DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth

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.

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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.

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