DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


Is Self-Help Selfish?

Critics often put down personal growth practices on the ground that they're selfish, or at least self-absorbed.  The time people spend meditating, saying affirmations, taking workshops, and so on, according to the critics, 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?"  Similarly, in The Last Self-Help Book You'll Ever Need, Paul Pearsall writes, in questioning the value of much self-help literature, that "most of the problems we think we have stem from too much self-focus rather than too little."  The phrase "selfish help" has also become popular on blogs that are critical of personal development.

This criticism may have 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 cause food to appear on the tables of impoverished people.  Similarly, if I see a therapist, that can only help resolve my mental health concerns -- it does nothing for catatonic people in psychiatric hospitals.

But if we look a little deeper, I think it becomes clear that this critique has some flaws, and I'm going to discuss them in this post.

Does Self-Help Mean No "Other-Help"?

I think the most obvious problem with this argument is that it assumes that a person can't do both personal growth work and charitable work, or at least that people involved in personal development are less interested in helping others.

Clearly, the first of these is not true.  It's surely possible for me to lead a life that includes both, say, meditation and volunteering at a homeless shelter.

I suppose one could argue that the time I spend doing personal growth activities detracts from the time I could spend being generous to others.  But if we take that argument seriously, most of what we do in life -- apart from, I guess, eating and sleeping -- becomes "selfish" and unacceptable.

After all, every minute we spend hanging out with friends, watching a movie, hiking, and so on is one less minute we could spend serving others' needs (whatever that may mean to you).  This argument holds people to an impossible moral standard that I doubt even the most generous critic of personal development could meet.

Nor have I seen any evidence that people who do self-development work are less inclined to help others.  I've yet to see a study suggesting that, say, people who have read The Secret are less likely to give to charity.

Emotions Influence Actions

More importantly, I think the claim that "self-help is selfish" misses the deeper point that our emotional state affects how we act.  If my personal growth practices put me in a happier or more peaceful state, that's likely to change -- for the better -- the way I relate to others.

It may be that, while I'm in the process of meditating, I'm the only one gaining peace and clarity.  But when I'm done meditating, I take that peace and clarity out into the world.  Doesn't it stand to reason that, if I'm feeling more peaceful, I'll behave more peacefully toward other people?

This idea is more than just common sense -- there's substantial research supporting it.  You may remember that, in an earlier post, I pointed to several psychological studies suggesting that happiness actually causes people to be more giving toward others.  I've also discussed the evidence showing that people who believe they're responsible for their life circumstances -- a belief often promoted in personal development -- behave more generously.

However, there is also research bearing more directly on the relationship between self-development practices and qualities like kindness and compassion.  One study, "Mindfulness-Based Relationship Enhancement," found that couples who meditated reported more satisfaction with their relationships.  Another found that Buddhist metta meditation "increased feelings of social connection and positivity toward novel individuals" in study participants.

On a subtler level, the way we feel affects those around us, even when we aren't doing or saying anything.  Daniel Goleman's Social Intelligence, for instance, describes how our bodies instinctively detect and mimic the emotions of people we're with.  Goleman, for example, points to studies of couples showing that one partner's anger or sadness induced the same emotions in the other person.

In other words, because humans are empathic creatures, it makes sense that the emotional benefits we get from personal growth would "rub off" on others.  This is why, I think, one of my mentors says that "the greatest gift you can give to others is to work on yourself."

So, I think it's important to look not only at how a personal growth practice benefits its immediate "user," but also how it affects their actions toward others and the way they show up in the world.

The Promise of "Stealth Transformation"

I can imagine a critic of personal growth responding that I'm painting an unrealistic picture of self-help methods and the reasons people use them.  People don't get involved in personal growth to cultivate compassion for others, they might say.  They do it because they want more money, better relationships, improved health, and so on.

I think this actually points to one of the great social benefits of personal development -- what's sometimes called "stealth transformation."  Yes, some people may meditate because they want to be calmer in business meetings; some may do yoga because they want a more attractive body; and so forth.  However, no matter what their intentions are, the peace and happiness they gain from their practices can positively affect their behavior toward others.

In other words, even if people go into self-development practices for purely "self-interested" reasons, they may find their relationship with the world changing in ways they didn't expect or intend.  I know this happened in my own meditation and yoga practices.  I didn't begin them with serving others in mind, but the composure I got from those practices has helped people feel more relaxed and open around me.

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  1. Hi Chris,

    I agree entirely and want to add a few thoughts of my own.

    What do we want to help others to be? If happy then shouldn’t we be happy ouselves (not being so leaves us open to the charge of hypocrisy).

    Insight into why we do charitable things has much impact on those we do charity too. The poor often refuse charity because of the spirit of those who wish to do it.

    If we wish to maintain a life of care for others then not burning out is essential. And this means not being a perfectionist and making unrealistic demands on ourselves (which can be quite deep personal work – or so I’m told).

    I think Barbara and the other critics may be extraverts. Perhaps this is not a nice thing to say. (I’m not serious, but they seem to be criticising introverts for being introverted.)

    Thanks for this post and I’m really enjoying this series.

  2. Hi Evan — yes, that’s a great observation, I think — it’s difficult to help others do their inner work if we haven’t done our own. I suppose someone like Ehrenreich would respond that she doesn’t understand why anyone ought to do “inner work” at all. For all my efforts to explain it here, I think it’s something that’s hard to rationally understand until you experience it for yourself.

    But I will make one observation here — people tend to define love or kindness as a mode of acting or doing — if you give money to charity, you are a loving person. That’s one way to think of love and kindness, but it’s important to remember that these are also emotional states.

    If we try to act like loving or generous people without actually feeling love or generosity, I think, it’s important to ask ourselves why we are doing that. What are we expecting in return for our show of kindness? And do we resent and act out against others when we don’t get what we’re expecting? These are often disturbing questions, but I think it’s important to ask them.

  3. Chris, You’ve presented some excellent points and I’m sure if others opened their minds a bit they’d see the wisdom in them. It has been vogue to criticize law of attraction writings and the new thought movement in general and I think this comes from a fear others have of not being able to engage personal development for their own good. Like you and I know, anyone who actually uses self-love techniques benefits. The critics are all non-users. They have to be.

    In addition selfishness is a good thing. It allows one to become more prosperous and thus more generous with others. With more time and more money look at all the good we can do that we were not able to before developing ourselves.

  4. Hi Tom — yes, I get the sense that the fear you’re talking about — that transformation isn’t possible — is behind a lot of the criticism out there. Also, some people seem to have an instinctive distaste for displays or discussions of emotion — probably because of childhood conditioning saying those aren’t okay. I know that comes up in me sometimes. I can definitely relate to what you say about benefiting people with my self-development — I think the work I’ve done on myself really is the greatest contribution I’ve made to the world so far.

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