DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


Personal Growth’s “Victim Culture,” Part 2: Support Groups and Selfishness

In this series, I've been responding to the common criticism that personal development encourages people to see themselves as victims, and discourages them from taking responsibility for their problems.

Recovery groups -- for example, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) -- are a frequent target of anti-personal growth authors.  The critics have many concerns about these groups, as we'll see, but a common complaint is that, by encouraging members to share about their personal suffering, they trivialize the suffering of genuinely needy people.

The "Trivialization" Argument

The argument goes like this:  recovery groups tend to serve as a forum for people to talk about challenges they're facing, or their past hurts.  Giving people a place to talk about their emotional issues implies that those issues are really important -- that the suffering these people are enduring is significant.  If I'm part of a support group, for instance, and the group gives me time to "check in" about marital troubles I'm having, that necessarily implies that my marital issues are important enough to merit the group's attention.

However, even if I'm having conflicts with my wife, there are clearly people in the world who are suffering worse than me -- people with terminal illnesses, living in war-torn countries, and so on.  By treating my suffering as if it deeply matters, my group may encourage me to see these people's suffering and mine as equivalent.  And if I start to see the world that way, I may become less interested in helping genuinely unfortunate individuals.

Wendy Kaminer, in I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, seems very concerned about this possibility:  "Recovery gives people permission always to put themselves first, partly because it doesn't give them a sense of perspective on their complaints," she writes.  "The failure to acknowledge that there are hierarchies of human suffering is what makes recovery and other personal development fashions 'selfist' and narcissistic."

What About The Facts?

Like many arguments against personal growth, this argument is usually presented as if it were common sense.  Kaminer, for example, doesn't offer evidence that people in recovery groups, on average, give less to charity, express less concern for people in third-world countries, or do anything else suggesting a "selfist" mentality -- except to say that, in her own visits to recovery groups, she didn't hear a member remark that another person's suffering was worse than their own.

What's more, there's psychological evidence suggesting that people who join support groups actually tend to become more generous as a result.  For instance, a New Zealand study of a support group for chronic pain sufferers found that participants in the group became more inclined to help others.  Similarly, a study in Communication Quarterly reported that people in an HIV/AIDS support group "experience[d] increased self-esteem associated with helping others."

Granted, no two support groups are the same, so this research doesn't prove that the recovery movement in general creates more compassionate people.  It does, however, cast doubt on Kaminer's claim that support groups foster selfishness in their members.  What's more, these studies make intuitive sense -- oriented as they are toward mutual support and caregiving, it seems natural that recovery groups would help members come to understand the joys of serving others.

How About The Philosophical Navel-Gazing?

On a philosophical level, we can begin to see the oddness of Kaminer's argument if we look at the following example.

Suppose you and I were close friends, and I griped to you about marital conflicts I was having.  I don't think you'd somehow conclude, with righteous indignation, that I must be equating my relationship troubles with the plight of, say, paraplegics.  Nor would an outside observer conclude that, because you allowed me to vent about my problems, you must be encouraging me to see my marriage and things like paraplegia as morally equivalent, and thereby turning me into a self-centered person.

In other words, no one would morally condemn the kind of conversation Kaminer is complaining about if it took place outside a support group.  There's no reason to make it wrong simply because it occurs in an AA meeting or a similar context.

But at a deeper level, do we really need to believe in what Kaminer calls a "hierarchy of human suffering" to be interested in helping others?  We'll explore that question in my next post.


Personal Growth’s “Victim Culture,” Part 1: The Threat of Therapy?

In our earlier discussion of the "responsibility ethic," we talked about critics' common claim that personal development promotes an unrealistic sense of personal responsibility.

In this series, I'm going to respond to critics who take the opposite view -- that much self-help writing actually teaches people not to take responsibility for their lives.  A frequent criticism of personal growth is that it encourages people to sit around whining about their emotional issues, rather than getting up and accomplishing something in the world.

Is Therapy Just A Blame Game?

The biggest offender, to the critics, is psychotherapy, because it often involves exploring how our past -- particularly our childhood development -- shaped the way we think and behave today.  Therapy, in the critics' view, often gives us an excuse to blame our present problems on our parents, rather than simply bucking up and dealing with them.

For instance, in SHAM, Steve Salerno accuses psychiatrist Thomas Harris and similar authors of claiming that "you were basically trapped by your makeup and/or environment and thus had a ready alibi for any and all of your failings."  Similarly, in One Nation Under Therapy, Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel lament that "what the older moralists spoke of as irresponsible behavior due to bad character, the new champions of therapism . . . speak of as ailment, dysfunction, and brain disease."

I think these critics take a misguided view of psychotherapy.  To them, it seems, people turn to therapy simply because they wish to stop blaming themselves for parts of their lives that aren't going well, and instead blame their parents or somebody else.

I doubt most therapists who explore their clients' histories would explain their methods this way.  Of course, there are many possible reasons why a therapist and client might delve into the client's childhood.  However, I suspect one common goal is to help the client let go of dysfunctional behaviors they continually find themselves doing.

Why Our Histories Matter

The theory goes, roughly, like this:  many behaviors we do today developed in response to our childhood circumstances.  For example, if our parents often scolded us when we asked them for something, we may have decided it was best to act totally self-sufficient, and never tell others what we want and need.

This show of self-sufficiency may have "worked" for us as children, because it protected us from our parents' anger.  However, it may not work quite as well for us as adults.  If we can't ask for what we want and need, intimacy with another person becomes very difficult.

Suppose a client came to a therapist with this sort of concern.  The therapist might explore the client's past in order to show the client that this self-sufficient facade developed in response to the client's childhood.

The Power of Awareness

Now that the client is grown up, the therapist may help the client see, they no longer need this behavior to protect them from their parents.  This awareness may help the client understand that it's now safe to let others know what they need and want.

As psychologist Kevin Leman whimsically puts it in What Your Childhood Memories Say About You, therapists' common practice of "asking about dear old Mom helps reveal patterns, and psychology is a science of recognizing patterns in human behavior."

For the therapist, then, exploring the client's past is not simply intended to help them blame their parents for their problems.  Instead, the purpose of this exploration is to help the client let go of behaviors that aren't serving them -- to solve their own problems, we might say -- and thus to lead a more fulfilling life.

In that sense, I think it's fair to say that therapy actually promotes, rather than retards, the growth of personal responsibility.


Growth As An Opiate, Part 4: “Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness” Cuts Both Ways

Earlier I explored the argument, sometimes made by critics of personal growth, that practices for cultivating peace and happiness, like meditation and affirmations, are socially harmful.  By encouraging people to "look within" for happiness, rather than basing their satisfaction on material rewards, personal growth makes people less interested in righting the economic unfairness of our society.

In other words, if people become convinced that "money doesn't buy happiness," they'll be less interested in redistributing income toward the less well-off -- because, after all, having more money won't make lower-income people happier anyway.  As Barbara Ehrenreich writes in Bright-Sided, "if circumstances play only a small role . . . in human happiness, then policy is a marginal exercise.  Why advocate for better jobs and schools . . . or any other liberal desideratum if these measures will do little to make people happy?"

I don't think this critique fully grasps the implications of the "money doesn't buy happiness" theory.  To left-wing critics like Ehrenreich, this concept seems to counsel fiscally conservative policies like cutting taxes and rolling back the welfare state.  In fact, however, one could use the assumption that money doesn't buy happiness to support policies more to Ehrenreich's liking.

Taxes and Happiness

One might argue, for instance, that because wealth doesn't determine our happiness, we might as well increase taxes on the rich.  If it's really true that money doesn't buy happiness, redistributing wealthy people's income won't decrease their wellbeing or their incentive to produce.  And if the ex-wealthy find themselves pining for their lost assets, perhaps they can just take up meditation and make it all better.

In fact, my friend Duff -- who, I suspect, shares many of Ehrenreich's political views -- makes a similar point in discussing Daniel Pink's Drive.  Pink, says Duff, argues that people are more motivated by a desire for "autonomy, mastery, and purpose" in their work than the promise of material rewards.

If this is so, Duff writes, why not have the government impose a "maximum wage" -- for instance, cap everyone's annual income at $100,000?  After all, reducing wealthy people's income won't substantially diminish their happiness, since studies show that their work satisfaction largely depends on their sense of meaning.

So, it seems, the notion that happiness doesn't depend on material rewards can be used to support either conservative or liberal economic policies.  My larger point is that the idea that personal development is the linchpin of a right-wing conspiracy is misguided.  So, too, is the idea that personal growth somehow promotes socialism -- which we'll explore in the upcoming series on self-development's "culture of victimhood."

Other Posts in this Series:

  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 5: Self-Development and the "War on Envy"
  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 3: The Hard Work of Happiness
  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 2: The Hazards of Happiness
  • Personal Growth: The New Opiate of the Masses?