DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth

20Jun/10Off

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.

19May/10Off

Thoughts On “Thinking For Yourself”

Critics of personal development often assert that, rather than reading self-help books, we should "think for ourselves."  In fact, many critics even fear that personal growth products are actually stripping people of their ability to think independently.

"The self-help tradition has always been covertly authoritarian and conformist," writes Wendy Kaminer in I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.  "Merely buying a self-help book is an act of dependence."  Similarly, literary critic Stewart Justman writes in Fool's Paradise: The Unreal World of Pop Psychology that the self-help "genre seems inherently authoritarian, implying as it does that we live and act according to sets of instructions."

These criticisms certainly make personal development sound unnervingly Orwellian.   But do they make sense?

Is Advice Anti-Thinking?

It's true that many self-help books offer us advice on how to live our lives -- how to find inner peace, parent our children, and so on.  But this alone can't be enough to strip us of intellectual independence.  After all, books on origami, changing tires, investing in bonds, and so on also offer advice, but no one seems to be concerned that these books are "brainwashing" anyone.

Kaminer seems to recognize that the mere fact that self-help books give advice doesn't make them "totalitarian."  Thus, she says she's not interested in critiquing "practical (how to do your own taxes) books."  Instead, she is aiming at books with "a strong emphasis on individual, personal, or spiritual development."  In other words, it's only people who give advice on personal or spiritual development who threaten the cognitive freedom of their listeners -- not those who tell you how to fix your car.

I think the trouble with this distinction is that it neglects the vast amount of advice on personal and spiritual development that writers outside the self-help genre offer.  Philosophers, at least since ancient Greece and probably before, have wrestled with the question of how one ought to live.  The world's religions also have pretty clear ideas about how we should develop spiritually.  But I suspect Kaminer wouldn't claim that we shouldn't read books on philosophy or religion because they might control our minds.

Is Simplicity Sinister?

On some level, I think Kaminer is aware of this objection, and thus she tries to distinguish personal growth from philosophy and religion on the ground that self-help teachers' advice is overly simplistic.  Personal growth books, she writes, encourage an intellectual "passivity and search for simple absolutes."

I actually agree that much personal growth advice is simplistic.  I think the personal development blogosphere, for example, could stand to churn out fewer "50 Quick Happiness Tips"-style posts, and dive deeper into what really creates motivation and suffering in human beings.

However, the fact that some self-help advice may be simplistic doesn't necessarily render it sinister and manipulative, as Kaminer seems to believe.  In other words, another person's mere act of offering you simple advice doesn't turn you into a mindless zombie under their command.

Suppose, for instance, you come to me with all kinds of concerns about your relationship, and I tell you that you should leave your partner.  My recommendation in this example is certainly simple, and perhaps simplistic, because it doesn't address the underlying feelings and behaviors creating your relationship issues.

However, it would be absurd to claim that, merely by offering you simple advice, I've put you at risk of becoming my brainwashed slave -- just as it would be silly to argue that a book called "5 Simple Steps To Doing Your Taxes" threatens its readers' mental autonomy.  You're free to accept or reject my advice -- or, at the very least, my advice won't make you any less free to do so than your current cognitive capacities allow.  :)

Sometimes Simple Is Superior

What's more, in some cases, simplicity is a virtue.  The most complicated advice or viewpoint is not always the most helpful one.  I think there are great social advantages, for example, in simple moral rules like "rape is wrong" that leave no room for exceptions.  A society where people accept such a rule, I think you'd agree, is better off than one where the morality of raping someone depends on a nuanced cost-benefit analysis.

In other words, I think it's entirely possible to both "think for yourself" and read a book, or listen to someone, offering simple advice -- even if it's of the self-help stripe.  What's more, the simplicity of a message alone doesn't rob it of merit.

4May/10Off

Self-Help and Selfishness, Part 3: Compassion And Justice

We've been talking about the claim, commonly made by critics of personal growth, that self-development techniques are "selfish" because they only benefit the person using them.  As I noted earlier, there's a good deal of evidence that effective personal growth practices actually help us develop more compassion and generosity toward others.  So, it seems to me, personal development can actually serve as a source of positive social change.

Why don't the critics see it this way?  Why do they often treat personal development as, in fact, an obstacle to "social justice"?  My sense is that they, like much of Western political philosophy, think of justice as a set of abstract rules to follow.  Our society, in this view, will be good and just once it starts complying with the right set of rules.

For people who are usually called conservatives, these rules are mostly concerned with preventing forms of violence like killing and theft.  A just society, from this perspective, is one where that conduct is minimized.  For those who tend to be called liberals, the rules are more about how resources are distributed -- to them, a just society is one where the right distribution of money, medical care, and so on exists.

Justice:  Just A Philosophical Abstraction?

For all their differences, these models of justice have at least one thing in common, which is that they treat the way people feel about each other as irrelevant.  Even if citizens of a given society don't care one whit about each other, that society is nonetheless just if it follows the correct rules -- whether through preventing violence, equitably parceling out resources, or something else.

Given these typical ways of thinking, it's no surprise that critics of personal growth see self-development practices as basically irrelevant to achieving justice.  Meditating, for example, may well make people more compassionate, but that emotion alone does nothing to further the cause of a just society.  If anything, practices like meditation waste time that could be better spent fighting real-world injustice.  As Barbara Ehrenreich puts it in Bright-Sided, "why spend so much time working on one’s self when there’s so much real work to be done?"

At best, if meditation causes people to be kinder, people may do more charitable giving, and thus advance the goal of equitably dividing resources.  But that's hardly the most efficient path to a fair distribution of wealth.  Why not simply have the government take some people's property and give it to others?  Meditation, from this perspective, is an inadequate and unnecessary solution to the problem of inequality.

Abstract Justice In A Non-Abstract World

In the real world, we can see this mentality in communist countries' approach to achieving justice.  To Marxist thinkers, practices for finding inner peace do nothing but distract people from the quest for equality.  Thus, Marxist regimes banned religious and spiritual institutions and practices, from the Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union to the Falun Gong movement in China.

These countries' history, I think, illustrates the danger of seeing justice as nothing more than a set of rules for preventing coercion or distributing wealth.  These regimes treated abstract concepts of justice as more important than the lives of actual people, and killed and imprisoned millions they saw as standing in the way of their ideal society.  I think this history shows that, when compassion our inner experience is taken as irrelevant to justice, justice itself becomes a monstrosity.

Compassion Is Critical To Justice

It's important to realize, I think, that compassion is not only relevant to justice -- it's actually the foundation of justice.  Our rules of right and wrong stem from our instinctual concern and respect for each other.  The reason people want a society without killing and stealing, or with a certain distribution of wealth, is because they see such a society as the best vehicle for relieving human suffering.

Of course, as human beings, we are not always in touch with our sense of compassion.  We're also aggressive, competitive, and survival-oriented creatures.  When those drives completely take over, we're unconcerned with others' suffering, and we think only of our own survival and power.

When we're under the sway of these instincts, no abstract principles will keep us from harming others.  Reminding a mugger of the Golden Rule, for example, probably won't stop him from taking your money.  What's more, as in the communist regimes I described, concepts of justice themselves can be used as a weapon, justifying mass murder in the name of "equality" and "fairness."

How Personal Growth Can Help

This is why, I think, merely following the right set of abstract principles isn't enough to create a just society.  As legal scholar Robin West puts it in Caring For Justice, it's important to recognize the "injustice -- not the justice -- of divorcing the pursuit of justice from natural inclination, from the sentient, felt bonds of friendship, and from the moral dictates incident to the pull of fellow feeling."

Instead, we must experience -- firsthand, viscerally, in the body -- the emotions and instincts at the root of those principles.  We must actually feel compassion for one another -- not simply make and follow a logically consistent set of rules.

At their best, I think, personal growth practices help us genuinely experience concern for each other.  Techniques like meditation and yoga work to accomplish this goal at a level deeper than the rational mind, which is why intellectuals are often wary of them.  But I think they're worth taking seriously if we truly want a more peaceful world.

Other Posts In This Series:

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
  • 21Feb/10Off

    The Responsibility Ethic, Part 1: Self-Blame

    blame

    A common theme in personal development literature is that we should take responsibility for our circumstances in life.  It's best for us, in other words, to see ourselves as in control of our situation, as opposed to believing that forces beyond our control create it.  I'll call this idea the "responsibility ethic."

    On the surface, this doesn't seem controversial.  If I'm in debt, for instance, it won't do me any good to sit around blaming the stock market, my family, the current phase of the moon, or some other outside force.  I have no reason to take steps to get out of debt unless I accept that my actions -- cutting my expenses, selling stuff I don't need, and so on -- can fix the situation.

    Personal growth's critics, however, often argue that the responsibility ethic has unsavory consequences.  A person who believes they control their lot in life, the critics say, will be prone to self-flagellation -- i.e., to beating themselves up.  If they don't get the results they want, in whatever area of life they're trying to improve, they'll blame themselves.

    Suppose, for example, that I do everything in my power to get out of debt -- I cut up my credit cards, sell unnecessary stuff, and work with a debt counselor -- and I still fail to reduce my debt by the desired amount.  If I think I'm 100% in control of my situation, I'll see this failure as proof that I'm lazy or stupid, and suffer over it.  As Steve Salerno writes in SHAM: How The Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, "if you make people believe they have full control over their lives, and then their lives don't get better (or even get worse), how could that not throw their synapses into turmoil?"

    Reasons To Doubt The "Self-Blame" Argument

    In this series of posts, I want to examine this argument more deeply.  First off, I'll talk about three reasons to question the assumption that the responsibility ethic promotes self-blame.

    1. Psychological Research. Psychologists use the term "locus of control" to describe a person's beliefs about the degree to which they are responsible for their circumstances.  The more I tend toward an "internal locus of control," the more I believe in my own power to direct my destiny.  By contrast, the closer my beliefs are to an "external locus of control," the more I think I'm at the mercy of factors I can't influence.

    For example, suppose I'm a student, and I'm about to take a test.  If I have a strong internal locus of control, I'll believe that, if I work hard enough, I'll get a good grade.  But if I have a strong external locus of control, I'll assume that studying will have little effect on how well I do, and the grade I get will be largely the result of luck.  Not surprisingly, psychologists have found that students who tend toward an internal locus of control usually study harder.

    The locus of control concept is relevant here, because psychological research has repeatedly found a relationship between people's locus of control and the likelihood that they will suffer from depression.  People closer to an internal locus of control, as it turns out, are less prone to depression than people who tend toward an external locus of control.

    In other words, people who see themselves as responsible for their circumstances in life are less likely to get depressed.  In fact, it's those who see themselves as mere pawns of other people or forces who are more likely to have that problem.  This makes sense, psychologists say, because of the feelings of helplessness and despair created by their perceived lack of control.

    These findings don't mesh well with the critics' argument.  If the critics are right, and people who see themselves as in charge of their lot in life are likely to beat themselves up, we should expect them to be more prone to depression than those who believe they're at the mercy of outside forces.  But the exact opposite appears to be true, which casts doubt on the idea that the responsibility ethic is creating all this unnecessary suffering for people.

    We Need More Evidence

    I'm not claiming that this completely settles the issue.  After all, if we really want to know whether personal growth's responsibility ethic is causing suffering, we need to study people who do some kind of personal development activity -- reading self-help books, going to transformational workshops, or something along those lines -- and ask whether that activity has any relationship to depression, problems with anger, and so on.  And these, of course, would have to be books, workshops, and so forth that encouraged a sense of personal responsibility for one's situation.

    Psychological researchers have only recently begun to look into the effect of personal development techniques (if we don't count psychotherapy) on mental health issues like anxiety and depression.  There is no clear consensus yet:  in one study of a wide range of self-help books, the vast majority of the readers surveyed reported "a significant improvement in their condition."

    Another suggested that saying positive affirmations like "I love myself," while apparently helpful to some people, may actually cause people with low self-esteem to feel worse.  There have also been many studies of the psychological effects of meditation, suggesting that meditation helps alleviate depression and other emotional problems.

    However, as far as I'm aware, there is no concrete evidence that the responsibility ethic, whether presented through books, workshops, or some other medium, is doing all the psychological harm to people that the critics allege.  Thus, the "self-blame" argument against the responsibility ethic isn't obviously correct or commonsensical at all.

    In the interest of keeping these posts at least vaguely succinct, that's all I'll say for now.  In my next post, I'll discuss my second reason to question the self-blame argument, and also discuss why, even if the argument is correct, it doesn't follow that we should reject the responsibility ethic.

    Other Posts In This Series: