DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


NPR and the Social Stigma Around Psychotherapy

Politics aficionados among you have probably heard about National Public Radio (NPR)'s firing of journalist Juan Williams, over his comment about the anxiety he feels getting on a plane with someone dressed in Muslim garb.

The controversy over Williams' firing didn't interest me as much as the comments by NPR's chief, Vivian Schiller, in the aftermath.  In a press conference, Schiller said Williams should have kept his feelings between himself and "his psychiatrist or his publicist."

This stirred up even more controversy, with Williams' supporters blasting Schiller for basically suggesting Williams was mentally ill and in need of a psychiatrist.  Schiller apologized, saying her remark was "thoughtless."

This incident illustrates the continuing strength of the stigma, in our culture, around working with a psychotherapist.  As near as I can tell, Schiller's comment was just a poorly timed joke -- it wasn't meant to be a factual statement that Williams was seeing a psychiatrist.  Nonetheless, people on both sides of the issue took what she said as a serious insult.

Why The Stigma?

Why is it considered insulting in our society to suggest that someone is working with a therapist?  My sense is that there are two reasons.

First, the common belief seems to be that people only see therapists if they're "mentally sick," the same way we see a physician if we have the flu.  Thus, any public figure who's seeing a therapist must be unfit to do his job or hold office.

Another widespread assumption about therapy is that it's something only weak people do.  A strong person, after all, can handle their own psyche and emotions, and doesn't need anyone to help them do it.

Therapy And Humility

I disagree with both of these assumptions.  In fact, I'd be more inclined to trust a public figure -- politician, celebrity, or whatever -- who voluntarily sought out a therapist than one who didn't, especially if they were courageous enough to admit it in public.

Why?  First off, a person working with a therapist is probably doing so because they understand that they, like all humans, are imperfect and have room to grow.  With that understanding, I think, comes humility.

I wouldn't want the country run by someone under the illusion that they had no flaws.  A person who believes they can do no wrong, I think, is dangerous in a leadership position, and history is littered with examples.

Therapy And Personal Growth

What's more, I think it actually takes a lot of strength to be willing to see a therapist.  If we have the good fortune to find a therapist who's ready to do deep work with us, we're going to visit many aspects of ourselves and our personal histories that aren't at all pleasant.

Also, a skilled therapist can help us see "blind spots" in how we relate to the world that we, and people we surround ourselves with, aren't aware of.  Unless someone helps us get conscious of them, our lifelong patterns of people-pleasing, manipulating others, defending ourselves from childhood threats, and so on, can run the choices we make without our knowledge.  I'd be more likely to trust someone whom I knew had worked to develop this kind of awareness.

And yes, I'm speaking from personal experience.  (Oops, there goes my political career!)  I've worked with therapists, but not because I saw myself as sick, broken or weak.  Self-development junkie that I am, I see psychotherapy -- done skillfully -- as one of the most powerful opportunities for personal growth.


What Is Personal Development?, Part 3: Progressive and Lasting Change

Last time, we talked about the first part of my working definition of personal development -- namely, that, to amount to personal growth, an idea or technique must be consciously intended to work with our "inner experience," meaning our thoughts, emotions and sensations.

I'll now talk about the second criterion an approach must meet, under my definition, to be personal development:  it must be intended to produce progressive and lasting change.  (Yes, I added the "progressive" part upon further reflection after my last post. :) )

By "progressive" change, I mean that, each time the user does the activity, they make progress -- however gradual -- toward their ultimate goal, whether that goal is happiness, a better job, a Buddhist-style attitude of non-attachment to their experience, or something else.

By "lasting" change, I mean the benefits of the activity must persist even when the user isn't doing the activity.  In other words, the user must take those benefits with them into the "real world."

Why Therapy Isn't Like Candy

If I see a psychotherapist, for instance, I will probably do so expecting progressive and lasting benefits to my mental and emotional health.  I'll desire progressive change in the sense that, each week that I visit my therapist, I want to feel more at peace with myself than I did during the last.

What's more, I'll probably want those benefits to last in between therapy sessions.  I won't want the self-acceptance I feel to suddenly disappear the moment I walk out of the therapist's office.  In all likelihood, I'll also want that peace to persist even when I'm no longer in therapy -- I won't want it to fade away after the therapeutic relationship ends.  Thus, generally speaking, psychotherapy is a personal growth activity under my definition.

By contrast, suppose I eat a piece of candy because I want to create a particular inner experience -- in this case, a taste sensation.  I probably won't do this expecting lasting changes in my experience.  In all likelihood, I'll get a brief moment of pleasure, and after a little while the feeling will pass.

A few minutes later, I'll be "back to square one," emotionally speaking -- as far as my inner experience is concerned, it'll be as if I never ate the candy at all.  Thus, eating candy will not produce progressive change in my experience either.  (Duff raised the similar example of taking drugs in response to an earlier post in this series.)

It's About Expectations, Not Results

Finally, note that I said the activity must be intended to produce progressive and lasting change.  The activity need not actually create that type of change to amount to self-development under my definition.

For example, if a person goes to an energy healer expecting to grow more relaxed and focused over time, but in fact each session only creates a fleeting "high" like the candy I mentioned earlier, the energy healing would nonetheless be "personal growth" as I use the term.

I offer this caveat to avoid defining personal growth to include only techniques and perspectives that "work," because that would exclude the possibility of meaningful debate about the merits of specific approaches.

As a result, even if you believe that no form of personal development is effective and it's all a fraud, you can still accept my definition.  Like I said in response to previous comments, my definition is purely descriptive -- it's simply meant to capture the conventional view of what self-development is, and not to judge whether certain techniques are helpful or moral.


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.