DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


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.