DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth

6Jul/10Off

What Is Personal Development?, Part 2: Growth Vs. Advice

In my last post, I offered a working definition of personal development that goes like this:  "Personal development" perspectives and techniques are (1) consciously intended to work with our "inner experience," meaning our thoughts, emotions and sensations, and (2) meant to produce a lasting result.

As Duff pointed out in response to my last post, I've yet to discuss how one particular area of self-development fits into this framework.  I'm talking about approaches that try to harness our thoughts, emotions and sensations to create a specific result in the outside world.

Popular examples include visualizing something you want in order to bring it into your life -- whether it's business success, an intimate relationship, or something else; and energy healing intended to improve the client's health.

Such a technique is a form of personal growth, under my definition, if it seeks to achieve the outer result by transforming the user's inner experience, or the way the user relates to that experience.

To illustrate, as I said earlier, a book that teaches us ways to become more loving toward ourselves, on the theory that this will help us attract a partner, would amount to personal growth because it seeks to create an outer result by working with our thoughts and emotions.

While it uses the transformation of our inner experience as a tool to change our outer circumstances, this book nonetheless qualifies as personal growth because it involves consciously focusing on our inner experience.

Tire-Changing Isn't Self-Development

On the other hand, a book that teaches us how to dress to attract a mate is not a form of personal development under my definition, because it doesn't focus on transforming or relating to our inner experience.

For this book's purposes, the way we feel about ourselves is irrelevant.  Its goal is to get others -- namely, potential partners -- to approve of our appearance.  I may follow all of the book's advice and still feel miserable about myself, but the book has nonetheless fulfilled its purpose if potential mates like my style.

This caveat is important because it keeps the definition of personal growth from encompassing every possible type of advice, and every product and seminar out there that seeks to teach us how to do something.

I imagine most of us wouldn't think of books on changing a tire, investing in municipal bonds, or mastering Portuguese cooking as being about personal growth, and this observation explains why -- the techniques in those books don't focus on transforming your inner experience.  Those books, we could say, are about advice, but not growth.

The Consequences For Critics

One result is that, under my view, some ideas targeted by personal development's critics actually have nothing to do with personal development.  In SHAM, for example, Steve Salerno treats magazines like Cosmopolitan, which teach women "how to paint themselves, primp themselves, and acquire enough sexual know-how to keep a man satisfied and at home," as examples of "self-help and actualization" (a.k.a. "SHAM") literature.

However, from my perspective, advice about putting on makeup that doesn't focus on transforming your inner experience is not "personal growth" advice.  To say otherwise, I think, would likely expand the concept of personal growth so far as to render it meaningless.  After all, if makeup tips amount to personal development, why not tire-changing tips as well?

Next time, we'll talk about the second element in my definition:  the intent to produce lasting change.

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.