DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


Rainbow Right-Wingers, and Other Myths About Personal Development Politics

Reading Barbara Ehrenreich, you'd think people who are into personal development must be rabid right-wingers.  The common New Age notion that you can create happiness from within, she says, supports a conservative political line.

After all, she basically says, who needs welfare programs if poor people can just "think themselves happy"?  And the same goes for the Law of Attraction -- instead of relying on the government, why don't the less fortunate just "manifest" a BMW in the driveway, or a winning lottery ticket?

What About Governor Moonbeam?

However, it would be hard to dispute that the most "new-agey" U.S. politician today is liberal Democrat, and California gubernatorial hopeful, Jerry Brown.  In the '70s and '80s, when he previously served as governor, some called him "Moonbeam" because of his study of Zen meditation and interest in creating a California state space academy.

By contrast, how many times have we heard Dick Cheney or Newt Gingrich extol the wonders of meditation, herbal aromatherapy, or any other "woo-woo" idea?  The answer -- mostly for those of you outside the U.S. -- is zero.  Most conservative politicians would never admit to participating in "non-traditional" spiritual practices, and risk alienating their spiritually "traditional" constituencies.  (Nor would most liberals, for that matter.)

We see a similar trend among personal growth teachers themselves.  For example, Tony Robbins, in this much-viewed speech, mentions that he wishes Al Gore had won the 2000 election.  Oprah Winfrey, whose show has skyrocketed the careers of many self-development and spiritual authors, is one of President Obama's most visible supporters.

Is Self-Responsibility A Right-Wing Idea?

Why, if personal growth ideas are aligned with political conservatism, is all this true?  Do liberals who are into self-development, and conservatives who aren't, simply fail to see the connection?  I don't think so.

Why not?  As we saw, a big reason critics tend to cast self-development ideas as right-leaning is personal growth's embrace of what I've called the "responsibility ethic" -- the notion that each of us is responsible for their life circumstances.

Some might see this as an inherently anti-government, or anti-political, philosophy.  After all, if I believe I have the power to shape my life situation -- to create the relationships, career, and so on that I want -- why should I depend on the government to provide me with, say, education or healthcare?

Self-Responsibility Through Political Action

This argument sounds good on the surface, but I think it misunderstands the responsibility ethic.  Here's why:  the idea that we can create our circumstances doesn't tell us anything about how we ought to create them.

For example, suppose I think I'm paying too much in income taxes.  If I believe I have the power to change this situation, there are a number of ways I might choose to bring about change:  vote for a politician who promises lower taxes, move to a different state or country, learn creative ways to exploit tax loopholes, and so on.  As you can see, some options involve trying to influence the government, while others rely more on individual effort.

What's more, in all likelihood, liberal politicians themselves strongly believe in their power to affect their situation (as do conservatives, I'm sure).  If they didn't see themselves as capable of bringing about change, they wouldn't have run for office.  After all, why bother getting into politics if you don't think you can make an impact?

So, I think the truth is that accepting self-development ideas, generally speaking, doesn't require us to buy into any particular political agenda.  Here in California, for better or worse, we may soon have a "new-agey" liberal governor to prove it.


NPR and the Social Stigma Around Psychotherapy

Politics aficionados among you have probably heard about National Public Radio (NPR)'s firing of journalist Juan Williams, over his comment about the anxiety he feels getting on a plane with someone dressed in Muslim garb.

The controversy over Williams' firing didn't interest me as much as the comments by NPR's chief, Vivian Schiller, in the aftermath.  In a press conference, Schiller said Williams should have kept his feelings between himself and "his psychiatrist or his publicist."

This stirred up even more controversy, with Williams' supporters blasting Schiller for basically suggesting Williams was mentally ill and in need of a psychiatrist.  Schiller apologized, saying her remark was "thoughtless."

This incident illustrates the continuing strength of the stigma, in our culture, around working with a psychotherapist.  As near as I can tell, Schiller's comment was just a poorly timed joke -- it wasn't meant to be a factual statement that Williams was seeing a psychiatrist.  Nonetheless, people on both sides of the issue took what she said as a serious insult.

Why The Stigma?

Why is it considered insulting in our society to suggest that someone is working with a therapist?  My sense is that there are two reasons.

First, the common belief seems to be that people only see therapists if they're "mentally sick," the same way we see a physician if we have the flu.  Thus, any public figure who's seeing a therapist must be unfit to do his job or hold office.

Another widespread assumption about therapy is that it's something only weak people do.  A strong person, after all, can handle their own psyche and emotions, and doesn't need anyone to help them do it.

Therapy And Humility

I disagree with both of these assumptions.  In fact, I'd be more inclined to trust a public figure -- politician, celebrity, or whatever -- who voluntarily sought out a therapist than one who didn't, especially if they were courageous enough to admit it in public.

Why?  First off, a person working with a therapist is probably doing so because they understand that they, like all humans, are imperfect and have room to grow.  With that understanding, I think, comes humility.

I wouldn't want the country run by someone under the illusion that they had no flaws.  A person who believes they can do no wrong, I think, is dangerous in a leadership position, and history is littered with examples.

Therapy And Personal Growth

What's more, I think it actually takes a lot of strength to be willing to see a therapist.  If we have the good fortune to find a therapist who's ready to do deep work with us, we're going to visit many aspects of ourselves and our personal histories that aren't at all pleasant.

Also, a skilled therapist can help us see "blind spots" in how we relate to the world that we, and people we surround ourselves with, aren't aware of.  Unless someone helps us get conscious of them, our lifelong patterns of people-pleasing, manipulating others, defending ourselves from childhood threats, and so on, can run the choices we make without our knowledge.  I'd be more likely to trust someone whom I knew had worked to develop this kind of awareness.

And yes, I'm speaking from personal experience.  (Oops, there goes my political career!)  I've worked with therapists, but not because I saw myself as sick, broken or weak.  Self-development junkie that I am, I see psychotherapy -- done skillfully -- as one of the most powerful opportunities for personal growth.


Regulating Self-Help, Part 2: What Is A Benefit?

Last time we saw that, if we wanted to determine whether, and how much, to regulate personal development, we'd need to weigh the costs of self-development activities against their benefits.

This, as I said, raises yet another question:  who is qualified to say whether someone benefited from a personal growth practice?  In other words, should we trust the subjective opinion of the person who did the activity?  Or, should we decide whether they got value based on some set of objective criteria?

For example, if you come back from a meditation retreat and say you got a lot out of it, should we trust your judgment?  Or, should we only agree with you if certain objectively measurable facts exist -- for instance, if your heart rate is lower than it was before you went to the retreat; if you've had fewer arguments with your spouse than before; or something along those lines?

Trusting The Consumer

Generally, in Western society, we trust the individual consumer's judgment, and refrain from regulating, where the activity isn't obviously harming any third parties -- even if the activity seems ridiculous or distasteful to many.

For instance, I don't need a permit to listen to Christian Death Metal, and people who play it need not pass a licensing exam.  The majority of the population may hate this music, but the government doesn't regulate it, because my listening to it doesn't injure anyone else.  (I mean, some take offense at its existence, but the law doesn't usually care about that kind of "injury.")

As I see it, meditation retreats, and other personal development practices that don't obviously hurt third parties, should get the same treatment.  Sure, some may think meditation is weird or a waste of time.  But those people's distaste alone isn't a good argument for regulation.  I think most people will be on board with this, at least.

What Are The Exceptions?

So, the question becomes:  when should we depart from this standard?  When should we disregard the consumer's judgment, and demand objective proof of the practice's effectiveness?  Let's look at a few possibilities critics of personal growth sometimes raise.

1.    The Price Is Too High. Like I said earlier, critics often focus on what they see as the exorbitant prices of products, seminars, and so on.  One much-discussed example is this ABC News piece about Joe Vitale's offer, for $5,000, to take people for a ride in his Rolls-Royce and teach them how to attract wealth.

I'm deliberately using this example because it seems like a "hard case" -- I wouldn't personally spend $5,000 to do this.  But I think we need to look a little deeper to determine whether it's worthy of regulation.

To some, it doesn't matter how many people who take a ride with Vitale might think they got their money's worth.  The government should ban this practice, order Vitale to lower his prices, or at least require his customers to show, to the government's satisfaction, that they won't starve if they fork over the $5,000, and they aren't psychologically impaired in some way.

The assumption is that, objectively, there's no way this consultation with Vitale could possibly confer $5,000 worth of benefits, whether financial or emotional.  Anyone who thinks otherwise must be delusional or ill-informed.

Should We Crack Down On Vacations?

But let's think for a moment about another thing people often spend lots of money on:  vacations.  Sad, perhaps, but true:  some people spend thousands of dollars to fly their families to an exotic locale, stay in hotels for a week or two, eat out, and go to museums.

Is there an objectively measurable benefit to this?  Is there reliable evidence that people make more money, become less likely to get divorced, or have lower heart rates after taking a vacation involving air travel and luxury hotels?  (Remember, I mean an expensive vacation of the kind well-paid professionals take, not a "staycation.")

I think the honest answer to one or both questions is no.  And yet, nobody suggests psychologically screening people who want to go to the Bahamas.  Moreover, at least in the U.S., no license is required to be a travel agent.

In other words, we don't second-guess people's decisions to take expensive vacations, or assume that they couldn't possibly have received enough value from their trip to justify what they paid.

To be sure, if overhead luggage falls on somebody's head in a plane, or they get food poisoning from a hotel restaurant, they can use the tort system, i.e., sue the responsible party.  But that's true of Joe Vitale too -- for example, if someone rode in Vitale's limo and it crashed, they could sue him for negligence.  Regulation, commonly understood, is different from tort law, in that it tries to prevent harm rather than compensate for it -- through licensing requirements, safety inspections and so forth.

So what's the difference? Is it that Vitale and some other self-development teachers base their approaches on spiritual-sounding or "woo-woo" ideas?  I'll open that up for discussion.


Regulating Self-Help, Part 1: Defining Some Terms

I expect that, once James Arthur Ray's manslaughter trial begins, calls to "regulate self-help" will become louder and more widespread.  Because there's a lull in media coverage of the Sedona incident, I think now is a good time to soberly consider some questions about whether and how the government could go about regulating personal development, and the impact regulation might have.

I'm going to raise some of those issues in this series.  I think the first question to address is what we mean by "regulation," since we can't go into the particulars of what and how to regulate without that understanding.

What Is Regulation?

After all, self-development books, seminars, and so on are already subject to many generally applicable laws -- meaning laws that weren't specifically designed for personal development, but apply to it anyway.

The criminal laws obviously apply to personal growth teachers, as we see in the Sedona matter.  Contract and tort law applies to self-development -- if someone sells a book or leads a workshop that doesn't do what its advertising promised, they can be sued for fraud or breach of contract.  In this sense, self-development is already "regulated."

But in my experience, this isn't usually what people mean when they talk about regulation.  My sense is that "regulation" typically refers to laws and rules tailored to a particular business or area of life -- for example, self-help, or securities trading.

Normally, regulations, as commonly understood, are also preventive -- meaning they require us to take precautions to prevent harm, rather than punishing people for inflicting harm.  Laws against driving without a license are a good example -- they don't punish people for causing accidents, but rather for failing to pass tests that, in the state's view, ensure that they will drive with some degree of safety.

Some areas of personal development are "regulated" in this sense.  To hold yourself out as a therapist, in most of the U.S., you need a license, and to get that license you need to -- among other things -- earn an advanced degree in psychology and pass a test.  Other areas are not.  For example, I (thankfully) don't need a license to be a self-development blogger.

The Need For Cost-Benefit Analysis

So, the next important question, in my view, is:  do we need more regulations of the preventive sort in the self-development field?  To answer that question, we need some idea of the costs and benefits of personal growth ideas and techniques.

I think this is a key point, because the criticisms and calls for regulation around personal development tend to focus solely on its costs.  But that discussion is incomplete.  For example, we often hear people decry the outrageous price of a product or workshop.  But without an understanding of that offering's benefits, we can't fairly judge whether its price is "too high."

A new car in the U.S. typically costs tens of thousands of dollars, which to most people seems like "a lot of money" in the abstract, but people are often willing to pay that kind of price for a car because of the benefits they expect from car ownership -- being able to go various places quickly, and so on.

Importantly, as a society, we regularly do this kind of cost-benefit analysis even when it comes to activities involving a risk of serious injury or death.  To go back to an earlier example, driving is obviously this kind of activity.

If we only looked at the number of deaths and injuries that happen while driving, we would instantly decide that a total ban on driving was justified.  But that hasn't happened, because the benefits of being able to drive are widely recognized.

Hold On, What's A Benefit?

This brings us to yet another series of questions:  what are the benefits of personal development?  What qualifies as a "benefit"?  Who gets to make that judgment?

For instance, if someone subjectively reports that they "feel better" due to some personal growth practice, does that mean they benefited from it?  Or will we require a "benefit" to be objectively measurable -- for instance, will we judge a product or service as worthwhile only if people who use it tend to make more money, "find the one," or something along those lines?

All this and more . . . coming soon!


Thoughts On The ManKind Project Lawsuit

Many of you probably read the recent story about the attorney who sued his law firm, claiming his boss demanded that he attend the ManKind Project’s New Warrior Training Adventure, a weekend workshop for men, and penalized him when he refused.

I won’t comment on the merits of the suit, or the specifics of the workshop (I haven’t taken it).  I think the press coverage, and what it says about our culture’s attitudes toward self-development and sexuality, raise much more interesting issues.

This Is Headline News?

Predictably, reporters have focused on what they see as the most salacious part of the weekend — an exercise where the men sit naked in a circle, pass around a wooden phallus, and talk about an episode from their sexual histories.

Okay, without even getting into the purpose of this exercise, let’s take a step back and notice exactly what the media is riled up about:  men, without clothes on, touching and exchanging a wooden representation of part of the male anatomy.

A Reality Check

Let’s start with the object.  Would anyone be hot under the collar if it were a wooden hand or foot?  Maybe outsiders would think this was odd, but it wouldn’t be national news.  The so-called “problem” results from the fact that the object is a wooden penis.

Now, some people may feel instinctively uncomfortable when they imagine this object, but is there any clear reason why passing it around is immoral or harmful?

After all, I haven’t exhaustively reviewed the scientific literature, but as far as I know, there’s no evidence that touching a wooden penis ever maimed or killed anyone — unlike many things men do more often, such as driving cars and playing football.

What about the nudity?  Again, thinking about this creates discomfort for many people.  However, like many stories about the lawsuit have (shockingly) admitted, men get naked in front of each other in locker rooms all the time.

Finally, how about describing a sexual episode from the past?  Men do this frequently (often with liberal embellishment) over a beer — why isn’t it okay in the context of this exercise?

A Weird Paradox

At this point, it may seem like I’m playing dumb.  It should be obvious to me what the problem is, right?  The ritual is about sex! The penis is a sexual organ!  People usually get naked together when they’re about to have sex!

But again, so what?  Are genitals wrong?  Is sex wrong?  Is sex between men (which the exercise didn’t involve) wrong?  Most people I know -- though, admittedly, I'm in a very liberal part of the U.S. -- would say “no” on all counts.

Here’s more food for thought.  Suppose a group of homosexual men decided to go on a wilderness retreat, during which they took off their clothes and had sex with each other.  Would ABC News be all over this story?  Of course not.  But somehow, this ritual -- which contains no sex at all -- is seen as scandalous.

Sexuality Without The Snark?

This is why I think the real “problem” with this exercise is that it involves talking about, and exploring, men’s relationship to sex, without actually engaging in the act, or cracking “dirty jokes” about it.  In other words, it’s sober, emotionally open discussions of sex that seem to be taboo in our society, not the sex act itself.

This gets me thinking:  Wouldn’t it be nice if, say, parents in our society could have sober, emotionally open discussions of sexuality with their children?  If they could introduce their kids to the subject without a lot of shaming, hesitation and nervous laughter?  If their children didn't have to just figure it out all by themselves?

I imagine this would help create a less sexually neurotic and shame-ridden culture than the one we live in today, and I suspect the purpose of this exercise is to do just that:  to introduce men — and, by extension, the culture — to a healthier, and less crazy-making, way of relating to sexuality.

Ooh, I can’t wait for the comments — let’s get ready to rrrrrumble!  :)