3 Things the Personal Development Critics Got Wrong

by Chris Edgar

Don't always believe the criticsIs 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:

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.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Cory Chu-Keenan July 21, 2010 at 9:07 am

Chris, you’re an amazing writer. So thorough in your research and really deconstructing the arguments of the self-development critics.

The internal locus of control cannot be emphasized enough. This is so key. In fact, don’t you think that we can separate self-development into two categories? Those that emphasize the internal and those that emphasize the external locus of control.

i.e., Mindful Construct = Internal, Power of Now = External

1. Blaming Yourself – yeah, I do blame myself for a lot of stuff and it keeps me motivated to do better in future endeavors, so that’s fine. Making mistakes, even epic ones, are a part of life. Take responsibility and move on.

2. Blaming the Victim – some people are victims of circumstance and these people deserve a chance from society. We should extend our hand to them. Some are self-sabotagers and need therapy. But it won’t happen unless they want it and seek it out. What can we do for these people? Not much.

Blaming is not generally a healthy thing. To me, it implies inaction, besides finger-pointing. Sure, blame the politician, or the murderer, or the despot, but then do something about it. Don’t complain about stuff you’re not willing to take action on.

3. Self-dev is Selfish – all good things come from a healthy relationship with the self. You’re not helping very much if you’re carrying around dysfunctional beliefs, which lead to dysfunctional behavior, which actually hurts others you come in contact with. Selfishness is necessary. I don’t know why people associate selfishness with malice.

Great article, Chris. It got me thinking.

Heidi July 21, 2010 at 6:46 pm

You continue to find the golden balance with the details that make all the difference! Thank you, and please continue writing.

Melissa Karnaze July 21, 2010 at 8:46 pm

Yes, this article by Chris has great detail!

Thanks so much Chris for sharing this with us! I enjoyed following your responses to these three common critiques. Fascinating thoughts on the locus of control, especially with a link to depression.

Critics can get carried away tearing down and not really building. If you try to tear down an entire movement for helping people feel more effective in their lives, that’s a heavy undertaking. As you’ve shown, there’s a lot to be found within the field that’s worth keeping.

Sandra Hendricks July 21, 2010 at 9:30 pm

This is a very fine article Chris. Have you read the book “The Awareness Trap” written by Edwin Schur? I think these types of books give us more insight and a chance to exercise out thoughts concerning self-help. It is always good to remain open-minded and I think balance is the key.

Evan July 22, 2010 at 1:46 am

Hi Chris,

Well said. In defense of the critics – I do think they can point to writers in the field who do make all these mistakes. Thankfully they do not represent most of the field!

Heidi July 22, 2010 at 3:58 am

AH! You know, I didn’t even notice that it wasn’t you Melissa! You’ve found a kindred spirit there in Chris. (smile)

Chris Edgar July 22, 2010 at 6:17 am

Hi Cory — thanks for the appreciation. When you say “Power of Now = External,” I take it you mean that Eckhart Tolle’s view, and perhaps also the view of advaita vedanta teachers, is that the “self” or the “I,” the thing that supposedly controls the movements of the body and has thoughts and feelings and so on, doesn’t really exist? I’ve been thinking for a while now about how the perspective of Indian yogis who don’t identify with the body would fit into the “locus of control” spectrum.

Also, I particularly liked what you said along the lines of “blame the politician but do something about it.” Sometimes the critics say that the ethic of personal responsibility is anti-political, because it supposedly teaches people that they don’t need the government or politics to help solve their problems. However, there’s more psychological research to the effect that people with an internal locus of control are more likely to participate in politics, by voting, lobbying, and so on. In fact, people who think outside forces create their circumstances are *less* likely to bother voting. I go into more detail about this at http://www.devincontext.com/2010/03/the-responsibility-ethic-part-5-the-politics-of-responsibility/.

Cory Chu-Keenan July 23, 2010 at 9:07 am

Chris-

The core takeaway from Power of Now is that the “false/non-existent” ego produces nonsense, such as emotions and useless thoughts, that you must be able to rise above in order to live an enlightened life of nothingness.

Someone correct me if I’m wrong.

Beliefs that have no semblance of self or even existence can’t be anything but centered around an external LOC. I’m admittedly not familiar with yogic beliefs, so I don’t know if Tolle bases his book on them.

As far as politics go, I think it has to be kept separate from self-development and/or spirituality. As you showed in your other article on devincontext, those with an internal LOC are more likely to participate in politics, but what kind of politics? Are they going to run for a local seat or are they going to bomb an embassy? Do they believe that power should be shared or that power is naturally hierarchical? Politics is such a vast and complicated field that it must be compartmentalized outside of personal growth. But then again, maybe there’s a connection that I’m not seeing. Are those with internal LOC more liberal and those with external LOC more conservative? Anyway, as I may have just illustrated, it’s hard to be unbiased in a political conversation.

I’m not very versed in spirituality and I’m especially skeptical about those who live by a set of written spiritual laws. However, I wouldn’t ever condemn someone for their spiritual beliefs, because I think a lot of communities that do good in the world are formed from people of a shared faith. I also believe that communities can be formed that do good in the world who have no spiritual faith, but this would definitely be less accepted. People would wonder what the agenda is, if not spiritual faith.

When it comes to self-development on a whole, I think this article proves that it’s important to know what category you fall into. Lumping together Tony Robbins, Dr. Phil, Buddha, Dr. Drew, Melissa Karnaze, etc into one big category called “self-development” is like doing the same to Al Gore, Kim Jong Il, and Sarah Palin as “politics.”

There need to be clear lines of separation, and I think this blog has the potential to take the lead on that front.

Chris Edgar July 23, 2010 at 9:39 am

Hi Sandra — I haven’t read The Awareness Trap but I’ll definitely add it to my list.

Hi Evan — true, I’m sure we can find personal development writers who will say just about anything, given the breadth of the field.

Hi Heidi — glad to hear you enjoyed the article.

Hi Cory — I know there are some yogis who say that, in our true nature, we are simply “the Witness” — we watch the events happening in the world, the thoughts and emotions arising in the body/mind, and so on, but we don’t control them. I agree that this view would seem to be consistent with a strong (perhaps extreme) external locus of control. I’ve read Tolle’s books and I’m not sure whether he fully endorses this view.

As for politics, I agree with you that, according to my understanding of the psychological research, having an internal locus of control doesn’t appear to dictate a person’s specific political views, but it does make them more likely to become involved in the political process — simply because they believe that their actions are more likely to have an effect on events in the world.

Some critics, who usually come from the left — Barbara Ehrenreich and Micki McGee, for example — argue that, by promoting a sense of personal responsibility, self-development teachings foster right-wing political views, but (like you, I think) I believe this argument is mistaken. Left-wingers who want to see more redistribution of wealth, for instance, wouldn’t benefit from a society where people tended toward an external locus of control — because people with such an orientation wouldn’t see any point in trying to change the status quo.

Mike Kirkeberg July 23, 2010 at 3:11 pm

The only one of the three books mentioned that I’ve read is BrightSided. For the most part, I agree with Barbara Ehrenreich. The positive thinking culture has done a lot of damage. It’s interesting because thinking is the one part of our lives that we have little control over. Pick any thought that has some juice behind it; then try to stop thinking it. It is highly unlikely that it can be done. There is a lot of research on this White Bear effect, and most says that when we attempt to change a thought, the thought itself become more prevalent.
I spend some time on debunking positive thinking on my blog.

That doesn’t mean we aren’t responsible. The difference is that what we are responsible for is behavior, what we do with our hands, feet and mouth. Take a step back from the whole positive thinking (I’m sorry) scam and consider this. For the most part, we aren’t responsible for what we think and feel. We are for what we do. Does that mean that someone is homeless is at fault for it? Not necessarily. But, to the best of that person’s ability, responsibility for behavior is still there. That’s how I view response-ability.

Chris Edgar July 23, 2010 at 6:13 pm

Hi Mike — I think your comment raises some interesting issues about how human cognition works. I can certainly see your point about thoughts and emotions being difficult to control. On the other hand, it seems clear that thoughts, beliefs, or whatever you want to call them determine the actions we see ourselves as (i.e. think we are) capable of taking.

For example, I suspect you’d agree that, if X’s parents teach X that he can’t succeed at anything, X is probably less likely to try to start a business than someone who was taught that anything is possible for them. Why would X even try if he *thought* succeeding was impossible?

The question then becomes: is it possible to work with a person who’s learned such lessons, and is locked into such patterns of thinking, so that they develop a worldview that serves them better? If your answer is no, then personal development, including psychology, positive thinking, etc. probably has no value. But I wonder whether you’d take it that far.

Haider July 31, 2010 at 1:06 am

Hi Chris,

An excellent post.

The problem with many critics is that they don’t identify a negative trend within the personal growth industry, or the potential dangers in an idea. Instead, they assume that the negatives define the whole, and that the dangers are inevitable.

I enjoy listening to the critics to gain a better understanding of personal growth, and its “dark side” (which Melissa has dealt with over here). In fact, I often take a critical look at some of the ideas being preached in our community, and wrote about 7 popular ideas that can ruin our lives (#4 might be Melissa’s favorite :P).

An example of where the critics might have a valid point – but haven’t expressed it well enough – is the idea of “blaming the victim.” It’s not the responsibility ethic that encourages this attitude, but ideas like The Law of Attraction, where you are seen as being responsible for causing the problems you face (e.g. birth defect, abusive parent, being hit by a drunk driver, etc), rather than having the responsibility to deal with the problems.

Rather than respond to the critics, it might help to explore what possible merits their points have, and see what we can learn from them to improve our community. Their criticisms might not speak about the entire field of personal growth, but may point out important problems we’re overlooking.

Chris Edgar August 2, 2010 at 6:45 am

Hi Haider — I’d agree with you that, if someone is out there teaching “you are to blame for a birth defect you have,” that probably isn’t serving their audience well. And, like you point out, someone with a debilitating birth defect cannot escape the fact that they will need to take some responsibility for dealing with life and their limitations, and in fact if they accept that responsibility — according to the evidence I’ve presented here — they will actually feel happier and more fulfilled.

As for learning from the critics rather than responding to them, right now I think the tack I’m taking at DevInContext is necessary because the critiques of personal development (at least as far as I’ve seen) tend to be so ridiculing and tend to treat the field as if it has no value whatsoever and is all a scam. Once the merits of personal growth are more fully understood, at least in my opinion, there will be more room to debate about the details of what it should include.

Sandra Hendricks August 3, 2010 at 10:04 am

Hi Chris,

I think that the problem some of the critics have, may be given to a misunderstanding concerning selfishness. Many people believe it is wrong to be selfish and self-help is all about being aware of ourselves. If they could understand that the meaning of selfish is outdated in the dictionary perhaps they would be a little less self-centered with their views. There is a fine line in being, selfish and self-centered even though definition is similar. I think it is the outlook with regard to this issue that has many trying to dissuade self-help. I just wrote an article concerning this issue on my blog and would love to hear your comment.

Dina Ruth August 7, 2010 at 2:07 am

hi! thank you for putting things into context. now i have good answers for people that don’t know much about this subject!
keep up the good work! very interesting!

Kelley Mitchell August 18, 2010 at 1:24 pm

“And once I stop wasting time and energy punishing myself over the past, I can look to the future and take constructive action.” Well said. Also I’m fascinated by the idea of internal and external locus of control.

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