Is personal development nothing but self-indulgent, airy-fairy navel-gazing?
Can intelligent people engage in it with a straight face?
In recent years, several books have taken a critical view of personal growth.
Notably three popular books:
- Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
- Steve Salerno’s SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless
- Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel’s One Nation Under Therapy
As someone who’s been involved for a long time in the personal growth field, both as a “student” and a “teacher,” I welcome these critiques.
They offer an important opportunity to get clear on what personal development has to offer, and why we get involved in it.
In the spirit of fostering that clarity, I’ll address three common misconceptions about personal growth ideas and show where they fall short.
Critique #1: Personal development teaches you to blame yourself
One common theme in personal development literature is that we should take responsibility for our circumstances in life. It’s best for us, in other words, to see ourselves as controlling our fate, instead of believing that forces beyond our control create it.
I call this idea the “responsibility ethic.”
At first glance, the responsibility ethic doesn’t seem controversial. If I’m in debt, for instance, it won’t do me any good to blame the stock market, my upbringing, or the current phase of the moon. I have no reason to try to get out of debt unless I believe my own actions can fix the situation.
Critics, however, say the responsibility ethic has harmful consequences. A person who believes they control their life, critics argue, will be prone to self-flagellation. If I do everything in my power to get out of debt and don’t succeed, and I think I control my situation, I’ll take my failure as proof that I’m lazy or stupid.
As Steve Salerno writes in SHAM,
“[I]f you make people believe they have full control over their lives, and then their lives don’t get better (or even get worse), how could that not throw their synapses into turmoil?”
Where Critique #1 goes wrong
First, if it’s true that people who believe in personal responsibility beat themselves up more often, we should expect those people to be more prone to depression than those who attribute their situation to outside forces. However, psychological research has found that the opposite is true.
Psychologists use the term “locus of control” to describe a person’s beliefs about the degree to which they’re responsible for their situation. The more I tend toward an internal locus of control, the more I believe in my power to direct my destiny. By contrast, the closer my beliefs get to an external locus of control, the more I think I’m at the mercy of factors I can’t influence.
For example, suppose I’m a student, and I’m about to take a test. If I have a strong internal locus of control, I’ll believe that if I work hard, I’ll get a good grade. But if I have a strong external locus of control, I’ll believe that my grade will largely be the result of luck. Not surprisingly, if I have an internal locus of control, I’m likely to study harder.
Psychological studies have consistently found, contrary to critics’ claims, that people closer to an internal locus of control are less prone to depression than those who tend toward an external locus of control. In other words, people who see themselves as responsible for their circumstances are less likely to get depressed. Due to the feelings of helplessness engendered by their beliefs, it’s actually the people with an external locus of control who are more susceptible to depression.
Second, as personal growth authors often note, it’s possible to take responsibility for a problem without blaming yourself for it. I can admit that I caused myself to get into debt, for instance, without calling myself dumb or inadequate. And once I stop wasting time and energy punishing myself over the past, I can look to the future and take constructive action. I might make a plan to reduce my debt — or, if I think a political solution is needed, support candidates who pledge to help people in my situation.
Critique #2: Personal development teaches you to blame the victim
Similarly, critics often argue that self-development’s emphasis on taking responsibility for our lives encourages their people to “blame the victim.”
The argument goes like this: If I am responsible for my lot in life, other people must be responsible for theirs. And if I believe that poor people are responsible for their situation, there’s no reason for me to help them. Because after all, their choices and actions created their situation; it’s “their own fault.”
Thus, the critics assert, if we accept the responsibility ethic, we must jettison any semblance of compassion for others. In I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional, for instance, social critic Wendy Kaminer derides the “antisocial strain of the positive thinking/mind-cure tradition,” which holds that “compassion is a waste of psychic energy.”
Where Critique #2 goes wrong
Of course, the critics are speaking hypothetically. No one, as far as I know, has proven that people involved in personal growth actually give less to charity, or do anything else suggesting they lack compassion for the less fortunate.
What’s more, the psychological evidence implies that the opposite is true. There is substantial research suggesting that people who tend toward an internal locus of control — again, a belief in their responsibility for their lives — are actually more compassionate.
For example, experiments at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa found that children with a more internal locus of control were more likely to donate money to others. Another study at the State University of New York found that people who tended toward an internal locus of control were more likely to act in an environmentally responsible way.
This also makes intuitive sense. If I believe I control events in the world, I’ll be more inclined to think I can make a difference in someone’s life. But if I don’t see myself as capable of affecting events, why would I bother trying to help another person?
Critique #3: Personal development is selfish
According to the critics, the time people spend meditating, saying affirmations, taking workshops, and so on, could be better spent helping others.
“The question is why one should be so inwardly preoccupied at all,” writes Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-Sided. “Why spend so much time working on one’s self when there’s so much real work to be done?”
This argument has some appeal on the surface. After all, when I meditate, I’m the only one who gains calm and clarity — my meditation practice doesn’t magically cause food to appear on the tables of impoverished people. But if we look a little deeper, it becomes clear that this critique has some flaws.
Where Critique #3 goes wrong
First, this argument seems to assume that a person can’t do both personal growth work and charitable work, but that clearly isn’t true. It’s surely possible for me to lead a life that includes both, say, meditating and volunteering at a homeless shelter.
At a deeper level, the notion that “self-help is selfish” misses the point that our emotional state affects the way we act. If my personal growth practices make me happier or more peaceful, that’s likely to change — for the better — the way I relate to others.
For example, psychologists have found a relationship between some self-development practices and qualities like kindness and compassion. One study at the University of North Carolina found that couples who meditated reported more satisfaction with their relationships. Similarly, a Stanford University study of Buddhist metta or loving-kindness meditation found that this practice “increased feelings of social connection and positivity toward novel individuals” in participants.
Don’t always believe the critics
As you can see, personal development is about responsibility, but it doesn’t have to be about blaming yourself for your current situation. Or for blaming others for their current situation. In fact, the responsibility ethic is linked to greater emotional health and compassion for others.
Personal development is also centered on your own growth. But it doesn’t have to only be self-serving; it can enhance your relationships and motivate you to make a difference in the world.
What do you think?
What do you think about the major critiques of the field? Do you use personal growth techniques?
Personal development is a huge field. Certainly not all ideas, techniques and workshops are created equal.
Finding the method that works for you takes some exploration.
But the right approach can help you become more peaceful, compassionate and resourceful, no matter where you’re starting from.
About the Author: Chris Edgar is the author of Inner Productivity: A Mindful Path to Efficiency and Enjoyment in Your Work, and a consultant and workshop leader. At his blog Development In Context, Chris discusses common criticisms of personal growth and makes the case for a life lived consciously.