DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth

30Oct/10Off

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

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

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

What About Governor Moonbeam?

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

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

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

Is Self-Responsibility A Right-Wing Idea?

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

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

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

Self-Responsibility Through Political Action

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

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

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

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

21Jul/10Off

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!

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.

10Mar/10Off

The Responsibility Ethic, Part 5: The Politics of Responsibility

no-politics

This is the final installment in my series on what I've been calling the "responsibility ethic" in personal development -- the notion 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 address an argument often made by critics of personal growth that has to do with the relationship between the responsibility ethic and politics.  This is a complicated argument, but I think it's an important one, so bear with me as I flesh it out a little.

Is The Responsibility Ethic Anti-Political?

The critics argue that, if I believe I'm responsible for my circumstances, I am unlikely to participate in politics -- to vote, protest, debate issues with others, and so on.  In other words, if I think I hold the power to change my life situation, I won't see any need to use the political process to improve my circumstances.

Say, for instance, that I run a business, and a tax imposed by the city is hurting my bottom line.  If I believe I have full control over my destiny, I won't see any reason to lobby the city government to reduce the tax.  After all, because I have the power to fix the situation, I can solve the problem myself -- by, say, moving elsewhere, or just increasing my revenues to make up for the loss.

To the critics, because it convinces people there's no need to participate in politics, the responsibility ethic is anti-democratic, in that it discourages an informed, politically active public.  What's more, the critics argue, we do need the political process to change aspects of our life situation.  Critics with a left-wing bent commonly argue that only the government can remedy the economic unfairness in our society, and the responsibility ethic blinds the "have-nots" to this by deceiving them into thinking they, individually, can solve their financial problems.

Thus, they might say, the responsibility ethic serves as a kind of "opiate for the masses."  As sociologist Micki McGee writes, personal growth teachings tend to trap their followers in a futile "cycle of seeking individual solutions to problems that are social, economic, and political in origin."

Clearing Up Some Confusion

Simply put, I think this argument misunderstands the responsibility ethic.  All the responsibility ethic says is that I am responsible for the situation I'm in, and I have the ability to change that situation if I wish to do so.  It does not address the specific actions I should take to improve my situation, or whether "political action" is a good option.

We can understand this by returning to my earlier example, where my city imposes a tax I think is bad for my business.  If I accept the responsibility ethic, I will believe I'm capable of improving this situation.  But the question remains:  what is the best way to change it?  Should I move to another city?  Try to increase my revenue?  Lobby the city council to repeal the tax?  The responsibility ethic is silent on this issue.

In other words, it doesn't follow from my belief that I can improve the situation that political activity will not be an effective method of doing so.  Supporting a politician who pledges to repeal the tax might indeed be an effective method of getting what I want.  Thus, I think it's a mistake to cast the responsibility ethic as inherently anti-political.

The Politics of "Non-Responsibility"

This becomes even clearer when we consider the extreme opposite of the responsibility ethic, which I'll call the "non-responsibility ethic."  A person who accepts the non-responsibility ethic (in other words, someone with an external locus of control) sees events in their lives as the product of luck, or of forces they can't control.

Suppose I believe in the non-responsibility ethic, and I'm faced with the same situation where the city tax is hurting my business.  If I believe my actions are unlikely to make a difference, what will I do to improve my situation?  If I really think I'm a helpless pawn of fate, I'll probably do nothing.

As this example illustrates, it's also a mistake to call the responsibility ethic inherently politically conservative, as left-wing critics of personal growth tend to do.  If these critics want to see more redistribution of wealth, it won't help them to have a nation of people with an external locus of control who feel powerless to change the status quo.

In light of this, it's no surprise that some of the most popular personal growth books use political leaders to illustrate their ideas.  Even the much-maligned Think and Grow Rich cites Gandhi as "one of the most astounding examples known to civilization of the possibilities of faith."  Gandhi's faith in his ability to change the world, writes Napoleon Hill, drove his contribution to ending British rule of India.

The Psychology of Responsibility

I won't harp too much on the psychological evidence, because I've done it a lot in past posts.  Suffice it to say that several psychological studies have suggested that people with an internal locus of control -- a belief in their own capacity to affect events -- are actually more inclined to participate in politics.

For example, one study surveyed some newly voting-aged college students, and found that the ones who described themselves as having an internal locus of control were more likely to vote in a presidential election.  Another found that people who tended toward an internal locus of control were more likely to participate in political activism.

In other words, it seems that a person's belief that they're responsible for their circumstances leads them to be more politically active, not less, which also belies the critics' claim that the responsibility ethic is somehow anti-political.

In my next post, because I find this issue fascinating, I'll talk more generally about the political implications of personal growth and spirituality.

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 4: Responsibility And Compassion
  • 1Mar/10Off

    The Responsibility Ethic, Part 3: Guilt And Morality

    guilt

    This post continues my discussion of what I've called the "responsibility ethic" in personal development -- the idea that it's best to see ourselves as responsible for our circumstances in life, as opposed to seeing our situation as the product of chance or forces beyond our control.

    In my last post, I noted that many personal growth teachers who advocate the responsibility ethic draw a distinction between taking responsibility for our life situation and blaming ourselves for it.  Taking responsibility is healthy, they say, but "beating yourself up" is not.

    I also observed that critics of personal growth often object to this distinction, arguing that our tendency to "beat ourselves up" is actually what keeps us behaving morally.  In other words, it's not enough just to know what's right and wrong.  You won't act morally unless you fear that, if you don't, you'll be wracked with guilt.  Thus, if human beings lost their capacity for self-blame, society would descend into violent anarchy.

    A Brief Reality Check

    First off, I think it's important to keep in mind that this argument is purely theoretical.  I don't know of any critic who has presented solid evidence that personal growth teachings are actually turning people into violent psychopaths.  Nobody has shown that, say, serial killers are statistically more likely to have read I'm OK, You're OK than the average person.  What the critics claim is that if, hypothetically, people took the "responsibility vs. blame" distinction to its logical extent, people would stop behaving morally and we'd all be in trouble.

    Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the critics are right -- that if people fully accepted the idea that we shouldn't punish ourselves for the past, and they fully understood the logical implications of that idea, they'd start murdering and stealing with wild abandon.  Even if this is true, that doesn't necessarily mean the responsibility vs. blame distinction is a menace to society.  That would only be true if we had reason to believe that people, in practice, are taking, or will take, that distinction to its logical extent.

    Is there reason to believe this?  Like I said, there's no conclusive evidence one way or the other, but I think a few observations are worth making.

    First, consider the audience. Admittedly, given the vastness of the personal growth field, it would be difficult to come up with a profile of the "average personal development consumer."  But we do know that the majority of self-help book sales are made to women.  I hope it isn't unforgivably sexist of me to point this out, but men commit most recorded violent crimes (and, in fact, most crimes of any stripe).  Notably, in the U.S. in 2008, men committed 90% of murders where the killer's gender was known.

    If personal growth teachings really do turn people into miscreants, shouldn't we expect to see more criminality among women, who are self-help books' biggest consumers?  Or, to put the point differently, perhaps we can all rest easier knowing that women, who appear to have a lower propensity for violence, are largely the ones buying these books.  But if there's ever an upsurge in male self-help book consumption, I guess, we'd all better stock up on ammo and canned goods and hunker down for the apocalypse.

    Second, consider the teachings. As we saw, the critics' argument is that, if people took the responsibility vs. blame distinction to its logical extent, they would behave destructively.  If this is so, personal growth teachers certainly aren't encouraging their audiences to make that logical leap.  You know the typical goals of personal development:  to help you make money, have fulfilling relationships, develop inner peace, and so on.  We don't often see books, CDs or seminars about "Guilt-Free Murder," "Self-Esteem For Child Abusers," or "Loving Your Inner Car Thief."

    I don't know for a fact, but I'll make the educated guess that consumers of self-development products and services, by and large, aren't even thinking about the abstract philosophical implications of the ideas they're learning.  They have specific, practical objectives, and they're interested in personal growth only insofar as its perspectives and techniques help them get where they want to go.

    Is Self-Blame Needed For Morality?

    We've seen that, even if we assume in the abstract that letting go of self-blame means eliminating morality, it doesn't follow that personal growth teachers who talk about releasing guilt are, here in the real world, promoting immoral behavior.  Now, let's return to the original question:  if we lost our tendency to "beat ourselves up" over the past, would we lose any incentive to act morally?  Would the proverbial dogs and cats start living together?

    To some, it's obvious:  a person who doesn't feel guilt (which, I think, is another term for self-blame) is, in psychological terms, a psychopath, and therefore a danger to society.  As we saw earlier, Wendy Kaminer argues as much in I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, writing that "there's a name for people who lack guilt and shame:  sociopaths."  However, as philosopher Gilbert Harman points out, that's not what psychologists actually think.  Psychologists see the lack of guilt feelings as only one of several defining characteristics of psychopaths -- the others include antisocial behaviors like killing or stealing, a lack of empathy, and so on.

    In other words, the fact that someone is guilt-free doesn't necessarily make them a psychopath, just as the fact that my car has an engine doesn't necessarily make it a Lamborghini.  For all the psychologists know, there may be many people out there who don't suffer over the past and nonetheless behave morally.

    What's more, clearly the threat of self-punishment isn't the only reason people refrain from antisocial behavior.  Many of us, I suspect, don't even form the desire to harm others in the first place.  I don't know about you, but as I go through my day, I don't usually find myself thinking "you know, it'd be great fun to kill that person, but I'd just feel so guilty if I did."  I also suspect that many of us abstain from hurting others because we care about them, and want to see them stay well.  And, at the very least, surely the fear of getting caught and punished by others -- which is distinct from the fear of self-punishment -- deters some people from criminal activity.

    My point is that I think there's reason to question the notion that, if people let go of their tendency to self-blame, widespread chaos would ensue.  Hopefully, this will give some solace to people locked in a painful cycle of self-flagellation.

    Next up:  Is the responsibility ethic anti-compassion?

    Other Posts In This Series: