing this, you may well uncover more congruent options to realise what you really want — and something can manifest in ways previously unimagined.

Vision (Stage 2)

Your vision encompasses the more significant and broader trajectory of what you want to pursue and how you want your life to look. Your vision includes everything you aspire to, how you want it, what this looks and feels like, and what it will mean to you once you are there.

Critically, if your vision is compelling, it will propel you onwards and remind you why you are moving towards your desired result.

While flexible, your vision has to be rooted in your truth. It will be hard to retain a clear and broad perspective without aligning your reality (stabilising anchor) and vision (compass guide). As a result, the experience you desire and how it might manifest are easily confused.

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

I met a young woman — pre-covid — just about to embark on a round-the-world trip. 'What inspired that?' I asked. 'I want freedom,' she explained. It sounded exciting, yet I sensed this deserved some further unpacking.

Through further exploration, it became clear there was little 'freedom' to be found in backpacking. While adventures awaited, this young woman was due to confront numerous restrictions.

Considerations included short-stay accommodation, language barriers and remaining ever-vigilant in unfamiliar territory. Essentially, a daily tyranny of small decision-making.

On closer inspection, her underlying quest for freedom revealed something somewhat different (and less exotic) from the scheduled adventures.

As we peeled away the layers, it became clear that freedom — in this case, relief from pressure — meant, for her, belonging to a circle of empathetic, committed, and generous friends.

More than anything, she craved speaking up without fear of judgment. To commit mistakes, goof out and be silly, i.e., she sought acceptance and belonging among peers she trusted and loved, and vice versa. Yet, due to unpredictable (and hurtful) friendships at college, she didn't believe this was a realistic prospect.

As a result, in a bid to protect her well-being, she shied away from developing new connections, preferring to seek 'freedom' further. Of course, travelling presents brilliant and life-enriching experiences.

Here, I'm drawing attention to how we might end up in the hardware store looking for milk, i.e. what we seek and where we look may not be compatible.

Pause for reflection: Your vision must be anchored in your truth. If misaligned, disappointment will likely arise. For instance, consider a person of average physical ability aspiring to become a professional sports player. With vision and truth misaligned, they will likely remain unsuccessful.

To help clarify your vision, consider what precisely it is you want to experience — and how this vision relates to -and is congruent with - your truth (your physical and emotional reality)?

Purpose (Stage 3)

Next, we come to the notion of purpose. To uncover your sense of purpose means to identify:

Why you are here.

Where your talents reside, and

What it is you wish to create and contribute to this life.

Without purpose, life can feel aimless and listless. Days become task-driven, and ultimately, you will soon feel distressed. Now imagine someone who considers themselves emotionally engaged and fulfilled in their life. They will likely be leading a life imbued with purpose and positive outcomes.

Carving out your purpose is a journey to you — it represents an aspect of fulfilment only you can realise. Some people may describe discovering their purpose as finding the missing link — a mission designed for them — a life-affirming unity of self and meaning.

Interestingly, attempting to find your purpose (or passion) is not necessarily the best way forward. Author Cal Newport puts this well, suggesting a desire to find one's passion inclines a person towards self-absorption.

He states, 'If you want to love what you do, abandon the passion mindset ('What can the world offer me?') and instead adopt the craftsman mindset ('What can I offer the world?')

Indeed, it often seems those most compelled to action (and subsequent success) are motivated by a sense of contribution to something greater than their selfish desires.

It's helpful to keep this in mind because purpose must align with truth and Vision. Suppose your sense of purpose aligns with the preceding structural stages. In that case, life will far likelier represent a smooth and harmonious flow.

But suppose you find you aren't moving forward, and yet your vision and truth appear to be aligned. It's here you'll find an opportunity to reflect upon your purpose as this might not align with the other stages.

Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

I met a young man in London. Upon graduating with an accountancy degree, he embarked on the corporate ladder. It would have been easy to assume he had everything he wanted with no evident worries and financial stability to aid his corporate climb. Yet despite his advantages, he complained of feeling under-utilised. Life felt void of meaning, and he was deeply dissatisfied.

In his heart, he had wanted to pursue an acting career. Non-plussed by luxury comfort, sharing his passion for acting was his heartfelt desire. Yet, he'd never found space for this to emerge.

He explained he had pursued accountancy to satisfy his parents. Yet, now bound and wrapped in a high-income lifestyle, his broader life experiences had suffered. He felt disappointed and frustrated, unable to experience his innate sense of self in a meaningful way.

As a result, he had to reconcile the reality of his current life and construct a new vision (one designed without external interference) - one aligned with a congruent sense of purpose.

Soon after, he moved to a less well-paid yet more creative place of work. Undertaking part-time employment, he was now able to pursue creative endeavours. Despite reduced external security, options for a life of internal stability expanded. Surrounded by like-minded people and living and breathing a craft he loved, he felt far more at ease.

Pause for reflection: What is it about you that makes you unique in the eyes of other people, i.e. What do they appreciate and value about you? If you don't know, ask! Their responses may illuminate a general direction to help define and develop your purpose.

Higher-being (Stage 4)

At your most enlightened, this is who you are minus undue pressure and influence — prior painful experience, social expectations, misguided beliefs, physical surroundings, etc.

You might ask if there's anything left! 

Well, yes — this core of your identity -devoid of external controls — represents your fulfilled life. In essence, it embodies a feeling of belonging, peace and stability.

While troubles or hardships will inevitably arise, your higher being has a significant capacity to meet life's ups and downs.

Photo by Sunguk Kim on Unsplash

It's important to note that while an individual might align on the first three levels, one might inflict immense suffering and harm without this final layer of alignment.

For instance, history illustrates countless examples of social atrocities rooted and justified in an individual's truth — views containing bigotry, ignorance and intolerance towards others.

Regrettably, such 'truths' can embolden disturbing visions used to promote and justify horrendous causes — a sense of purpose (Nazi Germany springs to mind).

Significantly, the preceding levels of alignment can be vulnerable to the immoral (and evil) when the spiritual element of alignment is not the ultimate consideration.

Higher-self indicates that everything a person does is rooted in care, compassion, understanding and kindness. It's here the pursuit of success represents a life-affirming experience and will likely benefit many.

Final Thought

So, what might Structural Alignment look and feel like for you?

For many, this exploration represents deep and complex territory. It demands courage and bold exploration — to confront the fears and misapprehensions within ourselves and wherever they may arise.

Yet, when it comes to casting light upon out-of-date stories and moving your life forward with assurance, this process of reflection embodies a meaningful and transformative path to pursue.