DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth

24Jun/10Off

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.

23Apr/10Off

Self-Help and Selfishness, Part 2: Cultivating Compassion

We've been talking about the argument, sometimes made by critics of personal growth, that self-development practices are basically selfish.  This criticism goes that, when we "work on ourselves" -- whether by taking workshops, meditating, or something else -- we only benefit ourselves, and the time we spend doing those practices could be better used serving others' needs.

As I noted earlier, there's much research in psychology showing that, the happier we feel, the more generous we're likely to be toward others.  This is why, I suggested, personal growth practices that help us develop peace and happiness benefit more than just the immediate "user."

I can imagine a critic responding:  "but why do all these things to 'develop' compassion?  Why not just go out and be compassionate by giving your time and money to those who need it?"  As Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her important book Bright-Sided, "why not reach out to others in love and solidarity or peer into the natural world for some glimmer of understanding?"

Do Motives Matter?

It seems that, to some personal development critics, being compassionate, kind or generous is simply a matter of taking the right actions.  If you give your time, energy or money to someone, and receive nothing material in exchange, you qualify as a compassionate person.

From this perspective, it doesn't matter whether you actually feel a sense of love or kindness toward the person you're serving.  Perhaps, for instance, you hope to tell others how generous you've been and receive praise.  As long as your actions help someone else, by definition, you're being compassionate.

On the surface, this makes sense.  If I give money to a foundation that helps children with a serious disease, for instance, those children will benefit even if I don't really care about them.  Even if I only want to brag about how giving I am to my friends, or get mentioned as a "platinum-level donor" on the charity's website, I still serve those children with my contribution.

False Compassion Creates Suffering

However, this example becomes more troubling when we look at what I'm getting out of my donation.  I'm giving to the charity because I want recognition from others.  But what if I don't get the kind of recognition I want?  What if my friends don't praise me for my generosity, or at least don't praise me as much as I want?

The answer, I suspect, is that I'll feel resentful.  I'll see my friends as insensitive and uncaring, and retaliate against them in overt or covert ways.  So, by helping someone out of a desire for recognition, I actually set myself and others up for suffering.

This problem becomes clearer when we look at acts of false compassion within a family.  In a common scenario, a parent gives a lot of time and energy to their child, in the secret hope that the child will please the parent in return.

If the child doesn't show the kind of appreciation the parent wants, the parent feels resentful, and strikes back at the child through abuse or neglect.  In other words, when a parent serves their child out of a desire for recognition, rather than genuine love, both parent and child are likely in for suffering.

Compassion as a Way of Being

When we help others out of actual feelings of kindness, rather than a desire to prove that we're "good," we don't create this kind of suffering for ourselves and others.  If our actions are solely motivated by a desire to help, it doesn't matter whether the other person falls over themselves to thank us, and we won't resent them if they don't.

This is why I think personal growth practices that help us develop genuine compassion for others, like Buddhist metta meditation, are so important.  Metta may be the most obvious example, because it involves explicitly wishing all beings well, but many other self-development methods help us cultivate kindness in subtler ways.

The Promise of Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is a great, and frequently misunderstood, example.  Critics often talk about therapy as if it's merely a self-indulgent exercise in griping about the past (an issue I'll deal with at length later).  I think this ignores many key goals of therapy -- the most important one being, for our purposes, to meet needs that went unrecognized in a client's early childhood.

As I touched on earlier, psychologists often observe that, when a parent's early needs for love and recognition were unmet, they unconsciously seek to meet those needs in their relationship with their children.  In other words, the parent expects the child to give them the affection and appreciation they never got when they were little.  When the child doesn't meet these needs, the parent gets angry and withdraws their love.  (There's an illuminating discussion of this in Kathleen Faller's Social Work with Abused and Neglected Children.)

As long as the parent's childhood needs are unmet, we might say, the parent will have difficulty experiencing real love and compassion for their children.  However, a skilled therapist can help the parent meet those early needs outside the family structure.  When the parent no longer seeks validation from their children, genuine love becomes possible.

Once we can see why actually feeling compassion -- not just looking compassionate -- is important, we understand why "working on ourselves," and our own peace and happiness, can actually be a gift to the world.

Other Posts In This Series:

16Apr/10Off

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.

Other Posts In This Series:

3Apr/10Off

Growth As An Opiate, Part 2: The Hazards Of Happiness

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In my last post, I looked at a common critique of personal growth that goes like this:  personal development can't create lasting happiness, because it doesn't address the underlying cause of the unhappiness it's trying to address—which, the critics say, is the economic unfairness of our society.

In this article, I'll examine a related but distinct argument, which basically says the problem with personal growth—at least, in some forms—is that it works too well.

This argument focuses on personal development techniques aimed at transforming our inner experience—to make us happier, more peaceful, less stressed, and so on.  Examples include meditation, yoga, and saying positive affirmations like “I love myself.”

Does Contentment Equal Complacency?

By helping us feel content, some critics claim, these techniques may have us neglect problem areas in our lives.  Suppose, for example, that meditating gives me a deep sense of calm.  On the surface, this sounds wonderful.  However, let's say I'm deeply in debt.

If meditation takes away the stress of my financial situation, I may not be inclined to get the help I need.  Perhaps I'll just sit there, blissed out in a lotus position, until my landlord throws me into the street.  In this example, meditation has actually harmed me, because it has removed the anxiety that would have spurred me to take action.

In Artificial Happiness: The Dark Side of the New Happy Class, anesthesiologist Ronald Dworkin raises this concern.  Dworkin mostly focuses on the pacifying effects of antidepressant drugs, but he argues that meditation and similar practices pose the same threat.  The “artificial happiness” created by these practices, in Dworkin's view, can make people dangerously complacent about problems in their lives.

Critics who focus on the political implications of personal growth sound a similar note.  Jeremy Carrette and Richard King write in Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion that modern spiritual practice is "the new cultural prozac, bringing transitory feelings of ecstatic happiness and thoughts of self-affirmation, but never addressing sufficiently the underlying problem of social isolation and injustice."

In other words, if meditation, positive thinking, and similar techniques really can make us happier, that may be a bad thing, because we may lose the righteous indignation that would have us seek political change or help others.

Are Happy People Uncaring?

As we've seen, some critics worry about personal growth's effects on an individual level, while others focus on self-development's political impact.  However, their arguments share a common assumption, which we might call “happy people don't care.”

That is:  if you feel happy or peaceful, you'll lose the desire to improve your own situation, or that of others.  In other words, you won't work toward personal or social change without some amount of anxiety, anger or despair.

At least in American culture, people seem to take various versions of this idea as common sense:  people who don't worry must be lazy, “if you aren't outraged, you aren't paying attention,” and so on.  Perhaps these are vestiges of the U.S.'s dour Calvinist heritage.  But can they be proven?

In the critical books and articles I've reviewed, I've seen no evidence that, say, unhappy or anxious people are more "successful" in life by some measure, or more generous to others.  Nor have I seen evidence that people who pursue sources of so-called "artificial happiness," such as meditation and qi gong, make less money, get divorced more often, or "fail" more frequently by some other standard.

In fact, this study argues that "frequent positive affect" actually causes "favorable life circumstances" -- that being happier leads to better job performance, income, and so on.  In other words, perhaps happiness actually "buys" money, rather than the other way around.  Barbara Ehrenreich, to be sure, disputes studies like this one, arguing that all they prove is that employers in the U.S. are irrationally biased in favor of happy (or happy-looking) employees.

More importantly, I've also found psychological studies suggesting that happier people are actually more compassionate.  One study found that children who felt pleased about having accomplished a school task were more likely to help a fellow student.  Another concluded that people with a greater sense of “subjective well-being” were more inclined to give to charity.  (For a great summary of the research on happiness and generosity, see page 4 of this paper.)

I think these studies are actually consistent with common sense.  Unhappy people, at least in my experience, are more likely to criticize or avoid others than to help them.  If we feel okay about ourselves, on the other hand, we'll feel more secure turning our attention toward others' needs.

What Is "Real" Happiness?

There's another interesting assumption behind the critiques we're looking at, which is that happiness brought about by personal growth practices somehow isn't "real" or "legitimate."  Thus, the inner peace I may find through meditation -- no matter how wonderful it may seem to me -- is somehow "fake."

"In real life," Dworkin tells us, "people succeed if they are rich, famous, powerful or glorious."  Happiness brought about by other sources, to Dworkin, is "artificial."  I think Dworkin correctly states the conventional wisdom about what creates happiness for people.  However, I don't think he gives a satisfying reason why we should take the conventional wisdom at face value.

If I feel happy when I'm meditating, that experience is certainly "real" to me -- no less "real" than the happiness I imagine Donald Trump experiences when he closes a real estate deal.  Even assuming the average person gets no happiness from meditating, that doesn't make my experience "false."  To say that would be like arguing that, if I like an underground form of music such as Christian death metal, my enjoyment of the music is somehow "artificial" because the genre isn't popular.  This is a logical fallacy called "argumentum ad populum."

In short, I think the critics overstate the danger happiness allegedly poses to society.  In my next post, I'll ask a deeper question:  are the kinds of practices I'm talking about in this post -- meditation, yoga, and so on -- simply intended to "make people happy"?  Or do they have a greater purpose?

Other Posts in this Series:

  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 5: Self-Development and the "War on Envy"
  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 4: "Money Doesn't Buy Happiness" Cuts Both Ways
  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 3: The Hard Work of Happiness
  • Personal Growth: The New Opiate of the Masses?
  • 6Mar/10Off

    The Responsibility Ethic, Part 4: Responsibility And Compassion

    compassion

    We're talking once again about what I call the "responsibility ethic" that's common in personal development -- the idea that it's best to see ourselves as responsible for our life circumstances, as opposed to seeing our situation as the product of chance or forces beyond our control.

    Today, I'll look at another argument personal growth critics often make against the responsibility ethic.  The argument goes like this:  if I am responsible for my lot in life, it follows that other people are responsible for theirs.  For instance, if I assume my own actions created my financial situation, logically I must also assume other people's actions created theirs, and thus I must accept that poor people's own actions created their poverty.

    What's more, if I believe poor people are responsible for their situation, there's no reason for me to help them.  After all, because their choices and actions created their situation, it's "their own fault."  Thus, if we accept the responsibility ethic, we must jettison any semblance of compassion for others.  Wendy Kaminer, for instance, decries the "antisocial strain of the positive thinking/mind-cure tradition," which holds that "compassion is a waste of psychic energy."

    The Psychology Of Generosity

    As in my last post, I think it's useful to begin this discussion with a reality check.  Again, the critics are speaking hypothetically.  No one, to my knowledge, has any evidence that people involved in personal growth actually give less to charity, or do anything else that might suggest they lack compassion for the less fortunate.  What the critics say is that, if people took the responsibility ethic to its logical extent, they would stop being generous to others.

    Admittedly, I don't have conclusive evidence that personal growth books or seminars make people more generous either.  However, there is evidence suggesting that people who see themselves as responsible for their circumstances -- in other words, people who accept the responsibility ethic -- are actually more inclined to help others, not less.

    You may recall that, in the first post in this series, I described a concept in psychology called "locus of control."  As the psychologists have it, people with a more internal locus of control believe they have the power to determine their destiny, while people who tend toward an external locus believe their destinies are largely shaped by outside forces.

    As it turns out, there has been much psychological research finding that people who tend toward an internal locus of control are actually more concerned for others' welfare.  One study of children, for instance, found that children with a more internal locus of control were more likely to help another child struggling with an academic problem.  Another study found that people who tended toward an internal locus of control were more likely to act in an environmentally responsible way.

    Intuitively, this makes sense.  If I believe I have control over events in the world, I'll be more inclined to think I can make a difference in someone's life.  So, if I help another person study for a test, they'll probably do better.  But if I don't see myself as capable of affecting events, why would I bother helping another student?  If nothing I do seems to change anything, why should I expect them to benefit?

    It stands to reason that, if self-development ideas are causing people to see themselves as responsible for their circumstances, those ideas may actually be promoting generosity and compassion, not stifling them.

    And Now, Back To Philosophy Land

    We've seen that, even if we assume that the responsibility ethic, taken to its logical extent, would cause people to lose compassion for others, it's not at all clear that people who believe they're responsible for their circumstances are -- in practice -- less generous.  Now, let's turn back to the original, abstract question:  if I see myself as creating my circumstances in life, does it follow that others' circumstances are "their own fault," and I shouldn't help them?

    I think the answer is plainly no, for several reasons.  To keep this post to a readable length, my discussion of each will be brief, and I may not approach them from every possible angle.  I'll happily hash them out with you further in the comments.

    1.  I'm Responsible, You're Responsible? If I believe I'm responsible for my life situation, it doesn't follow that I must believe others are responsible for theirs.  I may see myself as someone with the health, resources, social network, and so on that I need to have control over my reality.  However, I might see others who lack the same advantages as helpless, or as less capable of influencing their situation than me.

    Personally, this way of thinking strikes me as irritatingly paternalistic, but the point is that, at least, it's not illogical to think this way.

    2.  Responsibility Vs. Blame Redux. As we saw earlier, it's possible to see yourself as responsible for an event in your life without blaming yourself or beating yourself up over it.  By the same token, I think, it's possible to see someone else as responsible for their situation without judging them as "at fault" and unworthy of help.

    As I said to Evan in an earlier exchange, suppose you have a friend who has a decent job and is capable of supporting himself.  However, he becomes addicted to drugs, and because of his addiction he falls into poverty.  Would you lack compassion for him because he chose (at least, initially) to take drugs?  I doubt you would.  In other words, although your friend is responsible for his situation, that doesn't mean you'll automatically lose any desire to help him.

    3.  Unconscious Beliefs. We'll delve deeper into the concept of unconscious thoughts and beliefs later on.  For now, I'll note that, according to many personal growth teachers, our situation in life often results from thinking that occurs outside our awareness.

    In one sense, we're "responsible" for these beliefs, because we're the only ones who can become aware of and change them.  No one else can do that for us.  However, it would be hard to argue that we're "to blame" for our unconscious thinking, as it's often the product of our childhood conditioning, and letting go of those harmful ways of thinking can take a lot of time and energy.

    For instance, suppose I harbor the unconscious belief that I'm unlovable, and thus I have trouble forming relationships.  I'm "responsible" for this belief, in the sense that no one else can change it for me.  However, I don't think anyone would claim in this example that the difficulties I'm having are "my own damn fault" and I'm unworthy of compassion.

    Next time:  Is the responsibility ethic anti-political?

    Other Posts In This Series:

  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 1: Self-Blame
  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 2: Responsibility Vs. Blame
  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 3: Guilt And Morality
  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 5: The Politics of Responsibility
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