DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


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!  :)


Can Politics And Science Cure All Ills?

It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled, but I was inspired to write here again after my recent review, on my other blog, of Robert Augustus MastersSpiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters.

Spiritual Bypassing is about how we tend to use spiritual practice to escape from, rather than confront, our psychological wounds.  One thing that particularly struck me in the book was Masters’ statement that, ideally, spiritual practice is about releasing everything in our lives from the “obligation to make us feel better.”

The point is that spirituality is certainly far from the only thing people use to “take the edge off” their pain.  Drugs are another obvious example, but there are subtler and more “socially acceptable” examples as well.  I regularly notice instances of what I’d call “political bypassing” and “scientific bypassing” in our culture.

To illustrate the former, some people I know came close to hailing Obama as a messiah when he was elected — looking, for the next few days, like they were in a spiritually-inspired state of bliss, and their personal tribulations were healed or at least put out of their minds.  (Ironically, the same people usually scoff at the mere mention of spirituality, associating it with evangelical Christians and/or Republicans.)

Most importantly for our purposes, we can also see the embrace of political and scientific “bypassing” among critics of personal growth and spirituality.

Political Bypassing and Personal Growth

I’ve commented before on personal growth critics who basically claim — much like Marx — that the main source of discontent among human beings is economic inequality.  Personal development distracts people from this issue, by encouraging them to focus on their private achievements and relationships.  Thus, self-development is not only ineffective — it retards social progress.

These critics’ vitriol often obscures the wide-eyed idealism of their basic assumption:  that, if everybody only had equal material resources, nobody would suffer again.  No more loneliness, depression, or alienation for the human race, ever.

If the notion that spirituality can address all our “issues” is unrealistic, I think, the same can surely be said of the utopian notion that state-mandated “equality” will cure all human ills.

Scientific Bypassing and Spirituality

As for scientific bypassing, I think we can see this in the “New Atheist” critiques of religion that have been so popular over the last few years, by authors such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.  These critics say that spirituality and science/reason are in irreconcilable conflict, and we’d have a much better world if we only discarded the former and embraced the latter.

One problem these critics face is that science seems incapable of answering moral questions.  Some have no problem with this, and simply deny the existence of objective morality, because “there’s no scientific evidence for it.”  But this answer is instinctively unsatisfying for many people — to use a timeworn example, can we really accept the idea that Nazi medical experiments on prisoners weren’t objectively wrong?

Others respond that science can, at least, tell us what actions and policies will advance “human flourishing” — how to eat nutritiously, for example.  However, these critics need to explain why our actions should serve the goal of human flourishing at all — why shouldn’t kangaroo or algae flourishing be our priority?  Science can’t tell us why we ought to prefer the well-being of one species to that of another.

My point is that I think it’s important to be wary of “bypassing” — relying on one particular practice or institution to “make us feel better” — in all areas of human life.  The realm of spirituality and personal development certainly isn’t the only place where this happens.


Authenticity Answers, Part 1: How Deep Is Your Want?

A little while ago, I promised Duff a post about a question he asked me on Twitter.  As I understand it, his question was:  if being authentic is about staying true to what you want (which I briefly suggested at my other blog), what happens if what you want is to get other people to do something?

In other words, what if I want to get someone else to buy my products, or be in a relationship with me?  Wouldn't it then be "authentic" for me to create a persona I think will please them?  If so, doesn't that run counter to our intuitions about what authenticity is?

Degrees of Desire

I'll start by noting that I don't claim to be an authority on what authenticity means or ought to mean.  With the disclaimers out of the way, I'll suggest that authenticity, as I'm using the word, is a matter of degree rather than kind.  In my experience, underneath each desire we have, there's often a deeper desire.

For example, if I really want you to buy a product I'm selling, perhaps that's because I want to become wealthy.  And if I want to be wealthy, maybe that's because I want to be respected.  And perhaps I wish to be respected because I didn't feel respected by my father, and I want my father's love.  Deeper still, maybe I want my father's love because I simply want to feel loved.

Notice how, the deeper I delved into my wants in that example, the more heartfelt -- and the more vulnerable -- those wants became.  I don't know about you, but it would be much easier for me to admit to someone that I want to get rich than to tell them I want my father's love!  A lot of people, I imagine, wouldn't even want to admit that to themselves.

So, this is my concept of authenticity:  the deeper the desire we're acknowledging and pursuing, the more authentic we're being.  On the other hand, the closer to our surface-level desires we are, the less authentic we are in that moment.  I think this notion meshes well with our intuitions about what authenticity is -- that is, "coming from the heart" when we speak and act.

So Can Pretending Be Authentic?

Now, back to Duff's question:  can I be "authentic" if what I want is to please or manipulate someone?  My answer is that, if I am acting with the goal of pleasing someone else, there's probably a deeper desire underneath that I'm not acknowledging -- perhaps the desire to be loved or respected.

That is, if I'm coming from a place of "I need to please you" when I talk to you, and I'm not in touch with the (probably painful) wants and needs beneath that, I'm being less authentic than I'd be if I were open with myself, and you, about what's really driving my behavior.  The more I'm willing to reveal, and be guided by, my deeper wants, the more authentic I'm being.

I think authenticity is a continuum, in other words -- it's not simply an either-or matter of being authentic or inauthentic.

In my experience, there's something very powerful and liberating about moving toward authenticity, in the sense I'm using the word.  It can be unsettling to admit to someone what I most deeply want with them, rather than pretending I'm only there to shoot the breeze, or go out on a date, or do a business deal -- in other words, to cover up my real intentions in the way we're accustomed to doing in our culture.  But when I'm courageous enough to do it, it's a freeing and transforming experience.


Guest Post At Mindful Construct: “3 Things The Personal Development Critics Got Wrong”

I've published a guest post at Melissa Karnaze's blog Mindful Construct called "3 Things The Personal Development Critics Got Wrong."  It mainly deals with critics' arguments against personal development's ethic of taking responsibility for your circumstances, including the claims that this ethic encourages selfishness and self-blame.

I think this article will be a useful summary for people who have recently discovered my work at this blog.  I think you'll also appreciate Melissa's articles, which take an approach to personal development that's rooted in cognitive science and psychology.  Enjoy!


Do Thoughts Create Things?, Part 1: Yes, Unless You’re A Robot

It will probably be obvious, to anyone who follows debates about personal development, that a central question in these debates is whether our inner experience can affect reality.  In other words, can changes in our thoughts and feelings cause changes in the world around us?

It's tempting to respond the way some critics do, and treat the answer as plain -- and, perhaps, the question itself as dumb.  Clearly, the answer is no -- thinking about a BMW won't cause one to appear in my driveway, my bad moods don't cause inclement weather, and so on.  Only a fluff-headed, New-Agey navel-gazer could think otherwise.

But that response, as we'll see, caricatures and oversimplifies the question.  In fact, this question raises profound, and hotly debated, philosophical and scientific issues.  To illustrate, let's look at a few (and by no means all) of the ways we might answer this question.

Reductive Materialism

From one perspective, it's impossible for our thoughts and feelings to affect reality.  What we perceive as "thoughts" and "feelings" are merely our subjective experiences, or "epiphenomena," of biochemical processes in our brains.  Our experience of those processes plainly cannot cause or influence those processes.

Here's a crude analogy -- the chemical reactions in my brain are like a movie, and "I" am like a person watching that movie.  Clearly, my experience of the film can't alter the film itself. The fact that I like some character in the film, for instance, won't cause the movie's plot to change so that the character lives rather than dying.

One result of this view is that human beings don't have free will. This is because the very concept of "I" -- an individual who chooses, wants, makes plans, and so on -- is itself just a subjective experience of chemical reactions in the brain.  "I," being merely an illusion created by neurological activity, can't influence anything that happens in the physical world.

If you buy this view, you're free to claim that our thoughts and feelings don't affect reality at all.  But if you don't accept it, I think, you have to believe -- on some level -- that they do.

Emotions As Reasons

You may recall that, in an earlier post, I observed that we do most, or all, of the things we do in life because we want to experience certain feelings.  For example, as I pointed out, most people don't make money just to own little colored pieces of paper -- they do it to create feelings of security, power, joy, or something else.

If this is so, there is clearly a sense in which our inner experience -- our thoughts, feelings and sensations -- affects our reality.

Take the example of making money.  The feelings we desire (security, power, etc.) influence the actions we take in the world (starting a business, getting a job, and so on) -- and when we act, of course, we alter the physical world in some way.  This is just another way to put the point that we make money because we want those feelings.

Thus, on some level, I think most people would agree that our inner experience does affect reality.  The real question is the way in which, and perhaps the extent to which, it does so.  We'll get into that question more deeply in the next post.


What Is Personal Development?, Part 3: Progressive and Lasting Change

Last time, we talked about the first part of my working definition of personal development -- namely, that, to amount to personal growth, an idea or technique must be consciously intended to work with our "inner experience," meaning our thoughts, emotions and sensations.

I'll now talk about the second criterion an approach must meet, under my definition, to be personal development:  it must be intended to produce progressive and lasting change.  (Yes, I added the "progressive" part upon further reflection after my last post. :) )

By "progressive" change, I mean that, each time the user does the activity, they make progress -- however gradual -- toward their ultimate goal, whether that goal is happiness, a better job, a Buddhist-style attitude of non-attachment to their experience, or something else.

By "lasting" change, I mean the benefits of the activity must persist even when the user isn't doing the activity.  In other words, the user must take those benefits with them into the "real world."

Why Therapy Isn't Like Candy

If I see a psychotherapist, for instance, I will probably do so expecting progressive and lasting benefits to my mental and emotional health.  I'll desire progressive change in the sense that, each week that I visit my therapist, I want to feel more at peace with myself than I did during the last.

What's more, I'll probably want those benefits to last in between therapy sessions.  I won't want the self-acceptance I feel to suddenly disappear the moment I walk out of the therapist's office.  In all likelihood, I'll also want that peace to persist even when I'm no longer in therapy -- I won't want it to fade away after the therapeutic relationship ends.  Thus, generally speaking, psychotherapy is a personal growth activity under my definition.

By contrast, suppose I eat a piece of candy because I want to create a particular inner experience -- in this case, a taste sensation.  I probably won't do this expecting lasting changes in my experience.  In all likelihood, I'll get a brief moment of pleasure, and after a little while the feeling will pass.

A few minutes later, I'll be "back to square one," emotionally speaking -- as far as my inner experience is concerned, it'll be as if I never ate the candy at all.  Thus, eating candy will not produce progressive change in my experience either.  (Duff raised the similar example of taking drugs in response to an earlier post in this series.)

It's About Expectations, Not Results

Finally, note that I said the activity must be intended to produce progressive and lasting change.  The activity need not actually create that type of change to amount to self-development under my definition.

For example, if a person goes to an energy healer expecting to grow more relaxed and focused over time, but in fact each session only creates a fleeting "high" like the candy I mentioned earlier, the energy healing would nonetheless be "personal growth" as I use the term.

I offer this caveat to avoid defining personal growth to include only techniques and perspectives that "work," because that would exclude the possibility of meaningful debate about the merits of specific approaches.

As a result, even if you believe that no form of personal development is effective and it's all a fraud, you can still accept my definition.  Like I said in response to previous comments, my definition is purely descriptive -- it's simply meant to capture the conventional view of what self-development is, and not to judge whether certain techniques are helpful or moral.


What Is Personal Development?, Part 2: Growth Vs. Advice

In my last post, I offered a working definition of personal development that goes like this:  "Personal development" perspectives and techniques are (1) consciously intended to work with our "inner experience," meaning our thoughts, emotions and sensations, and (2) meant to produce a lasting result.

As Duff pointed out in response to my last post, I've yet to discuss how one particular area of self-development fits into this framework.  I'm talking about approaches that try to harness our thoughts, emotions and sensations to create a specific result in the outside world.

Popular examples include visualizing something you want in order to bring it into your life -- whether it's business success, an intimate relationship, or something else; and energy healing intended to improve the client's health.

Such a technique is a form of personal growth, under my definition, if it seeks to achieve the outer result by transforming the user's inner experience, or the way the user relates to that experience.

To illustrate, as I said earlier, a book that teaches us ways to become more loving toward ourselves, on the theory that this will help us attract a partner, would amount to personal growth because it seeks to create an outer result by working with our thoughts and emotions.

While it uses the transformation of our inner experience as a tool to change our outer circumstances, this book nonetheless qualifies as personal growth because it involves consciously focusing on our inner experience.

Tire-Changing Isn't Self-Development

On the other hand, a book that teaches us how to dress to attract a mate is not a form of personal development under my definition, because it doesn't focus on transforming or relating to our inner experience.

For this book's purposes, the way we feel about ourselves is irrelevant.  Its goal is to get others -- namely, potential partners -- to approve of our appearance.  I may follow all of the book's advice and still feel miserable about myself, but the book has nonetheless fulfilled its purpose if potential mates like my style.

This caveat is important because it keeps the definition of personal growth from encompassing every possible type of advice, and every product and seminar out there that seeks to teach us how to do something.

I imagine most of us wouldn't think of books on changing a tire, investing in municipal bonds, or mastering Portuguese cooking as being about personal growth, and this observation explains why -- the techniques in those books don't focus on transforming your inner experience.  Those books, we could say, are about advice, but not growth.

The Consequences For Critics

One result is that, under my view, some ideas targeted by personal development's critics actually have nothing to do with personal development.  In SHAM, for example, Steve Salerno treats magazines like Cosmopolitan, which teach women "how to paint themselves, primp themselves, and acquire enough sexual know-how to keep a man satisfied and at home," as examples of "self-help and actualization" (a.k.a. "SHAM") literature.

However, from my perspective, advice about putting on makeup that doesn't focus on transforming your inner experience is not "personal growth" advice.  To say otherwise, I think, would likely expand the concept of personal growth so far as to render it meaningless.  After all, if makeup tips amount to personal development, why not tire-changing tips as well?

Next time, we'll talk about the second element in my definition:  the intent to produce lasting change.


What Is Personal Development?, Part 1: It’s All In The Intention

It just occurred to me that, in the "About" page of this blog, I promised you a working definition of personal development.  It feels a bit odd for me to keep talking about personal development without giving you that definition.

So, here goes:  "Personal development" perspectives and techniques are (1) consciously intended to work with our "inner experience," meaning our thoughts, emotions and sensations; and (2) meant to produce a lasting result.

We're In It For The Feelings

Arguably, human beings do basically everything they do with the goal of having some kind of inner experience.  Whether we're meditating, giving to charity, getting an education, drinking alcohol, or something else, we're doing it because of the way we think that activity will have us feel.

To use a common example, we don't make money just for the sake of having a bunch of colored pieces of paper.  We do it because of the feelings we think having and spending money will bring us.  Perhaps we want the feeling of security that comes with knowing we'll have enough to eat, a sense of accomplishment, the thrill of knowing we can buy a flashy motorcycle, or something else.  But in any case, what we're after is some inner experience.

Some might object that they make money to take care of others (their children or elderly parents, for example), not because it helps them feel a certain way.  However, you wouldn't have any interest in taking care of others if doing so didn't give you a certain inner experience -- maybe a feeling of happiness, righteousness, or something else.  In other words, if you were emotionally indifferent to whether someone else lived or died, stagnated or thrived, you probably wouldn't be helping them.

Where The "Conscious" Part Comes In

While it's true that we do most of what we do with the goal of having an inner experience, we aren't always consciously seeking an experience.  In everyday existence, I think, most of us don't consciously contemplate how the things we do will have us feel.

We don't ask ourselves, for example, whether we'll feel better if we go to work or stay home, or whether listening to the car radio will make the commute smoother.  Usually, we're just going through our daily motions.

By contrast, personal growth activities, to my mind, are things we do with the specific goal of transforming our inner experience.  We do them consciously intending to create a specific mental or emotional state.  As a simple example, I may say the affirmation "I am lovable" to develop more self-appreciation.  Or, perhaps I'll do some yoga to get a sense of openness in my body.

By my definition, the specifics of an activity don't determine whether it amounts to personal growth.  For instance, suppose (somewhat implausibly) that I'm in the habit of meditating every day simply because my parents told me to.  I'm not doing it because I think it will bring me inner peace, happiness, or some other feeling.

In this example, meditation is not a "personal growth" activity for me, regardless of how others might use it, because I don't do it with the conscious goal of feeling a certain way.  The intent is what's important, not the specifics.

In the next post, we'll talk about how approaches that work on our inner experience with the goal of producing a particular outer result -- for instance, visualization techniques that have us imagine business success to help us create it in the world -- fit into this discussion.


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.