DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


Personal Development Politics, Part 2: The Elections and Self-Responsibility

We've been looking at the argument, made by some personal growth critics (Salerno posted about this, for example), that self-development's emphasis on personal responsibility favors political conservatism.  If this is true, I've been asking, why do self-development teachers tend to be politically liberal?  Is it because they don't see the implications of their ideas?

Like I said in my last post, I think the answer is no.  I've seen many examples of personal growth teachers consciously embracing both liberal politics and a belief in human beings' ability to control their circumstances.

This recent Huffington Post piece by meditation teachers Ed and Deb Shapiro is a good illustration.  The Shapiros don't seem particularly thrilled about the recent U.S. election  — they describe it as characterized by “weird and unqualified people vying for top government positions," by which they presumably mean some of the Republicans who swept the House of Representatives.

At first, the Shapiros may sound like they're counseling people who are upset about the elections to give up, and accept that there's nothing they can do to change the situation.  "It is our ability to be fully present and engaged that enables us to accept every situation exactly as it is," they write, inviting us "to embrace difficulties, deep sadness, upset feelings, or injustice while staying aware, present, and available."

Self-Responsibility and Social Change

However, the Shapiros go on to reveal a strong, perhaps even radical, belief in personal responsibility.  We can only work for social change, they explain, when we drop our griping about the situation, "for in that moment of acceptance we can move to transform it."

Once we fully accept what's true right now, the power of our thoughts and actions to change the world is at its height.  "Everything we think, say, and do has an immediate effect on everyone and everything else," they write, and this "means that we have enormous resources available to us at all times."

In other words, although they stop short of embracing a full-blown "Law of Attraction," and saying we can conjure up things we want through thought, the Shapiros clearly are firm believers in individuals' ability to shape their situation, and reject the Marxian notion that we're basically pawns of impersonal social forces.

Also, notice that the Shapiros' belief in self-responsibility doesn't lead them to reject politics as a means of solving social problems -- their whole piece, though abstract, is about how adopting an attitude of mindful acceptance can actually empower people to reverse the current political trend.

But What About "Blaming The Victim"?

I can imagine a critic arguing that, although the Shapiros may think it's consistent to be politically liberal and believe in radical self-responsibility, they're simply wrong.

This is because, the argument goes, a major tenet of political liberalism is that the government should create a fair society by redistributing wealth.  This, in turn, is based on the notion that each person's wealth is mostly a matter of luck -- how much they inherited, their genetic makeup, and so on.

However, the belief that we can create our circumstances implies that we're responsible for how wealthy we are.  If we're poor, that can't be due to bad luck -- it must be because we're lazy.  And if we're lazy, that means we don't deserve to have wealth redistributed in our favor.

As I've touched on briefly before, I disagree.  I don't think you need to believe that everyone's circumstances are solely, or even mostly, the result of chance to consistently be a political liberal, as I've defined it.

I'll list four reasons why below.  (Notice how the arguments I'll make can also be used to justify voluntary charity, if government redistribution of wealth isn't your thing.)

1.  Social Harmony. Some, like this organization that Evan pointed out, argue that societies with lower disparities in wealth are more harmonious, in that their people tend to live longer, they have fewer violent crimes and less teen pregnancy, and so on.

I haven't looked in detail at their evidence, so I'm agnostic about what they say, but the point is that it can be used to justify economic equality regardless of whether the less well-off "deserve" contributions from the better-off.

To illustrate, if I was certain that giving money to someone in poverty would extend my lifespan by five years, I'd probably do it regardless of whether he was responsible for being poor.

2.  Compassion for people who make bad choices. Suppose your friend became a drug addict and, as a result, lost his job.  Would you feel no compassion for him, and refuse him help, because he chose to use drugs?  I don't think you would.  In other words, it's certainly possible to feel compassion for people whose predicament is arguably "their own fault."

3.  The "Unconscious Beliefs" argument. It may be the case that (1) we're all totally, or mostly, responsible for the situation we find ourselves in, but (2) not everybody knows that.

For example, suppose I harbor the unconscious belief that "I deserve to suffer and be poor."  I'm "responsible" for this belief, in the sense that it exists in my own mind, but I may not be conscious of its existence or my power to change it.  Many self-development teachers (T. Harv Eker is a popular example when it comes to money) see it as their role to make people aware of "limiting beliefs" like these.

What's more, one might argue, so long as there are people who aren't conscious of their ability to control their economic circumstances, redistribution of wealth or private charity is sometimes needed to help such people.

4.  Divine Command. As you know, many people believe that God, or another supernatural force, has given them an unqualified command to be charitable.  From these people's perspective, it's our job to help the less well-off, regardless of whether they're "at fault" for their plight.

What do you think?  Is a strong belief in personal responsibility inherently conservative?


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.


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.


The Responsibility Ethic, Part 1: Self-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: