The Dark Side of Personal Development

by Melissa Karnaze

Anyone with internet connection can share their life and their wisdom by starting their own blog.

Personal development on the web is booming. And there’s one thing to note about some of the popular sites.

They have a backstory. One that’s dark, and puts fuel to the fire.

Let’s look at two of the most popular personal development bloggers. Steve Pavlina explores personal development for smart people, and Jonathan Mead explores the less boring side of personal development.

The personal development shadow

From Pavlina’s own About page:

Steve’s passionate pursuit of personal growth began while sitting in a jail cell. Arrested for felony grand theft at age 19 and expelled from school, the full weight of responsibility for his life came crashing down upon him. In an attempt to overcome his out-of-control kleptomania addiction, he decided the best course of action was to go to work on himself.

From one of Mead’s articles:

A few things helped me overcome – my therapist prefers the word “integrate” – my [cocaine] overdose and addiction. I began taking my personal development seriously. I quit drinking and smoking pot immediately after my overdose. I broke all ties with my old friends, including my best friend…I was committed.

The strength of the shadow

Those stories are hardly what you’d expect to find on such inspirational websites, right?

They’re dark. They’re painful. They’re hard to share.

But they’re real. That’s what makes them inspirational.

Steve and Jonathan got hurt. They hit rock bottom in their lives. They faced their darkest pains. But they got up. They dusted off. And now they plow through challenges, like champions eat their competition for breakfast.

They picked up, they moved on. They’re building stuff now. Powerful empires. That empower other people.

Growth needs the shadow

Powerful personal development comes from a dark place, one of pain. One of learning, growth, integration. You cannot grow when you’re only basked in light. You have to experience the mistakes and the heartbreak that comes with living too.

It’s in balancing the pain with the optimism, the anger with the gratitude, the mistakes with the wisdom… that you discover the true power of growth.

The dark sides of two of my favorite personal development writers

The blog that’s empowered me the most this past year, Copyblogger, was also inspired by pain — caused by a near fatal snowboarding accident.

I trusted Brian Clark’s sound writing and web advice much more when I found out he really was doing what he loved — what it took facing death to embrace. I trusted him because I knew he was real.

Sarah Ban Breathnach, the author of my favorite self-help book, Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy, created her masterpiece when she was struggling to keep afloat in her own personal life.

I trusted her more when she shared how at the time of writing Simple Abundance, her marriage was deteriorating and eventually dissolved, and her relationship with herself was barely hanging. She revealed these shadows in another of my favorite books, Moving On: Creating Your House of Belonging with Simple Abundance. In reading both of these, I trusted her wisdom because I knew she was real.

Seeing beauty in balance of dark and light

When you see something shiny. Something happy. Something resilient. Something strong. Extraordinary, remarkable.

There’s likely a backstory. A good one. A dark one.

And that makes whatever is shiny glisten even more.

What do you see in personal development?

If you enjoy reading powerful personal development, just as I do, I’d like to hear your thoughts on whether there’s a shadow that drives it.

Do you think that real, positive, substantive change can arise without an adversary or a shadow?

Do you think lasting happiness is possible by simply not experiencing negative emotions, and never sinking into the depths of despair?

(Which is how much of the personal development boom portrays the ideal relationship with emotion.)

How about your favorite personal development writers — do you find yourself trusting them more or less when they reveal their dark sides or their shadows?

Want to learn more about long-term personal development? Then get started working with your emotions today.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Cole Bitting November 6, 2009 at 9:31 am

To me, pain propels many people to pursue grand aspirations.
We might naively think great achievement is balm for pain. We cannot out-achieve pain but we can heal it.

I would bet that another reason you found inspiration in these dark stories is that you also found insight into a healing process.

Melissa Karnaze November 6, 2009 at 10:13 am

Well said, Cole. Thanks for your comment.

I definitely treasure these stories, as I can relate. In consuming personal development materials, I need to know that I can trust a person before I really hear their voice.

One way to trust is by seeing how they integrated pain in their own life… Monday’s article is lined up for this topic of trust. :)

Claire November 6, 2009 at 10:23 am

My blog is classed as a personal blog by myself, but it also is part of my own personal development. It is not a blog about personal development, other than my own. There are lots of blogs that go for that niche, which is all well and good, if they are in fact any good. Some are so positive that they make me want to vomit and kill kittens. Why would I say such a thing? An over reaction on my part perhaps?

There are some that use the path of ‘Personal Development’ for their own monetary gain, which is great if they are in fact selling something that is of any use to anyone, other than their own pocket.

Some dissect their soul, lay it bare and tell you how far they fell, before they crawled their way back to whatever path they were searching for and it is those folk that inspire me.

Maybe it is the therapist training in me, that gets worked up over the idea over sticking my fingers in my ears and lalalala’ing negative emotions, which is how I perceive some of those ‘personal devlopment’ blogs.

Shit happens, don’t ignore it!

Really enjoyed this post

Melissa Karnaze November 6, 2009 at 10:36 am

Claire, you made me laugh *really* hard about the vomit and kittens. I feel you.

I find myself getting really antsy and annoyed when I stumble across a site that is all about the rainbows and the sunsets — that’s not real life. That’s an illusion, pulled over the eyes — that prevents you from seeing what’s going on in your own life and seeing what needs to be fixed… so that you can enjoy rainbows and sunsets.

And then, if I’m not mindful of my reaction, boy does my temper kick in. And then I have to tone her down and refocus on solutions, not the problems with personal development. But after browsing through many sites, I’m developing a sort of immunity to the empty positivity.

You are awesome for not lalalala’ing negative emotions, what a wonderful image of how silly that is! It was a pleasure reading your thoughts Claire, thanks so much for sharing. :)

Miche November 6, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Hi Melissa, another terrific article with great examples… why I love reading mindfulconstruct!

As you know from my last post, I’ve been feeling similarly about the lack of attention to the “dark side” where most real growth and change happens.

As for some of my favorite blogs, I’d have to say the ones that stand out most in mind are and
Lisis, Jay, and Robin are extremely compassionate people who aren’t afraid to share of themselves and explore growth and life in all its wholeness, beauty and depth, whether dark or light.

Thanks for sharing this!
Cheers, Miche :)

Steven Aitchison November 6, 2009 at 12:15 pm

Hi Melissa. I think there’s always two sides to personal development. We are always moving away from pain or moving toward pleasure. I think the many people into personal development have something they are unhappy with in their lives and want to change it – moving away from pain, or, they want to have more pleasure in their lives and want to move toward something new in their life to give them that.

Melissa Karnaze November 6, 2009 at 1:01 pm

Miche, thank you for your comment. Yes, I really enjoyed your last article on how compassion is linked to acknowledging suffering. I think too many people talk about compassion without a real understanding of it. You don’t just sit in a room and radiate compassion with your thoughts. Compassion is something that is expressed through interpersonal interaction, and especially put to the test when facing adversary.

Thank you for mentioning your favorite blogs, I look forward to checking them out. :)

Steven, thanks for sharing your perspective. Yes, there are two sides to personal development. I think the balance comes with realizing that pain cannot always be avoided or eradicated, but rather can always be worked with and moved through. If pain is integrated, then it’s much easier to create more long-lasting pleasure in life.

Nick Laborde November 7, 2009 at 7:50 am

I’ve had the opportunity to see a lot of speakers in the personal development arena. Most of them start with their rags to riches story because that’s how they build trust. Why, because most people can relate to that, it’s real life.

Of course there are some people in the PD niche that manipulate their dark side and use it as a sales technique.

@Claire, I also had a good laugh at the vomiting and kittens line. That would make an awesome headline “How not to make your readers vomit and kill kittens”

@Miche, Your exactly right, you have to experience pain before you can have pleasure. If your happy all the time there is something wrong.

Cory Chu-Keenan November 7, 2009 at 1:39 pm

Storytelling is also a highly effective marketing tool. If you can draw people in with a character and a story, then it becomes quite easy to sell to those people. It’s practically a formula in the world of marketing. A dark story is probably more effective than happy ones for the same reason negative ads work better: people remember them more.

As you say there is a personal development boom and that is because it’s profitable. The mind is the final frontier that people are desperate to explore and quite frankly, conquer. Everyone’s tired of having dysfunction run their lives.

I believe that the darkest moments of our past do hold the most power, because once we can unpack the past and re-frame the regrets, then we can move forward. I’m currently in the process of doing this very thing through journaling and I’m finding so much reward in it. Maybe I’ll start a blog, too, when I’m ready.

Melissa Karnaze November 7, 2009 at 4:35 pm

Nick, interesting point about exploiting the dark story just to bring in more sales.

That reflects a potential dark side of the personal development field as a whole: that people who haven’t integrated their dark side are misleading a whole bunch of other people to eventually do the same, and then they have a much harder time getting in touch with who they are, their feelings, and ultimately, their discernment (which is the dark side used in balance).

Cory, good point about storytelling. I’m not so sure if negative ads work better on me — to the extent that ads work on me (which I’d like to say is 0%). It’s an interesting question, do dark or light stories persuade better? And does that include sad and happy endings?

I believe that the darkest moments of our past do hold the most power, because once we can unpack the past and re-frame the regrets, then we can move forward.

What a great way to look at the power of the dark moments. It is this exact mobilization that makes working with all your emotions so rewarding, and ultimately intelligent… because it’s just healthy.

Journaling is an excellent way to facilitate the process, and I’ve written about this topic in several articles here. Be sure to check them out if you haven’t already. There’s also an article on how rewarding blogging is too. :)

Toni lamb November 7, 2009 at 7:27 pm

I don’t want to speak for anyone else because maybe there are people who have achieved their own pesonal growth from their mere happiness w/o the hard times but, for me that hasn’t been the case. Everything I have achieved or any significant personal growth has always come from a dark time in my life that I managed to turn around. I do think some of the darkest times in one’s life is what makes for a compelling story that drives so many people to them because they can relate which in turn makes you trust them more.

Patty @ Why Not Start Now? November 7, 2009 at 8:08 pm

Hi Melissa – I just discovered your blog. So glad to see you and a few others covering this topic. One of my favorite books: “Owning Your Own Shadow” by Robert Johnson. So often our gifts come from shadow, the gift of the wound. This can be a tough sell these days, because the thought of a dark night of the soul is anathema to a culture that prizes quick answers. Thanks for the insightful post.

Melissa Karnaze November 8, 2009 at 11:19 am

Toni, thanks for sharing. It’s the same way for me. The dark is what fuels my growth most. But, that’s not to say that you can’t also grow in the light. Some people don’t experience as much hardship as others, but I think everyone has to face adversary at some point in their lives. So, everyone can benefit from turning it around, as you said.

Patty, thank you for the book recommendation. :) Yes, a tough sell is the descending into the dark night of the soul. But descending and finding yourself again is *priceless.* It seems like the only way to trust that process is to hear from others who made it out.

It’s definitely that obsession, at least pronounced here in the U.S. — on quick fixes — that accounts for much of the empty polarized “happy” movement in personal development, and “love & light” movement of the the New Age. But many people are seeing through those illusions and looking toward balance instead.

Thanks everyone for making this a lively discussion and sharing your experiences!

Count Sneaky November 16, 2009 at 8:23 am

A most interesting blog. The “vomit and kittens” line should be a classic.
I would like to get rid of the terms like: Personal Development, Success, Positive Thinking, etc. They are such cliches that they have little meaning.
The “Dark Side”, is another and it makes me think of a movie, rather than the suffering of real people. Yes, it is possible to have a happy life and still pursue all of these questions. I will be 75 next year. An old geezer, but I have had a wonderful life. Nothing I personally deserved, but I was born asking the question: WHY? I’ve seen the suffering in this world and the only answer that I’ve found is that if we live for ourselves only, we will never find answers. If we love, commit to, and take care of, even, one other in this life
we will not have to worry about personal development. If we do not see the suffering of the world and only see ours then we are back to “vomit and kittens” My best. Count Sneaky

Melissa Karnaze November 16, 2009 at 12:32 pm

Count Sneaky, I do think that the terms you’ve noted have been cliched and even changed in their now loose definitions… how you would you replace these terms? Or would you rather they just disappear altogether so that people would talk about the issues instead of the “themes”?

I agree with you that caring about at least one other person does so much more than reading any personal development book. But even then, care can be considered a cliched term as well, because everyone has their own definition of what it means to “love” someone, some of which are very dysfunctional. That’s why for the purpose of this site, I defined love as an action, so that readers will know what I mean by the term.

I believe that learning to care for yourself first is the foundation to caring for anyone else. Yes, the two help each other out, but the world has a lot of suffering because we allow for and inflict a lot of suffering on ourselves… and that would take a whole book to write about!

Glad you enjoyed “vomit and kittens” as well, lol. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the article.

Count Sneaky November 17, 2009 at 12:55 pm

I know how difficult it is to write or communicate without cliches, but I think we have to try. The first step, it seems is to recognize suffering. You observe your own and try to trace down where it comes from and see if it can be changed or done away with. Then I think we can communicate with others more readily. If we regard love as an action, we might fail to understand it as lack of action, or more properly the absence of fear Perhaps, there is only one emotion, fear, and all other “emotions” are but the degrees of fear, and therefore, love is the absence of fear and and may thus be recognized.
Perhaps you may speak to this. I find your blog intriguing and thoughtful

Melissa Karnaze November 17, 2009 at 1:17 pm

Okay, I think what you are saying is that if we face our suffering and do what we can to stop inflicting it upon ourselves and others… then the cliches won’t be so common in communication. Because we will instead have more honest communication about direct experience, rather than ones about cliche topics — that are used to avoid substantive communication. (Feel free to let me know if that’s off.)

I’ve thought about the love is the opposite of fear concept before. It never quite added up for me. When it comes to emotions, it’s difficult to draw exact opposites, because emotions are rooted in evolutionary biology, which are interleaved with behavioral tendencies.

There is the approach vs. avoidance dichotomy. And love could be thought of an approach emotion, and fear one of avoidance. But even that is not consistent, because since we are human and we have culture, for instance: we can learn how to use fear to approach challenges rather than avoid them.

What I sense in your statement is a judgment of fear itself. From my perspective here, fear is perfectly healthy, normal, and vital for any physical, sentient being. It can lead to disaster, yes, but that’s only if it’s not *worked with* properly, constructively, mindfully. As a species, we are on the brink of validating this scientifically for ourselves, at a much broader scale — it just takes time for science to get the message out.

Meaning that research is showing how humans have an incredible ability to change their thoughts and thus their emotions in balanced ways, such that negative emotions can actually be transmuted into very positive outcomes.

If anything is the opposite of love, I would say that it’s apathy. But even apathy seems to be rooted in another emotion, perhaps hatred? And even hatred is related to love very directly. That’s why I don’t have a clear answer of how to draw opposites. And that’s where I think a lot of misunderstanding about love comes in. People pedestel it as the ultimate human emotion, but I think it can best be measured by human action, or in some cases, inaction. Yes, it’s a feeling, it’s possible to claim feeling love, while not acting in loving ways. Cue to codependency.

Anyway, these are excellent questions you bring up Count Sneaky. Slowly, I hope to tackle them more. But for the time being, the focus is on showing how important it is to work with all of our emotions, because all of them are of value to us in one way, or perhaps many. :)

Count Sneaky November 21, 2009 at 7:33 pm

A very thoughtful reply. Yes, you are right. We learn to avoid communication by the use of words, cultural “values” and commonly held
belief systems. Realistically, unless you are a politician, you wish to convey your thoughts with as little window dressing as possible…with as much respect for the other’s views as you have for your own. An ideal,admittedly, but one worth the work. My best. Count Sneaky

Serge August 15, 2010 at 1:50 am

Hi Melissa,

A lot of information in your post, thank you, but the the bit that struck me most was: “and as a result I slowly numbed out and lost my sense of identity”.
By the way, do you know this song by former Beatle George Harrison? (beware of darkness)

My whole body resonates with this song. Music is such a powerful way too convey emotions I think.

Melissa Karnaze August 16, 2010 at 8:07 am

Hi Serge, I hadn’t heard that song before, thanks for sharing. I think you’re referencing a quote from this article? It can seem strange how it happens, but when you numb out from feeling your dark emotions, your sense of identity goes out with it.

Count Sneaky August 17, 2010 at 12:50 pm

Might I suggest that the term”dark emotions” skews the discussion to start with. Perhaps we should speak of “human nature” instead. Nature itself, unless you want to see it a religious or sentimental manner is brutal, relentless, and in no way human, a process not a thing ; it’s sole operative principle is repetition. Human nature has one operative principle: survival.
Seen without the window dressing, it too can be short, brutal, with suffering interspersed with periods of comfort, or lack of suffering. Nothing new here; this is what the sages have always seen when they dropped the illusions created by the society and culture they were born into. To call these “dark emotions”, I think, does a disservice to the wisdom they can lay at your feet , and over time along with the greatest teacher, doubt itself, they are our great instructors. One does not have to plunge to the bottom, barely survive, and resurface with a message to inspire or sell or blog to others. You do well to suspect that their experience is not the end of a process but merely the beginning.
You must also be wary of words and plunging too deeply into the myriad meanings they may have. Positive and negative emotions,
are not things, but two sides of a process, both will always be there no matter what labels of the moment writers attach to them. They have always been that, and not a means to select one over the other, unless, of course you want to be a continuation of what you are now. Things in the long run always run longer than our enthusiasms or efforts.
Beware, though, the teacher may keep you after school and put you in the corner for a while.
Again, may I say this is an intriguing site.

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